Please do not Enter While Cleaning

KYOTO – At 4:19, I arrive on the platform at Kyoto Station, but the train doesn’t depart until 4:46, leaving me with, uncharacteristically, loads of time to spare. I’m looking forward to taking a comfy seat and catching up on Empire Falls before departure.

At 4:28 the train pulls in, and I make my way to the car when a young, spry fellow in a racing-car-blue jumpsuit and matching yellow baseball cap cuts me off, wheels a cart inside and blocks off the doorway with a blue plastic chain. “Please do not enter while cleaning,” reads the sign hanging from the chain.

“I rarely do,” I think, involuntarily smirking over the half-dozen other ways I’ve seen the English language mangled since 9am (the day’s winner: tarutaru sauce. You put it on fried fish).

But it’s easy to be cynical, and soon the guy in the jump suit reminds me why I admire what I admire about this country.

With great intent, he empties the garbage from the bins in the vestibule. Meanwhile, a young woman in a matching blue skirt and baseball cap has entered the car. She buzzes through, inspecting every window ledge for trash and putting empty cans in a plastic bag. She joins the guy in the vestibule and separates the bottles and cans out of both sets of garbage.

The guy produces a bottle of cleaning solution, sprays it around the vestibule and commences to scrubbing with a white rag. He wipes the windows, the walls, the glass partitions. He empties the ashtrays and buffs them until they shine.

Inside the car, the woman brandishes a feather duster the size of your head and the color of an old lady’s blue hair, which she flashes with a flourish across each seat. The guy joins her, taking the rag with the cleaning solution on it and wiping down the armrests and window ledges.

Then comes the mop, a more-than cursory swabbing of the deck, a scrub of the rims of the dustbins, then the electric broom.

Soon they’re back inside car, fiddling with something or other, after which the seats turn around to face west, in unison like figures in a music box. “Sugoi!” (“Wow!”) says the woman next to me in line, one of a dozen people watching the spectacle. Then the guy’s on the walkie-talkie, and only when he nods do I see the chains being removed in all the doorways up and down the train. It’s 4:44.

I barely have time to sink into my seat and imagine an American cleaning crew saying “Yeah, right” to this whole display, when the train pulls out, past 3-D mosaics of Kyoto’s famous pagodas, glowing vermillion and pink in the sparkling windows as the sun hits them through puffy October clouds.