Despite his penchant for the wacky and outrageous, Mr. Sato can also display an extremely pensive side.

Mr. Sato had always hated trains, especially when headed into Tokyo. For his first job in the capital city working at a store in Aoyama, he had always ridden his bike for the hour commute, rain or shine. Regardless of whether he had actually liked it or not, those commuting days always felt surprisingly short–especially when compared to the feeling of being trapped in a train.

For the past two months Mr. Sato hadn’t ridden a single train. Other than on May 1 when he went by bike to the Don Quijote store in Shin-Okubo to buy a mini laptop, he had really only gone to places where he could get to by foot.

…Until June 3, that is, which was the first day he stepped on a train since April 3.

It was also the first time in a while that he’d left the house in the early morning. If he felt like it, sometimes he would go out for a little walk around the neighborhood to stretch his legs. However, even if shops were operating they didn’t open until 11 a.m., so there was no real reason to go out in the morning. For most days in the recent past, he had woken up, eaten breakfast, done things around the house, and worked until lunch, which he went out to buy. After that it was back to work again until evening came. Every day was a repeating pattern, just like that, as a result of the changes brought about by COVID-19.

Along the way to the station everyone he saw was wearing a mask. Stores he passed everywhere had signs out front saying they were closed or detailing their reopening plans. He imagined the saddened feelings of the shopkeepers who hung up these signs against their wishes. Just looking at the writing made him feel down.

Walking into JR Nakano Station, he mused that it had been two full months since he passed through the gates at a train station. Undoubtedly the last time he had tapped the automated ticket gate with his Suica card was on April 3 (he remembered it because the SoraNews24 editorial team had put together a plastic car model on that date). At that time, they all had a sense that things were going to get a little tough from there on out, but they never imagined the full extent of social distancing that was to come. For instance, he thought he’d be able to do his daily pole dancing lesson by the second week of April, but the last time he practiced was in mid-March. He hadn’t so much as touched a pole since then.

While tapping his Suica card he was suddenly reminded that he should check his remaining balance. He never needed to give that kind of thing any extra thought when using it every day, but at this point he had completely forgotten how much was left on it. Thankfully there weren’t insufficient funds and he passed through the gate without a problem. So far so good, but then he hesitated. “Which track number is it again?!” he thought.

The Sobu Line that Mr. Sato uses arrives on either Track 2 or Track 5, so he always has to check. After confirming that this time it would be Track 2, he went to stand on the platform. The view from there was a touch nostalgic.

“In a moment, the local train bound for Tsudanuma will arrive on Track 2. Please stand behind the yellow line for your safety.”

Every time he was near the station over the past two months he could hear this distant announcement as if it were happening somewhere far away and removed from his life. Now, being right there under it, he felt traces of his former daily life returning to him.

He stepped into the first passenger car which is always relatively uncrowded. He had the impression that people were riding the train to the same extent as before. However, the atmosphere wasn’t yet the same as it was, and it seemed like everyone was struggling to grasp some sense of the ordinary again. It appeared they were also seeking to distance themselves from others, both literally and figuratively.

Some passengers got on and others got off at Higashi-Nakano Station. The pattern repeated itself at Okubo Station. Each and every one of them was clutching to their own “normal” and it seemed strange to Mr. Sato that he was there at that time, in that place, to cross paths with them for a brief moment in time.

“How have you been? Has it been hard?” he whispered to no one in particular inside his mind.

He had once hated it so much–inhabiting the same space on a train with strangers. Now, the moment felt dear to him in some way.

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