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My Private Tokyo: Lost in Memories


The daily commute in Tokyo for me has become an indispensable experience for finding the room to enjoy some quiet time, as perhaps counterintuitive as that may seem. Rush hour aside you tend to be able to have your own personal breathing room with an air for personal study, thinking or just plain catching up on sleep. Although for many people the experience of riding the train to and from work, or anywhere for that matter isn’t one generally rooted in overly positive light for me the experience has a thread that reaches back to my early childhood years growing up in Poland. I’ve talked a little bit about it on here in the past to a small degree but it’s also something I’ve been giving a lot more thought to as of late.

Looking back I only have a few really distinct memories from my childhood, the majority of which span across a number of cities and European countries, all of which involved long distance late night train rides on old trains. My father had worked a number of jobs around the country as well as in Austria so we travelled around a lot between my grandparent’s place, our home and my father’s work place. I tend to think of those memories as very distinct, not so much the time spent with family but the time on trains late at night dreamily looking out the window watching shapeless lights speed by with the clack of the train wheels beneath my feet. There was an atmosphere there that only exists in my head, every time I’ve tried to put it into words I’ve failed miserably.

One evening we had made our way into the capital, Warszawa, by train. It was one of those older trains you see in movies where families have separate compartments all to themselves for sleeping. My two brothers and I were travelling with my mother. Looking back I don’t even recall the final destination but I distinctly remember being wide awake in the middle of the night while everyone else slept. I sat there in a state of wonder gazing out the foggy window watching as our train crossed over a tall bridge spanning the Wisła, a famous river that makes its way through the city. In the distance I could see another such bridge with a similar train making it’s way into the city. It looked at the time like the bridges were impossibly high, something out of an abstract drawing made real by the innocent mind of a child.

When we moved to Canada what was likely a few years later the experience of train travel was near non-existent. At the time I didn’t really much think on it, there were far too many things to distract my mind in such a new environment but the older I got the more I began to spend time in that memory. I really longed for being able to experience that feeling once more. Looking back I feel as that experience in part helped craft me into becoming a person who enjoys the feeling of night more so than day. I think it also helped to really lay the foundation for what would later become my addiction to travel. I suppose I never really had a chance in my life to stay in one place and grow roots aside from my time in Canada but at the same time it never really genuinely felt like home to me.

When I flew out to Poland in September of 2011 to photograph my grandfather’s funeral I jumped at the chance to have another experience cutting across the country by train, something that was not only much more economically feasible but fairly efficient, even in this day and age. Although the trip was tainted to a degree with the bluntness of reality it still provided an escape into that childhood memory I held onto so strongly. I took a trip to Białystok from Suwałki and visited my cousin as well as a few friends in the city. I got a chance to savour the experience nonetheless.

The following September I had finally come to a decision to make my way to Japan. Of course I had always dreamed of making this trip but it seemed as though every time I tried to make it become a reality a number of obstacles and challenges stood in the way that made it impossible. This time was almost no different aside from the fact my experiences in Poland had sealed my resolve. To be perfectly honest I had promised to attend my cousins wedding in Poland but ultimately opted for Japan instead. Perhaps it was a bit of a selfish thing to do but it was a decision I stand by and would make time and time again. And so it was that on October 31st 2011 I flew out of Vancouver and made my way to Tokyo for the first time, not realizing what an impact it would have on my life.

The trip certainly deserves it’s own entry and it’s something I won’t talk too much in detail about this time around but beyond the many amazing and memorable experiences that came to impact me and guide my direction over the course of those 3 weeks in Japan one that left a very distinct impression on my mind was returning from Kyoto to Tokyo one cloudy autumn evening by Shinkansen, the Japanese bullet train. For those that have not had the pleasure of speeding across the country it becomes an experience that is hard to forget. In general trains in Japan are quite quiet. People rarely talk and certainly not loudly. People avoid using phones and for the most part eating or drinking on the trains. Beyond that there’s in general an unspoken system to the manners and courtesies involved with every day dealings on the commutes. On the Shinkansen that tends to go up to 11. Comfort and service aside this is one of the trains where eating and drinking is not an issue, alcohol included. As such getting an Ekiben (station bento box) is quite common for the trip along with a beer or beverage of choice. In any regard, the entire experience from start to finish is rooted in comfort and service all done while speeding across the mountain and seaside landscapes of a beautiful country. For me that evening trip really brought me back to that day in Warzawa. It was a memory I had chased for so many years that I finally got a chance to experience unfold again right before my eyes and one that I really let myself be in. I sincerely have no words to describe that feeling, one that when described as a simple train ride on a cloudy evening. It seems like such a simple concept, almost to a laughable point that it would be considered a prized and cherished memory, especially when held against the examples of birth, love, and passing of people.

Through al this, although it may not be the same, I still genuinely enjoy almost every chance I get to ride the train in Japan, be in the Touhoku Shinkansen, the Narita Skyliner, the Odakyu Romance Car or the local JR lines that cut across Tokyo. I take a local train into Shibuya about twice a week at 5:19 am from my home station for which I wake up for at 4 am. Never once has it been a drag. I think being able to live with that sort of mindset, especially when not self imposed is a pretty wonderful thing and it makes up for one of the reasons why I love this country so.

These shots were taken on my way back home after returning from a visit to Canada on business. One of my cherished experiences whenever I come and go through Narita Airport is riding the Keisei Skyliner and peering out the window with a camera in one hand and beer in the other. It has become somewhat of a tradition for me ever since my first trip out of Japan. The shots on this roll of film happened to have been damaged slightly and fogged over, likely as a result of my travels between the countries but ultimately the mistake made for quiet a romantic, at least to me, view of the atmosphere I associate with any time I have to leave Japan.

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