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Contemplation

The following was written after my visit to Japan this past May.

May 16, 2007
I stood on the platform of Odakyu Sagamihara station as I had done so many hundreds (thousands?) of times in the past 34 years and never gave a second thought to where I was as it seemed so natural to me. After all, I am home again and it does feel good to be in familiar surroundings.

I heard the familiar tone signaling an approaching train and the familiar female voice informing everyone that the local train was arriving and to stand behind the yellow line. I swear that voice has never changed.

I boarded the train and departed at the next stop, Sagami Ono, where I would catch the express train to Shinjuku.

As I boarded the express train I took my all too familiar spot at the opposite door where I could stare out the window as I so much enjoyed doing in the past. This was my favorite spot as these doors would not open until the stop before Shinjuku and I could daydream, read, or observe the sights along the way without having to move. Also, it was my favorite spot during rush hour as I wouldn't be bothered.

After about 10 minutes it dawned on me that it was exactly 30 years and a little over one month that I had first stood in the same spot on the way to my first day of what would be fours years as a university student in Japan. I remembered that I thought to myself that day, "I will be riding this train four days a week for the next four years!" At the time it seemed like an eternity and the thought wasn't an entirely pleasant one as the commute was a little over an hour, but I had so much wanted to stay in Japan after serving in the military the previous four years that it was my only option and one that I really didn't mind and looked forward to with much anticipation.

As I stared out the window I began to contemplate the changes I had witnessed in a generation where I lived and along this train line. And, since I had been back to Japan like clockwork every single year since I left in 1988, I really never gave it much thought before today. The changes were slow and I never really noticed how much things had changed and how much they hadn't. To me it was like returning home for vacation. In a way it truly was home as not only did I live there for many years, but my wife (before she was my wife), while a college student, moved to the area from Tokyo with her parents who had bought a house not far from where I lived and I have been visiting my wife's house for almost 20 years now and it really does feel like my own and I am truly treated as one of the family.

Odakyu Sagamihara, where I lived for 12 years (1973-1985), has really undergone many major changes mostly in the construction of high rise apartment buildings and condominiums otherwise known as "mansions". Gone are the one or two story buildings that surrounded the station. What used to be an empty lot that I used to practice baseball in with a few local men for the neighborhood league is now replaced by six story mansions. Many of the mom and pop shops that used to surround the station are gone and replaced by four story parking facilities or shopping buildings or, again, mansions. Many of the small restaurants, shops, and snacks on the side streets are still there though. The "Dove Store" otherwise known as Ito Yokado is now owned by 7-11 and is called 7i or 7 holdings.

The McDonalds at the station, where I first met my wife 26 years ago, and the Odakyu Ox department store have been torn down for what will be a 20 story mansion complex above the train station complete with shopping and restaurants on the first few floors. Construction began last year and they are half way through it already. If one rents or buys there, one need only take an elevator for shopping or eating and to catch the train to work. While in Japan last year we checked into buying one but they were already sold out!

The Yokohama bank where I had an account and dated a teller for a while is still there.

The roads are still narrow and have not been widened nor have any sidewalks been added. Still, it is quaint and familiar. My old apartment is still there and it is one of the oldest in the neighborhood now! It looks that way too as it has not received a facelift since it was built more than 30 years ago and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the mailbox I bought when I first moved into it in 1977 is still there also. The snack across the street where I first met Mr. Suzuki has now been re-renovated as part of a house. The rest of the houses in the neighborhood are basically still as they were, although many have received facelifts and the older houses have been torn down and replaced by newer ones. A few of the larger houses with much land have been sold and there are now three or four houses where in the past there was one or they have been replaced by parking lots.

The Chujitsuya department store (or what we in the military used to call "The Flower Store" because of it's symbol of a flower) across from the pachinko parlor where I made my living during my last year of University has been replaced by a 10 story mansion. The mom and pop restaurant where I ate many meals 2 minutes from my apartment has also been re-renovated as part of a house. The neighborhood vegetable store, cleaners and sakaya-san (liquor store) are still there and I always make sure to say hello when I visit. The proprietors are now in their sixties or more, but they are still working as is the mama-san at the karaoke bar/snack "Tsuyuki" that I so often visited on an almost daily basis many years ago. She must be at least 70 now! A lot of the former mom and pop stores like the TV store, the watch repair store, the stationary store and such are now gone as many people now go to the huge department stores like Bic Camera, Yodobashi Camera, or Dai Kuma.

