Unless I have a tight connection, I generally choose a seat at the back of the the plane where it is less empty. It was with great relief that I realised that when the aircraft doors were all closed, I had a row of three seats all to myself. If you’re not traveling first class, this is the jackpot on a long flight. There was one slight problem: the row was second from the back and the arm rests were stationary. No amount of button punching was going to make them budge. It was a good thing I took the time to get the maximum amount of quality sleep at the hotel in Doha. I was in for another long flight and needed to be at the top of my game when I landed in Osaka. Everyone warned me about strip searches and three hour long interrogations.
And yes: again with the damn vegan food issue.
When the pilot after 11 hours and ten minutes announced that we were preparing to land, I could hardly breathe. I broke out in fits of giggles, my heart was racing and beating like a demon on speed in my chest and I couldn’t stop clenching my fists. Who would ever, ever have thunk that I would ever, ever get to go to JAPAN?! It was absolutely insane. Me. Little old me. Japan. Not in a million years.
As a kid I had an obsession with Japanese literature and this grew in to a healthy fascination with geisha culture and architecture when I entered adulthood. I had a list of over 500 books I wanted to read about Japan. To this day it is a running joke in our household that I was an empress who liked to behead people in a previous life. It would most certainly explain why I felt so at home in Japan despite not understanding the people, the language, the food or the processes. For all its weirdness, Japan felt oddly familiar.
The first thing that struck me when I landed in Japan was the efficiency. Everything was laid out, non-confusing, working and smooth. Off the plane, on to a train shuttle thingy for which I did not have to wait, to a carousel where I immediately spotted my suitcase, to the immigration line where an old agent directed us to passport control with frightening precision. Passport control was quick and painless. Look in to the camera, fingerprints, whap, bam, thank you m’am.
Customs was a different story of course. For a moment I thought I was home free. No strip searches (so much for my good underwear) and no stern Japanese officials putting me through a rigerous third degree for hours on end!
So here is another tip for when you travel to Japan: do not clingwrap your suitcase. No one else does. And it makes you stand out and makes the authorities suspicious. My heart skipped a beat when a customs official called me over. Here we go! He showed me a book full of photos of drugs and weapons, pointing to each one. No I said, as he pointed to each picture, until he pointed to a photo of a wrapped sweet.
I was a little confused. “Chocolate?” I said.
He tried to look serious but was obviously rather amused by my stupid question.
“Drugs.” he replied.
Obviously not dude.
so far so good. Still no strip search and still no interrogation.
But then he called over a female officer and I was escorted to an area which was a mixture of what looked like a hospital room and a probe lab.
I was prepped. I was amped. This was it man! I was hard core!
My still wrapped suitcase was placed on a metal table and I was handed a pair of scissors to cut open the clingwrap. There were no other passengers in the room. The only other people in the room were four officers and myself.
I battled with the clingwrap. The officers I think took pity on me because they tried their best to help and put me at ease. They even gave me a plaster when I broke my nail! The conversation was jovial and informal.
“Why you visit Japan?”
“Oh that’s easy! When I was a child my mother gave me all these books to read with fabulous stories of samurais and empresses and geishas! So I saved up to come and see for myself!” I said wide-eyed, demonstratively and with excitement.
It wasn’t exactly a lie. It deviated from the truth, but it wasn’t lying. My mother never gave me the books, I got them myself and I was here to see more than just the backdrop to the fantastic historical stories of feudal Japan I read as a child. I was here to document and oppose the mass slaughter of dolphins. But that’s hardly something you tell someone who holds the power to send you packing straight home.
“So where you stay?”
“Oh - Wakayama!”
They laughed. “Why?”
“Because it is much cheaper than Tokyo!”
Polite laughs all around.
“Hai! Hai” (Yes! Yes!)
By this time the contents of my suitcase were ungraciously displayed on the metal table. They were satisfied that I wasn’t a drug smuggler or a weapons crazed traveler from deepest, darkest Africa.
I looked at my suitcase in dismay. It was a hell of a thing to get it closed in the first place when I was done packing at home. Getting it all back and the suitcase closed was going to give the customs officials quite a an entertaining show.
I squished and squashed my clothes in every available nook and cranny but it wasn’t enough. I climbed on the table, sat on my suitcase and grunted, groaned, cursed and broke out in sweat trying to get the damn thing closed and zipped up. The officials stood and watched me with amusement – unsure whether they should help me or not.
After throwing my weight on the suit case from every angle humanly possible, repeated thumping it with my Ass Of Doom (as my husband lovingly nicknamed my posterior), the suitcase was zipped up. I stood up and triumphantly punched my fist in the air with an accompanying “WHOOHOO!”, only to hit the ceiling with a loud thud. If I hadn’t exerted myself like I did, and had more energy in my punch, there would have been a hole in the clapboard ceiling. I burst out laughing and the officials managed to crack a grin or two.
We all bade each other a good night (or as I said “Kanichiwa!”) and I was off to start my adventure in Japan.
I was finally in the land of the Rising Sun!