Sunday 7th August, 2011
My mind drifted back to the first time I got spending money as young boy. Was it to secretly buy that Choo-Choo Bar that rots your teeth, or was it to scoff down a small bag of hot chips fried up in week old super-saturated fat and wrapped in yesterday’s news.
Here I was, patiently waiting at Aizutajima Station in the single carriage Aizu Railway train, heading for Aizu-Wakamatsu on my circular journey from Kinagawa back to Nikko via Koriyama. 6 hours on various trains. Because I can.
On those great side facing seats, with standing room in the middle. Puzzling why this single carriage train – plying the rural far west of Fukushima Prefecture – is set up like the metros of the world allowing commuters to sway like wind-flowers with one arm grasping the overhead hand-strap. Not this pleasant Sunday afternoon, when barely 20 people spread out invariably ensuring no-one was actually sitting beside them.
Opposite – an older woman sits down. I guess 55 years old – old just like me. With the clock ticking over to departure time a young boy near the station entrance is being directed by a motherly station attendant whose gentle hand on his shoulder guides him to our little train.
Immediately surveying what seems to be alien surrounds, he takes up the space next to the older woman. But immediately he is up, intently studying the stop list, determining how far and how long before he gets off. Down again, up again. Repeating this cycle as the the little train chugs through exotic villages and hamlets like Tajima-kokomae, Aizu-shimogo, Tonohetsuri and Ashinomaki-onsen.
Outside the scenery is beautiful, rolling hills, occasional mountain ranges, farmers working their fields.
Inside, we don’t speak but this is what I sense. The boy, in shorts, T-shirt, runners and stooped over by a stuffed backpack – is off to a school holiday camp of some sort. [I had seen such groups earlier in this week] He is totally unsure of when this train will get to his place. He has not taken this train before, in fact, he has never been out of Aizutajima before.
With each station, with each study of the stops and intent listening to announcements, I grow anxious with him. Swirling around now in my head is what to do – how can I possibly help him complete his journey safely?
The older woman was reading my mind and reading the boy’s. A soft conversation immediately brightened the boy. Wide eyes and smiles replaced frowns and nervous movements with every exchange with the older woman.
A tattered brown envelope follows a jumper extracted from the back pack. A clear plastic sleeve reveals some sheets of paper that the older woman pours over while the boy theatrically tells her where the camp is and where he has to get off.
Radiation fears have reached the extremes of this Prefecture, and tourists like me are a very rare sight post Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and meltdown.
Digital tentacles have not reached here. The boy magician pulls a disposable film camera out of his pack. Pretends to take a snap. Now I know they still exist. This must be his first camera.
The most precious item is left to last. Slowly drawn out from the bottom of the envelope. Ceremoniously unfolded is a 1,000 Yen note, then proudly shown to the older woman. Holding it in both hands and staring at the images [who is that man on the note?], he declares to the world: this is my first 1,000 Yen note, and this is how I am going to spend it …..
With a soft reassurance the older woman gets off at Nanukamahi, leaving her new friend behind. This is just one stop before the end of the line at Aiz-Wakamatsu. Shouldn’t the older woman continue her journey with him?
I sense the older women has now made me responsible for the safe delivery of the boy to his destination. Relaxed, the boy patiently sits as the little train snakes its way to the terminus.
I wait until he swings his back pack over his shoulders, jumping one last time on the little train, this time for the exit. Most other passengers have left our little train world.
Only a few metres out the door and me walking anonymously a few steps behind, a camp official meets the smiling boy. Together, they move on with their lives. I know our paths will never cross again.
Was I looking at myself as a young boy? I think there might be a bit a truth in that.