Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Uncomfortable Scene, Comfortable Food

Train stations in Japan can be busy places, but boarding trains is an orderly process. In mainline and subway stations, symbols on the ground show where to form lines. When a train arrives, each door aligns with the queuing passengers. Train stops are brief, trains run on time.

But things can go wrong.

I can't get these images out of my head. On a screen I see a mother with a baby stroller, last in line to board a subway car. She pushes the baby towards the door, ignoring the warning tone. The door closes, pinching a small part of the stroller. The train moves, pulling the stroller along the platform. The desperate mother won't let go, she's dragged along the platform, her attempts to release her child are futile. They speed towards a barrier at the end of the platform. People look on, alarmed, helpless.

I was sitting in a little cafe enjoying dinner, trying not to watch the grim scene on the television high on the opposite wall. The scene looped, over and over.

One of the staff in the ryokan (traditional inn) where I was staying had recommended katsudon at this cafe, just down the street.

View from my table. The television is high up the wall, above the beer fridge.

There were four tables and no other diners. I was sitting at one end of the L-shaped room, the owners, an old couple, were in the kitchen just out of view at the other end of the L.

The menu had no pictures, so I was grateful for the recommendation. The old man appeared from the kitchen to take my order. "Katsudon" I requested, and, to my surprise he immediately understood. Before I could order a beer, he turned round to submit the order to his wife. I did not want to speak at his back, so I decided to wait until he came back.

A game show on the television gave way to a program about subway safety. An animation of a man trying to beat the closing doors of a subway car played several times. An engineer demonstrated a special tool to determine if doors were closing according to specification.

A beer fridge below the television taunted me.

The man came back with the order, and I managed utter "birru" before he turned his back. I pointed towards a half-liter can of Asahi Dry.

The television was now showing security camera footage of the woman being dragged along the platform, just going off camera before she and the baby would hit a barrier at the end of the platform. To drive the point home, they cut to a shot zooming towards a barrier. The sequence repeated several times.
The katsudon was good: a cut-up pork cutlet, some vegetables, an egg over the top, Japanese comfort food.

The grim show was still running when I got up from the table and requested the bill. The man told me, in Japanese, what I owed. I indicated I didn't understand, so he repeated in Japanese. I mimed writing down the amount, expecting him just to show me the total on a calculator.

I was surprised when he turned to his wife who took upon herself the act of writing. I wondered if the man was incapable of writing, but I was even more confused when the woman did a surprising amount of writing. She handed the piece of paper to the man who handed me what turned out to be an itemized receipt.

I paid the 1,200 Yen (about US$11), no tip, of course, and headed out into the night and back to the ryokan for a soak in the hot spring.
Note: I photographed the monitors at the top of this post in Okayama's main train station.

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