an extract from ‘nakadai’, by walker zupp

Hiroshi Nakadai is born into a parallel universe. Here, the study of linguistics has been replaced by Neo-Linguistics: a bold new research-area whose originator, Mardik Snül, famously desired linguists to ‘start again’. The young Nakadai studies Neo-Linguistics at the University of Twickley, serves in the Japanese army, becomes a Benedictine monk, then receives the chair of Professor of Neo-Linguistics at Twickley where, despite his relectuance, he is heralded as the greatest philosophical mind of the age. Unbeknownst to this extreme England, Nakadai’s work springs from his enslavement to an interdimensional being known as the Great Word whose sole wish is to invade this world. Nakadai tells his story to his PhD student, Nicola Hillam-Joiner, whose detailed, written history of Nakadai’s life sheds light on the profound and the absurd which, time after time, appear to be interchangeable…

My name is Nicola Hillam-Joiner. I am a PhD student at the University of Twickley and haven’t had a good night’s sleep in several years. Putting that to one side side, now: the Higher Education Strike, which originated during a pension dispute between the Reperio Society and the University, Work & College Union, had its most extreme incarnation at the University of Twickley in the North of England (bar the quasi-revolution which occurred at universities in the Republic of Cornwall). To exhaustively comprehend the Higher Education Strike we must turn, in the course of our narrative, to a woman who was the hurdy-gurdy to Nakadai’s guitar. Kotori Chiba, that brave maternal aunt who had taken Nakadai in after his mother and father had perished, had been missing her nephew for some time. He had succumbed to the influence of Professor Mutton and the Great Word – as well as the prospect of producing a PhD of merit – and seldom communicated with Ms Chiba. Their sometimes absurd correspondence bore a great tonal likeness to Falla’s opera, Master Peter’s Puppet Show, based upon Don Quixote’s 26th chapter and about half as funny.

Having left her Asian Supermarket in a safe pair of Malaysian hands, however, the 89-year-old Ms. Chiba was in no position to relax her familial ties. Indeed, in one’s retirement, it becomes easy to forget about discipline, rigour and the forged happiness of uneasy emotional toil, so beautifully illustrated by Henry Purcell’s unfinished Indian Queen. Thus Ms. Chiba was determined that she would not go the way of so many retirees, and would instead spend a great many hours with her good friend, Ms. Doris Dingle – the ‘infamous matriarch of the Dingletones’ – and convulse with laughter, tell gratuitous stories, reflect upon past and future success, wiling the time away with something approaching ‘total refinement’ or ‘nirvana’. These would be the happiest of times, Ms. Chiba was determined to prove to herself, especially in the presence of Ms. Dingle who, with her inane head of fiery red hair and pear-like disposition, forever proved to be the ‘finest of listeners’ and the ‘warmest of heart’. And so once again I must retire the reins momentarily to Nakadai himself who, with his own ‘embellished record’, should illustrate an accurate picture of the Higher Education Strike and the part his aunt, Ms. Chiba, played in it.

The Adventures Of Ms. Chiba And Doris Dingle, Infamous Matriarch Of The Dingletones

The following was described to me by my maternal aunt, Ms. Chiba, at her residence in Twickley, after I had received a few stitches on my forehead at the behest of Dr. Vanya Dubey:

It had already been an impulsive day of chores when Ms. Chiba, resident of No. 15 Marlowe Road, was called upon by that infamous matriarch of the Dingletone family, Ms. Doris Dingletone, known affectionately always as Ms. Doris Dingle – for, it was quicker to pronounce and more redolent of the jolly experiential frame she possessed – to attend high tea that sunny winter morning.

Ms. Chiba, determined as she was to pursue her attainment of total refinement through her splendid mindly jaunts with Ms. Dingle, accepted in a heartbeat and set to shutting the curtains, blowing out the candles – as she preferred candlelight to the luminous stuff emitted from lightbulbs – dressing in her jeans, black top and tiny colourful scarf, then locked up her abode and set off down Marlowe Road – which itself was a steep hill lined with a comprehensive school and tall trees – into the city centre of Twickley, which was as busy as a frog pond that day.

