Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Guardian Travel writing competition

Saturday's Guardian travel section contained the winning entries for their recent travel writing competition

I didn't win (nor didn't expect to!), but thought I'd share my entry here about my experiences on the Saikyo line in Tokyo...

The pictures of white-gloved rail staff pushing commuters onto the packed carriages is a familiar image of Japan, so I am more excited than my fellow passengers at the prospect of being shoved onto the train.

I’m on my way to explore the bustling hub of Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s most thriving centres, on the Saikyo-line train from Ikebukuro.

I’m travelling during the morning to experience the very best of Japanese train travel, but now I’m here with my backpack, I feel slightly guilty at taking up unnecessary space.

Also on the station platform is a group of tiny Japanese schoolgirls dressed as sailors. In the UK, there’s no way they’d be allowed to travel alone, but there’s nothing to fear here.

There are salarymen carrying briefcases, there’s an elderly lady in her kimono and there are impossibly glamorous ladies, flirting with their partners.

As the train pulls in, the doors open and people pour out to the tune of what sounds like a video game jingle. Each station has its own theme tune, so that sleepy commuters snoozing while standing up know where they are.

I somehow end up on the train pushed by the throng, missing the opportunity to be pushed on by JR staff. I appear to be pressed against the opposite doors, and there’s nowhere to put my backpack but held aloft over my head. My left leg is wedged between one of the briefcases I saw earlier and a woman’s hip.

As we reach maximum capacity, my neighbours get closer. I can literally smell the breath of the old lady to my left and assume she had “natto” for breakfast - that’s fermented soy beans, a common way to start the day in Japan.

Just when you think that the next wave of passengers will wait for the following train which is due in less than four minutes, another commuter leaps on theatrically, sometimes backwards so they can prise themselves into the train, using the door for leverage.

The doors repeatedly attempt to close and I pray they don’t accidentally open the ones I’m leaning on. The train sets off with a lurch, and everyone sways in a controlled and gentle way, providing a strange sense of unity at being so close to so many of the city’s office workers at one time. Five minutes later we glide into Shinjuku ready for the next adventure.

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