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Sunday, Feb. 11, 2001

JAPAN LITE

You haven't seen Japan till you've been in a bus


The bus is one of the best places for observing Japan. It's different from the train, where people pack in and do "gaman" till they get to their destination.

On the train, you might catch a glimpse out the window of people riding bicycles through rice fields on their way to work, a patch of blooming flowers or a group of elementary-school children walking to school. But when you look out the window of the bus, you see humanity up close.

You see that the elementary-school children are huddled together examining a caterpillar they had scooped up from the sidewalk. You imagine that every child has observed a caterpillar, spoken to a crow, and splashed through a puddle before arriving at school at 8 a.m. You see that the flowers are blooming in decrepit pots. Those bicycles have arrived in town and are now resonating "cha-ching, cha-ching" while running down pedestrians upon the rider's realization he is going to be late for work.

Riding the bus requires courtesies: paying the driver, thanking him, pushing the buzzer to let the driver know you want to get off, passing up the "silver seat."

The other day I climbed into the bus and sat down, enjoying a higher vantage point from which to watch the world below. Out the window, a man was chasing after a woman who had forgotten her gloves in his shop while a cat with no tail ran into the bushes.

Someone pushed the buzzer and got off. An "obaachan" in leopard-print pants got on and sat in the empty seat. A middle-age man got on and sat down in the last seat available -- the silver seat. The bus ground forward, while amid Japan's economic recession, workmen outside were voraciously starting more public-works projects.

At the next stop, a woman in a gray kimono with a dusty pink obi got on. She was carrying some fresh-cut branches wrapped in newspaper. She stood in the aisle. The man in the silver seat didn't budge. I shot him a quizzical look. Outside, a man sped by on a bicycle, an array of gizmos attached to the handlebars: a radio, plastic animals on springs, fuzzy dice.

The bus passed a gasoline stand, where five employees descended upon one car to pump the gas, wipe the windows, check the fluids, take the money and direct the car safely back onto the street. I wondered why people are so worried about the unemployment rate in Japan when it's the employment rate that is too high.

The bus stopped and another obaachan in animal-print pants got on. Sage leopard. Maybe there is a Victoria's Secret for obaachans in Japan. She looked for a seat. I looked over nervously at the man in the silver seat. He was dozing. The woman stood in the aisle, clutching a crumpled bag with a fading image of James Dean on it.

I sprang up and motioned for her to take my seat. She smiled but didn't move. I offered again, using the politest Japanese I know. She declined. I insisted and remained standing. So did she. The bus lurched forward. We both stood in the aisle, in silence.

A man walked his Shiba dog down the sidewalk. The cream-colored dog curled and uncurled his tail into a curlicue. I wondered why so many people have these Japanese Shiba dogs that all look exactly alike. How do you tell your dog from the next? Perhaps that's why dogs are always on leashes, even in the countryside.

I readied my change, pressed the buzzer and made my way to the front of the bus. The sage-leopard obaachan with the James Dean bag nodded her thanks and sat down. I squeezed past the woman in the kimono and the man still dozing in the silver seat.

As I dropped the change into the box, I thanked the driver and stepped down from the bus into humanity up close.

Visit the Japan Lite home page at www.amychavez.com or e-mail comments to: amychavez@mailexcite.com


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