Back to Reality

In order to get back in time for work on Wednesday, I needed to catch the first train from Omagari to Tokyo at 6:36 in the morning. If I missed it, the next train came about an hour later, so we set our alarms for 5:15 and prepared to scramble.


There’s a certain methodical process to waking up in the winter in Akita. It goes something like this: first, when the alarm goes off, turn on the heater. Then wait fifteen minutes for the room to reach a temperature at which you might actually consider leaving the warmth of your bed. Next, get out of bed, turn the hot water back on, then slip back into bed while letting the water in the shower run for a few minutes. Finally, when you’re mentally prepared, hurl yourself into the shower. The amount of time required for this process can vary depending on your mental and physical resolve on any given morning.


On a good day, it takes almost exactly thirty minutes to get to Omagari from Big Sis’ apartment. That morning the roads were far from ideal, and it took us longer than expected to get going. After hurriedly pulling the car out of its parking space at what was already 6:00, we promptly found ourselves stuck behind a snowplough.


Ditching the plough, we pulled a slightly incautious 60 kph on the snowy, unsalted roads. As we realigned on one of the wider streets, we skidded out and spun into the opposing lane of traffic—thankfully empty in the early morning—and came to a planging stop against a low snow bank on the other side. Big Sis and I were both fine, but we backed the car into a side street to check for damages. Finding none, we continued on at a more cautious 40 kph.


After a minute of silence, Big Sis said, “I think you’re going to miss your train.”


I replied, “That’s okay.”


Through what must have been either divine intervention or the rest of the planet traveling at near-light speeds while we were stuck behind the plow, we somehow got to Omagari by 6:30. In my rush to get out of the car and get my bag on my shoulder, a combination of slush and momentum put my backside in a chilly puddle, but I rolled out of the tumble and kept moving. Big Sis left her keys in the ignition—something you can apparently do in Akita—and came inside with me, which was lucky, since it would have taken me much longer to understand what the man at the ticket booth was saying, which was: "You have sixty seconds to get on your train."


I bade a hasty goodbye to Big Sis, felt guilty for lacking the time to give her a parting hug, and ran past the ticket-taker at the gate. As I approached a second ticket-taker I managed to puff, “Ticket—in train—Tokyo?” and he urgently ushered me to the appropriate platform. I got on the last car with no more than thirty seconds to spare before the doors closed and we started to move south. I had a wet bum and no ticket, but I was on the train. That was all that mattered.


Akita looked spectacular in the grey-blue early morning light. The clouds hung low in the mountains, and everything was a serene blue-white. It felt a lot like home, in a way, except that the conifers were too deep and rich a green for me to have been in Ontario or Quebec.


I noticed, however, that the hills seemed to have been seeded with calculated rows of trees of varying species, deciduous and coniferous trees growing in clearly delineated bars of exactly the same width.


I watched as snippets of road appeared and disappeared in the gaps between the nearby mountains, rivers occasionally flowing beneath the tracks. In the distance, I could see a gigantic cloud lying so low against a mountain peak that it cast a direct shadow upon it, while another steep-faced mountain wore a mantle of thick cloud like a cottony hood. Spotting a solitary man cross-country skiing between vast pristine rice fields, I lamented that I didn't have a camera. There was a deep and silent beauty to everything.


Twenty minutes later, I realized that I hadn’t even thought of looking out the right side of the train. I felt like someone noticing that he’d only been watching half the movie.


When I got to Tokyo at 10:00, my paid-on-the-train fare guaranteed that I had to go through the ticket window rather than using the automatic gates. The guy at the window looked at the departure station and started to laugh. Tokyo had just awakened an hour or two before, but I’d been already been travelling for more than three hours.


After a morning of zero reception thanks to intermittent tunnels, Big Sis and I finally connected, and she learned that I'd gotten my train while I learned the aftermath of my visit. Apparently, when she'd arrived in class that morning, the students had all screamed aghast, “Where’s Mike?” When Big Sis explained that I was probably in Tokyo already, one of the girls was apparently close to tears. Big Sis placated them with the promise that I might be coming back next year, and they got all excited again.


I’d never be able to maintain that kind of excitement if I actually stayed in a single school for any length of time. I think I’m beginning to get an idea of how celebrity works.


Tired and rumpled, wearing the same clothes I’d been wearing three days before, I got back to Shizuoka with what turned out to be plenty of time to spare. I went to work, dumped my bag in the corner, grabbed my tie and shoes from the cabinet, and started another regular working day.


I subsequently discovered that, every time I go away, my employers do their best to mess with my life. But that’s another story.

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February 2002