Growing up in South Dakota, transportation was either by car or your own two feet. None of these newfangled "trains" or "subways." My first time ever taking a subway that was of substantial size was in London, at 20 years old. I got somewhat used to working the subways and metro systems while in Europe, but not by much.
I got a little bit better when I went to Boston and NYC with Kim in Spring of 2009 - in those larger cities, subway was the only way to get around.
I like to think I got a little more used to it being in NYC on my own in December, but I would hardly call myself "experienced" at working public transit.
So it's a bit nerve wracking for my first major, every day uses of public transit to come when I'm living in a place where I don't speak the language and can't read the signs. My first time taking the bus was an accomplishment. Taking the subway on my own two weeks ago to go see Inception in theaters was major for me - I got there and back with only one missed train.
As I'm getting more and more experienced about how to get to places via bus and train, I'm beginning to pay more attention to my fellow passengers. I've noticed a few things that tend to happen on Japanese public transport that really don't happen anywhere else, mainly: sleep.
In NYC or Boston, you fall asleep on public transit to your own peril - you probably should have a good grip on whatever personal belongings you have if you want them to make the trip with you.
In Yamaguchi-ken in Japan? Not so much.
I don't know what makes Japan so safe. Maybe it's a cultural thing - being a crook is so looked down upon that it makes it hard for anyone to be one. Maybe it's just that this is a very traditional area and people are more trusting of each other - kind of like small town South Dakota. Regardless, I feel incredibly safe on public transit, though I think it'll be ages before I fall asleep on it.
Now, I tell you this first part so that I may tell you the second:
As the foreigner, I tend to get some weird looks on the trains. People notice when a tall white person walks in. But I've been discovering that that won't preclude them from sitting themselves or their children near me.
Yesterday, I took a trip to Kokura to go shopping for a new travel backpack (and was successful, by the by), and a man boarded the train with two small children. One was probably around 5 and the other around 3 or 4 (I'm terribly about estimating ages though). The smaller of the two took a seat next to me, set his shoes on the floor and sat back. It was the cute little kid sort of sitting where the feet don't quite reach the floor so they're just left dangling over the side.
I smiled at the kids and at the old lady seated across from us, and proceeded to alternate between playing games on my iPod and looking out the window. About halfway to Kokura (a 15 minute ride), I felt something hit my shoulder. I turned slightly to see what it was, and the little boy had fallen asleep and slumped over against my shoulder. I stared at him for a minute, unsure of what to do. The father wasn't paying all that close of attention, and the boy seemed to be fine, so I decided to let it be. Heck, if I can be a temporary pillow for a Japanese three year old, why not?
I looked up to see the old woman across the way smiling. Soon after, the father noticed that something was up, and looked down at his kid. He then tried to wake the boy up and looked apologetically at me. I signaled, as best I could, that it was fine and he could sleep. Our stop was coming up though, so the father persisted in trying to wake up his son.
Have you ever baby sat a little kid and when they don't want to do something, they just go limp?
That's what this kid did. When his dad tried to wake him, he faked being still asleep and just went limp in the seat. At this point, the old lady and I burst out laughing and the father smiled. He eventually managed to get his son cooperative enough to hoist him up piggy back style and carry him off the train.
Even though we didn't speak any of the same language, we were all able to laugh together and understand the humor of the situation. It was one of my favorite moments so far in Japan.