3:45 in the morning and my alarm is ringing. Within 5 minutes I’m out of bed, have fetched my bags and am near the front door making last minutes adjustments to my hand-baggage and check-in baggage. I’m flying to Japan in a few hours and I’m way too excited to be sleeping.
Just before 4, the taxi pulls up outside. I leave the house – it’s the middle of the night – and the friendly taxi driver takes my bags and puts them into the boot of his car. Two minutes later, we’re driving up to the Malahide Road towards Dublin airport. The driver is a chirpy fellow who’s spent many years taxiing.
‘Japan!’, he says, ‘is it safe over there?’
‘Yes’, I reply, ‘it is. Apart from the tsunami devastated region on the Northeast coast and the nuclear exclusion zone in Fukushima, Japan is safe to visit.’
It’s a well rehearsed answer, one I have given many times in the previous few weeks. Whenever anybody learned that yes, I was still going to Japan, they naturally enough asked me about the ‘situation over there’. My research on the topic could never claim to be definitive or comprehensive – everyone, to some extent, is grappling with imperfect information. But having reviewed a sufficiently broad selection of data and serious analysis, I’ve concluded that it is on balance, safe to travel. The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs are saying travel but ‘exercise caution’ and the World Health Organization is ‘not advising general restrictions on travel to Japan’. My final thoughts on the matter are that if it’s good enough for my girlfriend who is over there, well then it’s good enough for me.
After clearing the topic, our conversation turned to the Japanese people: ‘Orientals’, in the taxi driver’s opinion, ‘are always very polite. Even when drunk’, he says, ‘they’re never discourteous.’ It was a positive generalization that I was happy to agree with and for the last part of the short journey we exchanged anecdotes about the politeness of ‘Orientals’.
After being dropped off outside the departure gates, I entered the underpopulated and relaxed airport, found my check-in desk and stood waiting in the short queue. While thus idling, I got my first dose, of what is for me, a regular treat of traveling: whimsical and quirky english. On the backpack of the Chinese guy in front of me was this corny little ditty:
‘Life is a wandering fad for whirlwind,
Wandering in every corner of the self.
Full of luggage carrying on the vision of the future,
The dream is at hand.’
After checking in, I went upstairs to get some breakfast in the 24 hour canteen. I loaded up my plate with a full Irish of rashers, sausages, scrambled eggs, black & white pudding and toast, found a seat and went to work. The dining was a peculiar experience. It was 4:30 in the morning, the canteen was scorched by white fluorescent lighting and exuberant salsa music blared out at diners and staff alike. The clientelle were a mish-mash of humanity: tired couples arguing while their sprightly children got hyper from coca-cola, Irish lads launching full frontal assaults on their hunger with burgers & chips, slim girls nursing tiny croissants, other girls who had clearly gotten up an extra half-hour early to apply all that make-up, and all the solo travelers nonchalantly pretending that the entire setting was completely normal.
I left the spectacle of the canteen and went downstairs. After being processed through security, I found my departure gate and at 5:40 boarded the plane on the first leg of my journey to Paris Charles de Gaulle. It was an uneventful flight: 2 hours later at 9:30 local time, we touched down in Paris. As we taxied up the runway, the hijab-clad woman beside me struck up a friendly conversation.
‘Was Paris my final destination?’ she asked. ‘Japan’, I replied and in response to her next question, I gave my standard answer about the country’s safety. The woman was also making a connection from Paris, she was going onto Cairo where a family reunion of sorts was taking place. Originally from Sudan, she had been living in Ireland for many years with her husband, a doctor. She marvelled at how practical, organized and patient the Japanese were, she was full of faith that they would surmount the trials and challenges of the recent earthquake.
‘We are so emotion’, she told me. ‘Too much feeling’ she said. I listened and asked what she thought of the recent events in Egypt. She was enthusiastic and quite hopeful that the young people who, with such determination had ousted Mubarak, would get the freedoms they deserved. The doors of the airplane then opened and we slowly disembarked. I had enjoyed my short chat with the friendly woman from Sudan – it was courteous, free of cynicism and full of hope for the peoples and events of the world – fine sentiments to go traveling with.
As international airports go, the high-ceilinged departure hall of Paris Charles De Gaulle is a comfortable enough place to spend a few hours waiting for your plane. It’s bright, not too crowded and there’s a decent selection of small shops. I bought of bottle of Irish whiskey for my Japanese hosts, had some mediocre airport food, walked the length of the hall a few times and reclined on the comfortable chairs at the end of the hall.
As the time for my departure to Tokyo neared, a concentration of Japanese people gathered at the departure gates. I wondered afterwards whether it would be possible to locate one’s departure gates, not by the number of the gate, but by the faces, appearances and behaviour of those already gathered at the gate. Such a experiment would inevitably end up relying on national stereotypes. At Gate 42, there were plenty of very Japanese looking faces, a few people watching movies on laptops, a group of girls giggling together, a couple of people were wearing white face masks and everyone looked clean, healthy and patient. First impressions of Japan.