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The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Basho had it all wrong. He did his best, I'm sure, but he really should have taken the Twilight Express. Maybe he waited until the last possible moment to buy his tickets like I did, but he didn't get lucky like I did.

This is so much better than I dreamed it would be. I text messaged Kelsye and told her I felt like I was on my way to Hogwart's. I needed this so badly. To escape in a swirl of magic. To get lost alone. To explore alone. To go unknowing into some place and come out knowing. Not knowledgeable, but a little more educated than before. A little more experienced. A lot more relaxed. I just need to forget about work or the drama there. The constant feeling of oppression. I lost my smile a long time ago, and I'm riding a one-way train to find it again. I'm going somewhere cold and alien to smooth out the tension above the palely freckled bridge of my nose.

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My urban eyes have learned to edit out the power lines that run alongside the tracks and crisscross the landscape. I see nothing but nature, hamlets, the sea. I see the leaning bamboo groves. The pitted valleys. The mountaintops that grow whiter the farther north the train and I slide along. Lightning-gnarled trees with no leaves. Peaks dusted with just enough snow to reveal the outlines of trees and crags.

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As each town flashes by my wide window, my tiny cabin gets a little cooler.

We've entered the second-longest tunnel in Japan. A train whistle blows and the echoes sound like a woman shrieking. It will take 10 minutes of pitch-black travel to pass through.

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There is a sense of romance, a sense of awe in the eyes of the people who watch this train flicker by each station, each town. You can see the same recognition, the same happy smile creep across their faces as they imagine themselves looking out through this window, headed away and away and away from work or responsibility and into the heart of snowcountry.

We just passed through the tunnel, coming from gray skies and browned grass and bare mountains out into light and blue skies and black tree trunks buried keep in foot after foot of snow!

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We've passed Kyoto, Tsuruga, and are now stopped in some small town. The whistle keeps blowing, the engines are geared up, but we aren't moving. The PA system informed us that the train doors will not be opened here. I wonder why, but I don't care. The people on the platform keep peering into my window, hoping to catch a glimpse through the dim glass of the quiet mystery of the Twilight Express. The train has started moving again. We passed the station sign on the way out, but I missed the name. Takefu or something.

After passing Kyoto, the conductor came around to each room and explained all the features. He didn't blink an eye when he saw me, much to my delight, and didn't even bother to ask if I understood Japanese. He punched my tickets with a smile and told me where everything was, how to properly use the ladder for getting to the bunk above, how to use the card key for my room. He gave me my key and told me to relax and enjoy my trip. After a few minutes, the food dude came around and took the meal ticket I had bought. Not only is it half the price of the multi-course French cuisine dinner served in the dining car, but they deliver my Japanese-style o-bento to my room and I can eat it here or in the Salon du Nord. (It's weird, reading all these things in katakana that are actually French words when I'm so used to reading stuff that's English in origin. I had no idea what they meant by サロンデゥノール until I saw it written in Roman letters.) The food guy explained that they would bring my dinner at 5pm. The smile on his face never flickered once, although he did ask me when I opened the door if I spoke Japanese. But he asked in normal-speed Japanese, which was a nice change. And he phrased the question nicely, too. He asked, "Is Japanese alright?" (日本語は大丈夫ですか?) instead of "Do you understand Japanese?" (日本語分かりますか?) I guess it's something of a minor point in English, but it changes the tone of the situation in Japanese. To me, anyway. And he didn't do what SO many people do, which is to say, "Japanese okay?" in really bad English, which I despise more than anything.

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After the food service guy left, I couldn't help but realize how far I've come in terms of my Japanese ability. There wasn't a single word I didn't understand. I knew how to respond and when to respond. I understood all the instructions, all the information. I was also able to book this trip in the first place. And I did it all in Japanese. Before, I was always too worried about not understanding--or worse, misunderstanding--what was being said to me. Now, I bite that bullet when I comes and don't worry about it until it does. And for the most part, I understand what people say to me. Of course, having real conversations with people is different, as are certain other things, but when it comes to dealing with service people, I've got it down. Phones still freak me out, of course, but even then, I can more or less handle the situation. Like last night, when someone called my apartment by mistake. I didn't understand most of what he said until after I'd hung up, but my responses were still perfectly fine. This is of course not to say that my Japanese is passible, or even good, but I can more or less get around and function here. I also think my Japanese has gotten better in the past two months than it did in the past year and a half.

