Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Back-Flipping My Way Overseas - Part1

Tokyo to New Jersey

"Dating Service here I come!"

Being left-handed in the United States doesn't come with a whole lot of perks. You can't play shortstop. The spatulas are backwards. You have to learn the guitar upside down. And damn those half desktops in college! My left arm muscles are still quivering, and I didn't even take many notes.

In Japan, however, being a leftie is like having a famous parent; everyone likes you for it even though you had nothing to do with it. Rare is the dinner party where someone doesn’t comment on my left-handedness as if it were some kind of achievement. "You are left-handed! Ooh, GREAT!" Their admiration is so genuinely contrived you'd think I was doing something truly amazing. Like using chopsticks, or eating raw fish.

"Yes, hidari-kiki," I say, raising their laughter to authenticity level and eliciting cries of "Joh-zu! Great Japanese! Jooooh-zu!"

Then I tell them I text with my right hand and they go completely bananas.

Hidari-kiki is the general term for left-handedness, though some will use the term ‘southpaw’. It was funny to hear it the first few times – ‘sow-sue-po-a’they say – but then the novelty wore off and I figured I should start contributing to the conversation.

“Do you know where the term southpaw comes from?” I’d ask.

Baseball might be Japan’s national pastime, but understanding its terms is not.

Another bonus for us lefties in Japan is that books and magazines are often the opposite of books in the West; our back cover is their front cover and our last page is their first. So we lefties get to start from the front when we're standing in the 7-11 flipping through an adult manga.

United Airlines should consider this for their in-flight magazine Hemispheres – for their service to and from Japan at least. And for any flight with a leftie on it. Until then I am relegated to flipping backwards through the pages and ridiculing the process (which really has nothing to do with direction but anyway here we are).

A Leftie's View of Things
The back cover of the December 2016 issue of Hemispheres features an ad for Tissot watches. It’s time for Christmas magic reads the catch phrase that is supposed to compel me to buy a PowerMatic 80. More subliminally, the two watches featured, his and hers PM-80s photoshopped onto two red Christmas balls, seem meant to hypnotize me into buying one for myself and one for my significant other – as if that would be magical for me and not Tissot’s shareholders.

My apologies to Tissot (slogan: “It’s your time”) but United has already socked me with five plane tickets’ worth of Christmas magic.

So I start flipping backwards thru my Hemispheres, and my thumb stops on the fold-out map of United’s worldwide flights like it was a Playboy centerfold. (I mean, I imagine that’s what it’s like. Based on, you know, secondhand hearsay.) Facing this fold-out is an ad featuring Jeanne Huyhn, a beautiful woman with enchanting dark brown eyes, perfect cinnamon skin and a creamy white smile – none of which reminds me of a Playboy magazine since, again, I’ve never seen one.

Miss (I hope) Huyhn traveled from Hong Kong to a place (or maybe a compound) in Texas called The Woodlands, to have a bit of cosmetic dentistry done courtesy of Guy Smiley, DDS. “There was no distance I wouldn’t have gone to have the perfect smile,” she says.

Wow. Meanwhile I’m over here thinking I’m some kind of Navy Seal of dental hygiene for flossing once a month.

And Ms. (forget it, she’s out of my league) Huyhn likely won’t stop there. Her next presumable port of perfection is going to be the door of top global matchmaker Kelleher International (Hemispheres pg.31). Because there’s probably no distance she won’t go to change her last name, which everyone mispronounces and no one can spell.

So over there on United’s fold-out map of the world, three hundred or so arcing blue lines show all the routes United flies. The USA is placed in the middle of the map to (a) take a subtle geopolitical jab by slicing Russia and China in half, and (b) make sure none of those arcing blue lines goes shooting off the edge of the page, thereby creating a subtle psychological sedative for any passengers with a Bermuda Triangle complex.

The International Date Line (not to be confused with the International Dateline that Miss soon-to-be
Not-Huyhn is heading for) is clearly visible to the left, and clearly shows at least one place where the person out there drawing this line must have gotten seasick. To be fair, there are around four trillion Pacific islands – with most scheduled to disappear by 2090 – so it’s impossible to run a straight line through them all without angering a few large men in grass skirts. But down around Western Samoa the line is so wacked you’d think the Republican Party had been gerrymandering the ocean.

