“One does not travel by plane; one is merely sent, like a parcel”
So said Karen Blixen, and that is how I’m starting to feel after so many hours travelling. Like an inanimate object attached to a seat: immobile and numb, unable to fully sleep and unable to fully waken. Initially, the prospect of a 12 hour flight filled me with a brimming sense of possibility on how to spend the time. Full of good intentions, I started out with orange juice, journal-entries and reading Japanese novels – but just a few hours later, it was all double-whiskeys, Die-Hard and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
Our plane took a northern flight line and most of the travelling time was spent getting over Russia – a monstrosity of a country spanning 9 time zones. At different times during the flight, a look out the window gave a glimpse of the epic geography of Mother Russia: the mouth of the Volga, the snowy Ural Mountains and the endless forests of Siberia.
In time, our flight crossed China and South Korea. Dense metropolises of towering sky-scrapers were visible through the orange smog, giving an indication of heavily populated and polluted cities. Over Japan it became more cloudy, making none of the country over which we travelled visible. The normal flight line for destination Tokyo changed to a more southerly trajectory, to avoid in the words of the pilot, northeastern Japan and its troubled nuclear power plant. As we descended through the clouds towards Narita airport, the Japanese landscape becomes visible for the first time. Nearly 60 km east of Tokyo and the terrain below was all rice paddies and golf courses.
After landing and disembarking, we the passengers follow the signs towards immigration control and baggage collection. Unexpectedly, the first outpost of authority we encounter is a very well-staffed health clinic. It bears a multi-lingual sign, which in English states that if we’ve felt unwell during our flight, we should immediately have ourselves checked out here. There are at least four staff members – none are occupied, but all look approachable – a number of different rooms and a plethora of medical paraphernalia to cater for any apparent medical need or emergency. I’m quite disarmed by the primary importance given to health: even before my passport and papers have been checked, resources have been made available to ensure that if I’m feeling unwell, everything will be done to make sure I feel better. I’m really curious about the whole set-up and look on inquiringly; but despite my earlier grumblings about the pain of air travel, I’m in fine fettle and have no reason to stop, so I press on. They have to let me into the country yet.
Immigration control is well-staffed like the health clinic, but there’s a serious air of hustle and bustle. Numerous officials run back & forth checking our security forms and then directing us over to the appropriate queue: Japanese or Non-Japanese. I hand over my form, completed on the plane, confirming that I’m not importing any firearms, hard drugs or explosives; then face-to-face with a Japanese passport guard, I submit both my index fingers for fingerprinting, undergo a retina scan and have my passport scanned and stamped with a 90 day tourist visa. The guard waves me on. So far so good, all methodical and swift.
At the baggage carousel, my rucksack comes out after just a short wait. I load up and walk towards customs and towards the exit but it’s clear from the demeanour of the guard who’s eyeballing me, that there’s no way I’m getting through without a proper bag search. The man, in fairness to him, is full of professional courtesy. He has a thoroughly good grope around my bag, inspects the full innards of my carry-on baggage and then wishes me well on my first trip to Japan. At last, having jumped through all the hoops, I’m free to leave. Through the arrivals gates I go and there, like an oasis out of a desert, is my beloved waiting faithfully.