In the green-attired and furniture-laden Queen Square Tea Room, opposite the Dingletone family home – the imposingly large and posh No. 2 Queen Square – our two ladies greeted each other with pecks on the cheek, were seated and ordered bancha tea. With this, the dispatched personal host prepared a portable charcoal fire at their table, scooped quantities of water into a stout kettle and placed the kettle onto the glowing embers. As the water began to bubble, the host returned with a plate of unpretentious cakes, a tea bowl from which their tea would be served, and a larger bowl for the melancholy leafings of the tea.

Ms. Dingle initiated polite conversation as the tea was prepared: ‘Ah, we are both single mothers in our own ways, aren’t we Kotori?’

Ms. Chiba agreed, stating that it must be difficult with her husband having died only recently and with all of her children at boarding school.

‘Yes, we all have our crosses to bear, don’t we?’ Ms. Dingle replied. ‘And speaking of crosses – if you’ll excuse the heretical connection – how is your son doing; that Nakadai of yours?’

‘Well, he was never my son, you see. I never thought of Nakadai as a son, more as a – to use the heretical connection, as you say – he was more of a lamb. You should always want to take care of lambs, I think.’

‘This is true, very true…’

Such were the poetic and commonplace topics of high tea.

‘But lambs, too, must grow and they get bigger and bigger. Thank you…’ Their host poured their tea, bowed, smiling, and retired to another table on the other side of the room. ‘Mmm, lovely – but yes, Nakadai is very old now…’

‘Very old? I am very old! Not he, compared to me, he might as well be at school.’

‘In many ways he never left school, wouldn’t you agree?’

‘Yes, yes, I would agree – well put, Ms. Dingle…’ I don’t believe my aunt actually knew the woman’s Christian name. ‘But I haven’t seen him in the longest time, you know; he stays up there, at his school, the university, doing God knows what – Ach! It infuriates me!’

‘I can see, I can see – but why don’t you contact him, tell him to pay attention to his poor aunt.’ Ms. Chiba greatly resented being called the ‘poor aunt’. ‘Why, it must have been some time since you saw him last?’

‘I believe the last time I saw Nakadai was three of your Anglo-Saxon Christmases ago.’

‘What! That is most unsatisfactory! And this Nakadai has no one else with whom to spend his time?’ Ms. Dingle enquired in a state of shock unwitnessed so far in the Queen Square Tea Room.

‘No, I don’t think so – unless he goes back to that damned monastery, I mean abbey, sorry – I am worried, as you can see.’

‘There’s no wonder why you’re so worried! Such a thing would never happen to the Dingletones,’ she added not altogether helpfully. ‘Not with myself as the matriarch; that would never happen – never! No, I think it’s a sin that he hasn’t seen you in three years.’

But the 89-year-old Ms. Chiba and the 87-year-old Ms. Dingle were in no position, arguably, to make demands upon anyone, for is it not true that the world has left behind such people in the later stages of aging? And must we, the young, habitually heed the doddery contrivances of antiquity’s custodians? These are questions, stark queries, for which not even the pampered and proud Ms. Dingle could have begun to articulate answers. As for Ms. Chiba, she was more resigned than her accomplice, thinking herself the ‘last of her race’ as none but herself had survived the age-related dilapidation of her family. Now she was alone.

‘Which is why my nephew is a kind of relic in his own right,’ Ms. Chiba went on to her progressively angrier accomplice. ‘He, too, is the last of his race, if you understand my meaning.’ And she began to weep, a most unusual occurrence for any participant of high tea.

‘There, there,’ Ms. Dingle, with great affection, patted the wrinkly back of Ms. Chiba’s manly paw. ‘Don’t get upset, my dear. I am here, aren’t I? And there should never be any reason to be lonely and disaffected with me, my dear. What is that idiom of yours you always repeat to me? Nanakorobi yaoki. “Fall seven times and stand up eight.” And you, with your business record, have surely stood up eight times by now?’

