Monday, June 1, 2009

Standing Room Only

The Titanic was docking in Tokyo. Virtually, at least: the blockbuster hit tugged its way across the Pacific for our viewing pleasure in 1998. Near my parents' house in Columbus, there is a dollar movie theater that shows second run movies. For the price of 4 quarters and a 6 month wait, you can see top rated flicks at rock bottom prices. In Tokyo, you wait the same 6 months (perhaps coming up with the subtitles does take some time) to pay rock climbing prices, anywhere from $18 to $23 on average for one ticket, day or night. Usually we try to hold out for that dollar theater, or hope to catch a decent first run (well, to us) movie on an international flight. However, as newlyweds, we wanted to couple the date opportunity with seeing the grand special effects and all of the Oscar buzz on the big screen.

So begins the local cultural custom of getting in line and waiting. Perhaps this isn't unique to Japan. The US news features stories about avid rock groupies sleeping out to be the first in line to buy concert tickets. Star Wars fans have done the same to get prime seats at the premier of a movie. The goal is the same--beat the crowd, secure a slot. With a population pushing 13 million in Tokyo, getting in line and waiting is part of a typical day-in-the-life, and rarely is there a backstage pass or "meet the actors on the red carpet" reward for your effort when you reach the front of the line. I've grown accustomed to the daily waiting game here. Get to the train station, wait in line at the ticket vending machine, file through the gates, advance to the platform, and get in line behind others where the doors will open. The train arrives, file into the train car, swimmingly line the aisles, packing the center of the car first, expanding the line back towards either end in order to ease the mounting and dismounting of passengers by the doors along the journey.

I should note that the line waiting and standing on the train on this particular cinema outing is not the true waiting for the train ritual, the kind that one only finds in rush hour and in worst nightmares. Uniformed train station employees armed with batons speckle the platforms during the peak morning hours in central Tokyo. These weapons are not for violent crowd control per se, but when the last "salary man" crams into the train as the doors close, the station guard assists by cramming that final briefcase in so the auto doors can close. Usually you have to wait for several trains to sardine pack themselves full before you advance to be the sandwiched in too. Unfortunately at the end of that morning shuffle tunnel there is no movie theater waiting, rather an office with another crowd of people, possibly more waiting on clients, and potentially more standing in line at the canned coffee vending machines.

Whether it's the London Tube out of the city or a donkey up to the summit of Mt. Bromo in Indonesia, one can expect to wait in some form of line for public transportation anywhere in the world. Yet in Japan, I find the same level of mental fitness and crafty organizational skill is required for waiting in line for the less obvious occasions, such as in the event of health and leisure activities. First, the health example. A trip to the doctor calls for such an advanced level of patience and stamina that you really shouldn't risk waiting until you're actually sick to get examined or solicit a prescription. Hospitals, clinics, doctor's offices operate on a walk in basis. Walk in, sit in and, wait in. At least in this case you aren't standing, save the line before 8 am outside the doors. No appointments necessary means no appointments taken. Typically, doctors see patients in the morning, close for lunch, and open hours again for a period in the afternoon. The doors tend to open an hour before the examination hours begin. Rows of neatly lined chairs form large block which dictates your lucky number. If this were a bank or a post office, you'd take a number, but for the doctor, the position of your chair relative to the front corner of the lobby is your unwritten assignment of order.

In Kawasaki, we lived across from a major teaching hospital, which meant it was popular, and thus crowded. Between the two of us, it took a few colds and one high fever until I realized that people would come when the gates opened, leave a hankie or a newspaper to "save their seat," like saving a seat next a buddy on an elementary school bus field trip, and then return home for an hour. I was naive my first few rounds and sat diligently in my assigned seat. When 9 am approached, I noticed others gradually filing to seats reserved in their honor by a token prized possession. I wised up after not too long, and began to do the same. My husband would get a sinus infection, and I'd run over and drop something not so obviously cheater American on a chair and return home to catch the headlines at my leisure in the comfort of my own home until the timer went off. Soon people in our building caught on to my willing swiftness, and I'd occasionally reserve a seat for a neighbor or friend. For the first time since clinching the good seat on that school bus, I found myself reliving the glory of holding the "line leader" title from my elementary school days.