Seriously, is Apia such a bastion of liberalism that it had to be cordoned off like this?

Flipping Aloha
My next thumb flip brings me to a 20-page insert on Hawaii called DOSSIER (from the French J'dossier meaning "I am more important than anything.") Inside are plenty of neato infographics and high-falutin ads; spotlights on influential people and touristic places; and an indigestible smorgasbord of information on Hawaii’s developing industries: environmental research, niche technologies and (strangely) urban air masks.

Things are looking up there in the US’s #1 healthiest state according to the United Health Foundation. (This despite the fact that “more than 7 million cans of SPAM are sold in Hawaii on an annual basis.”) And really, can you beat the weather there? I love snow, but sand feels a lot nicer on your feet so I’d consider making the trade just for that. But the Out of Office bit near the back of this self-important info-insert was what got me.

Waimea Canyon is 14 miles long and 3,000 feet deep and looks like the Grand Canyon’s brother. The Molokai Sea Cliffs, at 3,500 feet high, are the world’s tallest. And the UNESCO World Heritage Hawaii Volcanoes National Park includes tropical rainforest, arid desert and one of the world’s most active volcanoes, spitting out enough lava to resurface a two-lane road twenty miles long every day.

If I'd thought of it in the first place there'd be no need to rethink..
Add to this the world’s tallest mountain (if you include the part that’s underwater) and I have to wonder why I didn’t apply to the University of Hawaii which, as evidenced from their one-page ad, only admits high school graduates who have been to Dr. Smiley.

A flip back to the front of this Hawaii-mercial brings me to a page of Tips for when your flight is delayed or canceled. This reminds me of what I said to our last babysitter.

“Here’s what to do in case we never come back.”

Flipping Doctors and Rich Folks
The next flip of my thumb gets me a special little promotion for (1) the top doctors in America, (2) the best doctors in New York, and (3) the best plastic Surgeons in America. Along the right margin of each of the three pages are names and contact info for doctors in a variety of fields. The three doctors featured, though, are all plastic surgeons.

Seems United is changing its business strategy. Forget on-time performance or customer satisfaction, between Dr. Smiley and these three plastic surgeons United is evidently aiming instead for the most attractive passengers in the sky.

Flip Four gets me an invitation to Reynolds Lake Oconee, a hoity-toity lake and golf community somewhere in Noplace, Georgia where a few ridiculously huge homes sit set back from a vast blue lake. Perfect lawns, impeccable landscaping, boats moored to the docks, thick forest keeping the rest of the world out – and not a hint of a living creature anywhere. The place is literally deserted, it looks like a Twilight Zone episode.

Your perfect lake house is waiting to happen, the people from Reynolds tell us.

Reynolds is waiting for someone to happen upon their lake houses is more like it.

Three Flipping Days
I’m done with the thumb-flipping. But I’m far from done with this magazine. Because United is persisting with its “Three Perfect Days” feature article series. United has been deprecating themselves with these pieces for at least as long as Sarah the Brave made it through her Three Harrowing Days in the rugged wilds of Sonoma, California. I blame my incurable travel-itis for not being able to resist these melodramatic narratives, all written by people trying to make their cab ride sound like a trip on the space shuttle. I don’t even like the idea of the series. Three perfect days according to whom? These articles seem to be written for the kind of people who try not to get their hands wet when they have to wash the dishes. There’s never any sense of unpredictability. And they never let loose, they never talk about doing anything unprintable.

Wait a minute…

Pampered in paradise. Or dead in the water.
This issue’s Three Perfect Days takes place in the Florida Keys. The teaser on the cover shows a photo of a row of lounge chairs on a beach, their front legs in the water. At the far end someone is lying on a lounge chair that has all four of its legs in the water. Bent over this lounging (or passed out) specimen is a massage therapist (or an EMT giving them CPR). The one-line extract from the article, floating in a very un-Florida-like gray sky, reads “I get the sense we’re following the perspective line in a painting of the sea.”

Look, Jules Verne, the only line in a painting of the sea is called the horizon. Get back in your space shuttle and go home.

