Waiting for the train

Standing on a train platform outside Gifu I take stock of how far we’ve come. Far not in the sense of two about to be three trains this morning from Nagoya airport, or even the one flight from HKG prior. Nor do I mean far in that this is our fourth trip to Japan in twenty nineteen. Far in the sense I meant when I volunteered to live in the happening world.

I’ve come to recognize the burst of confusion that comes with this heightened motion. After forgetting my Guandong hotel room number twice my first trip with my last job, a whirlwind tour of sixteen suppliers in four days, I’ve become more careful. I pack lighter, of course, and with more regular repetition, to ease the memory requirements. And I try, always, to require less.

On Saturdays the train we are waiting for comes every thirty minutes, so we have some time to think. We stand on the platform in the shade and eat bread from a shop at the last train station, washing it down with tea from a vending machine. There are a few locals also waiting, though most have read the train schedule and will walk up to the platform closer to the train’s arrival. This station is of an older era, where tickets can be bought en route in cash, not just by Suica at the upstairs gates. The station is quiet save for a through train that clatters past on the center tracks without slowing. This is a diesel line and the train’s exhaust doesn’t help the heat. Early September is still warm here, though nothing like the heat of August in Tokyo.

Landing this morning in Nagoya Tokyo felt like a long time ago. Thinking back to that rooftop in Hatsudai is what started this reflection on pace. Since we were in Tokyo, the last time I wrote here, I have been to Taiwan. It was my first time in the country, seeing a Taipei night market, having lunch in the mountains to the north, and then wandered Taichung the following evening. Since we were in Tokyo I have also spent most of a week working in San Francisco, riding Jump bikes to the office and climbing gym. Since Tokyo, I’ve spent five separate days in Shenzhen and Dongguan, days of walking borders and visiting suppliers. All these places, not yet correctly memorized or considered, I’ve seen since our trip to Tokyo that is both the prior post and exactly one month ago.

Cue the happening world.

These bursts of motion come with the start of new things. Since the last unexpected end I’ve been in motion more than not, leaving behind a list of adventures that seems absurd when recounted. As my first summer in Asia since two thousand eight, I’m enjoying the luxury of short flights and high speed train rides more than long trans-Pacific loops. Yet I’ve done those too, three times since June. As records go I can’t yet tell where twenty nineteen will end in places slept, but I know how it will feel: like the blur of motion.

I still love the Shinkansen. For this boy from New York, the first Shinkansen was a miracle, something pulled fully realized out of an alternate world. Riding the new high speed rail link between Kowloon and Shenzhen at least once a week now, I appreciate it just as much. Fifteen minutes to Shenzhen rather than the previous hour is quite a change. An hour and a half direct link to Shaoguan is amazing. The speed, ease, and comfort with which we transition from place to place remains the same kind of miracle it was at eighteen. In this way it has been a gift, these past weeks, to go on a small tour of the region’s high speed rail lines. I’ve ridden Taiwan’s line from Taipei to Taichung and back. I took the China high speed rail from Hong Kong to Shanghai, and the original Shinkansen line from Osaka to Tokyo, all since July. Finishing this piece in Osaka again, I can now add the Shinkansen from Nagoya to Osaka to the list, the same line as a month prior in the opposite direction.

As with many things, it turns out the alternate world that I discovered at eighteen wasn’t some fantasy place of imagination. It was simply a country that invested in non-car transportation infrastructure. To my delight there are several such places within easy reach of our new home.

Which is the largest change from earlier moments where I felt part of the happening world. I no longer bust down broken streets in LA in a borrowed Mini, nor do I drive hours along the border highway just east of Tijuana. Instead I walk down the dusty streets of Bao’an to the new line 11 metro stop, and then transfer at Futian to the high speed rail back to Hong Kong.

There are cars, of course, like the one that will retrieve me shortly for a visit to a factory outside Osaka. Cars have not disappeared, but their role has shrunk so much in this new life. They now serve as occasional connectors between rail and factory, factory and hotel.

Living, as we do, in a world where lists of places seen and slept are a bundle of cities that do not share countries, it’s the long-term trends that stand out, not each individual place. On my second visit to this Osaka hotel I know where the subway entrances are. This summer I have been to San Francisco three times and only in cars as a means of exiting the airport or crossing the Bay Bridge. Once again the metal chariot is not gone, the age of the automobile is not over. There is a different way, though, and we’re finding it, while remaining all the while in constant motion.

Cue again the happening world.

Squirrel tricks

There are two important parts of a home.  Having one, and what’s outside of it.  The saddest part of leaving Tokyo was not the actual leaving, but abandoning that home.  Knowing that the next time I landed in Narita two hours of train would not bring me to my doorstep makes me want to move back even now, five long years gone.  The loss of a home means not being able to welcome people to a foreign country, to an environment they know nothing about.  Finding friends at the train station, mouths agape, and leading them through winding streets to a balcony all our own is a joy that leaves uneasily.

