Longform: Narrow Rails

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On my way to Sonjoji temple, I sit on the Tokyo subway with dour-faced salarymen.

To reach the forest temples of Nikku, I hurtle 200 miles an hour across Honshu.

Click by click, a cog railway bears me to sacred Koya-San amid its mandala of mountains.

In search of ancient Japan — its Zen temples, manicured gardens and Buddhist priests muttering prayers in black robes — I find myself on trains.

On this afternoon, I am leaving Tokyo and its ultra-modernity for Takayama, an ancient town in the countryside. I travel by shinkansen. They call it a “bullet train,” and I wonder if that’s only because of its speed.

I pull out my notebook, and my copy of Narrow Road to the Interior, a tiny book by the poet Basho. In 1689, he set off on Japan’s mountain trails, recording his thoughts and writing haiku. Those who remain behind watch the shadow of a traveler’s back disappear, he wrote.

I read a few pages, and as the shinkansen glides beyond the city, I try my own.

Slanted rooftops line
Terraced hills by bamboo groves.
I go with the train.


Japanese trains run perfectly on time. When electronic message signs on subway cars warn of delays, it’s trouble.

Cause: Accident.

Often, a disgruntled salaryman has thrown himself in the path of a train, maybe the very train that bore him every day from home to job to home again.

In the Meiji era, as feudal Japan thawed to the 20th century, a closed island opened and the world sped in on iron rails.

We are being dragged yet deeper into the real world, which I define as the world that contains trains, novelist Natsume Soseki wrote. He warned Japan of what he was seeing.

Some say that people ‘ride’ in a train, but I would say they are thrust into it; some speak of ‘going’ by train, but it seems to me they are transported by it. Nothing is more disdainful of individuality. Having expended all its means to develop the individual, civilization then proceeds to crush it by all possible means.

Soseki then saw now.

In Tokyo, I had visited a psychiatrist friend who told me of subway drivers suffering post-traumatic stress, like soldiers home from front lines. They have caused so much death on the tracks. They have seen the last look in the eyes of desperate men before their families get the news — and the bill for cleaning up the rails.

No death may be called futile, wrote novelist Yukio Mishima, an admirer of bygone Samurai days of honor and sacrifice amid the upheaval of the Sixties. Three years after he wrote those words, he committed seppuku, ritual suicide by disembowelment.

When I hear of dead salarymen on the tracks, it sounds futile.

Often, a disgruntled salaryman has thrown himself in the path of a train, maybe the very train that bore him every day from home to job to home again.


Japan scurries past my window and I remember Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing. A few days earlier, I had watched pedestrians teem on sidewalks at red lights and stream across streets at green lights beneath a canyon of department stores. So many faces and shopping bags, they looked like a blur — like the high-speed landscape sailing past me now.

Tired of the mayhem, I followed train tracks north on foot and came to Yoyogi Park. Punk bands played to preppie girls pumping fists. Ravers banged on drums and danced like born-again tribal natives. Crowds flocked there to be individuals.

At the park’s Harajuku entrance, I saw takenoko-zoku greasers decked in black leather, framed by polished Kawasakis. Their surreal pompadours towered taller than their heads. Rockabilly blasting from stereos, they danced, jumped and spun on the pavement, ripping motorcycle boots to shreds.

At nightfall, the greasers left and cosplay-zoku girls took their place. Suburban teens unpacked pink Barbie suitcases and transformed themselves into nightmarish nurses and Little Bo Peep demonesses in white makeup and black lipstick.

Sunday was dress-up day.

wig ed

I asked a Tokyo businessman what he thought of these displays. “I think people should live how they want to live,” he told me. His open-mindedness impressed me. I was more skeptical. Was it self-expression or escapism? Joy or muted pain?

Through Japan’s sober demeanor a vivid fantasy life seeps. In cafes I watched middle-aged men over breakfast flip through disrobing women in naughty manga comic books. Young women walked Tokyo streets in miniskirts and high-heeled boots as if they just climbed from the pages. Teenage boys spiked their hair like heroes in anime. At hostess clubs, businessmen paid beautiful women to pour drinks and mutter praises.