I still see my Japanese friends every visit and we are now in our 50's or 60's and some are, or set to become, grandparents and a couple have passed on. Still, it is like nothing ever changed between us. We reminisce about the times we used to go out "girl hunting" (is that phrase still used today?) at discos in Roppongi and smoking the “evil tobacco”, and carrying the Omikoshi (shrine) at festivals on weekends and the weekend local baseball games. We remember the motorcycle rides late at night and on the weekends, always staying one step ahead of the police and the beginnings of Karaoke on 8 track tapes in snacks when we had to pay 100 yen for each song! I could go on and on, but I guess you get the picture.

As the train made its way towards Shinjuku I also took note of the many changes along the way. The majority of the Odakyu line from Sagami Ono to Shinjuku is now four tracks instead of two to accommodate the express trains and the "Romance Car" luxury express and construction is still going on expanding that line. All of the local stations have been expanded to accommodate 10 cars instead of four and have been completely rebuilt and mansions abound now at many of the stations. I remember when Shin-Yurigaoka was built and was nothing but empty fields. Today, those fields are now replaced by houses, many houses, and department stores and what have you. Siejo Gakkuen Mae station used to above ground. Today it is underground as is Yamato station going towards/coming from Fujisawa and Enoshima.

The US Army hospital where I used to work at Sagami Ono is long gone, replaced by stores and a housing complex, and the station itself has been rebuilt into a huge shopping complex with a bus and taxi depot. As a matter of fact, it is quite nice now to be able to take the bus from Narita airport to Sagami Ono station and then a short taxi ride home.

I turned and noticed the people sitting in their seats or standing. Back in the day people would read on the train or listen to mini radios with an earplug for entertainment, or just sleep and nothing has changed much in that department. My first experience into something really technological for the train was when the Sony Walkman first debuted in about 1979. You just weren't cool if you didn't have one on the train or when walking. It was a great experience to be able to listen to your own favorite music on a cassette tape anywhere and anytime you desired, inside your home or outside. (As a matter of fact, I still own the original Walkman I bought in 1979.) Today many people take that experience for granted.

As I glance around the train today I see the majority of people looking down at cell phones and texting or reading whatever on their phones and some are listening to mp3 players or what have you. What a change. I felt so out of place not looking at a phone that I actually thought about taking my US cell phone out of my bag and opening it just to look like I belonged! How lame is that? As has always been the case in Japan and elsewhere, people tend to shut themselves off from the rest of the world while on the train by reading, listening to music or just sleeping. No one said a word to anyone. It's amazing how quite Japanese trains can be.

Trains didn't start to be air-conditioned until around 1978 and I believe by 1985 they were all air-conditioned. It was sheer torture riding one in rush hour with just an overhead fan. Often it was I who opened a window for air and a breeze as most Japanese didn't want to be the first to make the move! And the air-conditioner would not be turned on until the first week in June regardless of how hot it was.

Also, back then air conditioning was an unaffordable luxury and I never had one until 1985! The only places that had "air con" were a few department stores and coffee shops and, of course, pachinko parlors. How did I survive the summers and sleep at night? Cold beer, open windows, mosquito killer incense, and an oscillating fan, that's how! But I do look back on the sultry summers with a sense of nostalgia!

There is now a recording in English on the trains informing people of the next stop and even the station map above the doors is now digitalized and in both English and Japanese. Man, I sure could've used that when I first started living in Japan, but then again I may have not taken the time to memorize the Kanji for all the stations.

I am just amazed that in 30 years overall prices have hardly moved. Coke/juice and Iced Coffee is still around 100 yen and cans are usually 350ml now (except for coffee), but there are still the smaller cans for sale at the same price. Thanks to the crash, apartment prices are very reasonable now and a 2DK apartment about a 10 minute walk from the station where I “live” can still be rented for around 30-50,000 yen/month and a mansion goes for 50-80,000 yen or more. I paid 30,000 yen/month for the 2DK place (with bath!) I rented 30 yrs ago seven minutes from the station! A 3LDK mansion can be bought for anywhere from 19,000,000 yen on up to 40,000,000 yen for a brand new one near, or on, the station! That is very reasonable in my opinion and comparable to any major city in the US. Even a decent house can be bought for around 20,500,000 to 30,000,000 yen these days. The reason why I left Japan in 1988 was because the price of the mansion I wanted to buy went from 8,000,000 yen to 28,000,000 yen in 2 1/2 years! And that was in the boonies of Yokohama! Also, you couldn't buy a house for under 40,000,000 yen at the peak of the boom. Yes, housing and land prices have really come down since I left.