In Shanghai these past years we welcomed guests through from all parts of the globe, travelers and those seeking homes of their own.  Some for weeks, some for scant hours until their flight out or train inwards. Simply having a space, being able to offer shelter and retreat to those far from theirs, rewards each month’s rent.  Feeling comfortable in a foreign place, be it Manhattan or Los Angeles, because someone has a place we can return to, has value without equal.

Yet it is the second aspect that draws me forward, into new cities and out of old comforts.  Sitting now facing down Rice’s manicured lawns, watching the trees sway outstretched in the sun, I am glad again of that pull.  Ensconced again in a city I was not born to the greatest gift is in each morning’s presentation of the world outside: the squirrel highway that runs past my window.  Gifts like these drive my apartment hunting mind.  Interior quality is of course preferred, but the essentials lie in window light, in vantage point, in relative location.

Like with all things, luck is of the greatest assistance.  A friend whose landlord owns another place, a relative who owns a building, a teammate’s relocation, these coincidences cannot be paid for, nor planned.  Still, their results can be evaluated by these same desires; like all homes they compete primarily on what can I walk to, what can I see.  These questions applied to the Saitama apartment of years before give out answers that reinforce my desire to return: an express stop on the Saikyo line and Mt. Fuji.  Those two things, one walkable, one seen, coupled with the ability to grant others a base from which to visit Japan, outweighed all negatives of expense and space.  In Shanghai other calculations won, usually the desire for an easy walk to anywhere overcoming view.  Too often in cities location becomes the dominant demand, the singular benefit of housing.  Too rarely does the view reward.  The squirrel highway does, with its multiple levels and fast-paced travelers.

On the second floor in a residential neighborhood, an apartment-wide swath of windows gives me panoramic views.  They are, for the most part, of trees and houses with limited sky.  I am sure they have not, despite their excellent light, entertained previous residents so much.  The property line, just behind my apartment, is demarcated by a wooden fence, some four meters tall, topped with a flat rail.  Another meter above it and parallel runs the phone line, thick tubed and taunt.  Slightly above that runs the power and cable, a weave of thinner wire and rubber that only the truly harried consider.  The top of the fence sits just above the baseline of my windows, the highest wires just below their top.  When traffic is heavy, lane changes are frequent, with those following the phone cabling often dropping down to the fence before continuing.  This highway supports a robust traffic in acorns, smaller nuts, and random bits of fruit, as well as the occasional high-speed chase.

The squirrel’s gift of full-field vision minimizes accidents, allowing for a more rapid pace than is perhaps strictly recommended at such a height.  The acrobatics involved in switching lanes are of an utterly untrained nature, and vary from the simple jump-and-hope to the more delicate hang-and-reach.  The traffic does not show any particular commuter pattern, lacking the to work and home again flows of human highways nearby.  Instead travelers scamper back and forth at all hours, often left and then right again in such quick succession that little, if anything, can have been accomplished on the tree just out of view at the edge of my property.  Perhaps the individuals are merely attempting to touch all the surfaces in a certain order and at a certain pace.  This would explain the oft-observed bound up onto the fence, sprint along its top, leap for the tree, run up and out a branch, spring for the telephone pole and dash back along the cabling to some invisible destination.

While the easy walk to campus and the convenience of other human habitats is not to be overlooked, it is safe to say that my favorite feature of this new home is the constant goings-on that occur just behind it, elevated perfectly to fit inside my wide bank of windows.  I appreciate the fence builder in a wonderful way.  The power company’s decision seems incredibly coherent, in contrast to so many of the random spools of wire nailed to posts and house corners throughout my neighborhood.  They were building a highway for squirrels, keeping them off the ground in a high-traffic area.

The best moments of this view come at off-peak hours.  While I sat quietly one September afternoon, a squirrel paused on the fence’s top board.  In no hurry he settled down, belly flat upon the wide wood.  And then, just to check, he dangled his legs and arms off of the side, paws swinging slightly in the sunlight.  Eyes watchful he lay there for a minute or more, before hopping up and sprinting off.  After several weeks of squirrel observation I laughed, amused at his peculiar antics, and returned to my work.

A few moments later motion again drew my eye, this time to the telephone line.  He was back, wiser and higher.  A moment later, in the middle of the cable’s span, he flopped down on his belly, legs out and swaying.  He lasted three minutes before another squirrel’s appearance in the tree made him scamper away.  Embarrassed to be caught relaxing in the middle of a work day.  Like myself, in so many ways, always watching this squirrel highway.