Passengers wearing face masks look out the window during a train ride in Tokyo on Tuesday, the day Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency in parts of the country. Photo: AFP/Philip Fong

I’m a snowbird. My registered home in Japan, reached via stone steps down the steep side of what’s called God Mountain, is in serious snow country. The house is generally inaccessible in the winter.

So I spend the winter in a more hospitable clime and then, as soon as it is practical, I return. This year, Tuesday was the day for my return and I set out in the morning from Tokyo.

Tuesday also was the day Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was expected to announce a state of emergency in Tokyo, Osaka and five adjoining suburban prefectures in those metropolitan areas. (He did make that announcement, in the evening.)

Trains and buses would be operating as usual. I don’t keep a car in Japan. I had three big, heavy suitcases and there was no way I could carry those, along with my smaller but quite substantial luggage, through the train stations en route. I needed to take the big bags to an express delivery company. I expected to flag a taxi.

Dream on. First, no more than five taxis came my way in 20 minutes of waiting beside a major thoroughfare. Very odd. Obviously many cabbies were staying home, regardless of the fact the emergency decree wouldn’t take effect until Wednesday.

Second, I realized that I had neglected to wear a mask – and that taxi drivers, in a city where the majority of people now go masked in public, would not be likely to pick up a hairy, maskless gaijin.

So I rethought the matter and, properly masked and with a ride from a friend, made it to the express delivery company.

Heading for the country

From there I went to a suburban train station and boarded a train bound for Tokyo Station. Most people were wearing masks and passengers were distancing themselves from one another in a pattern of occupied seat, vacant seat, occupied seat – something that in normal times would be impossible because the crowds of travelers would be too dense.

At Tokyo Station, buying my bullet train ticket, I wondered if they would ask to see proof of my residence. City people are discouraged from going to the countryside to hide out from the virus. Rural areas have relatively rudimentary health care services, which could be overwhelmed if the coronavirus spreads. In Norway, I read, they now arrest city people who leave for their rural chalets.

No one asked for my residence card, which would have shown I’m officially not a city person.

I was asked to input a five-digit PIN rather than physically signing the credit card bill. That had never happened before, and I had no idea what number they might want, but a few days before I had received a notice from the Japan Times advising that my newspaper bill could not be paid with a US credit card after March 31.

I don’t know what that’s all about but intend to look into it further. That’s what we do in the news business.

I had heard predictions that the bullet trains would be crowded with people trying to head out of Tokyo before the emergency decree took effect. Not so. My bullet train car was sparsely populated. Everyone was masked, as far as I could see, and passengers chose seats so as to keep their distance.

Settling into my seat, I had the first opportunity to look over the day’s issue of the excellent Japan Times.

One story said a respirator made in Japan for pets, far simpler than the ones used for humans and costing only a tenth as much to build, is starting to sell well for use on human coronavirus victims under the supervision of doctors who don’t normally work with respirators and find this one easy to calibrate.

I could relate, having mailed to my asthmatic wife in the US, just in case, my own CPAP machine, made for treating sleep apnea and not ideal for pneumonia but perhaps useful if a top-of-the-line ventilator is unavailable.

Nothing to sneeze at

A couple of articles from the wire service Jiji Press took the Japanese to task for complacency. One quoted a Japanese doctor in New York City who worried that Tokyo people, failing to distance themselves from others, failing to wear masks and failing to wash their hands, would bring on the sort of huge crisis New Yorkers are now experiencing.

I’m not sure, since I’d been going out minimally while in Tokyo, but my impression is that even if the doctor had been right about the situation earlier in the week the emergency decree in the meantime may have caught people’s attention and changed some behavior for the better.

Racing through the mountains, ignoring the scenery flashing past outside the train, I was about to write down that optimistic thought when I felt a sneeze coming on. This sneeze, I sensed, was related to wearing the unfamiliar mask. I instinctively used one hand to push my mask up so I could cover the sneeze with my other hand – which, as I immediately realized, totally defeated the purpose of the mask. Fortunately, no one was in the line of fire.

We’re all new at this, when you get down to it. The Japanese are used to masks but not used to coronavirus.

At the other end of the bullet train ride, switching to a local train serving several mountain communities including mine, I decided to watch others closely and see if I could learn anything useful. At the beginning, everyone I could see in my car except the conductor was masked.

The conductor was a man in his 30s, I would say, and he marched through our car a couple of times exuding pride of position. He must be exposed to the germs of thousands of people daily. I couldn’t imagine why he’d be a mask holdout.

A teenaged boy with the knees ripped out of his jeans wore his mask mostly over his chin, covering his lower lip but not his upper lip or nose. I couldn’t make any sense out of that.

A masked man of 50 or so, who also wore a porkpie hat and glasses, suddenly stopped reading his book, stood and quickly turned to face the connecting door to the following car. Then he coughed. I supposed he couldn’t help coughing but was attempting to aim away from the rest of us. He did cough into his mask. I renewed my determination not to make my earlier mistake again.

At a stop along the way a short, middle-aged, invalid woman with a cane barely managed to pull herself up into the car. She sat across from me. She was not masked. If I had to guess why not, I’d say it’s because she was in great pain and needed to keep her mouth open – which she in fact did, alternately grimacing and yawning the whole time.

At the next stop, she pulled herself out of her seat with great difficulty, went to the door and squatted so that she could put her lower legs down and touch them to the platform before swinging up by the knees and out. She had practiced this movement a lot, I could tell, but still it was excruciating to watch her struggle.

The coronavirus, I imagine, was the least of her worries.