Leah Aki Wood '16: 
1,029 Hours on Public Transportation

Leah Aki Wood is the 2018-2020 Shansi Fellow at J.F. Oberlin University. This is her first year narrative.

I grew up in Oberlin where the nearest, most reliable public transportation I knew of was Amtrack and where a trip to the East Side of Cleveland — maybe an hour — was only worth making a couple times a year. Driving fifteen minutes outside of town to Krieg’s It’z the Berries Frozen Custard or Jin House were special occasions. Otherwise, I had my bike or short walk ahead of me to get anything I needed within the city limits: groceries, fresh cut flowers, brunch, wine, or even a burrito for my 1 AM craving (which, unfortunately, hasn’t gone away now that I’ve relocated to somewhere much less convenient). That was my world.


Last summer I arrived in Sapporo, a city in Hokkaido, for a Japanese language program, knowing I’d only be there for about six weeks before relocating to Tokyo.  There I was shown how to use the tram that ran from the share house I was staying at all the way to about three blocks from the Japanese school location. It trundled along, never too crowded, and never too quiet. After a few days I figured out if I followed the tram tracks home, it was about a one hour long walk. On the days I went home that way I passed by the same elderly patrol man who guarded a corner at a particularly complex intersection — we’d smile and nod. On the days when he was not there, I found myself missing him. I didn’t realize at the time how lucky I had been to find a stranger who was willing to share such brief, friendly moment with me. I kept up the strolling walks because my time in Sapporo was particularly carefree, simply a transition. There was nothing to do but soak it all in.


In late August, I arrived in Tokyo exhausted after a mildly disastrous day of riding a plane, bus, train and taxi that dropped me at my new home; an aged, bright pink apartment building, the Obirin Coope located next to the JFOU Machida campus. The first day I found the nearest convenient store (a two minute walk), the nearest super market (a fifteen minute walk), and the best route to get from the apartment to the main terminal, Machida Station (a thirty minute bus ride). The next day I met my friend at Shinjuku Station, one of the larger train terminals in Tokyo and conveniently the end of the Odakyu Line, one of two train lines I could pick up from Machida Station (it took me a little over an hour). Another day I met a friend at Shibuya Station, another main station famous for its busy pedestrian crossing or “scramble” (it took about one hour and fifteen minutes, and this trip had a train transfer). I started taking koto lessons (a one hour trip, three transfers), taiko lessons (a two hour trip, three transfers), and seeing a therapist (a one and a half hour trip, three transfers). I felt like I was going crazy.

Fuchinobe Station near J.F. Oberlin

Shibuya Scramble

Machida Station

The Obirin Coope 

I didn’t know what to do with myself on public transportation. Maybe if I grew up in the city, this would just be a continuation of the norm, but my small town self was panicking inside. There were so many strangers, so much time, so much money just flying around, by, and out of my pocket. I would sit and attempt to calculate the time I spent on trains and buses (often times literally pulling out my phone calculator), thinking, “If I spend an average of three hours a day on public transportation for one year, that’s 1,092 hours, or about forty-five full days I could be spending doing anything else!” However it wasn’t just the time. Looking around and seeing everyone bent over their phones, sleeping, looking anywhere that wasn’t at anyone else, the crushing loneliness of being surrounded by people was suffocating. Smiling at strangers felt out of place in a way that it never had before. It was in eerily quiet, packed trains, listening to the robotic announcements cycling through Japanese and English, with nowhere to look but up or down, that I found this place to be the most isolating. How could it be that I was in one of the largest cities in the world, with countless opportunities and humans to meet and still feel this way? My neck and shoulders ached from slouching into my seat over my phone or napping, chin to chest, to match the crowd.

On the train

In March, the frustration with transportation deflated. Perhaps I exhausted myself of complaints. Whatever part of me that was resisting and resenting decided to take a break, maybe it realized that that is in fact one way to make use of a long train ride — to rest. I’ve stocked up on Audiobooks, podcasts, kindle books, and melancholic playlists to accompany me anywhere in case I want to “make use” of my time. On rare occasions I can even be useful by providing a shoulder to a tired person next to me, but mostly it is just time for me to be quiet. Recently, I don’t try as hard to avoid eye contact and opportunities to smile at strangers, I figure a little friendliness can’t be too creepy. One thing I know is that if I’m ever back in Sapporo and see the elderly patrol man on the corner again, I will ask if I can give him a hug. Even if I can’t always be useful, I can try to be kind.

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