Tuesday, December 09, 2003


Because every hotel and inn and ryokan and minshuku within a very large radius was fully booked for the two nights of the festival, Echo and I had booked a room in Nagatoro, about a half-dozen stops away on the old country line railroad. When we'd walked enough (starting when we walked down the mountain early that morning to catch the train), seen all that we could hold and it had gotten night-cold enough that we were looking very forward to a nice warm futon, we set off in the dark that was booming with the flash of fireworks, a multihour climactic demonstration of very big, very loud, very decorative colorblasts in the shapes of flowers, stars, fish, cartoon characters etc., and when with fireworks-divided attention we found the station it was the wrong one so we set out again through the mobs, finally finding the smaller station we were looking for.

After getting old-fashioned, thick cardboard tickets of the kind I haven't seen for 30 years we got in line and went through the wicket as the guy actually took the ticket of each person into his hand and just like in a diorama punched it slowly and efficiently with a puncher and gave it back, every single ticket, one by one! As a result we missed the train, but didn't really mind because we got to watch the fireworks finale from the well-positioned train platform.

Since this was Festival Night, another train came along fairly soon and we got on with the crowd and got seats, though not together, had about 20 minutes to travel without falling asleep, couldn't see out the steamy windows what the stations were in the dark, listened for each announcement, but an anemic announcer with a high voice, a fuzzy mike and worn out speakers amid loud conversations yielded only the occasional wisp of a na (fuzzy interval) or was that a ra (fuzzy interval) maybe a ga (fuzzy interval)did he say ro (fuzzy interval) or was it a ran, randomly audible syllables that as we rocked along reminded me as of all the old railroad announcement jokes I used to hear from my grandfather (a conductor on the New York Central) and his buddies around the kitchen table as I sat here/there in a far-off land smiling from the distant past in a zoned-out dreamlike state in the swaying warmth of the delightful train when suddenly Echo's voice said this is our station as she scrambled through her part of the crowd toward the door nearest her and I did the same toward my door but when I got there it didn't open so I turned and plowed back through the long knotty crowd toward Echo's door, but so few had gotten off that by the time she'd gotten to it her door had closed too and we were on our way once more, further into country darkness.

Needless to say we didn't miss the next stop, whence however it was too far to walk back in too deep a dark without a suitable map, and since we were pretty low on energy we just went into the station as into 60 years ago and asked the formally efficient station attendant, straight out of one of those old Japanese black-and-white movies but in living color, when the next train would be going in the opposite direction, explaining why/complaining that we had missed the train, he said Yes, the new train is too long for some of these old platforms, so the doors at the ends don't open. Thanks for the news, we said.

The next train would be going our way in just a country minute (half an hour), so we spent the next 30 minutes 60 years ago, looking at all the stuff in the station, an edifice built entirely of wood for the much smaller people who lived back then. A long time later, as train time approached we went out and walked across the tracks to the other platform. When you're cold because you're tired because you've been walking and traveling and walking since very early that day and you're standing going nowhere late that night on the dark and windy open platform of a countryside train station whose name you haven't noticed, you might not be aware that you're having one of those great experiences that travel affords: the chance to confront face to face whichever of your weaknesses may even now be gaining strength in you, as when in ice climbing you're hanging from the edge of the frozen waterfall by one hand and you don't let go, you just shift from mind to mind and whistle and converse and shiveringly dredge up warm thoughts to think until at last the train comes along and you're on your way.

We got off at the right station this time since we'd had so much practice, plus it was the next one and the train was empty so we were waiting at the real doors to pounce upon the elusive platform before it could get away again. We then walked through the quiet old station and the quiet empty night village looking for our inn in the dark and finding what maybe looked like it was the one, went inside to find three men and an elderly woman sitting around a warm stove, they were expecting us, that was the place, and from the big cauldron on the stovetop they served us big hot country soup that was a pleasure to hold, first on the outside and then on the inside. Thence to sleep under thick warm covers, I slept like the perfect piece of toast at the very bottom of the deepest point of sleep on the planet...


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