Yet I remain intrigued. Probably because it’s December and the Florida Keys sound pretty damn good about now. And I know my wife will never agree to Hawaii. She likes hibernating too much.
“Jackie” gets her article off to a good start, talking about a place where “chickens walk the streets, the lobsters are striped, and people eat meat out of conch shells.” For this I can forgive her for using that trite sun-bleached archipelago bit. Further on she creates a great visual of a gentleman by saying he is “wearing an eye-popping Hawaiian shirt that is completely unbuttoned.” This compensates for describing 6:30am as “blearily early” – which isn’t bad but is kind of hard to say.

The space shuttle came into view when Jackie tried to tell us she “dragged her boyfriend here”. But I will be fair and honest and say that I enjoyed her well-written, humorous narrative. As far as I’m concerned, Jacqueline Detwiler has given a much-needed shine to United’s ongoing Three Lackluster Days routine.

Flipping People

The rest of the 122-page December Hemispheres brings a short list of notable content. There are more infographics and numbers about cruise ships, dating and the history of the hamburger. There are short bits on a blind barber in China, a busking bear in Boston and Freddie Mercury fans flocking to Montreux, Switzerland. Matthew McConaughey (the second last name today to fail my computer’s spell-check test) gives an interview about being skinny (for a movie), being chubby (for another movie), being nervous (for every movie) and being a family man (when there was no movie). Mixed in throughout is an inordinate amount of ads for watches – a subliminal tie to that Tips for when your flight is delayed or canceled bit of marketing genius – and two mentions of the one English word I hate more than any other: mixologist.

Look. Dropout. You’re a bartender.
"Eat up, Bentley, the little people are paying."
I was about to close the lid on Jacqueline and Matthew and Freddie and Hawaii when I noticed an Aren’t We Smart there’s a new trend emerging where wealthy people (it doesn’t say so but no normal person eats at a place called Per Se), who simply cannot fathom the idea of taking care of their own kids but want to look like they can, get together and reserve private rooms at lavish restaurants so they can have their high-society dinner while the restaurant, according to the formal agreement written up by the high-powered lawyer of the group, has to let these nanny-bred kids run wild.
article under the ostensibly-recurring title of Hemi-IQ. According to this piece of

The kicker is, these people have managed to make these restaurants feed their kids for free.

The Nibble & Squeak dining club redefines the kids’ meal, reads the sub-heading of the article.

I think that’s a misprint. It should read refinances the kids’ meals.

And with that I put away my Hemispheres, slide out of my middle seat, climb over my daughter and head for the back of economy for a complimentary cup of coffee.

Far below the emergency exit window lies the frozen tundra of Alaska, or maybe Canada. Somewhere up ahead the gray New Jersey winter awaits.
I think I’ll ask Jacqueline if they need someone to spend Three Perfect Days in Hawaii.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Smooth as Japanese Silk

Our Too-Easy Flight Out of Tokyo

Breaking my will and my bank in one shot.
Every year, right around Thanksgiving, my wife buys me beer and offers to do the dishes. She’ll do
one or the other from time to time, for reasons I’m supposed to understand but I don’t so I keep my mouth shut. (After twelve years of marriage I keep my mouth shut a lot.)

When she brings home beer and does the dishes, however, I know exactly what’s happening.

“So…” she says over the sound of splashing water and my belching. “Who is going to your mom’s for Christmas this year?”

This is a fair question when you consider my five sisters and their families can show up at mom’s in any of 519 combinations. But who is actually going to my mom’s is never the point. What my wife is really saying is Let’s go to your mom’s for Christmas this year!

Which, with three kids, costs about $5.0019.

But I’m good with flying home for the holidays. Christmas in Japan is weird. Not so much for the Christmas trees decked out like rainbows up and down Ekimae Street, or all the Hello Kitty Santas in the shop windows, or the fact that all of it will have disappeared by daybreak on December 26th; all of that is fine, and gives the people here something to talk about besides the weather and the flu. But the prevailing sense in the lead-up to Christmas is that no one here really knows what the hell is going on. Kind of like thousands of girls going to a Madonna concert with their underwear on the outside.

This year my sisters and their families, in whichever combination, would be descending on my mom’s place for our annual family ruck-up on the weekend before Christmas. December 17th. Less than three weeks away.

I glance back over at the calendar and burp again.

The Emotional Metronome of Flying

Airline travel is hours of boredom interrupted by moments of stark terror, said someone.

For me those moments start before I’m anywhere near the plane. Or even the airport.

