(seriously, have you ever met someone as infatuated with a $70 lens as me?).
Late one night during my junior year at university I found myself walking home late from the library downtown. The campus was quiet as it was a weekday and as I strolled I found myself looking idly up at the sky – dark, but with a few stars in it. Earlier that day I had been watching one of those “travel cooking shows” – you know the kind, where the host jaunts all over exotic locals sampling the “local fare” and making wonderful proclamations about living life to the fullest that make you feel like it’s the simplest thing in the world to jump on a plane and tomorrow at this time you, too, could be eating freshly prepared seafood in grass hut in a backwoods Thai village. (think Anthony Bourdain, but less of a pompous ass) During that particular hour of Food Network, the host had been eating their way across Japan, and at one point, he got on the Shinkansen (bullet train) and started tucking into an eki bento (train station lunch box) with considerable gusto.
I don’t know why, but that image made a deep impression on me, and as I walked home that night I found myself thinking how wonderful it would be if I could at that moment be on a bullet train whizzing through the quiet of the Japanese countryside at night, eating my very own delicious eki bento, headed back to Tokyo, an apartment in the huge sea of massed humanity that is the Kanto region, my job, my life in Japan. I felt a lot of things in that moment, but overall, I suppose I could say I felt hope, optimism and enthusiasm for the future. A nice goal to have, I thought to myself. Something simple, but worthy to strive for. I guess in retrospect it might sound silly to describe the act of eating a lunch box on a train as something that is hope inspiring, but that is what I felt at that moment, so I went with it.
Now, not being a Food Network TV host, I obviously couldn’t make that little dream of mine come true at that moment and so after a few minutes of quiet wistful reflecting, I dropped my eyes earthward and concentrated on more mundane, but pressing things, such as how exactly I was going to pass my Genetics 466 midterm at the end of the week when it was fast becoming apparent that when it comes to science, I was (and am), to put it nicely, kinda stupid.
I forgot about this moment after that, and even when I came to Japan 4 1/2 years ago, the memory still managed to elude me, as did, mercifully, all remembrances of getting my ass handed to me on the aforementioned mid-term. This all changed, however, yesterday night as I sped back home towards Tokyo at 9:30 on a Sunday night, the gentle hum of the shinkansen wheels tracking smoothly across the slightly damp smooth steel curves stretching far off and disappearing into the distance.
I was looking out the window at the distant lights twinkling in the darkness, the endless levels of concrete bridges and looping tangles of power lines that define the Japanese scenery reduced by darkness and passing speed into abstractions of flickering lights and pulsating doppler-shifting shapes of masses and suggestions of motions. Little solitary cars streaked out electron bb pellets of vectors criss crossing and disappearing behind the obscuring arc of the rear train cars as they twisted to follow the locomotive pushing steadily towards Tokyo in the fore.
On the ipod the airy lilting lines of The Signal Runners’ “Leaving London” cascaded into my ears, mentally intermingling with that other song I absolutely love at the moment, “3000 miles away” and as my eyes unfocused and stared, enjoying the light and sound show of the song syncopating to the rhythmic passing of the darkened Japanese countryside, my hand idly lifted a piece of shrimp from the bento box – purchased before I hopped on the train – laid out on the tray before me.
The realisation dawned slowly on me, perhaps as I was washing down the previous bite with a sip of bottle tea. In my head, however many years ago it was back in college when I was imagining this moment, the song that would be playing would not be Signal Runners, but rather BT’s “Flaming June”. Nonetheless, that little detail not withstanding, that moment was suddenly here, thrust upon me as plainly as the half-eaten lunch box on the extended tray before me and the memory of that night’s idle dream of a simple goal of hope for the future came flooding back.
I took a moment, staring out the window, eyes now focused and studying the parallaxing darkness and interplaying lights with intent, to savour – if that is the word- take in everything around me. The hum of the train, the vibrations of the engine, the taste of the food in my mouth, the comforting abstract shiftings of the countryside streaking by outside the window, the few stars in the expansive, but cloudy night sky.