‘Yes, I suppose I have, but at the cost of seven stumbles!’

‘That is everyone’s story, surely? Tell you what: where do you stand on the Higher Education Strike?’

‘The what?’

‘The Higher Education Strike – everyone’s talking about it. Apparently, it’s brought the country to a standstill.’      

‘Nakadai will know something about that,’ Ms. Chiba ventured bravely, happily. 

‘Should you like me to explain the particulars, causes, as far as I know?’ asked Ms. Dingle.

‘Why, of course! If it means I’ll get closer to my nephew.’ Such mild philosophical discussions, carried out perpetually in a state of universal agreement are, too, the mainstay of high tea, especially when older reflective ladies are involved. ‘Alright then, go on – explain it to me!’

‘Right, you’ve put me on the spot, Kotori! Ha-ha! Let’s see – well, it’s always got something to do with money, hasn’t it? From what I gather, Kotori, all the universities in the country, except those which operate as independents, are run by a thing called the Reperio Society.’

‘I see,’ said Ms. Chiba, ‘and who are the Reperio Society?’

‘They’re a subsidiary of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, who really were smashing in their own way with their emphasis on literacy, et cetera. They even made it to Japan, didn’t they? But you doubtless know more about this than I do, ah yes, certainly you do, you must – judging by your silence you don’t – oh well! Let me continue then on this little tract of mine. Oh, it is excellent tea here, isn’t it – so, Francis Xavier and Ignatius of Loyola started the Jesuits and I’m sure you know this since it’s a part of your country’s strange history,’ she said the word ‘strange’ as though it had caused her an ulcer. ‘So, basically, my dear, Rome seems to have had taken an interest in Anglo-Saxon higher education over 200 years ago, so they founded the Reperio Society and gradually seeped into the running of all these research institutions.’

‘That sounds barmy,’ said Ms. Chiba suddenly. ‘Why, you expect me to believe that some Roman organization squirreled its way into running these Anglo-Saxon universities? Maybe they put something in our tea and plan to surprise us with something!’

‘Oh, really! Don’t be so crude – you Japanese are always so crude!’ Ms. Dingle, the infamous Ms. Dingle, began to seem distressed at Ms. Chiba’s presence alone. ‘The point anyway is that there’s a thing called an Exalted President in the Reperio Society who runs it, you see, and this person – who is a woman I might add – decided to make some alterations to the Reperio Welfare Scheme.’

‘Nakadai’s money!’

‘Yes, Nakadai’s money, my dear; only from teaching, I assume – unless he squeezed a few private pounds in there, eh, Kotori?’

‘I wouldn’t lend Nakadai money in a million years! He wouldn’t know what to do with it anyway. He’d probably just buy a few more beach chairs and slim detective novels. Or that Perfect Word he goes on about. You know, he has no clue how to enjoy himself.’

‘Verily,’ Ms. Dingle remarked, ‘but in all fairness to yourself it is just a quarterly pension scheme, my dear. But the Exalted President – who’s a woman, yes! a woman – decided to raise the contribution from 9% to 20%, which I think is a very good thing to do.’

‘Well, that sounds like theft to me,’ said Ms. Chiba wisely. ‘Daylight robbery, that sounds like to me – say, they didn’t connect all this money, the pool of contributions, to the stock market by any chance, did they?’

‘Funnily enough that too is a point of contention amongst the academics, or whatever they call themselves. Readers in X. But yes, so what happened was the University, Work & College Union decided to call a strike and it’s still going on today!’

‘Where is it, I mean – where does it take place?’

‘At the university of course! They’ve withdrawn teaching, all of it. Positively barmy, yes, you spoke of barmy things earlier, didn’t you?’

‘I did, I did – but if I had any idea Nakadai was part of this – no, it’s not very good at all – how do they get away with it, that is, the withdrawal of teaching services?’

‘Well, they just do it, don’t they?’