A medium bottle of beer can still be had for around 5-600 yen in a snack although it is still expensive to buy beer in a store and it is still 5-600 yen for a whisky and water! The price for a loaf of Yamazaki bread is still around 150 yen and food prices have remained relatively stable for more than 20 years. Unbelievable! One of the biggest changes I have seen, other than housing, is in the price of whiskey both imported and domestic. I could hardly believe that a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey could now be bought in Japan for less than I'd pay for the same bottle here in Tennessee where it is made! Beer in Japan is still expensive, but at least there is Chu Hai with 7% alcohol content! I could drink that stuff forever as it tastes like soda pop with a hell of a kick! Plus, there are now a variety of cheap beers for about half the price of premium beers like Kirin or Asahi.

It is really cheaper to eat in McDonalds in Japan than it is in the US and I remember when the first "Makudonaludo's" appeared in the mid 70's! When the one opened at Odakyu Sagamihara station in about 1974 my friend and I ate two Big Macs each that day! Also, for about 1,200 (US$3.60) you could eat all you want for lunch at Shakey's Pizza back then. Overall, eating out is still no more expensive than it was 20 odd years ago.

Clothing prices in Japan are now reasonable, especially if you shop at Uni Qlo. There, you can buy clothing for what you would pay in the states or less. Cosmetics and personal hygiene products, for both men and women, are still way overpriced as they always were.

Prices for fiber-optic, high-speed cable is way cheaper than I pay for broadband here in the US! Here I pay $55/month for broadband at about 1mb/sec and forget fiber-optic. That is not due for 3-4 years! Cable TV is another $50 for just basic cable and no premium channels!

Yen is now around 123/$US (back in May). When I left permanently in 1988 it was 128! Not much of a change if you ask me.

Don't be fooled into believing that all of Japan is more expensive than the US or maybe your own industrialized country. In my experience and opinion, it is no less expensive to live in my small suburb of Tokyo/Yokohama than living here in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee and that includes housing!

One thing I have always noticed for 30 years and the same holds true today is that, if someone sits next to you on a train, male or female, and they are studying the English language, they will more often than not pull out that book or text and read it while seated next to you. Coincidence? I don't know. Back in the day, it was an easy way to make a friend or meet someone of the opposite sex if you said something like, "Are you studying English?" It still amazes me to this day and at my age (52), how many people of both sexes still do it as their way of maybe saying, "I know a little English and would like to meet/talk to you, but I am too shy and not sure if you speak English also." One person even pulled out the NHK book in French. Granted, most of the people that did it this last trip were closer to my age than in the past, but there was one younger female in her late twenties or early thirties who did this that I thought, "If only I were..." Anyway, I digress.

People do seem a little more withdrawn and a little more shut off from society these days, but then again, the Japanese always seemed to be that way, especially the younger generation. I guess the advance in technology today enables them to be more withdrawn. In a way I kind of understand as I spend way too much time on my computer and the internet these days myself and can get lost in a world all to myself complete with video chats with people from not only Japan but all over the world.

TV has not changed in all these years. The programming is still basically the same with the famiry doramas, silly game shows, sports, cartoons, morning shows for housewives, mystery dramas in the evening that always include a murder, and the sexual content on late night TV etc.

As the train made it way towards Shinjuku, had I not been back every year I think I would be shocked at the numerous 20 story or more skyscrapers now dotting the skyline in one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world as well as the numerous, ten or more story mansions now popping up everywhere! I wonder what will happen when the "big one" hits as is inevitable. I guess only time will tell. They sure must've made some great strides in quake-proofing buildings.

