Notes from Tokyo’s Morning Commute

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My year of living in New York City has given me a quick walking pace that most comes in handy when I want to beat everyone else to an empty seat on the morning train. I’m most thankful when I do because then I can sit down to read my book in peace or take a 30-minute catnap.

One morning, I got a seat on the train and did just that. I took a catnap. On a crowded train, this is how I relax. I rarely fall completely asleep though because I don’t want to miss my stop. Anyway, about 7 minutes in, a young man sat down in the seat next to me that had been vacated by the person before. Unlike the typical salaryman, his hair was free of gel, his outfit a soft black cardigan, jeans, and a white face mask that is typical in fall/winter because of flu season and because it’s just so damn cold it helps keep your face warm. He kept sniffling and sneezing so it was clear he had caught a cold but was still going to work anyway. What a trooper.

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The rows of seats that line the sides of the train fit 7 people and even though everyone does their best to maintain their personal space, one will be cozily sitting shoulder-to-shoulder for the duration of the ride. So when this young man settled into his seat, my forearm was pressed up against the side of his rib cage. His temperature was warm, and I could feel his heartbeat and his breathing steady. Something about that made me feel comfortable and safe, and I just wanted to give him a hug because he seemed exhausted, worn down and in need of a good hug. As many Japanese people do, he closed his eyes to try and get some last minute shut eye before work, and his head kept falling on to my shoulder. It took everything in me not to lean my head on his and through osmosis tell him everything was going to be OK. As the train stopped and started he would sit back up and apologize. When the train pulled into Nakameguro Station, he stood up, gave a short bow in my direction as a final apology and got off the train.

It can be a pain in the butt to catch the train every morning especially when I don’t get enough sleep. However, I feel really honored to be able to wake up and move among the morning crowds and observe their routine before they step into the office for a 10-12 hour workday.

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The salarymen and women run/walk as briskly as they can to catch the train and rub their temples in frustration on the off chance the trains are running late. What will they do, what will happen to their reputation if they don’t make it into the office before the boss does? Even though they know it’s bad manners to do so, young women put the finishing touches on their makeup and older women sneakily eat their onigiri breakfast. Students open their schoolbooks to try and review the previous day’s material. It seems that most of them just end up staring at words on a page because they’re too tired to think or because despite their best efforts to learn new material on their own, it’s not working out. They (this includes young salarymen as well) turn to playing games on their phones instead or even reading/watching anime porn (yes, this actually happens in public). Tourists keep their eye on the display that tells them what station is next to make sure they get off at the right place.

People all around are sneezing, coughing, and some even pick their nose as if they’re in the privacy of their own home. It’s a germaphobe’s nightmare, and sometimes not even the white face mask can save the most diligent rider. This, I’ve discovered, is why it’s so important to take a shower every night, to get the city off of me. Every morning, these people pack themselves onto the trains as tight as sardines but rather than scoffing about it, they’ve simply accepted it. Either that or they grin and bear it because they know once they get off the train, coffee and cigarettes await.

To the average person, maybe all of these things go unnoticed or they find them extremely annoying. Even I admit, I’ve given pointed looks to young women or students who are talking too loudly for my taste at such an early morning hour, but the truth is I love it. These are my people. They’re all strangers, but I feel like I get to know them so well on my 30 minute commute.

This daily commute, it wears on me sometimes too, but I know if I ever moved out of the city, I would really miss it.

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