‘But do they get paid?’ asked Ms. Chiba.

‘Certainly not! The university’s refusing to pay them and these talks are ongoing, negotiations they call them – if they were to keep on teaching, there would be little to bargain with. Meaning the teaching staff, lecturers, professors, have to withhold something so as to put pressure on the university. Actually, now that I think about it, it makes rather a lot of sense to me. Yes, and what about those who love teaching, eh? What becomes of them?’

‘I don’t suppose you have to go on strike,’ said Ms. Chiba.

‘No, quite right, Kotori, you don’t have to go on strike. I say – is Nakadai a member of a union?’

‘I haven’t a clue – I’m certainly not and never have been, as I’m terribly antagonistic towards any organisation who claims to be the emotional and rights-orientated voice of a group of human beings. I don’t see how anybody could get on board with that.’

‘Perhaps, when you are overworked and underpaid, one might begin to think about subscribing to such a movement?’

‘Maybe,’ Ms. Chiba caught a glimpse of another customer’s breath gliding like a cloud across the cool window. ‘But the proclivity for misinformation is much too high for my liking and probably Nakadai’s, too – oh, I do wish we could see him! And as another refutation, so to speak, irregardless of how good the intentions of the union are, I have a right to think I’m correct, even if I’m totally wrong. And so, I have a right not to strike, and for that decision to be respected. So, any organization who doesn’t want me exercising that right is a dangerous one.’

Ms. Dingle, having finished her tea, dumped the leafy fragrant remains into the larger bowl provided. ‘It’s a good thing we agree on so many things – I can’t get behind anything you just said. You’ve got to think about the greater good, my dear. Because if we don’t fight together, then there’s no hope of anything ever getting fixed.’ 

‘Nothing ever does get fixed, Ms. Dingle.’ She thought deeply about what Ms. Dingle’s real name might be and was left none the wiser. ‘Should we go find Nakadai?’

‘Yes!’ Ms. Dingle exclaimed, causing several customers to spill their tea out of sheer fright. ‘Yes, I think that is a perfectly splendid idea! Two old biddies! Off we go!’

With a rapidity that frightened even the ancient finely-toned hosts of the Queen Square Tea Room, Ms. Chiba and Ms. Dingle exited the premises, hailed a cab – as both ladies were of the opinion that only they would spend the capital they’d accumulated – and spied the passing perpendicular housing blocks, beautiful antiquated terraced housing, yellowish buses filled with university students and infrequent grumpy academics, wide frozen fields beset by swollen sheep and finally the grand super-signed entrance to the University of Twickley, which was absolutely rammed with academics from both the regular university and the medical school, as well as what appeared to be undergraduate students. ‘“Students stand with seminar leaders”?’ Ms. Chiba read one of the many placards held up high. ‘I certainly don’t agree with that.’

‘Nor do I, my dear, they’re going to get hurt standing out there.’ Ms. Dingle tapped the glass partition causing the taxi driver to brake abruptly. The wealthy widow paid the fee, took her accomplice by the hand and stepped into the bright chilly January air. ‘Now, this is what I call theatre!’

‘I don’t know, Ms. Dingle – they look – violent.’

‘Nakadai!’ Ms. Dingle began to vaguely shout at the crowd, as though I would appear like a mushroom amongst the bark. ‘Nakadai! Where are you!’

‘Don’t do that! Don’t call his name!’

‘Why not, pray?’ Ms. Dingle watched a group of students with shaven heads waving huge signs. They were shouting, ‘Free Nakadai!’

She said to her accomplice: ‘Hold on a moment – look at that, there! Look at those signs, they say “Free Nakadai!” What on Earth for, I wonder?’

‘Yes, my goodness, this is most peculiar, which is fitting, with this peculiar nephew of mine; shall we go ask them what it’s all about?’ And Ms. Chiba and Ms. Dingle, their expensive clothing drawing the glances of some of the poorer attendees at the picket line, trotted up to the pugnacious pack of pitiless students, their tumultuous screechy voices forming far more vapours than would otherwise have occurred.

