Onigiri on a train

by Alexander Vogt

The writer’s grandparents migrated to Japan in

the 1960s to work at Tokyo Sanitarium Hospital. (John F. Vogt)


Sitting on board the Narita Express train bound for Shibuya Station, I am holding a small, wrapped onigiri tightly in my hands. Looking down at the package, I just can't help but smile. It is the year 2019, and I have just departed from my teens, finding myself in the same situation as my grandparents, half a century earlier. While I came to Japan for my education, my grandparents, my grandfather being a physician and my grandmother a nurse, both straight from medical school, came to work in a Japanese hospital.

But what makes my journey different is that I know exactly what the triangular rice ball, filled with pickled plum and wrapped in seaweed, is. I received it from a friendly tourist, who was stranded at the airport due to the typhoon that had blocked international air travel for the weekend. Flashback to fifty years earlier, to 1960s Japan; my grandparents boarded a train just like me and had also received a small bamboo box with onigiri, from the courier that had brought them to the train station. But unlike me, they had no idea what an onigiri was. Unmoved by the curious looks on the faces of the other Japanese passengers, they unwrapped their onigiri. Thinking that the Nori was part of the packaging, they of course, carefully peeled that off too.

The 1960s Tokyo skyline in stark contrast to that of today.


I look around and see many different people. Some are Chinese, some are Japanese, and most are on their phones. I can hear some chatter in Thai. Some people laugh. I look down at my Onigiri and sit, pondering whether I am reliving what my grandparents experienced. My Narita Express train, state-of-the-art, must be a very different experience from the first electric high-speed trains introduced in the 1960s that my grandparents encountered. The English signs leading the way and international companionship onboard must be different from what my grandparents saw. They arrived at the dawn of today's Japan. They saw the growth of a strong urbanized and industrialized nation. They saw the Japanese lay the path for my experience of Japan today.

The Japan I have arrived at, perhaps, just saw the sun disappearing. Demographic change, climate issues, and the status quo of East Asian diplomacy and the role of China are just one of many issues that my Japan is facing today.

I lean against the window, looking as the sun begins to rise over Tokyo–the sun of a new Japan rising. Perhaps my Japan will set the path for a new Japan half a century from now? I pick up my onigiri and pull off the plastic packaging and take a bite, making sure to not remove the Nori.


An eki’s landscape in the 1960s was still dotted by trees, a rare sight today.





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