The View from Japan
Torii gate



Snow Bind

By Tim Young

From SIF SATELLITE issue 49 Winter 1997-98

I thought for sure I was going to get home that night.Shinto shrine in snow

Sure, it was snowing. A heavy snowstorm like this one in early January is unusual in Tokyo; happens once a year, if that. Sometimes it snows enough to slow down the trains. But I've always gotten where I was going within a reasonable amount of time.

I had reached Hachioji Station just after 9:30, after my usual evening of English teaching. From Hachioji there are two train routes I can take home: take the Hachiko Line, which averages only two trains an hour, three stops to Haijima, from which I can either take the Ome Line one station, or work off my holiday overeating with a twenty minute walk home; or take the Chuo Line three stops to Tachikawa, the terminus of the Ome Line, which I can take six stops and be 10 minutes from home. It takes longer, but sometimes I can get home sooner than I would waiting for the Hachiko.

That night I got to the station just in time to catch the Hachiko-if it had been on time. First it was announced as being 15 minutes late, but then was stopped three stations away and didn't appear to be budging from there anytime soon. So instead I boarded a Chuo train which entered the station at 9:55-and left at 10:36.

Seventy minutes later we had only advanced two stations, and it appeared we were going to be stuck in Hino Station a while longer. "Please wait a while longer. We're terribly sorry for the inconvenience," the conductor said over the intercom. Up to this point I had been reluctant to try to find a phone to call home from, for fear the train would leave while I was doing so and I'd get home even later. It seemed that half the people on the train had cellular phones, from which they were calling parents or spouses to update them on their progress homeward (or lack thereof). I considered asking someone if I could borrow their phone... Seemed a little presumptuous, though.

"Please wait a while longer. We're terribly sorry for the inconvenience." I was coming close to exhausting my reading material. Today's newspaper was done, Macworld was done, and I was almost finished with the magazine in my hand as well. Around me, people stood with their eyes closed, hanging on to strap handles even though the train wasn't moving (though we all wished it were). A couple of businessmen in suits and overcoats were standing in the aisle with their briefcases on the floor, talking about how the conductor's "a while longer" was always longer than just "a while."

"Please wait a while longer. We're terribly sorry for the inconvenience." I was beginning to wonder if we'd ever leave Hino, where we had already spent 35 minutes-longer than we'd spent in the previous station, Toyoda. It's still unclear to me just why the train didn't move; one student told me later that snow on the Japan Railways tracks activates sensors that say something is on the tracks; the signal turns red, and the train doesn't go. "The signal can't be overridden by anything, even common sense," I told my student, who readily agreed. (Revealingly, many non-Japan Railways trains continued to operate despite the snow. JR seems to have been overly cautious, although the company says that the Chuo Line is more vulnerable than other lines because it's longer. Still, those who come from snowier regions of Japan report that several feet of snow don't keep the trains in those areas from running; Tokyo only got 6 inches (15 cm).)

"Please wait a while longer. We're terribly sorry for the inconvenience." Yes, I know, I know. 11:45; better call home. She probably thinks I died.

I got off the train and walked along the platform, hoping there might be a phone there so I wouldn't have to go down the stairs into the station. No such luck. The train better not leave while I'm gone, I thought. It's going to be late, but I am going to get home tonight.

The next instant, I was presented with my first real challenge to that belief: an announcement came over the station intercom, saying, "The Ome Line has stopped for the day."

This changed everything. Now getting to Tachikawa wouldn't do me any good anymore. There was no way I could get home by train.

After a fifteen-minute wait for a phone, I called Chieko. "Oh, I was afraid you died!" she said. "Where are you?!"

I explained my situation and we discussed what my options were for getting home. We agreed that, since sleeping kids at home and lack of proper tires on our car ruled out her coming to get me, the only option was a taxi.

Some option. After standing for five minutes behind 15 other people at the taxi stand-during which time not a single taxi came-it became clear that I probably couldn't get a taxi till sunrise, at the earliest. There was no way around it: I was spending the night in Hino.

But where in Hino? I tried one friend in the area, who failed to wake up when I buzzed her cell phone. I called Chieko again. "I'll try my friend Mifuji," she said. "Call me back in five minutes." Mifuji said I could stay there, so at 12:30 I left on a half-hour walk to Mifuji's house. The train was still in the station; the same fifteen people were stoically waiting for nonexistent taxis. People walked along the street using umbrellas (in the snow? Somehow I can never get used to that. In Iowa, we only used umbrellas for rain...).

As I discussed with one friend later, the patience exhibited by the estimated 2.08 million commuters inconvenienced by the snow is something that's hard to imagine in other countries-certainly in America, where many people are prone to "make waves" to "get action" if they think those in service occupations aren't doing their jobs well enough. It's certainly true that many Americans take this too far, suing others for millions of dollars at the drop of a hat; still, as overly cautious as JR was that night, compounding the problem of trying to get home, one wishes for a few more Japanese wave-makers.

View from Japan home

Copyright 2003 This page last updated November 1, 2002 . E-mail Tim