I’d held off for as long as I could from eating the lunch I’d bought at Shin-Osaka station. I was going to tuck into it at Kyoto, but at that point three men got on to join the businessmen next to me, turned the seats around (you can do that on many Japanese express trains) and began talking business. There went the back of the seat and the little tray-table which drops down from it. I was now nearly knee-to-knee with a cross-looking sarariiman and we both studiously tried to disregard each other.
From what I could catch, they had something to do with the Japanese Basketball Association, although none of them – they were all in their mid to late 50s – looked even remotely athletic. I had a window seat and was more or less surrounded by them as they rasped, growled, muttered, snorted, laughed mirthlessly and cat-napped their way through some kind of preparation for a meeting in Tokyo. I read my paper, looked out the window (snow in the hills outside Kyoto) and stayed relatively unobtrusive. I didn’t feel like crawling over them, so I stayed put. The man in front of me with white, brylcreemed hair and no-nonsense glasses, had a guttural voice and and a certain belligerent jut to his jaw. When he drifted off to sleep, though, his face relaxed, and fine vertical lines overtook the deep horizontal ones on his forehead. His chin sagged, revealing stubble and fatigue. His belligerent stance seemed to come at a price.
Past Nagoya (52 minutes and nearly 200 kilometres out), I had to eat something. I acknowledged their presence first: Minnasan, shitsureishimasu… (literally, Everybody, it’s rude of me…i.e, I’m gonna eat now) and sort of held up my box lunch. To which they all nodded smartly and replied , Ah. Suimasen (Oh, excuse us, i.e., Go ahead, don’t mind us. Japanese, you may have noticed, is not exactly the most straightforward language on earth). Formalities observed, I balanced the box (plastic tray, actually) on my knee and chowed down to rice balls, bits of chicken and fish and pickles. Outside, that morning, the air was clear and crisp, colder than February, but brighter. Suddenly, in the distance, Mt Fuji sprang up before us. You can travel to Tokyo every day but you won’t always see Fuji, which is more often than not shrouded in clouds or fog. After a few twists and turns, the mountain could be seen quite plainly from the windows on the left. The jaded, tired men stopped as one and looked at the huge inverted cone with the flat snow-capped peak (it’s a dormant volcano) with only a thin cloud running about three-quarters of the way from the peak. Against a deep blue sky, it really was magnificent, and the men on the left exclaimed Kirei na! (Isn’t it beautiful!), then looked at me and said in English, “It’s Mount Fuji,” before turning back to admire it more.
That moment passed. The men wondered where they would take “Sonoda” for dinner. Someone mentioned “that tempura place,” was pretty good. Two absented themselves, and later came back reeking of cigarettes. As they got off in Shinagawa, the man on my left bowed slightly and said “sumimasendeshita,” (pardon us), I nodded back “ieie,” (not at all), and then I had the place to myself again for another five minutes. Then the train pulled into Tokyo.
Some photos of Houshi Onsen: here.