Punching in my (wife’s) credit card info and booking our seats was exhilarating. Finding out the next day that United had no record of my reservation was irritating. Hearing the kid from the Help Center tell me the credit card charge “probably didn’t go through” was less than comforting. Going through the entire online booking process again was annoying. Seeing that this time it went through was a relief.

Realizing the next day that two of my kids’ passports were expired brought on the stark terror.
Oh shit.
The feeling slowly subsided as I remembered that this was Japan, where people do their jobs and shit gets done. This applies to the people at the US embassy, too, if they’ve been around long enough for Japan to rub off on them.

(Guilt-borne disclaimer: I’ll admit my terror didn’t completely subside until our passports arrived in the mail, a week before take-off. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say the people at the embassy were great. Even the Americans.)

Depending on circumstances, taking public transportation to Tokyo-Narita Airport (an hour east of the actual city of Tokyo) can be economical, environmental or just plain maniacal. When it was just the wife and I living in Fukushima it made economic sense to take the bus. When our first kid was no longer young enough to ride for free, taking the bus or the train instead of our car was no less expensive and thus was more an environmental decision. By the time our second child outgrew his free-ride status he had a little sister, and this was when environmental gave way to maniacal.

One of Shinjuku Station's 28 platforms. (photo stolen from
Seriously. Now we were looking at a taxi ride (“No child seat, but no problem!” says our safety-certified cabbie) to the bus terminal in downtown Matsumoto, and then a bus to the train station in Tokyo. And not just any train station, mind you, but Shinjuku Station, the number one busiest transportation hub in the world. Through the Shinjuku hordes (hauling bags and a stroller and two awestruck munchkins with extremely short legs) to a crowded platform and onto a crowded train to another train station (Ueno, which barely ranks in Japan’s top ten with a mere 400,000 passengers a day). Then a labyrinthine walk through and out that Ueno Station and across an intersection that is busier than Ueno Station to another Ueno Station where we catch another train to the airport.

All without losing any luggage or kids? Forget it.

Now we burn some fossil fuel and save some cash as we drive south and east through some of Japan’s most amazing alpine scenery; valleys and forests, tunnels and bridges and a long satisfying view of Mt. Fuji before cutting right across Tokyo and rolling on into Chiba to a parking area near Narita Airport. From there it’s a quick complimentary shuttle to the terminal.

According to the J-Parking website, 15 days of parking costs $32. Of course that doesn’t include the service charge that the woman manning the office swears is also stated on the website. Tack on a slick little seasonal charge and we’re up to $45. Cash, no credit cards please.

Outside the office a white-haired couple are throwing themselves into the shuttle bus, a look of stark terror on their faces. Meanwhile our bags and most of our kids are still in our car.

“Go ahead and take them, we’ll wait,” I say to ServiceCharge-san. “We have over two hours until our flight.”

“No, please. Please get in,” she tells me. “No problem.”

No problem for them. No problem for us. Big problem for these two older folks about to go into cardiac arrest, a condition made no better by the guy’s insistence he help me dump all my bags and kids into the van so they could please go please.

“We’re going to Mongolia,” he tells me once we’re on our way. “Then up to Lake Baikal.”

I ask him and his wife if they realize it’s about two hundred degrees below zero up there. They say no, it’s only about a hundred and fifty below and they’ll be all right. If they make their plane.

I tell them if they miss their flight they can go somewhere warm instead.

They don’t think that’s very funny.
Lake Baikal beckons.

I admire their fortitude. I’d love to see Lake Baikal someday, although not when it’s cold enough for the world’s largest lake to freeze over. Heck, I’m half dreading the weather in New Jersey even though it will barely be cold enough for my snots to freeze over.

I’m hoping my wife doesn’t decide we should all go for a walk around the neighborhood at night to go look at people’s Christmas lights. If my snot is going to freeze over I want it to be on my terms.

The good thing is, my wife will only have two weeks in New Jersey to send me outside to freeze my boogers. This because, unlike last year, we’ll be flying back to Japan before New Year’s. United thought they’d be sticking us good by jacking up their fares for January return flights. It seems they failed to realize that New Year’s in Japan is an important time for family, and my wife and I are both fine with returning to Japan for it.

The bad thing is that my wife’s parents live in Fukushima, where it can be every bit as snot-freezing as New Jersey. There won’t be any Christmas lights in the neighborhood to go look at, so I’ll be able to stay inside.

In a house with no insulation and no heat except for a couple of kerosene burners.

So my nose won’t freeze. It will run.

Why couldn’t I have married a girl from somewhere a bit warmer? Like Japan’s southern island of Kyushu? Or sub-tropical Okinawa? Or any of the two hundred thousand Pacific Islands out there?

The Calm Before the Seat Belt Sign

I’m strolling into Narita’s Terminal 2 like it’s Never Never Land. We are, I realize, a solid three and a half hours early for our flight. The terminal is virtually empty. There is no one on line at the United check-in counter. The two women in matching uniforms and silky neck things couldn’t be happier to see us come over.

Things are going way too well.

The kids must have been as enamored with the drive here as I was because they still had some food and snacks from home in their backpacks, maybe even enough to tide them over until their first in-flight meal five hours from now.

Meanwhile my wife is being drawn into the duty-free shop by a tractor beam of free samples of shrimp crackers and banana cookies and wasabi Kit Kats.

Aside from the wacky snacks Narita Airport is like any given airport in the US. Except of course for the sparklingly clean floors. And the free luggage carts. And the armed policemen patrolling the terminal who, with or without a German shepherd, don’t act like they have something to prove. Then there are the people working the security gate. Japan’s version of the TSA is startling, not in the least for their collective air of congeniality. I almost want to go through twice.

Watching other planes take off while waiting for ours.
Even after a lazy stroll through the food court and out onto the observation deck; after my kids checking out every toy in the toy store and my wife checking out every free sample in the gourmet cookie boutique; after watching most of the second half of the Japan-Iraq soccer match even though it was a replay and my boys already knew the outcome; after counting every fire alarm and emergency exit in the entire flipping building we still end up at the gate thirty minutes before first boarding call.
I swear, the entire morning has been easier – and less time-consuming – than getting my kids to brush their teeth and put on their pajamas ever was.

As my daughter plays with her hair and my boys pass the time quietly one of the gate attendants makes the very clear announcement that they will begin boarding in another fifteen minutes. That’s what I heard anyway, I don’t know what everyone else heard but they all started lining up.

Twenty-five minutes later there are only a few people left on line, and I tell the kids it’s finally time to go. Oddly, none of them seems to be in much of a hurry. For the past two days they could barely stop talking about all the movies and games and sodas they had coming to them on ‘the big plane’. Now suddenly it seems they could hardly care less. It’s like they’ve been sedated.

I want to know what’s going on so I can make it happen again if need be.
Rare image of my boys not antagonizing each other.
On the plane we’re seated all in one row. My boys are in the two seats closest to the window. My wife is next to them, across the aisle from my daughter. I’m in the middle of the plane’s middle section. What fun.

My kids all settle in, enraptured by the dizzying array of in-flight entertainment options at their little fingertips. My wife looks halfway to naptime. I flip through the in-flight magazine and find out beer and wine is free on all of United’s intercontinental flights.

The woman to my right is a pleasant Japanese woman who speaks nice English. She should, she moved to New Jersey about the time I moved away to college. (Which reminds me, my 25-year reunion is coming up. Holy crap.) Yet for all the years living in Jersey she says she’s never gotten used to the food. I take this as something Japanese people just like to say in lieu of stating outright that their country’s food kicks the rest of the world’s collective culinary ass. But soon mealtime would come around and I’d see she wasn’t kidding.

She accepts a can of tomato juice from the drink cart, but tells the woman serving the beef or pasta that she doesn’t want a meal. Then she reaches down into her carry-on and pulls out a homemade bento lunch.

Before the beef or pasta cart gets away I whack the woman on the shoulder. Gently.

“Ask her for the pasta,” I tell her. “I’ll eat it.”

The woman doesn’t even hesitate. Which tells me that, despite the food thing, Jersey has rubbed off nicely on her. (And since Japan has to an extent rubbed off on me I didn’t say anything when she decided to keep the dinner roll for herself.)

I’d tell her to order a beer for me too but the drink cart is long gone.

Still, I have to wonder: What is going on? Seriously, things are just going too well.
As I dig into my two pasta lunches we hit a bit of turbulence.