Yes, Japan has changed very much on the outside these past 30 years, but for all its changes, at least on the inside, culturally, it remains the same and has not really changed that much to me. Unknown neighbors still greet even a foreigner with a slight head nod and an "Ohayo" or "Konnichiwa" and hardly anyone is shocked to hear a foreigner speaking Japanese. There is hardly any finger pointing and giggles from Japanese school kids as was so prevalent in the past when they encounter a foreigner and I don't believe I have experienced it in many years. I have also noticed that the Japanese, overall, are now not so shocked to see a foreigner or have one walk into their place of business and I have yet to experience being turned away from a place like a bar or snack if I walk in alone. There is much less "panic" than in the past. I guess knowing the language a bit and not being afraid to use it or make mistakes helps, I don't know.

As I exited the train at Shinjuku I made my way quickly, but silently, like an expert walking through a maze, through the crowds towards the JNR train that would take me to my destination. Damn, it is crowded this afternoon, but I am home and I do so much love it, crowds and all.

Some may think that I am trying to relive my past or living in a fantasy world and looking at Japan through "rose colored glasses", but I beg to differ as I have experienced it all, both good and bad, but still, Japan is more home to me and I am more comfortable there than in my own country and I have lived here in Tennessee for more than 18 years now. Still, it is only temporary, like being assigned overseas with a company or something, and I yearn for the day in a few short years when I will return "home" permanently.

Maybe it will sink in when I am turned down for my first house or mansion, but it's not like I've never experienced it before and it really doesn't bother me as I know, sooner or later, I will find what I am looking for. Plus, I know Japan is not perfect and has its warts, but doesn't everywhere? Show me one place in the world that does not discriminate against foreigners or even their own kind in one way or another at times and I will show you a fantasy world. If one looks hard enough they will find discrimination no matter where they live regardless of their color or nationality and they will probably receive it from their own kind! The key is how one handles it and how one lets it affect their life.


I understand that the past can never be recaptured, but it is fun to relive and reminisce about some of the most memorable times of my entire life. Like when I "borrowed" a bicycle or lost my wallet. Or when I had a run in with the local gangsters and got caught without my Gaijin card. Or when I thought I was "all that" when it came to speaking Japanese that I made a total *** out of myself. Or even my Crash Course in Japanese Culture.

Then again, maybe it's because I became an adult in Japan and stayed for so long, I don't know. There are so many stories to tell, both good and bad.

Thomas Wolfe wrote a book entitled "You Can't Go Home Again", showing that one can really never capture one's past and that people change and the home one remembers exists only in the past. Apparently, he has never lived in Japan because, to me, more than 30 years later, Japan has hardly changed and the past and present seem like one, only it is a lot more modern on the outside and relatively unchanged on the inside.

To me, for reasons, I cannot begin to explain or fathom even though I have tried many times. Japan is, and always will be, home.
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Thanks for sharing your story, i like it, and the final phrase touched me in a sort of way.

and with that last phrase i wanted to say this to you:

The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life.
 
Pachipro I really enjoyed reading that, thank you for taking the time to write it. I lived in Japan for but an instant compared to the time you spent there. However, I lived in Ikuta, so your reminiscings of the Odakyu line and its inhabitants resonated with me. I had my own vegetable stand, 'snack' complete with mama-san and regular patrons, and the occasional guilty meal from McDonalds. Aside from the massive 'Arcion' and a few of those new mansions you mention, perhaps Ikuta is still a good example of the traditional, sleepy two-track stations you fondly remember.

For someone such as myself, it's interesting to hear your experiences about the times when massive Shinyuri Gaoka didn't even exist yet, or SeijogakuenMae was above ground. For me, those are how they are now, I know nothing else! I was a big frequenter of Shimokitazawa, perhaps one day I will reminisce about its diverse and varied offerings of bars and restaurants, after it's finally been bulldozed over to accomodate the expanding Tokyo area population.

re: Herbal Shin's comment, and to steal a line from The Last Samurai, I think Pachipro's experiences speak of many blossoms of varying beauty and diversity. I think he might say, in searching for the perfect blossom and in the spirit of reminiscing fondly about times gone by, they are all beautiful.
 
Herbal Shin and bakaKandajin, thank you for your kind comments and for taking the time to read such a long entry.

bakaKandajin, you have your own memories of what it was like there and will likely notice changes if and when you return again. For me, since I go back so often, it was something I just took for granted until I realized just how long it had been that day.