Institutionalized unhappiness. I felt like I was glimpsing America through an old glass window: a familiar scene slightly changed.

Every man seems to
Read dirty manga comics:
Dreams in black and white.

lineTheir surreal pompadours towered taller than their heads. Rockabilly blasting from stereos, they danced, jumped and spun on the pavement, ripping motorcycle boots to shreds.


I am leaving Tokyo behind. On narrow rails, I speed from city streets into spreading rice fields. When the train reaches Takayama, I step off. In this old town, wooden merchant houses and sake breweries with arching tiled roofs still line narrow streets. In the distance rise the mountains they call the Japanese Alps.

Cherry blossoms have begun to explode in the valleys. Snow fades from mountainsides.

It settles just like human sin and melts, in atonement, the Buddhist priest-poet Kamo-No-Chomei wrote 800 years ago when he left the city to retreat into the countryside.

sake cups ed

Takayama is famous for its food: hearty miso, buckwheat soba noodles, marbled steak and sake distilled from the rice that grows in the encircling green fields. I sip the miso, slurp the soba, eat the steak, and after dinner, I seek out sake. Takayama’s breweries are still marked by the ancient symbol: an orb of cedar branches hanging over the doorway.

I pass beneath one of those spheres. Inside, the bar is lined on one side with a dozen bottles of sake, their various styles and flavors assembled from throughout Japan. On the other, it’s lined with a half-dozen slumping men, done with work for the day. The bartender is a young man, thin, who smiles often.

I ask his name. “There are two ways to pronounce it,” he says. One way I can’t wrap my tongue around. The other way is Ken. He smiles, selects a local sake, slightly sweet, served cold, and pours. It tastes like moonlight.

“I … love … sake,” he says. The pauses may be because he is uncertain of his English, but they seem to say more. How can I explain the spectrum of flavors that emerge from rice—Rice!—grown and distilled across this landscape. Clear. Cloudy. Sweet. Dry. Hot. Cold.

On winter mornings, Ken drives into the mountains in search of snow. “I … love … to ski,” he says. How can I explain the freedom of soaring down mountainsides and making a game of gravity?

Friends in his suburban hometown left for Tokyo careers. They got into the best high schools, to enter the best colleges, to land the best jobs, to marry the best spouses, to work long hours while raising the best children to get into the best high schools and enter the best colleges.

“I wanted … to live … my own life,” Ken says.

He reminds me of myself.

“It’s like you get on a train when you’re born and you don’t get off until you die,” I say.

“Yes,” he says, smiling. “That’s … what it’s like.”

Ken tells me a story of a high school boy who went on a knifing spree — the closest the Japanese come to American gun massacres. The boy confessed. He had killed so many people in video games, he wanted to know what it was like to kill in real life.

“This kind of thing … didn’t happen … when I was growing up,” he says.

It reminds me of a newspaper story I had read in Tokyo. A man stabbed random victims in the suburbs and fled to Tokyo by train. He called police from the subway to announce his presence. When they didn’t arrest him, he called back: he was still there, waiting for jail.

I say goodnight to Ken and turn my back on the drunks deflated over the bar.

lineEach one bursts into reckless splendor, tossing petals into the air and onto the ground with abandon.


I leave by shinkansen in the morning. The train passes pines pruned to perfection in gardens tucked behind narrow houses. In the valley, rivers wild with rapids plunge past boulders into aquamarine pools and scurry through concrete channels. I pass a still-gray forest. Occasional cherry trees punctuate the dullness. Each one bursts into reckless splendor, tossing petals into the air and onto the ground with abandon.

On a gray mountain
Cherry blossoms sing out spring.
The forest wakes up.

The train flies past little town parks. I watch people pass through tunnels of delicate pink trees. Now and then, they stop and capture the blossoms on camera phones.


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