The sound of music

"Can I ask you a question?"

Evidently so, since you just did. Still, this particular Japanese passenger on the express train from New Chitose Airport to Sapporo was manoeuvring an intriguing large bag into which he'd managed to wedge a hard guitar case so the curiosity was mutual. I produced a smile that I hoped belied the fact I'd been travelling for over 24 hours and encouraged him to continue.

"What are you doing in Sapporo?"

He probably expected to hear something involving English teaching but instead received a far more unlikely tale consisting of an astrophysics appointment with a splattering of physics lecturing at the university.

"You're British!" he exclaimed. "Were we on the same plane?"

It turned out that my new friend had just arrived back from a year in London where he had been taking a graduate course. Prior to that, he had been teaching English in Taiwan. The guitar, I learned, was a British acquisition.

"I used to have a very expensive guitar," he told me wistfully. "But I sold it before I went to Taiwan and I didn't have one there. I really missed it. When I arrived in London, I went straight to the music shops!"

He looked like a musician too, if musicians can have certain looks. His black hair was shoulder length and he wore round glasses.

"Sapporo is a popular city to live in," he continued. "But few can because there aren't enough jobs in the area."


Wait no, that's the jet-lag talking. I re-phrased my instinctual response to say how much I had liked the city during my previous visits. He mentioned that he was particularly envious of me being at Hokkaido University since he would have liked to study there himself. I asked him where he had done his first degree.

"Ah, actually... not in Japan. I went to San Francisco." One hand dropped down to fondle the top of the guitar case. "I... didn't do all that well in High School so I couldn't get in. But in America you can study at community colleges to improve your grades and then transfer!"

It was a great system since school grades can go awry for many reasons. I glanced down to see my companion's hand was still hooked around the encased instrument. Of course, some instances of students under-performing perhaps had more obvious sources than others. It was interesting to note that apparently Japan did not have such a scheme for correcting the errors of a miss-spent youth.

"Yes... I really loved my music in school... perhaps too much."

Mmmhmm. Despite my amusement, it was impressive that this was now water under the bridge. Also, given the intense nature of the Japanese education system, it was rather reassuring to find that people have the same pitfalls the world over.

"The English was difficult in California." I was told after mentioning the musician's obvious linguistic skills as we pulled into Sapporo station. "The Japanese are very good at taking tests so we tend to get put in a high level language course. Then we struggle much more than other students with speech, but we catch up again with the essays."

I could see this so clearly that I had a feeling this was about to become the byline for my life.