One thing I love about Japan is its predictability: Trains run on time, people are unfailingly polite and taxi drivers wear white gloves, a sign of propriety.
So how in the world did I find myself in the passenger seat as an eager accomplice in a car chase? Keep in mind that I don’t like car chases, not even in movies or on TV. When we get to the screeching, burning-rubber point in a movie, that’s when I take the opportunity to get up and go to the bathroom or get another beer. Or both.
I was on my way home from Kyoto and was going to catch the last passenger ferry to my small island in the Seto Inland Sea. From Kyoto to Okayama I took the shinkansen, then changed to the local train at Okayama. The train would arrive at my station at 17:54, giving me just enough time — six minutes — to walk to the ferry terminal. I’d done this hundreds of times.
But a few stops away from that station, I suddenly remembered that two days ago the ferry schedule had changed! Rummaging through my bag, I pulled out the new schedule. The last ferry to my island was now 17:50! My train would arrive after the last ferry had left, leaving me no way to get home.
The time at that moment was 17:42 and the train had stopped at Konko. I hurried off the train and headed to the front of the station. There I saw a white-gloved taxi driver idling in his car.
“Is it possible to get to the ferry port by 17:50?” I asked.
“It’s faster to take the train,” he said. “Only 12 minutes.”
He was in his early 60s, his hair graying on the sides and coiffed a bit too much for an older man.
“I don’t have 12 minutes. I have to make the last ferry out to the islands at 17:50,” I said.
He put on his glasses, looked at the train schedule, glanced at his watch, then sucked through his teeth.
“We’ll never make it,” he said. “At this time of day the cars are backed up at all the traffic lights.”
“Well, take me anyway,” I said, knowing that by doing nothing, I definitely wouldn’t make it home. There was no reason to give up yet and besides, I hadn’t seen my husband in days. His most recent text message was “Happy hour will commence upon your arrival.” He knows what makes me tick.
The driver looked at his watch and sucked through his teeth again, but this time there was a distinct glint in his eye. He stepped on the gas.
Suddenly we were headed down the road going waaay over the speed limit. Our car chase against time had begun.
He ducked down a back road parallel to the main one, hurtling through local neighborhoods along skinny streets that looked one-way but weren’t. We sped through historical Edo-Period neighborhoods where everything is still black and white, including the clapboard houses and crisscross-patterned kura rice storage buildings. Pedestrians and old ladies pushing carts whipped past as if they were being propelled backwards. Stone pillars along the sides of the road showed the way to Edo on the ancient Sanyo road, the same road the train line is named after. Japanese history was not just blowing by us — we were leaving it in the dust. Oh, how time flies!
We surged out of the Edo Period (1603-1868) and back onto the modern highway, fishtailing as rubber spun on tarmac. We accelerated through a green traffic light then dove into another side road, back into the past.
I only allowed myself to look at the speedometer once, and it read 90 kph (56 mph). This may not sound very fast, but when you’re driving on a bicycle path atop an embankment with the river dropping away on one side and a village at the bottom of the other, you may as well be traveling at the speed of light. Really, who needs a Maglev train? We sped along the river as if we were a second current, our taxi’s reflection chasing the golden rays of the sun.
The driver rapidly decelerated, and with great alacrity commandeered his vehicle 90 degrees onto a dirt track where we fast-forwarded through rice paddies on each side, bowling over anthills and flattening intrepid wildflowers growing too close to the pathway.
A few times I thought the world was going to come to a perilous, dark conclusion in an instant but somehow, like a butterfly, we kept afloat above the rice fields. I flirted with the idea of a new movie: “My Darling is a Taxi Driver.”
With crushed petals and ants clinging to the tire treads, we were now nearing the ferry port. We were sure to make it on time, until red lights started flashing ahead of us. “Ding-ding-ding” — the railroad crossing gate came down right in front of us.
Not missing a beat, the driver stepped on the gas — in reverse! I’m sure he could have pulled off a 180-degree J-turn if he’d had room, but instead we were speeding backwards now, no other cars in sight. He backed into a side street to about-face, then drove farther up the track where the train had already been, and crossed the railway line. Now we were in the clear!
We zoomed. We flew at the speed of sound. We missed the ferry.
Stepping out of the taxi, I confirmed with the port master that the boat had indeed already left. I sighed with disappointment as I pictured my husband, sitting alone, having happy hour with the cat.
“You should’ve gone to Konoshima,” said the harbor master, referring to the first island the ferry stops at, which is also the only island that is linked by bridge to the mainland.
“Konoshima! Do you think I can make it?”
The senior supervisor sucked in through his teeth, looked at his watch and said, “No way.”
I looked at the taxi driver. He had that glint in his eye again.
“Let’s try!” I said, still pumped from our previous expedition.
Back out on the road, we traversed the bridge, which took us high above the sea. But I saw no ferry below. It was already far ahead of us. The last stretch of road was desolate and we flew like the wind, arriving at the next port just as the ferry was about to leave.
I threw a wad of cash at the driver, told him to keep the change and bolted down the gangway. The ferry tooted its horn, as is customary when leaving port, while my darling taxi driver stood next to his vehicle, sporting a wide smile as he waved goodbye with his white-gloved hand.
Japan Lite appears in print on the fourth Monday Community Page of the month. Send all your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.