It hasn’t been that long since my last outing, but it’s time again for my next great adventure. This time, I’m leaving the continent for the first time in almost 14 years — I’m going to Japan.
Chris is staying there another year, and I’m going to take advantage of that by going out and visiting him. It’s been far too long since the last time I saw my best friend, and I shudder to thing that it’ll be at least another year before I’d see him again.
This won’t be a cheap trip, that’s for sure. This will probably put me so far into debt that I’ll be lucky to leave Calgary, let alone travel anywhere. But hey, if you only live once, then you’d best darn-well live it!
I’m currently sitting in Seat 47A of my Boeing 747-400, awaiting the departure of our plane from San Francisco Airport. I sit here with a mix of excitement and fear. Excitement for doing something new and unusual, but fear of the unknown. I don’t know what I will see, or how everything will unfold.
I don’t know why I sense fear at these sorts of things — I love a challenge and I love adventure. I suppose it’s an autonomic response — my subconscious telling me something, I suppose. But I’m not going to let it stop me — not when there’s something new to explore!
We’re still about six hours from landing. I haven’t been on a flight this long since I visited the Soviet Union in 1989. This flight is considerably longer for me — and a little more daunting. The Pacific Ocean is a lot larger than the Atlantic.
All the blinds in the plane are closed, and most of the lights turned off. Most of the people are sleeping, even though it’s late afternoon. (I’d be getting off work in about 10 minutes were I still in Calgary.) If I do open the blinds, all I can see is ocean and cloud. No ships, no land.
Travelling like this is a little odd. For all I know, I could be in a virtual simulator of a plane. When I enter I’m in San Francisco, and when I exit I’m miraculously transported to Tokyo. Mind you, I’ve always found air travel like this.
The flight is mostly empty. I have an entire row to myself, as does the man in the row ahead of me. There is no-one for two rows behind me. I don’t know if this is normal for these flights, but considering United Airlines 837 runs New York – San Francisco – Narita – Seoul, I’d think there’d be a few more people here. Maybe it’s fears of SARS or of flying during the waning days of the Iraq war. I don’t know, but having this much space to myself is almost as much a luxury as first class.
It’s a long way to Japan yet, and I’ve still got a lot of daytime ahead of me.
I faded in and out of sleep over the course of the flight, trying desperately to adjust myself to arriving in mid-afternoon Tokyo. Even the idea of drinking as much as possible in hopes the alcohol would put me out didn’t help. (For the record, I didn’t ever get drunk, but I did have two beers in succession.)
I woke from my third rather fitful nap about two hours out of Narita. All I could see was ocean, cloud, sky, and a really big freakin’ wing. The third movie of the flight, "Two Weeks’ Notice" was just finishing. (We’d already seen "Clockstoppers" and "Star Trek: Nemesis".) The second meal service was about to begin — I’d had teriyaki chicken the first time, so I went with the non-chicken option: a very tasty three-cheese pasta.
Half an hour before landing, all we could see was cloud. The plane soon descended into the thick white cover, and everything vanished from view — I couldn’t even see the wing.
For about 20 minutes, we bobbed through the clouds. Outside, the clouds went from absolute pure white to a medium gray. I looked down out the window, hoping that I’d see something through the haze.
Slowly, shapes peeked through. Then the clouds peeled back like a movie dissolve to reveal the Japanese countryside. Rice fields, highways, country paths, small farms, collectives — it was exactly as I’d imagined.
The flight arrived about 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Pulling into the terminal, we deplaned and found our way to immigration. Narita is a big airport — it’s a long way away from the gate I came in at.
The Japanese immigration process, according to the video we saw on the plane, works like this: You enter through a series of health inspection booths, then through immigration. After that, you find your bags, and then go through customs. It looked pretty straight-forward, though I had two reservations. First, I’m Canadian, and these SARS fears could detain me. Second, I didn’t have Chris’ address in Yotsukaido, which meant I might have trouble going through immigration.
The health inspection booths were closed, so we went right through. As I passed, I saw a sign asking residents of certain cities worldwide to go to the Health Inspection Office before going through immigration. Toronto was on the list.
Immigration was only half-open, but the line was quite short. In about 10 minutes, we went through the line and it was my turn to convince the officer it was safe to let me into the country.
"What address are you staying at in Yotsukaido?"
I did my best to look completely sheepish and explained that I’d completely forgotten to bring the address, and the phone number (which was asked for immediately after). She looked at me, at the passport, at the embarkation form, and them back at me. Stone-faced. I wasn’t nervous ... yet. But then she stamped the passport, the form, and welcomed me in.
My bag was already waiting, so all I had to do was grab it, take off the plastic bag, and huck over to the customs line. It went something like this:
"Are these all your bags?"
"Do you have anything to declare."
"No, I do not."
"Thank you, welcome to Japan."
Kaz was supposed to be waiting for me, but wasn’t there yet. Luckily, the arrival area is quite small, so there was little chance of me missing her. Instead, I just leaned up against a wall and waited.
After about 30 minutes, I started getting worried. Was Kaz here and missed me? (I was afraid I wasn’t going to remember what she looked like.) I thought about calling her or Chris. Problem: no phone numbers. I didn’t have either Chris’ house number or his cell number. I didn’t have Kaz’s number. I didn’t have Chris’ address. Basically, if Kaz didn’t show up, I was going to have some trouble.
That’s not to say I was entirely screwed. Worst-case scenario, I’d call Tamara back in Calgary, and have her pull Chris’ number from my cell phone, and check my email to see if Chris had sent any cell numbers.