When I had imagined this moment so many years ago, I’m not sure what I thought it would be like. I mean, I mentioned the hope for the future and the inspiration and such, but I never really tacked down the actual details of the setting – what I’d be thinking, what my heart would be feeling, and such. I guess I just assumed it would feel profound, or maybe silently euphoric as if on the cusp of a great victory, only tempered a little because of the rather mundane nature of the achievement.
Whatever I thought it would be like, I’m pretty sure I didn’t think it would turn out like it did – my mind going over the laundry list of things I had to do to get ready for work tomorrow, my heart heavy with the thought of having to walk to work in a wool suit in the hot sweaty mugginess of the Japanese rainy season, my eyes just moments prior flicking over train schedules to find the fastest route home after getting off at Tokyo so as to avoid time consuming transfers and giving myself a chance to catch a few precious hours of sleep before having to get up the next day. Here it was, my little moment which I had dreamed of long ago, and rather than feeling euphoric, or overjoyed with hope or optimism as I had expected, it instead felt oh so very… real…! But not real in that way that excitement tinges your tongue with feathery touches of alkali, or real in the way that hope swells your heart such that you think it will burst from your chest, but rather real as in the damp, sweaty, somewhat downtrodden leaden-ness of the everyday grind. Maybe not as real as waking up one day to find yourself a lonely bald fat low-level manager of a box plant and suddenly realising your youth is gone, but definitely real in the way that you realise you are now, at this very second and this very age of 27, engaged in a day to day struggle not to end up that way.
It wasn’t a sad feeling, the lack of euphoria, but just surprising that achieving one’s dream – no matter how small – would feel so completely run of the mill. After all, what I was doing at that moment wasn’t particularly unusual, and now that I thought of it, I had done this very same thing – eat an eki bento on a bullet train late at night – quite often in the past few years. I began to wonder: was this all there was to life? (silly I know, but I thought that). Were we lied to when told that achieving our goals was to rewarded with feelings of accomplishment, when in fact all it felt like was more of the same? Or perhaps, more disturbingly, had I set my dreams and sights too low?
But as I paused to put another piece of food in my mouth, the confusion cleared and my mind started down another mental path. Perhaps it was not any of those things, but rather that the absolute common-placeness of this feeling was testament to how far I had come since that late night stroll home back in university. It felt commonplace and almost unnoticed because what was once an incredibly out of reach dream for a poor 21 year old student was now my daily life, 6 years later. I wanted to live in Japan, speak Japanese and live on my own and I am. I wanted to live and work in Tokyo and I am (kind of). I wanted to see the world and I have and am – crossing off 3 countries in the last 5 months and one more – Mongolia – at the end of this month. And I wanted to eat a lunch box on a bullet train streaking across the quiet dark of the Japanese countryside at night, and I had, and was and could do whenever I wanted to.
I’m not smart enough to encapsulate in words exactly what is I felt at the moment of this realisation – words fail me and alas, it seems that genetics is not the only field in which my mental faculties can be described as being somewhat lacking. Nonetheless, it was a definite, if indescribable, sensation of brushing up against something profound and bigger than us, bigger than me at least, a small figure leaning against a dimly lit window of a train shooting through a dark and infinite velveteen black night. I wouldn’t call it euphoria, certainly, and definitely none of that self-congratulating, back-patting feel-good-about-yourself optimistic ooey-gooey-ness you often find in self-help books, or in the over inflated egos of the hubris ridden. My so called “dream”, after all, was basically to eat lunch out of a cardboard box while riding a train. Not exactly Nobel Prize winning stuff.
But it was something – maybe not euphoria or optimism, but perhaps a little smidgen of something tiny, a miniscule sensation of accomplishment, to have achieved a dream, no matter how small, or how idly conceived – cutting across the Japanese countryside in the thick blanket of the dark towards my apartment and my home and my job, no matter how I might dislike the latter – not bad for a kid who started out poor and lunch-box-less in the middle of Central America back back back in the day.
I permit myself a smile, and a slow savouring of the last of my meal, not bother to check my watch, in no rush now, mind leaving its thoughts of work and train schedules and settling down to figure out what dream to set next, streaking through the dark and quiet of the night towards the endless sea of lights of Tokyo, mouth quietly miming silent whispers of hope for the future.
Now listening to: Signal Runners – Leaving London