Japan 2010: 22 - Where I Make the Long Journey Home

The little resurrected alarm clock beeped into life at 6.15am. I dispassionately rolled over and looked into the gloom. It was still pretty dark, and the discoloured grey-cream walls around my head merged into the darkness. I stared at my toe in the reflection of the little TV in the corner. It was time to begin a long journey back home.

I had taken the wise decision a couple of days previous to buy the Narita Express ticket, although my optimism that buying it with the soon-to-expire pass didn't work out. I had to pay the going rate of 3310yen, which got me from Shinjuku to the airport. Now all I had to do was get there.

I washed and clothed, and packed my remaining things into my bulging bags, and after checking and re-checking the room for items that I'd forgotten to pack like some sort of loony, I finally took the psychologically important step of walking out of the door and locking it behind me. I had a standard sized small satchel, a large 35-litre backpack, and a wheeled luggage case, care of Don Quijote. They were all full to the brim with things for friends and family to open when they got home, and for me to remember my time here. Volcano dust from Kagoshima. Coral and seashells from Okinawa. Obscure games and treats from Akihabara. Volcanic rocks from Aso, and precious stones from the Akiyoshi plains. These and so many other things from my last three weeks held within them a thousand memories. I had no idea where it all was in the mass of taut fabric, or what I was going to do with it, but for now, I just had to worry about getting it the 6000 or so miles back home.

The first job was to get to the station. I checked out about 7am in the hope of missing the morning rush. No chance. When I reached the station it was already home to an efficiently moving weave of people going about their business; most of them going on the train. I stopped off for a last munch of that excellent bacon bread and then put myself on the train.

I was already sweating from heaving round my own weight in tat, but the discomfort got worse when I boarded. I had no way of removing my backpack and the train was standing room only. I could feel a dozen or so eyes burrowing into the back of my neck as I stood there gently crushing a young woman's face against the doors behind me, something that went doubly so as the train lurched between lines and came to a halt at the stations.

Mercifully the journey eventually ended at Shinjuku and I could head off to platform 5 where the Narita Express would soon be appearing, at my own pace - there was for once plenty of strolling time.

I wrote a bit of diary during the journey and had a check through my flight details once more, but made sure I spent a good half of it gazing out of the window at the final view of the country. I'd seen a lot of Japan through train windows but this time it had been tempered and replaced by spending a little more time actually out there. I was contented with that. I still had many places I wanted to go, but they could wait a year or so.

The greenery slowly replaced the built-up urban views, and aside from a second glimpse of the Tokyo Sky Tree in the distance dwarfing everything around it, my final views of the country were non distinct houses and scrubland, which though plain, felt like a gentle way of winding down after the visual assault I had just experienced.

Working my way through the passages in the bowels of Narita airport, I was stopped politely but firmly by a security guard, just outside the office where I had got my rail pass when I arrived. The sudden jolt out of the rhythm of my journey put me a little on edge, and I was reminded of how nervous I was - although for different reasons - the last time I was stood there. It was a 'security check' and he asked me where I had been. Well, I had to indulge myself, didn't I? I rattled off the list of places I had been on my journey round, and my visible enthusiasm must have had a positive effect, as he loosened up considerably after that. I got a couple of questions about who packed my bags, and then he let me go.

Up a few floors was the huge room containing all the flight service desks, and the large F board held the Virgin check-in desks. Predictably there was quite a queue for cattle class, and I had arrived about 1.5 hours before takeoff, which by plane standards is cutting things a little fine. After a little while the queue began to move and I snaked my way slowly to the desk.

Virgin did a lot of things better than what KLM/Air France did (my choice for the first trip). They had better food and service, and seemed to be generally a bit more competent; however, my opinion of them took a battering when I handed over my checked luggage and was told that the extra suitcase I'd bought would be charged extra - right there and then I had to leave the queue and pay 5000yen (about £40) with my debit card to get it on board. Air France had no such problems before. Grr.

I didn't let it bother me. I rejoined the queue (thankfully allowed to push in) and then finally boarded the plane. I got an aisle seat next to a middle-aged American woman who didn't seem to talk much (although we shared an amusing moment over the squid dinner). Frankly this was okay by me, as my eyes were getting heavy.

