Sunday, 25 September 2011

Planes, trains and automo... no, just trains actually.

In Haruki Mirakami’s short story “Town of Cats” (it’s published in the NewYorker here:, the lead character speaks of getting a train to see his Dad. It’s an intricate, complicated, glorious system:
The trains of Japan are a wonderful brotherhood: the wee black ‘uns, chugging along from local to stop to local stop, often hanging around in stations to see their older brothers, the green “express” services and the red “limited express” services whizz past. These multi-coloured brothers all dream of the day when they grow up to be like their daddies and uncles: the Shinkansen, or bullet trains. I’ve not yet taken a Shinkansen: like the black and red and green kids, I’m still dreaming of the day. I’m under the impression they’re quite complicated, so there’ll be a post when, finally, I come of age and cross the Shinkanthreshold.

It’s the red and green and black babies that have filled so much of my time in Japan thus far. At first the system seems complex: you have a series of charts, colour-coordinated of course, that explain which trains stop at which stations (but be careful, they’re not always pertinent to the station you’re standing on). The red ‘uns rarely stop: just the big towns, like Futsukaichi and Fukuoka herself. The green ‘uns stop at quite a few of them, including our own: Asakuragaido. The black ones, bless ‘em, stop everywhere. They chug along for a few seconds, and then the chugging stops.
Being on a black local train is a big soul-crushing, if soul-crushingness can be put on a scale like that. Fortunately, you can catch one of the older brothers, red or green, and it’ll catch one of its black siblings further down the line for you. Indeed, these poor local trains, faithful younger bros, wait around for the reds or the greens so that you can just cross a platform and get on your merry way.

I’m starting to develop an affection for the Japanese railroad. 
First, it lends a very Asian feel to the anonymous towns of southern Fukuoka (SoFu, mayhaps?). I must spend half an hour each day standing at level crossings, with fifty tons of good honest metal rattling past a metre or two in front of my face. 
Second, they’re a big help in learning kanji, the Chinese characters that are critical to the Japanese writing system too. The kanji for Hakata, for instance (that’s the main station in Fukuoka) are 博多 which, if decomposed to their individual meanings, mean « Many Doctors ». Cool! Reminds me of my first year at Fitz. I should point out that to no Japanese person does Hakata mean “Many Doctors” and it’s very easy (and fun) to get caught in the decomposition trap. Still, it helps me to learn (more on that later). My favourite is our own station. The Asakura in Asakuragaido (朝倉) can mean « Morning Warehouse », but I prefer an alternative, if strained, reading that puts it as « Morning Spear », a problem I’ve been dealing with since I was thirteen. Apologies for the crudeness, heck my mother reads this.

So trains, trains, trains. They are a delight. Just as they were when I were a wee lad. Although, in Japan, I daresay, they’re very unlikely to have a fat controller. 

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