Early in the 19th century an American writer named William Austin penned a story about a man on a horse and buggy lost on the roads of his nation. Yet it’s much easier to be lost while abroad, and sometimes the most misplaced souls are those who have been away the longest — as this “Flactured Fairy Tale” shows.
I was sitting on the Chuo Line when my friend Dutch elbowed me in the ribs.
“Look who’s comin’,” he said.
At the end of the car, a stubble-bearded foreigner was slipping through the door. He wore bell-bottom trousers, a tie-dyed T-shirt and an expression so intense it demanded attention. Either he was about to burst with anger or break down in tears. I couldn’t tell.
It seemed Dutch knew the man. I did not.
“Don’t say a word,” he cautioned. “Let me talk.”
The man was muttering to himself. He kept poking his head between passengers to peer out the window, as if trying to verify his whereabouts. When he reached the route map pasted above the door, he squinted hard at the Japanese names as if some message might be hidden there. Then he shuffled on. In a moment he stood right before us and when he noticed we were foreigners too, he spoke in a voice that hung raw with fatigue.
“Say, do either of you guys know the way to Koganei? I’ve been trying to get there for the damndest time, but the train lines all seem screwy. I can’t figure it out.”
Koganei? We’d passed it three stops back and were now heading rapidly away. But I kept still.
“Gosh, old-timer, I think you missed it.”
“Missed it? I couldn’t have! I’ve been checking at every stop. Impossible!”
“I’m afraid so. Listen, why don’t you get off and ask someone for directions?”
“I tried that. I tried it a thousand times. People look right through me like my Japanese doesn’t make sense. Or like I’m some kind of ghost.”
“Would you like some help?”
“No! Do you think I can’t find my own home?”
And he lurched off down the train, muttering again.
“You know that guy?”
Dutch shook his head. “But I’ve seen him around. Once at Shinagawa Station and another time on the Marunouchi Line. Both times were the same. He was hunting for Koganei.”
Just then we heard the man accost another foreigner at the car’s opposite end, “Say, pal, would you know the way to Koganei?”
I mentioned the man at a party over the weekend. Every foreign head in the room nodded.
“Yeah, I’ve seen him. Red-faced dude in bell bottoms askin’ for Koganei.”
“Yeah, I saw him too. On the Yamanote Line over by Ueno. Same thing.”
“Me too,” said another. “Years ago. I was on the Tokaido Line heading south and there he was.”
“You wanna hear something spooky? I got a friend who says he saw him down in Kyushu. On a streetcar there. And askin’ for Koganei.”
Our talk slurped on and between beers and belly laughs, I heard rumors of the man riding the entire length of Japan, from the snowy north to the humid south. Always dressed the same, always prowling the cars in search of some clue that would put him on course for Koganei. Some of the stories went back 30 years.
Then I forgot the guy. I got lost in my own work, my own life, my own mixed-up troubles of trying to hold one small family between two great cultures. But six months later I was standing at a rail crossing in Tokorozawa and as the train scooted past I glanced to the window and there he was, perched inside and scrutinizing the landscape for some vain hope that soon he would be in Koganei. I watched him till the train rolled beyond the bend.
“Who is that guy?” I asked Dutch one night when we both edged on the Chuo Line.
“Some people say his name is Peter. Others say Jack. No one knows for sure.”
“What does he do at night? Where does he sleep? How come he can’t find his home?”
Dutch shrugged. “It’s a mystery. A foreigner displaced in time. A guy focused on a Japan that’s not here anymore, a Japan he encountered and learned, but one now forever gone. Yet for him everything’s the same. His clothes, his language, his memory. No wonder he can’t find his way around. The man’s adrift.”
I shivered as our aimless train headed into the aimless night of our aimless lives. Dutch went on.
“Wanna bet he’s confused about the rest of the world too? Between what he thought it was and what it now appears to be?”
Then there he was! Peter or Jack or whomever, edging down the car and pausing to ask a blond college kid with an earring, “Excuse me . . . Do you know the way to Koganei?”
“Koganei, Koganei . . .” the kid began. “Yeah, I think it’s in the other direction.”
“But it can’t be! I was heading right for it!” His unshaved face burned red.
At that moment Dutch grabbed him from behind. The man jerked away.
“Easy, old-timer. I’m gonna help you. I’m gonna go with you and take you home.”
For a second I thought the man would throw a punch. But then he blinked, his eyes watered and his lips curled down.
“Really? You’ll take me home?”
“Really. All the way to your front door.” And they got off together in Toyoda.
That’s the last time I saw Dutch. But I’ve heard about him. I’ve heard people see him in train cars all over Japan, together with some stubble-bearded man who always asks the same question . . .
“Say, buddy, do you know the way to Koganei?”