The most purely American pleasure I have ever had was charging down a midwestern interstate on a bright May morning, destination several hours away, blissfully unaware of my speed, the rasp of Jim Morrison's voice mysteriously reaching out thirty years from the past, fuzzing my car speakers with "L.A. woman! You're my woman!"
What is it about that strangely modern cocktail of speed and music that sends all of your nerves ringing like the open strings on an electric guitar?
While Japan is awash in automobiles, the trains were too entrenched in the routine of daily life and too well connected to old money to be muscled out by the auto industry, the way they were in the US. I enjoyed a year zooming around the mountains of Western Shizuoka in a neat little two door, stick shift Toyota Starlet. I soon learned to maneuver down two way roads that wide enough for maybe a half of a US made car, my speakers ringing with Tokyo dancefloor electronica and Wilco. But they never made the whole landscape ring out in sympathetic tones the way the Doors could make an American road trip a religious experience. I only had those on trains.
Sometime in my first month or so in Japan as an exchange student, late summer shifting to early autumn, I learned that nothing made the Kyoto countryside dance quite like Glenn Gould playing Bach preludes. I took the train everyday to school, a fifteen minute ride across the Kansai plain, the oldest and most historically rich part of Japan. The low rolling hills and rivers of Kansai were where the Yamato people from Korea cut out an agricultural and artistocratic society amid the bearded Ainu natives who had huntered and gathered along the island for generations before them. It is an area where every bend of the river holds a story of armies pushing there way in or out of Kyoto, where people walk along streets and paths worn with millenia of use. I would see the same procession of commuters at the same time each morning, plinking back and forth between home and work, home and work, home and work. These exquisitely recorded little pieces, played with a bright precision and pathos by Gould in the last year of his life, brought out the bright old soul of the Kansai landscape.
A few years later I took boarded an express train bound for Kanazawa on the north coast of Japan, to visit an artist and kindred spirit who had an English teaching job there. It was the first day of the late April Golden Week holidays, a string of holiday's that include the Showa Emperor's birthday and Children's Day (formerly Boys Festival, but the florid carp streamers are still hung from balconies and flagpoles). Although it was a long distance, individually seated train, the holidays had packed it to the gills with college students and families heading home for the week off. I shouldered out a squatting position by the door, gazing out as we crossed the massive "Japanese Alps" that run like a spine down the center of Honshu. The train was moving along impossibly deep crevasses and tunnels that would go on for minutes before we reached the end. I was listening to a recording of the Austrian laptop artist Fennesz that a friend of mine had leant me, these exquisitely churning masses of sound and color that, unlike a lot of electronica, can be surprisingly warm and lyrical. The train burst out of a tunnel to a deep orange sunset melting over the mountains cued to a key change in the music. The college students huddled in the corridor with me were dozing in the sunlight and reading comics. We swept into another twenty seconds of darkness before emerging on the other side, and it's like someone had changed the channel in our absence, the hues of the sunset thickening to crimson.
Last week after attending a demonstration in central Tokyo, and having dinner with a friend, I caught one of the last trains back home, jostling shoulders with the rush of a Sunday night, my head flushed with a few beers from dinner. God knows why, but Led Zeppelin have never quite lifted me quite as high as when maneuvering the Tokyo train system amid hundreds of late night partyers, it was all I could do to keep from pumping my fist in the air and yelling "Ramble On! Sing my song!" I just strode along quietly with an extra spring in my step and an inexplicable and silly grin on my face.