Friday, December 29, 2006

Idiot Train

There are some books that I read again and again. Hyakken Uchida (1889-1971)'s "Idiot Train" (Aho Ressha) is one of my all time favorites. It is a humorous writing on Uchida's own beloved past-time, riding on the train for pleasure. In the Idiot Train essay series, he goes all over Japan trying to satisfy somehow his insatiable desire for train rides. It is no ordinary travel essay, though. Uchida does not want any of that distraction or enlightenment people normally expect from getting to see things in a new land. He just wants to travel on the train, drinking sake and having an interesting conversation, and that's that.

In the opening sentence of the first volume of the Idiot Train, Uchida confesses thus (translation from Japanese mine)

I call this trip idiot train because people would say so behind my back anyway. Needless to say, I myself do not consider this undertaking to be that of an idiot. To be honest, you don't need a reason to go somewhere. I don't have any reason in particular to do so, but I have made up my mind to go to Osaka on the train.
As I do not have any particular reason to make this trip, it is ridiculous to travel second or third class. Traveling first class is always the best. At the age of 50, I made up my mind to always travel first class. In spite of my determination, I might be obliged to travel third class when I have no money and yet have some specific reason to make the trip. But I would never travel second class, which is irritatingly ambiguous. I don't like the appearances of people traveling in a second class coach.

Uchida then goes on to consider how he might get the necessary money to travel first class from Tokyo to Osaka and back. Finally, he goes to see one of his friends.

"I would like to go to Osaka."
"Ah, that is a good idea."
"So I came to see you on this matter."
"Is it an urgent business?"
"No. I don't have any particular reason, but I think I will go any way."
"Are you going to stay there for some time?"
"No. I think I will return immediately. Depending on the circumstances, I might even come back on the night train as soon as I arrive at Osaka."
"What do you mean depending on the circumstances?"
"Depending on how much travel money I have. If I have sufficient money, I will come back immediately. If I don't have enough, I might stay in Osaka for one night."
"I don't quite understand you."
"On the contrary, everything is clear. I have considered the matter with great care."
"Is that so?"
"Anyway, can you lend me some money?"

The idiot train essays are full of irrelevant and self-conscious prose writings of the finest quality. It is impossible to convey all the subtle nuances embedded in the original Japanese text, but something is better than nothing.

Uchida's dry and witty wisdom teaches us that that life is not about some kind of dreamed-of achievements, but that rather the process of living along ultimately justifies itself.

Uchida is a disciple of the great novelist Soseki Natsume.

Humorist, novelist, essayist Hyakken Uchida

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