After my short stint in the Nagoya region I made my way north to Fuji city. Fuji city is a small city near Mt. Fuji, of course, and it was there that I went to meet an old friend of mine. I had been in Fuji back in 2006 for a job interview and my first impression was that not much had changed. Near the railway station is Fuji’s unbelievably quiet and vacant downtown. As I walked along the covered sidewalks I noticed an extreme dearth of shoppers and an abundant of retail space for rent. Fuji, like many other small Japanese towns has suffered the loss of their downtown districts as malls were constructed on the cities’ periphery. And now, so I’ve been told, these malls too are becoming less and less utilized as shoppers prefer to do their purchasing online.
Outside of major centers like Tokyo, which seem as every bit as busy as places like Shanghai, Japans small towns are dying. The only change I could see in Fuj is that there was less of a city than there had been 6 years before. This is a stark contrast to China, where most cities, particularly those in the country’s eastern regions, have been involved in decade’s long rapid expansion. The only thing about Fuji that reminded me of China were the smoke stacks steadily belching out noxious gas. Fuji is still an industrial town and the smell of the air confirms it. Somehow that slight bit of air pollution, no Chinese city is anywhere nearly as clean as Fuji, made the town seem a little more real, more familiar to me.
“I want to leave Japan”
After wandering around for the day and finding extremely little worth photographing in Fuji, I met my long time friend, an ex-student I had taught in Canada many years before. We went to a local Japanese barbecue restaurant for dinner where I was expectantly satisfied with the quality of the food and service. If there is anything I truly adore about Japan, it’s the food. Filled with a delicious meal and a couple Suntory Maltz draught beer I settled into a conversation with my old friend and student whom I had not seen in 3 years.
University educated, world travelled, and still living in small town Japan, I wondered why my friend hadn’t left home and moved to a more bustling promised filled locality like nearby Nagoya or Tokyo. “I’m here because my family is here” I live at home and I don’t want to move to another city. Actually, I don’t want to live in Japan.” was her response. This I could understand. Japan, like China, is a place where unmarried young adults usually live at home after university. She went on to explain that her parents were pushing her to get married but she didn’t want to marry a Japanese man. She wanted to marry a foreigner and perhaps live overseas. This is also a story I have heard often repeated in China, the only differences being that for a Japanese girl such as her, it was not the promise of a better life and financial gain that caused her to want to leave her homeland, nor was she particularly naive about the outside world as most Chinese young people are, but still, her wish remained the same.
The similarity, I think, was her yearning to be free from her culture and control of her family which I find to be a common thread here in China as well. Even I fit this mold to some degree as I live far away from my family and culture and enjoy the experience and freedom from family intrusion upon my private affairs.
In fact, while living in Australia she had met a Chinese man from Malaysia. A few months before my visit she had gone to visit him and his family. Having a natural interest in her and especially in all things Chinese, I asked her what her impression of his Chinese family was. “Noisy. They were very noisy and friendly. But they always talked about money”. I laughed at this, “Of course they did.” I said, “They are Chinese.” She also went on to tell me that she thought Chinese people were quite shy. This I hadn’t heard before and I thought it quite interesting that it was a Japanese person providing this cross-cultural impression. None of the mjan’s family, save him and one other, had any English ability. His cousin, the only family member she had truly got to know was the one who she thought of as “shy”. I figured that perhaps he had been nervous about his English ability fearing loss of face in front of a foreigner as this often happens when I meet people who can speak English in China.
Other than the noise level and the financially focused conversations, she told me that the family was heartwarmingly friendly and very interested in her. The fact that she was Japanese had no effect on relations with the Malay Chinese she met and her only wish was that she could speak Chinese to better communicate with them. This was a happy result and I truly wished that any Japanese coming to mainland China could or would leave with the same impression. Perhaps someday… With the meal finished and beers drunk, I decided to return to my hotel and get a good night’s rest in preparation for my upcoming trek to the top of Mt. Fuji.