Kaz appeared from out of nowhere, and suddenly, I felt a lot better. We grabbed the bags and started working on getting to Yotsukaido. Right after a quick bathroom break. While Kaz made use of the facilities, I grabbed a quick drink of water from the fountain. I had a Homer Simpson moment:
"Mmmm... foreign water..."
The train to Yotsukaido left at 16:00, about an hour from when Kaz found me. Having time to kill, we went to have a coffee ... at Starbucks. (I swear, you can’t get away from the place!) Although I have to say, I didn’t really mind — I wanted to see how different it is. The interior is a spitting image, save for the Japanese on the menu. The sizes are smaller than North America (a good thing) and the hot chocolate tastes a little different. But nothing too drastic.
We boarded the train around 16:50. This particular train was a local — although it does go all the way to Tokyo, it stops at most stops on the way. Yotsukaido is considered a local stop. It looks little more than a large subway train ... just with more advertisements covering virtually every surface, and hanging from the roof.
And we think we have it bad in North America!
The train zipped through the countryside, heading towards the urban jungle that surrounds Tokyo. Slowly, the rice fields gave way to parking lots and shopping malls. At the Narita city stop, we joined another train before continuing our trip towards Tokyo.
We finally arrived in Yotsukaido around 17:40, and disembarked from the train. Kaz immediately called Chris from her cell. We could already see him rounding the corner — the familiar orangy leather jacket bursting out from the surrounding cacophony of dark suits and dresses.
I haven’t seen Chris since I took him to the airport nearly a year ago. It didn’t take long for me to feel like I’d only seen him last week.
Chris took us to his school — barely a minute walk from the train station. It was a lot smaller than I’d imagined. Three stories, but barely had a footprint of 10 metres by 10 metres.
In Japan, everything is vertical.
Chris introduced us to his (somewhat eccentric) coworkers, including his managers and another teacher named Jan, pronounced "Yan". (Jan is also Chris’ next door neighbour.) He called my name as he walked down the stairs, and for a moment I thought he knew me from somewhere else. But it turns out he was just being a smarty-pants, hearing my name from higher up the stairs.
Kaz, Jan, and I left Chris to his own devices and headed over to Chris’ flat so I could drop off my (rather heavy) bag and explore a bit.
The first exploration was just going to Chris’ flat. Narrow streets, small houses with elaborate courtyards, cars that I’ve never seen before, and more vending machines than in all of Calgary. From there, the three of us headed to Mos Burger for something to eat.
Mos Burger is the rough equivalent to a Japanese Harvey’s. They have hamburgers of many kinds (according to Jan, they’re more like meatloaf burgers). I had a rice burger (rice patties instead of bread buns) filled with seafood and vegetables. Extremely tasty.
Jan had to return to work, so Kaz and I had to kill some time before Chris was available again. Kaz decided to show me around downtown Yotsukaido.
It doesn’t take long. It’s not very big.
One thing of note was the toy store. It’s not like any toy store I’ve been to — lots of kitchy little things, mostly Japanese (for obvious reasons), but with a fair few North American things thrown in for flavour.
Downstairs was a video arcade. It was a peculiar mix of new games we haven’t seen in North America yet, and games we haven’t seen for a decade. The arcades are smoky places, which is not particularly great, so chances are I won’t be spending too much time in them.
One game of note was a Kodo drumming game, similar to Samba Di Amigo or Dance Dance Revolutions. Kaz challenged me to a game, which I did reluctantly. Although much more fair than North America (it cost a little more than a dollar, but we got three plays out of it), Kaz whipped my keister.
When Chris got off work, we decided we’d go for sushi ... in Chiba City. Yotsukaido is a suburb of Chiba, which is a suburb of Tokyo. Chiba City is a couple of stops down from Yotsukaido.
Chiba City looks more like the stereotypically Japanese city — lots of lights, overhead monorail, the dark roads with lots of cars.
We went into a sushi bar that used a long conveyor belt to move items around. We didn’t really use it, though, favouring instead to order directly. Well, Kaz and Chris ordered — I just ate.
I have to say that, so far, sushi isn’t much different than in Canada. It’s very tasty, and there are certainly things we don’t have, but the biggest differences are in size (portions are a lot larger), the wasabi is very fresh, and the rice is warm. This is because the fish doesn’t have to be frozen first.
Eating our fill (which wasn’t too much) we proceeded to wander about Chiba a little. We ended up (on our way back to the station) at a place called Erotikave, a bar where the featured item is a bottle of Beefeater Gin with a rubber dildo affixed to the top. Rather odd...
There we met one of Chris’ friends, Shinichiro. He’s a freelance photographer, and a very funny guy. That’s when I realized just how good Chris’ Japanese has become — he understands most things told to him, and can hold himself very well in a conversation. He’s not too bad in translating, either.
Suddenly, it was a quarter to midnight. We had to bolt out to catch the last train to Yotsukaido. It was supposed to depart at 00:01, but was there until about 00:20. It was packed. I almost expected to see the guys with the white gloves.
Yotsukaido was quiet when we arrived. The flood of returning passengers disappeared quickly, and we walked in quiet back towards Chris’ flat. At least until we heard a very loud voice down one of the alleys.
It was Jan. He had been thinking about coming out with us, but had instead been caught in a meeting. Afterwards, he’d gone home to get drunk and watch "Last of the Mohicans". We caught him on a run to the local 7-11 to get some orange juice for the impending hangover.
Returning to the flat, we prepared for bed. Kaz is off back to Toyohashi tomorrow, and Chris has to work at 13:30. I just want to get some sleep.
I’ve had a very busy day.