But I couldn't sleep, so the enticing allure of complementary films won me over. I watched the last half of The A Team movie (meh), then Toy Story 3 (again, because it's excellent), and finished off with Kick-Ass, which I really wasn't expecting to enjoy half as much as I did. I must remain on the lookout for more films where a small girl with purple hair swears her head off and kills people with impunity. It's a much under-represented genre.

The plane was about fifteen minutes late taking off, which was of little concern. However by the time we reached the shores of Blighty and came into land at Heathrow, the healthy buffer between setting down and getting on the connecting flight to Manchester was almost completely gone. It was pretty clear by this point that even if I would make the transfer, my luggage would not, yet again.

This is where things went a bit wrong. I don't find it coincidental that it happened as I stepped back on British soil. Out of the influence of the far east, things just stop working, and people begin not giving much of a crap. It happened on my last two flights back to Blighty, and it was about to happen again, although this time it would be more convoluted.

'This is your captain. We are sat on the runway awaiting permission to taxi in. Those passengers who are taking a connecting flight will be pleased to hear that I have radioed in to have them hold on for you until we get you disembarked and on your way'.


I disembarked with about a half hour before the plane to Manchester left. I was at Terminal 3. I had to get to Terminal 1. This involved a lot of pacing round passageways and up and down escalators, plus some outside running between buildings and a bus ride that was far too 'sunday drive' for my current state of mind. It also meant an unwelcome baggage search and sweaty rub down at a bank of scanners. I say a bank, there was four, but only one had anyone manning it. The huge queue was achingly slow to move. Next to me was an equally exasperated man who I recognised from the flight. Howard was a high-flying although weary-looking German businessman on his way to a meeting in Manchester. We'd sort of acknowledged each others' presence on the bus between terminals but now we had got some quality time next to each other in the queue, so we got talking. He was reasonably suited up whereas I was less than smart, with a few days of beard and probably a little more body odour than was polite in company. Nevertheless we helped pass the time as we neared the front of the queue, until an angry storm of arched-eyebrow Russian womanhood came pushing through the queue and in front of us.

'Let me through, I'm late for my flight', she said as we sensibly got out of the way. She worked the metal detector in double-quick time and was through the next bit before we could blink.

Once through the gate, it was a mad dash - with all my remaining energy - round the passageways and predictably right out to the final bloody gate in the building at the far end. Had we made it? Had the dulcet words of the pilot worked to keep that gate open just long enough for me to make it through the assault course?

I trudged back from the gate, which had closed only a couple of minutes before. 'You'll have to catch the next one', the oh-so helpful steward said from behind the desk. When I asked when that was, she gave me the words that made my face fall. 'About 9.50pm', she said.

If the plane set off at 9.50pm, that meant it would land in Manchester about 11pm. The trains stopped running about that time, and as I recalled from last time, there was a lot of 'delayed baggage' form filling, metal detector-ing and, running over blue escalators before I would be allowed out into the open air of the train platform. It just couldn't be done.

Howard and the nameless Russian woman met me coming the other way. She was stomping, and had made her presence further felt by complaining loudly to an unfortunate lackey behind a nearby service desk, which by coincidence was the one I had been directed to go to to get an alternate flight. Russian woman immediately went on the offensive again, kicking off about the delays and the treatment, and where she had to be. The stewards had heard it all before and knew which words to use in response. Unsurprisingly, the angry Russian woman left us in a stream of incomprehensible words trailing off, never to return. I wouldn't have wanted to spend much more time with her, although if I'd have pushed through that huge queue like she did, maybe I'd have just made my flight.

Howard and me talked at a more reasonable volume with the steward at the desk, reviewing our options. We could transfer to a British Airways flight if we wanted which left an hour earlier, but it would mean we would have to go to Terminal 3 where someone behind a Virgin desk would be able to do the necessary key tappings. I asked about my bags, wary of my outward trip, but was assured that due to the delay they would both make it up with me to Manchester.

So we went. Howard lent me his mobile so I could ring my parents as I would be spending the night at theirs, if I was ever going to make it home that night, but there was no signal in the airport buildings, so we pressed on. After a lot of explaining at the Virgin desk (Howard had clearly done this before, and he shared a few stories of such cockups as we went) we eventually managed to transfer our flights for free, and then got the lift down to the shiny new Heathrow Express underground train to Terminal 5.

