I have a sneaking suspicion that an umbrella is a bit of a security
blanket for many Japanese – rather like the soft and fuzzy
ngouk-ngouk I used to carry around with me when I was five and one
day accidentally incinerated on a floor heater. If there is a hint
of rain – just one errant cloud in the sky – umbrellas
start popping up like mushrooms on rotten wood. Shops have extra
ones that they give out to customers who might otherwise suffer
some terrible, soggy fate. It’s just possible that Japanese
are water-soluble and don’t want the world to know.
I don’t carry an umbrella. My backpack weighs 88 pounds, and
that’s only after I threw out my flashlight, trashy novel,
the bottom half of my toothbrush, and my toilet paper. I am not
water soluble, so if it rains I just get wet.
One day as I am leaving a small pension in Tottori, on the back
side of Japan, it starts to drizzle. The old lady who owns the place
calls after me to wait. She ducks back into her kitchen and re-emerges
with a monstrous purple umbrella. It’s made of wood and oiled
paper and is sadly scuffed and splintered. She hands it to me. I
thank her and hand it back. The thing weighs at least four pounds
and has a little yellow knob on the top that makes it look like
a cross between a giant pimple and a bruise. We stand there and
pass it back and forth until I give in, bow profusely, and shuffle
off down the road, clutching the center column of my new semi-portable
Two days and several hundred miles later I can’t stand it
anymore. The umbrella doesn’t fit in my pack, won’t
hook over my arm -- and since it hasn’t rained for a while,
is about as useful as a stick of firewood. I decide to "lose"
it. Unfortunately Japan has only two kinds of public garbage receptacles
– one for recycled soda cans and the other for newspapers.
I feel funny trying to stuff the umbrella through the little round
hole meant for cans and am terrified that someone will catch me
frivolously disposing of what is clearly a Valuable Tangible Cultural
Asset. So I decide to send it to umbrella heaven – the Lost
and Found department of the Japan Railway System – where it
can party forever with the hundreds of thousands of other umbrellas
that get left on trains every year.
I pick a day when I have to make five connections – two of
them on the famous bullet train, which stops at each station for
less than a minute.
It takes me one connection to get up my nerve. I’m not used
to publicly littering. Just the thought makes me hunker down and
start looking out of the corners of my eyes like a criminal.
Second connection. The train is standing-room-only. I get up and
edge my way to the door. Someone calls out to me. I ignore them.
Someone else stops me and gestures over my shoulder. The purple
umbrella is making its way towards me, hand over hand. I accept
it with profuse apologies, deep appreciation and even deeper bows,
then stand outside the train, waving at a smiling carriage full
of good citizens. They wave back.
Third connection. This one is a bullet train, with plush seats
and only a scattering of people. I sit down next to an Obasan –
a Granny – who compliments me on my umbrella. This is a bad
sign. I pray that she either gets off or dozes off. Not a chance
– she is alert, awake, and solidly seated. When it comes time
for me to go I see her eyeing my stuff and I know it’s useless.
I reach for my umbrella. She smiles and nods and tells me to take
care and good luck.
My next connection is local. I get on. I don’t talk to anyone.
I don’t make eye contact. I quickly stuff the purple umbrella
into a rack above me, push it way back, and put something on top
of it. When we reach my stop I wait until the last minute, sling
on my gear and scurry out the door. I sprint up the steps and down
to the next platform. My train is due in less than three minutes.
Things are looking good. I half expect the umbrella to magically
appear behind me, flying through the air all by itself like Mary
Poppins. A minute ticks by. Nothing happens.
I’m free! I feel like doing a little jig. With four less
pounds to carry, I may even indulge myself with the luxury of a
newspaper at the next stop.
I hear a shout, in English. I’m the only Caucasian in the
station. I turn. I can’t help it. A young man in a schoolboy’s
uniform is standing on the platform outside my old train, waving
my umbrella. I wave back a lot less enthusiastically. Even if I
wanted to, I can’t go back and get the umbrella or I’ll
miss my connection. I feel awkward pretending ignorance while this
poor fellow is frantically trying to communicate across two crowded
platforms, but the problem will resolve itself as soon as my train
arrives. Suddenly, the young man stops signaling and dashes up the
stairs. I pray for my train. No good. He’s young. He’s
fast. He’s at the top of my platform, taking the steps three
at a time. He comes to a panting stop in front of me. He bows. I
bow. He offers me my umbrella. I express vast surprise and gushing
gratitude. I’ve already decided to own up to ownership. Someone
has clearly seen me with the umbrella and can identify me and that’s
how the police in this country solve 95% of their crimes.
My train pulls up. He gives me my umbrella. I try to give it back
to him as a thank-you gift. He won’t accept it. I bow. He
bows. I bow. He bows. I miss my train.
Then, as he disappears in desperate bounds up the stairs to his
platform, his train pulls away.
When I’m about to get off my last train, I notice that it’s
raining. I grab my umbrella and tuck it under one arm. What’s
a couple of pounds, anyway? I’m even starting to like the
Excerpted from Japanland © 2005 Rodale Press. To purchase, please visit japanlandonline.com