‘Look at these old bags, look at them!’ said one student wearing a Nakadai tee shirt. ‘What do you want? Get out of here! You don’t belong here, this isn’t your fight!’ Which immediately confused the old biddies as surely the strike was a matter for the employees to discuss; and students were not, despite their fees and occasional paid work, employees of the university, beholden to it in any way.

‘Nakadai is my nephew!’ Ms. Chiba shouted back. ‘How dare you talk to me like that!’

‘What – you’re his – you’re what?’

‘I’m Nakadai’s aunt, I’ll have you know. Now, tell me, as his name is a matter of intellectual property – namely, my intellectual historical familial property – why do you have his name up in the air like that? It’s most annoying!’

The voice of the elderly Japanese woman had drawn other students around the two ‘old biddies’ and Ms. Dingle began to suspect their intentions were not entirely peaceful. ‘Steady on, Kotori,’ she whispered to her now red-faced accomplice. ‘You’re aggravating them…’

‘Basically,’ proclaimed another student sheepishly, ‘we think Nakadai’s being mistreated – our lecturer, Nakadai, the Professor of Neo-Linguistics – and you say you’re his auntie, which is great and all, but that doesn’t really concern us because we’re anti-family, more or less. And believe that bloodlines are a social construct created by the patriarchy to enforce ignoble securities.’

‘Let me make sense of this drivel,’ said Ms. Chiba. ‘You don’t think families exist – but I’ll have you know that there’s a lot more to families than blood! Families, groups in which everyone is ‘related’ are not necessarily a matter of biological connection – what am I getting at here, Ms. Dingle? Why, it’s very simple and fundamental, it’s a simple fundamental point: if you don’t believe in families, then you can’t possibly believe in love, either! Not in any kind of long-lasting functional love, certainly – you mean to tell me you don’t think families exist, beyond those constructs you mentioned, of course?’

‘No, we do not.’ All the ‘Free Nakadai!’ signs lowered slightly, like a balloon being emptied slowly of its air. ‘More importantly, though, Professor Mutton – emeritus he may be – is a dangerous influence upon this place and he needs to go! Look, look, everyone, look! There he goes!’

Professor Mutton’s car drove through the picket. Eggs and tomatoes were thrown at it.

‘I don’t believe it!’ said another student. ‘He’s crossed the picket line! The yucky fetid tosser! I can’t imagine anyone loves him!’

‘I suspect Nakadai’s crossed the picket line as well,’ thought Ms. Chiba, but she would never in a million years have said that aloud, because despite Ms. Dingle’s sporadic anti-Japanese sentiment, she liked the old widow for her ‘jolly outlook’ and ‘no-nonsense inclinations’ and would never say anything that would put the ‘capital old newt’ in danger.

And so, a better part of the day went by, the students explaining their positions and relationships with myself, chanting mystic rhythmic songs in a Nixonian attempt to levitate the university, laughing and telling jokes with Ms. Chiba, criticizing the infamous Ms. Dingle at almost every opportunity and shooting her untrustworthy glances; then informing Ms. Chiba – whom they were now referring to as ‘Auntie Chiba’ – that she had passed their tests, even though she didn’t really agree with some of the ‘ludicrous out-of-touch views’ they had and believed genuinely that the later impending ramifications of these radical and irresponsible beliefs would indeed be as ‘odious, unholy and crooked’ as the now-retired Professor Mutton they were so determined to irrevocably smear. But they were young and had to be forgiven. ‘It’s essential that we do that,’ Ms. Chiba nobly thought.