We've just pulled into Kanazawa. The PA system explained that it is rich in music culture and history, which, despite my skepticism, seems to indicate that this really is the place where the Hide Museum (or whatever it was Holly wanted to see) is.

We've now passed through Toyama and are riding alongside what they call the "Northern Alps." They are truly spectacular. I bet the sun rising up from behind them in the morning is breathtaking. The announcer said that we'll be able to see the Sea of Japan pretty soon. Unfortunately, my window is on the eastern side of the train, so I'll have to move to the Salon car to see it, but I don't mind my view of the mountains. I've never been able to decide which I love more: the mountains or the sea. I really don't know that I could ever choose. The pictures I'm taking really aren't doing the snowy slopes justice.

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I turned on the heat, but my room is freezing. Maybe it's broken?

I've started writing a story. I find it sort of hard to believe that I'm actually working on writing. There's a perpetual unconscious nagging that pulls at the edge of my mind. I think what bothers me most is that the more I work on this story, the more I start to become the main [read: only] character. Details from my life start mixing with the fiction of hers and our words are melding together. She's sitting in a bathtub now, wondering at the strangeness of her tragically limited period of existence, and I'm sitting on a magical train, wondering along with her. I still don't know how to end the story, or what the point's supposed to be. Maybe this is just a preliminary exercise to get the old story-writing gears back in gear. Maybe I'm trying to wash away my stress and anger and frustration in a capsulated character who can escape for me. I dunno, though. It's just a page now, but it has the potential to become much, much longer. But I don't think I want to write about a strange distant girl's mystery experience for as long as it takes to "finish" a book. I think I'd be tempted to drown her eventually just to get it all over with. Which is funny, but only to me, since I know the secret of the story I'm writing. The tentative title is "Countdown to Self," but it sounds like the sort of wonderful title you find on a story in a famous writer's attic that was done way back when they should have reconsidered having a career in writing. The pattern of the story partially reminds me of Natsume Soseki--loathe--whose writing has been ruined to me forever, thank you Dr. M. M. (Leo--you know who I'm talking about. Crazy eyebrows bastard.) Sort of もうモガ, but not really.

I kind of like one of the themes of the story though, since it deals with this fascination/abhorrence relationship I've had with a certain thing. This strange combination of utter terror and lovely wonderment. Three guesses as to what it is. If you get it right, I'll be surprised. It never comes to mind when people ask me what I'm afraid of, but it really scares me pretty shitless when I'm confronted with it.

This is all therapy, though, really. Nothing more. My lj [also read: newly begun creative writing kick] is just an outlet. Although it seems to be growing. It's starting to move out of the realm of mere outlet, and more into that of hobby. Which worries me because it might turn into income someday. Nah, I'm not willing to actually show this crap to anybody. ::shudder::

Ah, the heat came on and the PA explained that it was finally cold enough to turn it on. Think the knee-deep snow was a clue? The train is shaking pretty strongly. We won't be making any more stops until we're in Hokkaido. We'll be entering the longest tunnel in Japan at 3am and the conductor encouraged everyone who wants to to get up early and enjoy it. Wft? Get up at 3am to stare at the inside of a dark tunnel? Wow. That's way too much fun for anyone to have. I'm not that crazy, so I'll have to pass on that ticket to a wild ride.

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( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 24th, 2005 01:46 pm (UTC)
::crawls out of her cave to...*gasp*...comment!::
This entry was sublime, and it made my wanderlust bite me harder than ever. I want that feeling again. I miss trains.

I'm glad you got to do this. :) I can't wait to read more.
Mar. 24th, 2005 06:25 pm (UTC)
Re: ::crawls out of her cave to...*gasp*...comment!::
Thank you! I'm glad you liked it and I'm even happier that it's given you the wanderlust bug! Travel is something everybody should do, I think. It really changes you.

It may be another few days before I get to post more of these entries, but stay out of that cave and feel free to comment more!
Mar. 24th, 2005 05:34 pm (UTC)
I hate Basho...
but you're awesome!

I'm glad you had a great time. I would be awed to be in a place with snow like Hokkaido. You're soooooo lucky.

If you would like to venture out to show writings to, you can keep me in mind. (I could pull out any skills I might have "learned" in my fiction writing class last summer.) It is a shame that MM turned you off to Soseki... I think he was the one author I actually liked from that class!

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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