Time flies and, the older you get, the faster it goes. Take advantage of it while you can. I am, because in another 30 years, I may well be gone from this earth and all this will be, as you and Herbal Shin put it so poetically, but a short life with experiences that blossom briefly only to eventually flutter in the wind and fall back into the earth. Life is what we make of it.
 
well thats no problem if i quoeted a line from the last samurai, i look to the meaning of it, and i must say that phrase just fits perfectly in this nice story.

My home is my home but what if my home wasn't the home i tought to be my home?

the anwser is simple, everyone is searching for that small measure of peace and luck and happyness, but just like all others we are still searching for it.

until then i would say im happy to have a home.
 
Herbal I didn't mean you stole it, I meant I stole it! My line 'they are all perfect' is taken directly from the movie. I'm not sure about yours. If it's from the movie, thats okay too! At any rate, yes it fits well into the story :)

Pachipro I definitely want to return. I think for my next 'outing' I will settle in either Kyoto or somewhere a little farther North. But when I visit Tokyo I plan on riding the Odakyu to Hakone and back one time just for the sake of it. Maybe I'll bump into you on that train some day haha, that'd be wild.
 
Yes, a nice, long read. As a meandering, yet somehow controlled mountain stream...at times pooling into pockets of rest, at times rushing with the pull of gravity, our spaces exist. I enjoyed it. MM
 
Every enjoyable, Pach. For some odd reason, I really don't mind the Tokyo crowds. Maybe it's because they are more courteous and orderly than the self-centered and rude crowds in Los Angeles. Even though I've never lived in Japan, except for vacations (if those count), I seem to feel right-at-home there.
 
Pachipro (I finally understand that name), here are some random comments about your story above:

I rarely get the attention from schoolchildren nor the giggling from shop girls in Yokohama that I do other places. When I was in Nagasaki, schoolchildren flocked to me like ducks to an old man with a sack of bread. I mean that in a positive way. It was overwhelming at first, but sweet because they all had enormous smiles on their faces. "Haro!" they would exclaim upon seeing my pasty face and strange blue eyes. If I answered in English, they would run away, seemingly from shyness rather than fear. If I answered in Japanese, they would go absolutely nuts.

Once when I tried to buy some chocolates in a department store in Osaka, the two onee-san behind the counter were either giggling out of shyness or laughing their heads off because I had spinach in my teeth or something.

Once in Gifu-city, it took me nearly an hour to rent a car because the two onee-san couldn't stop giggling long enough to type the right keys to get the transaction completed.

Once I finally was able to drive away from there, I was up in the Japanese Alps and stopped in a tiny village with two shops and about half a dozen houses. I slid open the door of a very small grocery, and the family inside looked at me as if they had never seen such a creature before. Could that really be possible, that I was the first Gaijin they'd seen? My wife grew up in Yokohama and the first time she'd seen a foreigner up close was when she was seven. Maybe these people who live up in the middle of nowhere, far away from the common places Western tourists and resident teachers usually go really had not seen a foreigner before.

I usually get no reaction in Yokohama these days if I speak Japanese, but I lived in Nagoya before I met my wife. In a book shop in Nagoya, I met a man from Switzerland. We spoke a few words of English until we exhausted his entire vocabulary. That's ok, he's from Switzerland, I'm from Canada, how about French? No, he's from the German-speaking area of Switzerland. Beyond "Ich kanne nicht Deutsch sprechen" (I cannot speak German) I get pretty lost. We both thought about what do for a minute until it seemed to dawn on us at the same time. We decided to try Japanese. His Japanese was about 47,000 times better than mine, but we could carry on a conversation. It seemed perfectly natural to us, but to the passing locals, we seemed be from another planet, not other countries.

I had a day to myself and rode the Enoden last Christmas. I had taken it with my wife about three years before. It was interesting to see a non-Japanese mention Fujisawa, because some good friends of my wife's live there, and I've heard that name for a long time, but never from a non-Japanese.

I have now signed in four times, and each time I try to reply to this, the forum claims I haven't. I won't try again if this doesn't work this time.
 
Nice post, a good read.You're really luck to have experienced the changes in Japan for that long a time.
 

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