The adventures of Ms. Chiba and Doris Dingle, infamous matriarch of the Dingletones, came to a close when Ms. Dingle desired to return home and catch the first episode of the new Inspector Miller series on ITV3. She ushered the now revered and continually hooted-at Ms. Chiba into yet another taxi, after which the thenceforward depressed vehicle pooted into the distance, a duo of disputing exhilarated silhouettes dancing in the back window cut by the dying light of that lugubrious January day…

Nicola here. Nakadai’s account of the Higher Education Strike smacks of Warlock’s Capriol and, therefore, of twisted reproductions of Renaissance dancing. Regardless, Nakadai had crossed the picket line and was a scab forever sullied in the jaded eyes of his departmental colleagues. The strike affected two million students overall and led to the formation of a militant advocacy group known officially as Verified University Learning Vestibule for Advancement and unofficially as VULVA. Like Rudolf Kempe and his oboe, they broke into the accounting offices of the university, demanded their fees be refunded and threatened to kill staff. They were forced out by an accountant who, like the multi-talented oboist Rudolf Kempe, furtively carried his own machine pistol. This sticky deed saw VULVA target academics, one of whom was a lecturer in Chemistry & Forensic Science called Allesandro Dekker. Having made eye contact with a woman for longer than two seconds, he was sentenced to death via galliard and ‘danced upon till he did gasp for breath and dyed’. 

This violent turn of events escalated the strike to an all-out war in which the students – whose views were not endorsed by the strike which had nothing to do with them anyway – and the Upper Loxhall Constabulary were the key players. Thus, on the same day Ms. Chiba secured her rhetorical victory with the students, there came a crushing physical defeat with Nakadai who, having escaped the fortified library, found himself stuck in the university square. One one side the riot police were shooting ‘real bullets’ from atop a blockade, while on the other VULVA members burnt books and sang ‘strange quarrelsome motets’:  

‘There were two things Japanese had trouble understanding when Francis Xavier first visited Japan,’ Nakadai explained. ‘They could not understand how a God who had created everything, including evil, could possibly be good. Nor were they comfortable with their ancestors suffering eternity in hell. When I left the library that day, I found myself asking the very same questions – I seemed to access race memory when that bunch of police officers started making fun of me. They wore dense armour and carried AR-15s. They had been called in to deal with strikers and anti-strikers, but now they were faced with someone who wanted nothing to do with either group. They asked me strange questions: Was this my normal accent? When did I arrive in the country? How long had I been here? I realized they were making fun of me when someone asked me about Godzilla. I said I did not know anything about Godzilla; I had not seen him in years. They did not like my reply. They seemed to cover me; hands hovered over holsters. ‘I bet you don’t have a clue about war,’ someone said; and I replied, ‘I will have you know I served in Japan’s Self-Defence Force – so don’t lecture me about war.’ Suddenly their superior marched through them. He had green eyes and was cultured. He took off his helmet, and said, ‘Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. And what do we have here? You wouldn’t know public service if it hit you in the face…’ He punched my left cheek, and down I went. The ground gave me those stitches Ms. Chiba thought were so malicious. I listened to their laughter and grew angrier by the minute. I could not think of anything to say, however. I was down there, and they were up there. Gradually sinister tones re-entered the group. Their leader, DCI Lumb, wrapped tape over my mouth. He dragged me up scaffolding overlooking the university square and dangled me to the anti-strikers like a frightened hunk of meat. How could God have created people like this? How could God be good when injurious creations like this one marshalled control and got what they wanted through brute force? The man dangling me clearly had no fear of hell; he had reached the conclusion, in his own brutal time, that hell did not exist. Then his inferiors started firing into the crowd. They hit some students; others they wounded. There was smoke and flame and shouting. (Either God willed this or we were all going to hell, I thought.) I was fuming when they lowered me down the scaffolding. I breathed heavily and angrily; I could have done anything I wanted. Their superior continued prodding me, calling me names and slapping me about the head. Then something in me – a momentary loss of faith – stretched the existential elastic too far. I jabbed my fingers in DCI Lumb’s right eye and he screamed like a child. He lunged backwards in pain, then forward, his colleagues aiming to shoot. ‘Stop! Leave him!’ He waved his colleagues away. He spied me with the remaining eye, and said, ‘You can go. You go back to wherever you came from. You remember something, though – I’ll be coming to get you!’ I freed my mouth, grabbed my rucksack and ran as quickly as possible. I cut corners and dodged doors. Finally I reached Arkham Main and went to my office. I slept there that night and by the morning I had found my faith. I remembered Professor Mutton, however, and knew it would be tested.’   

