… an excerpt from Half Gone Native, a memoir-in-progress about expat life in Japan…
5:30 a.m. and a staccato burst from my alarm clock interrupts a caravan of Silk Road dreams.
In the pre-dawn darkness of another winter day in Tokyo I untangle myself from a nest of futons and blankets and wife, do a light yoga stretch, fix a breakfast of brown rice flakes and soya milk, bananas, and yogurt. I hear my neighbour’s scooter pulls into the parking lot after his night shift; dawn breaks with the cawing of the garbage crows.
This part of Tokyo is relatively late in being developed; it’s still raw around its edges, showing its country roots. On my way to the station I walk past the low, flat traditional farmhouses of the landowners who’ve sold out to the housing developers throwing up two- and five-story apartment buildings along this busy farmer’s highway. In season, there’s grape vineyards and kiwi orchards; fields of onion and radish; fresh produce for sale at untended weatherbeaten stalls at the end of driveways.
I blend, seemingly invisible, with the office ladies, the kogyo senshi – corporate warriors – in blue and black suits, and sailor-suited middle school students on three-speed mama chari bicycles flitting around the rest of us like dragonflies as we surge towards the train station that connects this country suburb to the rest of the city.
The station is a breach in the concrete skin of the city, revealing its skeletal structure, its neural connections in exposed wires and I-beams, rivets and fluorescent light, worn concrete and scuffed paint. Freight and express trains enter the station with a blast of wind, cold in winter and hot in summer. accompanied by announcements on grim metallic loudspeakers: train arrivals and departures, safety reminders (please stay behind the yellow line); delay notices: high winds; suicides.
On the platform, the usual faces, Pound’s “petals on a wet, black bough,” wait in their usual spots for the 7:32 a.m. local. Some are jacked into iPods or keitai cell phones or, less and less frequently it seems, a newspaper or book or men’s magazine.
Out here in the inaka, the countryside, the commute does not live up to the notoriety of the morning rush in the city. Even so, the morning rush would test the patience of a Buddha.
Unless there’s a delay. High wind. Heavy rain. A stranded car or cyclist at a railroad crossing. Suicide. Then, we wait stoically for the trains to start moving again. Pack on like canned bread, like grains of rice in a California roll. Like cholesterol lining the vein walls of the beating city.
On the walk into school I see Fujisan: snowcapped much of the year. Past patches of giant cabbage, of obscene daikon, between lowrise apartment buildings and light industrial factories. Sometimes you can smell the cattle barns on the outlying farms. Other times its toxic-smelling fumes from the factories.