Getting a Seat

Every Thursday I used to take 3 or 4 trains from my home in Zoshigaya in north-central Tokyo to work at Center Kita station on the outskirts of Yokohama. In the watery light just after dawn I’d hustle uphill 10 minutes to Zoshigaya station on the Fukutoshin Line, then down stairs and escalators another 5 to the metro platform, eyeing the lines formed behind the markings showing where the doors would open, weighing the benefits of the shortest line against which cars experience told me would be emptier.

Most days, I would be right and get a seat for the four stops to Shibuya, and bring out my book, read a little, one ear cocked to listen to the station announcements until my body seemed to learn to count the stops itself. Halfway between the second to last stop and Shibuya, I’d move to be first at the door when it reached the station – first out, first to thread the needle between commuters, station staff in uniforms out of an old movie, school children in short shorts and sailing caps, the odd bum, drink machines, benches, across the platform to where the Tokyu Toyoko Rapid Express with luck was just sliding into place as if it were a trusted horse I’d whistled up, and not too many people already stood either side of the doors, tense, eyes darting to gauge the passengers inside the train already rising for where the empty seats would be.  

I wasn’t usually as lucky on this leg. The 3 or 4 times in 10 I managed a seat, my book would come back out, along with the thermos of coffee I’d made before work (coffee in the french press the night before, water boiling while I brushed my teeth, brewed by the time I was out of the shower). If not, I’d aim for a strap facing a row of seats, try to choose the person to stand in front of who might be getting off first – best to look for people gathering their umbrellas, working into their coats in little shrugging movements to avoid bumping their neighbors – worst of all the crush in the empty space before the doors, lucky to cling to a pole to avoid having to just plant my feet parallel to the direction of the train and brace myself against the train pulling in and out of each station.

At Nakameguro the train climbed uphill. Before surfacing, you could see the sides of the tunnel grow paler from the light at its mouth, then the slow cresting into daylight, beginning to play on the endless angles of reflective surfaces, windows, car hoods, aerials on rooftops… the already seen day as if forgotten in the last 30 minutes underground, vying train to train in fluorescent light.

From here, the train rode at the level of the rooftops along the tracks, along the edge where Tokyo and its suburbs flow into each other, on clear days towards a horizon of angles and planes, rooftops and walls in shades of grey from sun or shadow, shot through with powerlines bowing pole to pole along the tracks, the sunlight moving along them giving a sense of them bounding alongside the train.  

In Winter, on the clearest of mornings, I would look out the opposite windows as the train crossed the broad, empty floodplain of the Tama River, and see the flawless cone of Mt Fuji all white, a fringe of white cloud along its flanks, come into view and then ease out of sight behind the buildings the other side of the river, like the brief passing of a priest’s hand across the morning.

This was the longest leg of the trip, and here I’ve forgotten the next one. I know that shortly past the river I would change trains again, before the final leg, and repeat the rush to be first at the door, first out and down the stairs and through the gate onto another line. But I may be confusing it with another commute. It may be that leaving that train the last leg was transferring to the Yokohama City Subway Blue Line, weaving above and below ground. I would drink the last of my coffee in the almost empty car in that weird commuter’s lethargy, the ability honed to exhale and relax on sitting down, despite having run to make the train, and knowing that at my stop I would have to run again, back out in the full sun across a wide empty plaza filled with pigeons between shopping malls – always almost late.


Tal was a teacher and writer in Asia before moving to North Carolina. He is an editor, poet and is a regular contributor to The Talking Book.