And now, the leisure case in point: it's been 15 years since my last flip-turn. Like movie viewing, there is another form of activity that I have always found relaxing; however, I have experienced the stressful side of it in Japan, as it falls into the non conventional category when execution dictates standing and waiting: lap swimming. No, the pools in Japan are not vertical, just crowded. Lap swimmers know, and I'll note, dutifully follow, the rules. If you are sharing a lane, which is in 100% of all cases, you swim down one side, back the other. Other times, the pool devotes a full lane to going down, and the neighboring lane for the return lap. Swimming is relaxing when you reach that zone, which requires, for the most part, an uninterrupted flow for at least several laps at a time. Unfortunately, once I make it 5 feet shy of the other end of the pool, I'm forced to abruptly stand up before I crash dive into 18 others huddling at the end of the lane, and wait in line for the crowd of people in front of me to slide under the lap line buoy and wait my turn for the return lap. My heart rate experiences a different kind of workout than that zone under these "lap swim" circumstances. I have to say I have developed a new kind of endurance to hack a crowd, a skill that I rarely needed to apply in my fare roots in the Midwest.

Nonetheless, I'll apply the waiting game skills I have and finally beat that commute, arrive at the movie theater a solid 2 hours in an advance, and get in line for tickets. Seats are assigned upon purchase, and you can choose seats like at the "theater." In the fancier cinemas in Ginza, there are doilies on the seat backs, equipped with roped off areas if you reserve in advance for a hefty fee (any fee is hefty in my relative term-book to that Columbus dollar movie). In addition to the predictable concessions, they even sell programs and the feature film related theme products catering to all ages, which tend to be a small step above the Happy Meal promo kids toys when a new Disney or Pixar movie opens. At the ticket booth, there is a make it or break it indication on how many seats are left. An "O" indicates there are still a fair amount of seats available, and you could even have a chance to sit with the party members you came with. A triangle symbolizes there are few seats, and a slim chance that you could get two together. An "X" is the sure fire no seats available symbol, but this does not stop them from selling tickets. Yes, standing room only at a movie theater. They maintain the courtesy of flashing a message that this is the case, but it is against my cultural bones to stand during a movie. Maybe on that 14 hour flight over the pole to stretch my legs for a minute, but a full length film? No. For me, the point of a movie is to relax, and unwind, and I can think of no examples when I am relaxing and unwinding on my feet.

We saw Titanic in a high rise building in Tokyo, which meant that the ticket sales booth was on the first floor and the 8 screens at the cinema were from the 2nd to 9th floors. The Titanic was playing on screen 6, which meant the 6th floor. The line for the doors to open for seating was already forming, now one hour and 45 minutes in advance, on the staircase, so we waited, advancing upstairs, until it was our turn to be ushered to our seats. I remember very little about the tragic love story of Rose and Jack, as I was more intrigued by the tragedy of the people that were lining the aisles and the front of the theater standing to watch the movie. It was over 3 hours, and the non native English speaking audience had to read the whole movie. If I am reading while standing, it is because I am at a street corner trying to make heads or tails of a street map to find a place to sit and relax, not to unwind at a blockbuster movie, reading subtitles, on my feet.

By knowing to get hopping bright and early on sick days to reserve my slot at the doctor, or to have an actual exercise session before expecting to get fit from a session by diving in the pool, I've fine tuned my waiting game over the years. At the end of the Hollywood version of the sinking of the Titanic, there wasn't a dry eye in the house, save mine. I assure you, however, if I were standing and reading the entire 3 hour and 14 minute movie long, I would have been a sobbing mess too. I guess I need more practice to reach an adequate level of patience. Indeed, I haven't mastered the skill of crowd tolerance on the level of control that my more patient than me hosts have, but I can accept that a Midwesterner in this town is not built to master this one. Maybe by my next visit home, they're be a new second run round of Oscar hopefuls at the lonely dollar, and I'll sit in my beloved near empty theater, and in that peace and quiet, reflect that in my amateur waiting skills status, I can reach into my inner no standing zone after all.

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