Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Getting there is half the fun: Part trois

I just traveled 14 1/2 hours on a plane from JFK in New York to Tokyo. Since this was my first point of entry into Japan, I had to fill out some paperwork on the plane in regards to customs. It upset me. The paperwork listed a bunch of items I wasn't allowed to bring back to America -- fruits, soil, blood (yes, blood), and weapons. It specifically said "No samurai swords." Bummer!

Once the plane landed, I glanced at my cell phone -- less than two hours to make a connecting flight to Osaka. I've never flown before; I had no idea how long the trip through customs would be. But two hours? I'd probably be okay. Right?

Welcome to Japan, Jeff. Let the insanity begin.

Immediately prior to the final descent, the captain announced over the PA system, "wryja stgjas Japan hgrh wjw rtyjws dhtgd swine flu mrtjw srfgjsf remain seated fhqjh oqrthqw aqh a few minutes." The plane lands, and then....nothing. I'm looking around; nobody's getting up. The flight attendants starting moving up and down the aisles, making sure we filled out our customs forms, and informing us that we'll be going through a minor precautionary measure due to the ongoing swine flu crisis. A few minutes later, the "minor precautionary measure" boarded the plane, in the form of three Japanese men, and one Japanese woman, dressed in full hazmat gear. If I didn't know any better, I'd say they just got back from mining plutonium for their flux capacitor. They approached us, one by one, pointed a gun-like device at our heads, and scanned to determine our temperatures. Then, they handed out a survey, and demanded (albeit rather kindly) that we answer everything honestly.

I wish I had a copy of the survey as a memento. One side was in Japanese, the other side was in 'hey-Tomo-we-know-you-flunked-out-of-English-class-but-can-you-translate-this-for-us-ese.' I had heard of "Engrish" before, but now I was holding an authentic piece in my hands. I felt all warm and fuzzy inside. The questions were basic -- where I've been recently, have I been sick, where will I be staying, etc -- and to their credit, the staff was very nice and understanding about the whole ordeal. After a half hour or so, we were allowed to leave.

Now I was truly on my own. I felt like a lemming (well, a non-suicidal lemming), just following the herd in whichever direction they went. lemmings move in herds? That's cows, right? Yeah...

I felt like a cow (well, a non-suicidal cow), just following the herd in whichever direction they went. That direction led to a bullet train within the airport, which had no signs as to where it was going. But hey...everybody else was doing it. After we herded (ha!) ourselves onto the train, it sped off to some other area -- customs! Step one complete!

I waited on line, behind some cranky old white dude who complained about everything, and his far-more-patient Japanese war bride. Well, I assume she was a war bride. I can't imagine her loving him for his witty charm. Behind me was another white dude, about ten years my senior, I'd guess. We exchanged nods, and he asked how I was doing. "A bit nervous," I admitted, told him it was my first time flying, and mentioned my concern about missing my connecting flight. He assured me I had plenty of time. Then he asked if I was in the military.

That's twice!

My turn was called. I approached the customs clerk, answered a few questions, had my passport stamped, promised not to bring back any samurai swords, and I was on my way. I had to get my luggage, then re-check it for the next flight. I discovered something while hustling around the airport in Tokyo. Consider it my first observation of Japan.

In Japan, all airport employees working behind a desk must: 1) be female, 2) look adorably cute, and 3) give the appearance of between the ages of 18 and 20.

Luggage checked, and with time to spare. I searched for my terminal, and found it...or did I? All it was was a podium, a glass door leading to the runway, and some chairs (20, at the most) attached to the wall. Something didn't seem right. I found an employee hanging around the podium area, and asked her if this was the correct terminal. A blank stare. I showed her my plane ticket, and she enthusiastically nodded and threw in some "ahhh, yes, yes," for good measure. Slowly, more people seemed to gather, and for the first time, I truly felt like a foreigner. I was the only white guy there. An elderly couple sat a few seats away from me, and I caught them looking at me from time to time. A little boy, once his toy plane became too boring, entertained himself by staring at me. His mother seemed embarrassed by this; I could only smile to show her I wasn't bothered by it.

"Step right up! See the amazing White Man from America! Marvel as he eats with a fork! Envy the ease at which he grows facial hair! But beware -- his giant White Man eyes see all!"

Eventually, two Japanese flight attendants took to the podium. One would say a few lines in Japanese, then the other would read the English translation from a piece of paper, then look right at me. Every time. I felt guilty. I feel like, if I wasn't there, she could've just sat back and let the first girl do all the talking. What made me feel even more guilty, though -- I pretty much understood them equally. Bless her Japanese heart, she was trying, but it was a butchering of the English language. She should've just read it phonetically.

We were herded (again! I'm so clever!) outside, and onto a bus. I was 99.99% sure this wasn't the plane to Osaka, but, y'know...that .01% in me thought maybe, just maybe, Japan was so technologically advanced, that wings would shoot out of the sides, and we'd go airborne. It didn't happen. Sigh. Instead, the bus took us onto the runway, where our much smaller plane was waiting.

Not only are the airport employees adorably cute, but so are the planes!

We boarded. Same deal. One gal would recite the airplane safety protocol in Japanese, and the other gal would read from a sheet in English. Except this time, after a few sentences, they'd bow in unison. This plane, although much smaller, packed one hell of a punch during liftoff. We took to the air a lot sooner than I expected. Once again, I watched Japan get smaller and smaller. An hour or so later, we landed once more.

And for the record, I didn't throw up. Take that, 4-year-old Jeff!

We disembarked, and I waited for my luggage to come off the belt. I looked around -- again, I was the only American around, the only white guy in a swarm of Japanese. I didn't know how I felt, or how I should have felt. All I knew was, I was the outsider, I was the one who stuck out like a boar thumb. I know it's supposed to be "sore" thumb, but really -- if you had 4 normal fingers, and then one giant boar thumb, it would stand out a lot more than if it was just sore. In fact, a sore thumb might not even look different from a regular thumb. It'd just feel a little sore. Come to think of boars even have thumbs?

But I digress.

Got my luggage, stepped through the baggage claim doors, and was immediately met by the only other white guy around -- my friend, Mr. Blue Shoe himself, Paul. I made it to Japan. Let the culture shock begin.

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