The next day I got up early and went to the nearby train station to grab a coffee. As I went outside to look for a public “smoking spot” I looked up and there it was, Mt. Fuji. “Wow!” was all that entered my mind. The previous day, like most days in summer it had been completely shrouded in clouds and I had been blissfully unaware of exactly where this fabled mountain resided. But now I could see it in all its splendor and I couldn’t wait to climb it. I made a mental note that when I returned to my hotel I would climb to the roof and get a photo of the elusive behemoth, but alas, after returning to my room I became absorbed in researching my trip to Gotemba, the start of my planned climb of MT. Fuji, and when I emerged on the roof an hour later, the mountain had vanished like a Ninja in the night.
Undaunted by my missed photographic opportunity I packed and then checked out of the hotel to have another wander around Fuji City. In particular I was looking for McDonalds. I know it seems funny to find yourself in a foreign country and seeking out that bastion of American fast crap food, but there I was. Particularly I was looking forward to eating a double quarter pounder with Cheese. In China, McD’s doesn’t sell the quarter pounder and my visit to Japan is one of the only times I can have my favorite burger. I never found McDonald’s, although there is one in Fuji, I saw it the previous evening while driving to the restaurant, but I did get the chance to take a couple worthwhile photos.
Near the center of town there was an area of land reserved for farming. Unlike China, the fields weren’t tended by poor hunchbacked peasants, but by well to do urban farmers. Neither were the fields regulated beyond the boundaries of the town, as they usually are in rural China. Something about having the fields in such a central location provided me with a sense of calm and peace. The gently blowing rows of bright green rice in front of a backdrop of stately fields was truly a Zen inspiring sight. Not a sound except for a passing non-honking car interrupted the serenity of the vision. But the morning was growing late, and I had still not found a place to get breakfast, now lunch. So I went back to the train station and dined at Mos Burger before boarding my train to Gotemba.
“These guys are serious!”
As I had an extreme amount of luggage on this trip, as I normally do, I decided to ride in the first car of the train so I’d have more room to store my over-sized bags. Standing at the front of a Japanese train is quite an experience especially if you are used to trains that don’t provide a forward view of the track and of the engineer operating the train like trains here in Shanghai. I stood behind the driver on the first and second train that took me on the near 2 hour journey from Fuji City to Gotemba City where I’d board a bus for the 5th Gotemba trail station where I and a friend planned to start our climb early the next morning.
Watching the driver of a Japanese train may seem like a mundane experience, but I took immense pleasure in seeing a Japanese engineer in action. “Wow. These guys are serious!’ was my over all thought and impression. In front the driver sat at his controls which had a mechanical pocket watch neatly located in the exact center of the instrument panel. To his upper right there was a list of stations and scheduled arrival times. As he approached and left each station he’d check the schedule with a mechanical point, then point at the watch and then point ad make a reverse gun pointing action at each marker along the track. At no point did he waver in his routine nor did he fail to constantly observe the track in front.
Sitting upright and at attention he seemed to be more robotic than human. In addition to watching the driver and his actions, I watched the speedometer. When exiting and entering every station he left and approached at the exact same speeds. All stops were calm and controlled with no sudden breaking o reversing because of missed platforms. Basically, he operated the train in the exact opposite manner as the Chinese do here in Shanghai.
In Shanghai on all lines except those controlled by computers, there are no windows to allow passengers to view the oncoming track or the driver. I believe this to be the case to protect drivers from scorn of passengers as they are probably constantly distracted from their jobs, perhaps by phone calls, text messaging, eating lunches or even taking naps. No one can be sure. What one is sure of, especially on Line 9, that I happen to live on, is that Shanghai trains often stop erratically, adjust speed erratically, miss markers on the platforms requiring reversing the trains, and generally drive as if they are a taxi in Shanghai rush hour traffic. It is not a stretch of the imagination to imagine being hurled to the floor by an unscheduled and unpredictable stop or hurled in the opposite direction by a sudden and unpredictable increase in speed.
Curious about Shanghai’s metro train operators I have made the attempt to observe what is going on inside train’s driving rooms at the head of the train as they enter the station. Usually the driver is slumped over the controls and looks half asleep. Often there are 2, 3, or even 4 drivers in the cab all chatting and not paying attention to the train. Whether this is the reason or not for their poor performance is a mystery, but I can confidently report, they don’t have the ability of a Japanese train operator.
Like everything in Japan, the trains were impeccably clean and safe. I arrived at Gotemba station and boarded an equally clean and well driven bus to our base camp station #5 on Mt. Fuji. The next day was destined to be a glorious day.