Growing up, I had the luxury of having a car at home. Of course, as luck would have it, when I turned 8 we began to have car problems. This wasn’t the first time, but the breaks between having a functioning car to rely on at home began to grow. During this time I learnt how to ride a taxi (South Africa’s answer to getting people where they need to be since way-back-when).
As we became more accustomed to the taxi life, we began to go further and further, often visiting my cousins in the next town which was about an hours taxi trip away. Leading up to these trips my mother would tell me stories about a time when she would use the train to commute from the Vaal to work in Johannesburg. I would sit and listen, fascinated at this other life she used to live. I became curious about these yellow and grey trains that had only ever been just a part of my landscape as I hurtled past at 120km/h in a car. Like any curious child, I eventually asked my mom if we could go on the train. She agreed, but my dad had managed to fix the car again so I would have to wait.
So I was around 9 or 10 years old when I finally went on my first ever train ride. We took a short taxi ride to the nearest station and then proceeded to get tickets for our trip. I remember wondering why the ticketing window looked like a prison and why the lady behind the glass looked so unpleasant.
We got on the train around midday and within minutes we made our way towards the Vaal. I loved it. Because of the time of day we had picked, the train wasn’t too full, in fact, apart from my mother and myself, I’m not sure if the other people where really passengers or just train staff taking a break (thinking about it as an adult, I’m absolutely sure some people there were just homeless stragglers). It didn’t feel as claustrophobic as the taxi did and even though I knew this was a rarity; I appreciated it. There was so much to see too. The roads for the cars didn’t extend to these parts, so the scenery was almost completely new to me.
I was about 21 years old when I rode the train again. This time, not the Metrorail, which provides the majority of the train transit in the country, but rather, the Gautrain (The Gautrain is the provinces answer to the middle class who needed their own form of public transport). It was different. Cushier. I mean the chairs had cushioning whereas the Metrorail still had basic plastic shell chairs. I remember sitting on the Gautrain one day on my way to visit home from varsity thinking how the experience reminded me of being in a taxi. The train was crowded, despite my efforts to try travel during off-peak hours. It also had a no-eating policy enforced with the same seriousness as that found on the taxi. And finally, the Gautrain was super fast (220km/h), much like a taxi on a good day.
When I landed in Tokyo, I knew I would need to catch a train at some point either due to necessity or due to the urge to explore and I was right. The Embassy of South Africa to Japan invited us for a welcome dinner they would host during our time at JET Orientation. The only catch was that we had to figure out how to get to the official residence on our own. Google maps was quick to point out that the best route involved taking a train and my heart leapt. Finally, I would get to see what the fuss was about. I remembered 9-year-old me, excited to go on her first train ride. Along with a few friends, I made my way down to the station which was conveniently located just under the hotel. Unfortunately, that’s where the convenience ended. We spent a good 5 minutes trying to figure out how to get to the correct level to get onto a train and then another 10 minutes trying to figure out how to buy tickets. This was probably the first and most obvious time where the language barrier became a real obstacle to my time in Japan.
With the help of one of the train station men, stationed neatly in his glass booth (looking like he enjoyed his job), we were able to get our tickets and finally get onto the platform. One step into the train cart and I knew the hype had been a lie. The train was as basic as the one I had ridden back when I was 9. Built for transporting large numbers, not for comfort. It was also pretty crowded, which meant I was triggered all the way to the embassy.
I’ve since ridden the train twice between Omura city and Nagasaki city, and I have found that there are levels to this train life. One time coming back from Nagasaki, we got on the wrong train and the wrong coach. We’d managed to find ourselves in reserved seating and I’ll just say, I finally felt like I was back in the cushy seats of the Gautrain, just minus the crowd. I felt like a train bandit, jumping from that train and into the right one at the next station, making off with a new secret. There were more types of trains to see out there!
As I prepare to go on my first solo trip out of the prefecture, I am hopeful that I will get to experience these along my way. 9-year-old me can only hope.