Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Happy Birthday part 1 -- obligations

Japan is a society of complicated relationships and obligations. I feel really scholarly writing that, but the truth is that I barely have a clue how it all works! It can drive you crazy, but sometimes you can try and make it work in your favor! As I started blogging about my birthday trip to Kobe, I got caught up in the detail of our train ride there and our experience with the conductor, which is a great example of saving face and obligations in Asia and there's some interesting stuff about the train system here, too. So rather than blogging about the trip all at once, I think I'll write about this trip in installments. Here's part 1: obligations.

It seems my best times in Japan are the sightseeing trips. Even though I did so much of that before, it's fun to see it all again through Bonnie's eyes. I had a birthday coming up last weekend so decided at the last minute to visit my best friend, Kaori, who lives in Kobe (site of the devastating earthquake in 1995). We invited our friend Carla along since she had never been there. Although I walked so much my whole body ached when I got back, it was a wonderful time and a very happy day!

We got up early and walked about 10 minutes to the train station ear us -- me dragging my suitcase behind me and Bonnie with a very full My little Pony backpack on her shoulders. We took the 9:10 local train from our little town to Okayama (about a 25 minute ride on the local train) so we could catch a shinkansen to Kobe. The irony is that we live near "Shin" Kurashiki station, which is the shinkansen stop for Kurashiki. But it is such a small stop that there is only a train going through here once every one or two hours and these trains stop at all the small shinkansen stations on the way to Kobe. These "slow" bullet trains are called Kodama. They actually go about 200 mph, but they make so many stops that it takes a lot longer to get to your destination. So if we hopped on the shinkansen here, it would take us amost 90 minutes to get to Kobe, but if we caught one in Okayama, we'd get there in 35 minutes! Needless to say, we went to Okayama!

The train station was extremely crowded and we had mistimed our connection so we had to run -- dragging our suitcases behind us. Unfortunately, we missed the Hikari train to Kobe. The Hikari is an express shinkansen which makes fewer stops. That train takes about 45 minutes. Luckily, the next train was a Nozomi, which is a superexpress and only makes one stop between Okayama and Kobe. Even though it left 30 minutes after the Hikari, it got there only 10 minutes later so Kaori didn't have to wait long.

The train was about 8 cars long so we hopped on the nearest car and began looking for a seat. For about a $5 surcharge you can ride in a reserved seat, but I've never had a problem getting a seat on a Saturday morning so I thought I'd save some money.


The train was standing room only. We walked from the first car to the last car, looking for a seat, but couldn't find one. Even when all the nonreserved seats are taken, it is still possible to sit in a reserved seat and pay the surcharge on the train when the conductor checks your ticket. I had done this many times when I lived in Japan before, so I have a habit of never buying a reserved seat unless I know the train will be crowded. The train conductors go through the train checking tickets of those sitting in the reserved cars. They have a little computer they carry in their hands where they mark off who they have checked and it shows which seats are reserved on which stops. I have even seen conductors ask people to move around seats so families or friends can sit together.

Rather than dragging all our stuff up one car and down another, I nabbed the nearest conductor and asked him if there were any reserved seats we could buy. Actually, since I couldn't remember the word for "reserved seat," I told him that we wanted to sit down and then looked kind of helpless.

He got out his computer and checked once, checked again. Told us to wait a minute. He hailed another conductor and they muttered together but kept sucking their breath between their teeth (bad sign) and saying "musukashii" -- literally: "it's difficult" (translation: "no.")

Sine I knew he was now under an obligation to help us (since I asked him and hadn't yet said, "oh well, that's OK, never mind), I just kept looking helpless and hopeful. He never could bring himself to tell me there was nothing. He did say it was sold out and finally, I said, "Is it impossible?" and he said, "You're right." He just couldn't admit that he had to let me down! So I finally released the poor guy from his obligation and told him we would stand and asked him when the train would get to Kobe. Since it was only 20 more minutes, I told him that was a short time and we'd be fine.

After that, Carla and I stopped the young lady who was trundling drinks and snacks through the train, got some hot coffee and began trudging back through the train to the first available nonreserved car, hoping someone would get off on the one stop in Himeji on the way. And, yippee! They did! I kept out an experienced eagle eye and saw two people getting up from a block of three seats. I figured if a couple of us gaijin (foreigners) sat there, the other person would leave so I made my move, inching toward the seat before someone could get it from the other direction. Then the third person got up, too, so we nabbed the block of seats and gratefully sat down.

Once the train was underway again, the conductor came through the car and gave a little nod when he saw that we had found seats. I'm sure he was relieved that Japan Railways didn't lose face with its foreign customers that day! Hey, sometimes the system drives me crazy (like when I'M the one with the obligation to someone) but you might as well try and make it work for you when you can. :)