On Long Commutes


n Saturday, when I went to M’s friend’s house for dinner, we talked about riding the train home from work. One person said that he noticed that very few passengers do what the Japanese do–read a book or listen to music. I don’t really agree. I have seen my share of those who read novels, work on their laptops or listen to their iPods, although many also seem to be content to just stare out the window and be involved in their own thoughts. But I didn’t say anything because I didn’t really want to get into a discussion about something as inane as Metro passenger behavior. However, there is one thing that I have rarely seen an American commuter do that all Japanese commuter’s will do more than just occasionally: Sleep.

I don’t make it a habit to “check out” the other passengers–well, not unless they are… y’know, exceptionally good looking?–but there are very few who fall asleep. But this is a habit that I have adopted whole-heartedly, being the good student of Japanese culture that I am. And I’m not just talking about being drunk and falling asleep, although I have done that, too, on more than a few occasions. Indeed, once M and I were fast asleep in the train–after having imbibed on 5 or 6 beers at the Red Lion next to campus–when we were awakened by a loud clap of the hand right in front of our faces. We snapped our heads up only to see this huge mug of a Metro police officer staring at us. My first thought was, Woah, what’s up dude? Do we look like terrorists to be accorded such a rude awakening? But he just said:

“Vienna, last station.”

Oh, thanks. And we sheepishly got off the train. I guess we were pretty much wasted by the beer, but still I was surprised that M had not awakened on her own accord. You see, the Japanese have this uncanny ability to wake up at their own station. I’m pretty sure it’s not a genetic thing for I was not able to develop this ability fully; but when I lived in Japan, I was slowly getting the knack of waking up right when I reached my station in Tama. I’ve never been able to figure out why, but it seems that the body develops a sense of “train-ride time”. That is, the body–or subconscious mind–knows how long you been on the train and you wake up when you’ve been on it for X minutes. Of course, this is my unproven and unscientific theory which, of course, is another way of saying it’s bullshit. But I have not other way of explaining that sense of “knowing” when to wake up.

Naturally, this sense can be dulled by extraneous factors, the most obvious being alcohol. Many Japanese share the same story of sleeping on the train after a night of drinking, then waking up just as the door is closing at their station, or like me ending up at the last station on the line–I’ve walked home from Tama Center to Nagayama twice, having missed my station on the last train of the night. So, I guess it wasn’t so odd to be awakened at Vienna by the Metro cop. Thankfully, I live off of Vienna so I didn’t have to walk to another station.

Interestingly, the dulling of these senses seems to have conversely triggered the genius of some. Look at the photo. It is a woman wearing a brand new invention–the “Wake Me Up” hat. Besides preventing her from resting her head on the shoulders of a neighboring passenger–and this DOES happen in Japan–the hat has a sign on it. It’s hard to read from our camera angle except for the bottom, which happens to read, Nishi-Ogikubo. Since this is the name of a train station on the Chuo-line, I can easily guess the message that precedes it: “If I’m sleeping when the train reaches the station named below–begging your indulgence–please wake me up.”

Only in Japan…

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