Japan is no stranger to tourists, but nonetheless there is never anything stranger than me on the subway. I have seen dogs in baby carriages. I have stepped around a leather-clad host boy passed out face first on the floor of a women-only carriage. I have watched an entire row of identical schoolgirls fall simultaneously asleep on the shoulders to their left.
I live in Sapporo, a city of two million on the island of Hokkaido, far from the glamour and international charm of Tokyo. It’s hardly the sticks – it’s a big city with big buildings, internationalized in all the most recognizable American ways. You can’t make a left turn without ending up in a Starbucks. The presence of other cultures is undeniable. On my daily commute I see women perfectly turned out in kimono rubbing elbows with girls sporting Lady Gaga t-shirts.
And yet: most days I will not see another foreign face (other than the few souls I work with). It’s not a tourist hub, Sapporo, though in winter the epic snow brings myriad noisy Australians dressed in neon, and the Snow Festival in February usually encourages a few Russians to make the ferry trip. Most days, I will in the subway, during rush hour on a Monday morning. I will sit quietly, plugged into Kimbra, demure, with elbows tucked in and knees together. Most days, I will keep my eyes closed for the majority of the commute, or I will stare at my knees, or I will peruse my Twitter feed for amusing #inappropriatefuneralsongs (“No Air” is my current favourite). My shirts are buttoned to the chin and, given that it’s 7am, I usually don't smell yet.
Despite all this, the seats on either side of me will almost invariably remain unoccupied. Little old ladies will stand, swaying gently, rather than risk any accidental physical contact with the dangerous red-haired foreigner.
I’ve never been stared at like I’m stared at in Japan. Some days, it beggars belief. The Japanese are a savvy people. They read. Their broadband speed is insane, so I know they’re kept abreast of the internet. The only logical conclusion from this is that they’ve seen at least ONE other foreign face in their lifetime. George Bush, perhaps. Oprah. And I know I’m at least four sixths more typical looking than either of the above. Perhaps it is something about being physically exposed to something so totally unfamiliar that does it. I mean they could – god forbid – touch me, if so moved. I did, in fact, have one elderly gentleman approach me once as I queued for the subway. I saw him coming from a long way off, so unflinching was his gaze. He moved querulously, as if his body were fighting his mind, but his stare held steady as he got within my phone-box of personal space, lifted one hand to my bangs and intoned solemnly ‘Akai’ (red), as if it were a mantra or a curse or a blessing.
I was strangely moved as he walked away. I’m pretty sure at least one of us had just had some sort of a religious experience. If he’d asked, I would have happily told him that the specific color is Red Passion, Shade #42, and that I thought that with his skin tone, he could just about pull it off.