In March the Higher Education Strike, much like Donizetti’s opera of Anne Boleyn’s life, reached an ‘unpunctual favourable finale’. After a series of ‘protracted negotiations’, the Reperio Society and the University, Work & College Union agreed that employee contributions would be raised over a period of eight years. It was also agreed that university employees would be given a ‘Tickely bundle’ of only partial ‘strike-pay’; and it was around the same time that, in light of the ‘Free Nakadai!’ placards, Nakadai was given a ‘verbal whipping’ in Professor Mutton’s office.

Verily, Nakadai would never have expected that one day he’d have become so influential that his actions and relationships would be discussed on as high a level as talks between the union and the Reperio Society. But this was not a good thing. Because it demonstrated the university’s lack of understanding about Nakadai’s relationship with Professor Mutton and the Great Word, as it proved how the latter two egregious forces had been doing their utmost to keep their secrets from the world of mankind. There was ‘no hope’ for Nakadai and the next six years would prove to be the ‘hardest and most fatiguing years’ of his life.

Walker Zupp is a Bermudian writer whose work tackles the socio-political geography of the current age. His debut novel, Martha, was published by Montag Press. His second novel, Nakadai, will be published later next year. He splits his time between Bermuda and Cornwall. 

Picture credits: Bruno Alves

Keeping Up the Training, by Alisha and the Duck

Trains. They are still the love of our Japanese life! Since the duck and I take trains pretty regularly now, we’ve had lots of opportunities to make mistakes, and learn from them, and to assemble a rather random set of experiences – and photos of the duck posing at train stations. (What a weirdo).


Duck photo 1


In fact, we have enough individual notes on train-related ideas, observations and experiences to fill a whole feature-length screenplay – for the most boring movie ever made. Anyway, this time, let’s focus on a few of the mistakes and educational experiences the duck and I have made and had in our earlier train days:

Some Cor-Track-Tions

Is this title too far-fetched? Well, even for the bad-pun-phobes among you, I’m pretty sure that the following paragraphs are pretty self-explanatory, even without a good title. (When did we stop caring? I don’t know).

#1 Sleeper Trains

Or, rather, sleepers on the train (‘Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherf****** sleepers on this motherf****** train!. Anyone? No? Also, my feelings toward train-sleepers aren’t that strong, really – I just thought this quotation to be fitting). I mentioned before that sleeping seat neighbours who subconsciously try to turn your shoulders into a temporary low-grade pillow are pretty common. (If you’re a comfy, feathered duck, however, good luck trying to escape from the surprisingly strong grip of exhaustion from your shoulder-pillow-users who’d prefer to make the encounter a rather permanent one). I still support my theory that some time spent on Tokyo trains can cure a mild fear of contact. However, I have since experienced a new kind of fear: the fear for my very life! Let me elaborate:

I am fortunate(?) enough to have rather short legs and, if there’s a back-rest, I tend to sit pretty upright. Because of that, my shoulders have the perfect height for short to average-height train-sleepers. Sometimes, however, if my sleeping seat neighbours are much taller than me, I experience the occasional fear for my safety; I’m sure you’ve seen people who are about to fall asleep, observed in amazement how their heads seemed to turn into bowling balls being pulled down by the force (some might call it ‘gravity’) with only the last remnants of a waking state abruptly pulling their heads back up, on occasion. This sudden motion that is usually so entertaining to watch – from a distance – shows its ugly face when you cannot escape; pair that with the regular shaking of a train and you get a final-destination-type death ball! See, unlike the duck I do not have a feathered safety cushion around my whole body, so a journey next to a train-powered heavy-weight death trap comes with a healthy portion of adrenaline. I wrote ‘cannot escape’; technically, I could, but, in reality, sometimes seats are more important than safety (*gasp* – some people would be shocked to read this sentence from me)!


