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.

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