When you step onto a Japanese train at rush hour, it’s strangely quiet. The car will be jammed to the windowsills with people, hip to hip on the seats and standing packed as terra cotta soldiers in a Chinese cave, but there’s hardly a sound. Only a murmered, indistinct conversation somewhere within the bright fluorescent glare and the creaking of the plastic hand straps complaining against a stainless steel bar. Close your eyes, and you could imagine yourself in the hold of an 18th-century ship of the line. But open them again, and you’re surrounded by the bleeding edge of the 21st century, every last soul immersed in the onanistic tools of technology. They’re listening to music on personal music players, watching TV or typing e-mails on their cellphones, playing games on a PSP or Nintendo DS, thumbing through an electronic Japanese-to-English dictionary – sometimes all at once. A few of them are even reading newspapers or books, the story inevitably running back to front, up-and-down sentences falling off the bottom of the page.
I’ll miss that.
I climb on a bus for Kansai airport in less than an hour. From there, it’s to Taipei, where I lay over for the evening. Then on to Hanoi tomorrow. For the next month, at least, I’ll be living in The Land that Time Forgot. I’ve sold my laptop to Will, since with a busted monitor it’s not much good on the road. I have much that I still want to say about Japan, now that it’s in the rear-view mirror. But I haven’t had much of a chance to get it all down here, what with the events of the past week bunching up in front of me like an interstate pile-up.
But I expect I’ll have plenty of time in the coming days to work on it. For now, it’s sayonara to Japan – and it’s hustling convenience store clerks, its svelte population, terrible pop music, paradoxical ATM machines, thousands of temples and shrines, and breathtaking scenery; its startling dental lapses, microscopic shoes, million curious indiosyncracies, and the friendliest people I’ve ever known.