Duck photo 2


#2 The Seat Game

Flashback to Saturday afternoon: I was working on the draft for this post while I was sitting on a train that had departed at busy Shinjuku; I had gotten on a stop after. This might not look like something to be too excited about, but, according to the rules of the seat game, a lot of knowledge (and, admittedly, a healthy portion of luck) had gone into my securing a seat in that particular situation. A few weeks back, when the duck and I were still pretty new to the seat game, we found ourselves on a rather rural train where most passengers were sitting. Still, during our 40-minute ride, we had to observe several seats being taken by other passengers. Only for the last stop did I summon up my courage and almost jumped into the freshly vacated seat, still warm from the previous user’s butt-heat (I didn’t have to go there … but I did. Oh well.), that the duck and I would be sharing for five minutes – too worried had we been about being those foreigners who embarrass themselves (unsuccessfully) rushing to catch a seat as if it was their life’s top-priority (which, it is, but not everybody needs to know that).
In the past few weeks, however, the duck and I have been studying the game’s rules religiously:

Unless you’re one of those characters who like to film ‘the ever-changing scenery steadily passing by while contemplating life’,¹ i.e., a lost cause, your goal is to ride the train as comfortably as possible. The closer you are to the first station of a line and the sooner you get to the train station, the better your chances are of securing one of those attractive seats. But oftentimes you cannot easily influence what station you use and even if you are the first person to arrive at that station – gosh, you could even camp there overnight – that will not guarantee you a seat. (Well, actually, getting a seat before rush hour shouldn’t be too difficult but that’s beside the point). So, if you are in a position where you can choose your standing place on the train there are two options: Either you are optimistic – in that case you go for a spot right in the middle of a row of seats in the hope that somebody will get off and leave their seat to you soon. Or you are pessimistic – in that case you go for the spot right next to the door. There you can comfortably lean against the little compartment wall on the side of the seats and, if you pull in your stomach enough, you don’t have to worry about others not being able to get off the train. Except, of course, there is a big stroller right next to you blocking the way to the door during rush hour. Then you will probably lose your beautiful door spot to a sneaky person who just got on the train and does not mind the angry glares you are sending over. Not for nothing is it said that trains are where 86% of life-long hostilities are born. The popularity of the line and time of day, of course, also play a crucial role in the seat game. But this paragraph is already too long.


Duck photo 3


#3 Learning from Mistakes (Twice Made) / Becoming Train Smart

In my last post about trains I pretended to have learned everything (or at least a little) about planning out journeys and reading the whole route suggestion. I yet had to learn, however, that once the planning is done you should not turn off your brain. Sometimes (though rarely) a train will be late and leave you to decide in seconds which course of action you’ll take next. During the notorious early train days I found myself in such a situation, and, a bit too confident in my notice board reading and understanding skills, I took the wrong course of action. My journey planner had told me to change onto a certain train at a specific time at one of two particular platforms. The info board at said platforms, however,  did not show that train. So, I decided to just get on the train that would leave the soonest going more or less in the right direction. I would have to change at the next station anyway. Well, let me tell you how that turned out: the train I was meant to take was a local one. The one I had gotten on, however, was not. So, my train skipped two stations, I got off at the next possible stop, took a special rapid back into the other direction, passing the fateful station of wrong decisions, and made my way to central Tokyo for a different route to my destination – the one I had initially decided not to take because of delays. Now those delays were my saviour! Fortunately, there are often several connections to get you from A to B so that, if you are lucky and early enough, there is some room to err. (You might end up paying more, though – which is a good incentive to still arrive at your station punctually, plan in getting-lost time and keep your eyes and brain wide open).


Duck photo 4


That shall be it for today, but, be warned, there are many more where this came from!
Until then, we’ll be keeping up the training (50 bonus train points for instant-pun-recycling)!


1 Some weirdo in a video.


Reproduced, with kind permission of the author, from: