“Lemmings” was an amusing and sadistic DOS-based game from the early ‘90s. Up to 100 lemmings would fall out of a trap door in the ceiling of a two-dimensional map, and you had to get a certain percentage of these Fraggle-like automatons into a door to salvation at the other end of the screen. On the way, there would be bear traps, carnivorous plants, crushing blocks, spouts of flame, and bottomless pits that would whittle down your population one by one. To avoid these, you would assign some of your lemmings special properties, such as “builders” who would build ascending bridges one step at a time, “diggers” who could bore holes through the landscape, and “blockers,” who would keep the remainder of your lemmings from walking off the cliff while the other guys did their jobs. You were also at leisure to strategically detonate some of your lemmings. If you did nothing, your lemmings would just keep walking in the same direction until they ran into something, at which point they’d turn around and walk the other way. Sometimes your best bet was just to bunch them all up as tightly as possible and rely on the traps’ inability to flatten more than one at a time to get the necessary percentage to the end.
Last Tuesday, I collected a dozen people from Narita Airport and brought them to Mishima to be trained as ALTs. While they are all lovely individuals, getting the mass of them from point A to point B felt a lot like playing Lemmings, and I needed a “save” ratio of 100%.
I spent all day Monday at the airport, flagging down lost-looking foreigners and getting them onto the shuttle bus to the airport hotel, all the while being sure to instruct people coming to our branch that they had to be on the shuttle bus to JR Narita Station at 8:25 the next morning. I’d planned the route out with plenty of time to get to our lunch reservation in Mishima at 12:00.
The next morning, I got my first look at what twelve people each carrying a year’s worth of luggage looks like. One of the guys had a bag that would have given you at least 6000 hit points if you hooked it up to bazookas and tank treads and deployed it in a round of Armored Core. The hotel staff told us that all the bags wouldn’t fit onto the shuttle bus for JR Narita as I’d planned, so we had to take the larger bus back to the airport instead. This fudged my timing, but we looked at the train schedule from the airport and it seemed feasible.
The shuttle bus dropped us off at the 3rd-floor departure lobby, and I started counting heads at regular intervals while leading everyone to the elevators down to the train platforms. It took three loads on four elevators just to get everyone down.
I dropped a few hundred dollars, counted twelve yet again, and led my precious trainees down the escalator to the Narita Express. The trip to Tokyo would take an hour, after which we would have exactly thirteen minutes to get from the express platform to the Shinkansen I had booked. The express platform was at the absolute farthest end of Tokyo Station, separated from the Shinkansen by two long escalators and about 500 metres of lateral distance. It took us about ten minutes just to load all the bags at the airport.
On the Narita Express, while I exchanged e-mails with the office, the trainees took pictures of one another and revelled at the sight of Mt. Fuji through the window. As I was asked to take a picture of five smiling faces, I began to realize that this wasn’t really my story any more. I’d become an ancillary in twelve other people’s Japan stories that were just beginning. I was just “that guy who met us in Tokyo.” For the first time, I began to feel the divide between myself and the people I train.
Five minutes before we arrived in Tokyo, I had my mighty lemmings all suit up—I suppose you could call them “stormers.” There were two doors at either end of the car, and we were using all of them.
“What happens if one of us gets left behind?” a trainee from Toronto asked.
“Nobody gets left behind,” I replied.
When the doors opened, we deployed like the marines. A minute later, one trainee was dragged down like a drowning sailor as his bag cascaded down four escalator steps, nearly crushing some poor Japanese man below him. He made it to the top. He had to.
We stopped at regular intervals, counted twelve, and moved on. Fifty metres from the Shinkansen gate, we got our tickets ready. Beyond the gate, two guys wandered five metres in the wrong direction before I spotted them. As the last of them stepped on the escalator to the platform, that door to salvation achieved at last, I dashed up the stairs to find them milling about abstractly, like twelve particles of a little gaseous cloud trapped in a glass box.
“Where’s the train?” I asked.
“I just put your trainee on it,” said a man I hadn’t seen before.
“You must be Manny,” I replied, shaking his hand. Manny from Personnel had been in contact with me several times that morning. One of our trainees had been staying at a different hotel, and Manny was in charge of making sure she met us on the train.
“So where’s the train?” I asked again.
“It just left,” he replied.
“But it’s 10:25.”
“It left at 10:23.”
I’m not sure when 10:23 and 10:26 got reversed in my mind, but it wasn’t particularly relevant any more. We’d just thrown a new arrival onto a train with nobody on it, and with nobody waiting to meet her at the other end. We weren’t even sure if she knew which station to get off at.
I made a call to the office. Someone would be sent.
“Okay, there’s another train leaving at 10:56,” I reported after a brief discussion with the station staff. “It’s at Platform 19. We have to go over there, go down the escalator, then take the little escalator up and head to 19 on the far side. Two, four, six, seven, eight, ten, eleven… Where’s Charlie?”
“Oh, yeah, there he is. So where’s Ryan?”
“Okay. Two, four, six, eight, nine, ten, eleven… Hang on, who’s missing?”
Everyone did a shoulder check. “Walter. He said he was going to the bathroom.”
“Right. You guys go on ahead. I’ll wait here. Just down the escalator and up at Platform 19. Just make sure you’re facing away from the ticket gates we came through before. Aim for car 13.”
I was, to be honest, nearly celebrating the impossibility of all this. The probability of pulling it off was so remote that all I could do was enjoy the ride. For starters, I’d had no clue how all of our bags were going to fit on the Shinkansen we’d just missed. I had reserved only thirteen seats, and the Shinkansen has only small overhead racks for baggage. I only recalled when we got on the train at platform 19 that, when Shinkansen seats are swivelled to face one another, large gaps are created behind each away-facing set. In order to fit all the bags, we ended up appropriating 24 seats for 13 people.
“Okay, guys,” I said as we approached Mishima, “it took us ten minutes to load up. When we arrive, we will have less than three to get off. Be ready.”
When the doors opened, my stormers were ready. “Get your tickets out,” I instructed them as they reached the bottom of the escalator. “Then go straight to the end of the hall and turn right.” After fishing out two trainees’ tickets from the automated machines that had eaten them, I arrived to find the others milling about at the end of the hall, stopped dead by another obstacle. There were two flights of stairs leading down, and the only escalator was going up. Nearly everyone had at least two massive pieces of luggage. I was already carrying two bags that had exceeded their owners’ load-bearing limits.
“Right, everybody: consider this a team-building exercise. Our goal is to get all our bags from up here to down there. I’m going down with whatever I can carry, then I’m coming back up for more. Let’s go.”
The proof of manhood that day was to be able to carry all your own bags down in one load.
Loaded up again at the bottom, the trainees shifted forward ten metres before shuffling to another aimless halt. “Sorry, forgot to tell you where to go. It’s up ahead and on the left. This way.”
It was little wonder they trusted me implicitly by the time we arrived. They had no choice.
The final step was to find the hotel, which was a little tricky given that my map pointed to something that I knew very well not to be a hotel. I jogged a few hundred yards up and down the street before calling the staff member who’d been charged with meeting our other trainee and bringing her to the hotel. I couldn’t bring the trainees with me as I searched. One step in the wrong direction and we wouldn’t be able to turn around.
When we arrived at last, the hotel staff were, quite simply, amazing. We were too early to check in, but they told us to leave our bags in the lobby—or rather, fill the entire lobby with our bags—and they would bring them up to each person’s room later in the afternoon. They provided maps to restaurants, woke up jet-lagged trainees every morning, and dealt with them coming in late at night from the bars. On the last day, they even took our garbage from the training room and helped ship my 40 kilos of textbooks and flashcards back to the office. I only had to bring one thing back by hand on Friday, which was the CD player. Naturally, I lost the cord on the way.
Two days after training ended, we had a “leaver” lemming: he decided this all wasn’t for him, went back to Tokyo, got on a plane, and went home. I must have mis-clicked that one.
And now I’m looking forward to doing it all again next week—with 30 people.