About 10 minutes wait and 10 minutes ride, and we were there. As well as the seats, Howard managed to wrangle for us a free pass into the 'North Lounge' - a business lounge filled with free coffee, soft sofas, nondescript pictures on the walls.. and free grub.

It was like a mini version of one of those buffet restaurants, with a selection of complimentary nosh and a few drinks to choose from. Having just come from the country that cannot do Indian cuisine for toffee, I eyed up the Tikka Masala with slavering lips, although I did eventually plump for their very European beef goulash which was close enough to being a traditional British meat and two veg as made no difference. I wolfed down a couple of platefuls as Howard more sensibly chewed his Korma.

Full up, we went our separate ways and passed the time until the gate numbers came up. I stuffed a few complementary biscuits into my backpack and tried to sit somewhere that was not so comfortable that I would fall asleep. Eventually, Gate 9 flashed up under the Manchester flight, so I wasted no time in heading off.

I spent a further twenty minutes sat in the gate lounge next to a man who reeked of pipe smoke, which helped me to stay awake at least, and then we all filed on. The journey started pretty much on time, but my now full stomach was sending messages to my brain that it was time to shut down for the night, which in an off and on way, did until the skyline of Manchester caught my attentions.

It was after 10pm now. I ran to the luggage area and - well, the backpack had made it at least, but the souvenir-packed case could have been anywhere. Fortunately I had pre-empted the situation and wrote down a description of each of my cases so I wouldn't be taxing my brain too much when I had to describe my missing property. I filled out the appropriate form, hulked my pack onto my back, and ran along the blue escalators until they ran out and the railway started.

I made it in time for one of the final trains to Leeds, and fortunately there was little in the way of ruffians to bother me along the route. By half past eleven, I was in Leeds, which was close enough for a Taxi home. I stepped out into the cold air of a brand new day and climbed the steps to my parents house, said hello, slurped a cup of proper Yorkshire tea, and then collapsed into a newly made bed.

Final Thoughts
In some ways, my second jaunt around Japan was an improvement on the first one. I had managed to keep my innards from turning to liquid this time by being a bit more careful with my food choices (and not running myself into the ground so much - spending more time smelling the flowers instead of trying to cover stupid amounts of miles per day), and the pre-booking of all the hotels certainly freed up my time to go do other things. It felt like a holiday.

But there was still much room for improvement. I kind of liked the flexibility I had when there the first time because if the journey got too crazy or I fell ill, I could change the route. This was not open to me here, but fortunately I had planned things sensibly enough not to need it.
I guess the main problem I had this time was that the second half of the trip could not hope to compete with the first half. Weather played it's part, as things slowly became cooler the further north I went (Tokyo was a wash-out both times), but the killer was the time spent in each spot. In the first half - Okinawa, Aso, Nagasaki - these were my favourites, and coincidentally the ones where I spent more than one day at. After Nagasaki, it was just a single night's stopover at each location until I got back to Tokyo - and that meant little time to relax, explore or make friends with other people.

The Good Bits

  • Onsen -Relaxing and liberating!
  • Okinawa (even though it was blisteringly hot) - a beautiful place
  • Night-time Nagasaki
  • The people I met along the way, who were friendly and kind (and generous with the freebies!)
  • Many more beautiful sights

The Bad Bits

  • Feeling a bit vulnerable after the last night in Okinawa
  • The increased presence of western religion
  • Rushing through the last half and not really having time to enjoy the ride
  • Rain-soaked Tokyo!
  • Not sharing the journey with someone (aside from with this blog!)

What I would hope to include next time

  • A winter in Hokkaido - the wildlife, the ice festivals and the beautiful landscapes
  • A major festival - maybe the Nagasaki Kunchi festival which looked cool, (there are many others)
  • The Tokyo Marathon - can my legs take it?
  • Going with someone - maybe I can find someone mad enough to share the experience next time.
  • Hakone, just outside Tokyo
  • Taking a couple of days to climb Mt. Fuji
  • The third view of Japan (which apparently survived the earthquake with little damage despite being pretty close to it
  • .....
At some point after the nuclear problems die down, I'll be off once more to see what I can see. But for now, that will do me for a bit.

No comments: