I love trains. As an Ohioan, that’s a somewhat unfortunate love, since passenger trains are few and far between. Midwesterners are supposed to be car people, eager to drive to the grocery store, mall or office, but I’ve always felt a little bit cheated that we didn’t have other options. Stateside, I’ve never lived closer than at least an hour drive to a train station. Not exactly convenient.
Living abroad is another story. For the three years that Wil was stationed in England, we made train travel a habit. The Cambridge station was only a 15 minute walk from our house and we used it frequently for day trips into London and as a launching point for trips much farther afield. When we learned we’d be heading to Tokyo, the promise of a train-travelling lifestyle was part of the appeal.
It took us a few weeks, but yesterday, we hopped on our first Tokyo train. We walked out our front door and within a half-hour were standing at the ticket machine in our small Fussa station. (We could speed that process up a bit by driving to our base gate. That and maybe not walking with a four year old in 90+ degree heat…) Although you can buy individual tickets for the train, most people use prepaid, rechargeable, pass cards. Issued by our JR East train system, the Suica card is compatible with most of the trains in the greater Tokyo area. We put money on our cards at the machine, tapped them lightly on the scanner at the turnstile, and waited our turn on the platform.
Our destination was the Tokyo town of Tachikawa. It’s a short ride, only a little less than 20 minutes, but it’s seven stops away. The train arrived right on time, heralded by an electronic sign hanging on the platform that gave updates in English and Japanese. Inside, the seats lined the sides, with passengers facing one another. When we boarded, the seats appeared to all be taken, but a mother and her two little girls removed their bags and scootched over to make room for us. My “arigato” earned me a shy smile and head nod from the mom. The girls spent most of the journey humming the theme song from Frozen and casting sidelong stares at Liam and me.
The train was spotless, free of graffiti, and decorated with an array of colorful Japanese advertisements. (If the ads could speak, they’d be shouting.) Video screens above the doors showed brief commercials and provided maps of our route in both Japanese and English. Before every stop, a female voice broadcast the location in both languages, even saying which side of the train the doors would open on. It really couldn’t have been easier.
The landscape we rolled by was an urban one populated by warehouses, apartment buildings teetering on top of convenience stores and narrow streets darting out from the main roads. At Tachikawa, the doors slid open to reveal a much larger and busier train station than our sleepy Fussa location. Tachikawa isn’t far from here, but it is closer to the center of Tokyo. The station there is large with multiple platforms and acts as a connecter for several lines. It is home to numerous stores and restaurants and sits in the middle of a large shopping district. The tall buildings, the crowds and the flashing billboards all felt much more like the Tokyo I’ve been expecting to see. I’m sure that effect will amplify as we travel deeper into the city on future trips.
We didn’t have a particular plan for the day, so just let ourselves get washed with the crowds into the stores and along the streets. A large part of the area around the station functions on two levels, with pedestrians and shops on wide upper walkways a floor above the streets. We lost an hour or so attempting to find a place for lunch. One noodle bar didn’t seem to be letting customers in; another was filled to the brim. We settled on a small café on the ninth floor of one of the skinny, stacked malls. My tuna and avocado rice bowl melted in my mouth. When Liam and I left to use the restroom, a waiter who had been hovering near us greeted Wil in English and was surprised to hear that we live in Japan. He disappeared again by the time Liam and I returned.
After lunch, we spotted IKEA in the distance. To make our pilgrimage to the mother ship, we walked along a wide dual boulevard just for pedestrians. Every few minutes, a monorail would zip along above our heads. Inside, IKEA was familiar, just a slightly different version than the ones we shopped at in London and Cincinnati. (As IKEA-philes, our house could almost be an IKEA showroom, or at least it will be, once our furniture arrives from Ohio.) We’ll return with the car on another day. By 5, we had walked back to the station, hot and sticky and worn out, but easily found our return platform.
This time, our train was standing room only. To my embarrassment, Liam provided most of the conversation in our carriage – even cell phones are required to be turned off – but his prattling only seemed to attract the attention of a gray-haired Japanese woman standing near me. She smiled indulgently and told me in English about her grandchild who lives in America. “Your station is Fussa?” she guessed. “Yes,” I replied, although I think almost everyone in our carriage had probably already figured that out. We’ll have to get used to the idea that as Westerners here we’re not exactly ever travelling under the radar, whether on foot, in a car, or the train.