The man who (really) loved trains

Rattling along on my daily commute, the announcement would come over the PA, as it did every day: “Tsugi no eki: chikatetsu hakubutsukan mae” (next station: the Subway Museum).  I’ve walked past it countless times.  It’s an unimpressive squat, beige building, wedged underneath the subway line itself.  In the several years I’ve lived in this area, I’ve never bother to go – how interesting could a museum about trains be, anyhow?

(Source: Wikipedia)

So, let me just say that contrary to my expectations, the museum was really quite impressive.  I can recommend it if you happen to be out this way.  But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

I want to talk about a certain young fellow and his hat.  Let’s call him Taro-san.

One of the centrepieces of the museum is a full-sized subway simulator.  I would imagine that actual train drivers practice on something very similar to this.  It comprises of an entirely authentic front section of a subway train, which moves around to simulate accelerating and breaking.  A kindly looking elderly staffer in a green blazer would explain to the (mostly) dads and their sons how to operate the throttle and break, and to watch the speedometer.  In front of the simulator was an enormous, high definition screen showing the driver’s view as you moved between two Tokyo stations.


Standing in front of the simulator on this day, there were about five people lined up, but Taro-san was the one who really attracted attention.  Probably in his mid-twenties with a stooped, short frame, he wore a train driver’s hat festooned with subway-related pins and badges.  He completed his ensemble with white gloves, a green-ish jumper, beige slacks, and white trainers.  And, inevitably, glasses – not the stylish kind, either.  Sitting beside him on the desk was a small, soft attache case with a Tokyo Metro logo on it, the same kind I’d seen actual train drivers carrying as they come off shift.  Two of his friends were with him, dressed similarly, but he was clearly the leader of this weekend train crew.

He was patiently lined up with his friends, with the look of someone on well-trodden, comfortable ground. They might as have been wearing leather jackets and hanging out by the pinball machines at the local pizzeria, given the nonchalant vibe radiating from them.  Whereas most of the visitors received a polite welcome and their instructions as their climbed the simulator’s steps, the gentleman with the green blazer stood aside wordlessly as our be-hatted and gloved subject bounded up the stairs come his turn.  It seemed obvious that this routine had been carried out many times before.

Once sitting in the simulator seat, he affected a different bearing altogether, became a different beast.  His shoulders went back, his chest out, his spine stiffening as he operated on auto-pilot, opening his attache case and laying timetables and documents swiftly and precisely in their appropriate places on the train console.

Checking the wall of dials and gauges, he smartly brought his gloved hand up to the brim of his hat in a pointing motion, perfectly mimicking the protocol of Tokyo subway drivers.  Bringing his hand down in a crisp salute, he looked back out the window of the simulator, doing a safety check.  With everything set, I saw him mouth a radio command for departure, and he let the breaks go and throttled up.

Looking on from the sidelines, I was riveted.  What kind of person spends their weekends in a train museum, lining up again and again to pretend to drive a train?  I mean, sure, I’ve been accused of having a few obsessive hobbies from time to time, but – train driving?

I was temporarily a little depressed for Taro-san.  Apparently the competition to become a Tokyo subway employee, let alone a driver, is quite fierce, involving entrance examinations matching you against a large number of other hopefuls.  There’s even a word for people who love trains – densha okaku – train geeks.  I imagined poor Taro-san missing the exam cut more than a few times, having to console himself with lining up with the tourists to experience his dreams two simulated minutes at a time.

When he got off the simulator though, his friends gathered around as they went to the back of the queue to line up again.  They smiled and talked excitedly about trains, waiting for their next chance to become a train driver for just a few moments.

And then it struck me.  As I was standing on, looking at these guys with pity for being obsessed with a hobby outside the mainstream, you know what?  They’d discovered something they loved to do.  The amount of passion they put into what they were doing, the precision, the as-close-as-they-could-get authenticity, made me think of them passing the time at university or working in a convenience shop by day, waiting for the weekend when they could be a train driver again, just for a little while.

I’m sure Taro-san will get his wish eventually – I don’t think you could ever repress that kind of passion and zeal.

The guy just loves trains.


My geeky valentine

Japan celebrated Valentine’s Day today, just as it was in many other countries.  I’ve written about the peculiarities of Valentine’s Day in Japan before, but one of the interesting things about the Japanese take on it is that only girls give chocolates to guys on 14 February.  Guys reciprocate one month later on White Day, March 14.

So, put yourself in the position of a girl who wants (or is obligated) to buy something for a young fellow.  But she’s just about to meet up with him and she’s chocolate-less – there’s no time!  Additionally, she know that he’s of a geeky persuasion – what to do?

Luckily, well-stocked Japanese convenience stores come to the rescue with an emergency Valentine’s chocolate display:

Ah, but way down there on the bottom shelf, a gem!  Neon Genesis Evangelion-themed chocolates!  For the un-initiated, Neon Genesis Evangelion is an immensely popular manga (comic) based on giant robots saving humanity from an alien invasion – now available in romantic chocolate form!  I mean, really, how can you go past an “AU Assault Rifle Chocolate”:

Inside is one solid block of chocolate embossed with, yes, the assault rifle used in the manga:

A pretty good likeness, wouldn’t you say?

And this in my very normal corner store, not some exotic Akihabara specialty store.  Japan’s got the important geek demographic covered more than anywhere else I know.

When Very Good Liquid isn’t good enough

Japanese pharmacies seem to provide an never-ending stream of curiosities:

Now that I have finally obtained the Perfect Liquid, the various liquids I used to use on a regular basis have been made obsolete.  Via this consolidation, I hope to see significant efficiency gains in my liquid management activities.

I am assuming this is something like the magic potion from the Asterix comics.  I’ll chug a bottle and let you know which superpowers I gain.

Treasures in junk mail

In my junk mail, a pamphlet advertising a moving company:

The possible wordplay in the domain name,, that in Japanese doyou means “Saturday” and hikkoshi means “to move house”.  So, you can read the web address as both “Saturday house moving” or “Do you move house?”.   Clever!

Interesting side note – the yellow speech bubble above the driver’s head is advertising that this moving company “uses kind-to-the-planet natural gas trucks!”.  As in other places, advertising promoting “eko” environmentally-conscious features have become very prominent in Japan.

Movie posters done Japanese style

Going to the movies in Japan isn’t really the institution it is in overseas.  They’re popular enough, but the high price  – $22 full price and $12 on discount days, which seems to be the standard price at every single cinema – doesn’t guarantee that everybody has seen the latest hot new movie that everyone’s talking about (or not).

I mainly go to see Hollywood movies; most of the major releases tend to make it here to Japan.  Sometimes, you’re going to be waiting a while though – the Simpsons Movie came out about one year after it came out in the US, and had I paid my $22 to see it, I would have been a bit disappointed, considering the wait.

The other interesting thing about Western movies in Japan is that promotional materials are sometimes tweaked to more closely match the perceived tastes of Japanese consumers.  After just coming back from the cinema today, I grabbed a hold of a few pamphlets for upcoming titles:

This one is the Meryl Streep / Alec Baldwin / Steve Martin movie It’s Complicated, which is apparently about a love triangle involving divorcees or something.  The poster I saw in Australia had Ms. Streep and Mr. Baldwin awkwardly sharing a post-coital sheet, making the movie look comedically saucy.  The Japanese poster takes all the sauce out, and changes to title from It’s Complicated to Bakery Love or The Bakery I Love or… something.  The poster and new title make it sound much more whimsical and chick-flicky than the English version.  Poor old Steve Martin doesn’t get a look in in either language.

This comes out here on 19 February – you can see the Japanese “year-month-day” style date (2.19) on the poster.  We should all convert to this format!

Next we have Capitalism – A Love Story, which still hasn’t come out in Japan.  Only a couple more weeks!  The bold yellow test says “In 2010, the economy will recover”.  Given what I’ve been reading lately about the floundering-for-well-over-a-decade Japanese economy, this seems like more of a desperate affirmation than a prediction.

The other interesting thing is that the title has once again been modified.  In Japanese, it reads Capitalism – Money Dances, which actually paints a pretty good picture of all the shenanigans that went on.

The cat appearing in the middle of the “0” up the top is Michael Moore’s cartoon avatar, it seems.  The back of this pamphlet is filled with Michael Moore taking pictures with lots of Japanese stars at the premiere, with speech bubbles of him saying wacky things about Japan (like: “I (heart) Japan”).  I’m sure he’d be thrilled, could he read them.

This is the poster for Invictus (Japanese: “Inbikutasu“), which I just happened to see today.  Apparently, racism was completely eradicated in South Africa due to a rugby game played in 1995 – huzzah!  Joking aside, I thought it was a great movie with a unique and interesting story.

I guess that without much Latin influence in the Japanese language to give any clue as to what “Invictus” might mean, underneath is written “the invincibles” or “the people who could not be beaten” if you want a more quaint, direct translation.

Finally, we have the Sherlock Homes movie.  I guess he’s famous enough that it doesn’t need any title retouching – it’s just been transliterated as “Syaarokku Houmuzu”.  The tag line says “The mysteries of the world have been waiting for this guy”.  I’m pretty keen to see this too, and I only have to wait until March.

The other interesting thing about seeing English language movies with 300 Japanese people is that any humour quite often does not translate well into subtitles.  I’ve been in the situation more than once of guffawing at a particularly funny joke, only to lamely try to turn it into a cough as I realise that no-one else in the entire cinema is laughing.  Sigh.

Anyone want to Skype with me the next time I go to the movies?  You have to promise to laugh on cue with me.  I’ll buy the popcorn, which you can watch me eat over the Internet. What an age we live in.

Such is snow

It’s snowing tonight in Tokyo; the first time I’ve seen snow here in two years. Snow falls are not common in Tokyo, so any time it happens must be savoured.

Snow in Tokyo 2010

I’m in my apartment at the moment, Ugg boots and hot carpet on (obviously, not in the same manner), watching the flurries fall outside my window. The train line outside my house seems to have stopped running too. Snow has a curious muffling, deadening effect on the world, but the lack of traffic and noise make it surreal, like I could be cooped up in a solitary cabin somewhere in the mountains rather than in a jungle of apartment buildings with tens of thousands of others.

Illuminated by the streetlights,  the snowflakes make flickering shadows on my window as they add to the blanket down below; it’s a supremely tranquil feeling.

Snow in Tokyo 2010

The snow isn’t silent, either – it makes plopping, lapping noises as it alights on to my window sill, then a dull whump as a flurry breaks off and heads earthwards.

Snow in Tokyo 2010

As exotic as living in a foreign country may seem, you can still find yourself in a routine sometimes, just like back at home. I know a rare evening of snow in Tokyo makes me remember to appreciate those unique experiences.

This morning, I draw back to curtains, ready to savour a pristine white blanket of snow:



Oh well, if I can only have an hour of snow, that one would have ranked up there.