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The life of airports

January 3, 2008

'Welcome' to Japan Aside from the Orwellian nightmare that the Japanese government’s fingerprinting of all foreign arrivals represents, there is of course also the practicality of administering the scheme. There were murmurings of hours-long queues at Narita and staff not au fait with the equipment. With this in mind, you might think I was dreading the encounter with Immigration, but the truth is a 12-hour flight in a tumble dryer leaves you not fearing much of anything.

In fact the place was deserted. There were 3 immigration officers waiting just for the likes of me, with nothing to do. Each of them beckoned me to approach, implored even, eager to break the boredom of an almost empty arrival hall. And after no more than 2 minutes, not even enough time for, say, a decent guitar solo, I was fingerprinted, photographed and sent on my way (into the country, that is).

And because those in charge had the foresight to build Narita safely tucked away from all modern convenience, there followed that hour-long train ride to civilisation (standing room only, of course). Suffice it to say, New Year’s Eve it may have been, but 2008 came and 2007 went with us staring numbly at a hotel room TV, and then sinking into what I was hoping would be a deep and lasting sleep.

On New Year’s Day we made our way through a deserted city to Haneda, for the flight home. We got our first excited glimpses of the snowcapped Mount Fuji from the train, catching snatched glances between buildings as we sped through the city. One of the advantages of jet-lag is that getting up at 4.30 in the morning gives you some leisure time. Haneda airport has a super viewing gallery, which afforded a clear (not to mention stable) view of the famous volcano. We spent quite a while up on the roof, a welcome sun-trap on an otherwise cold January morning.

Fuji on New Year's Day

Haneda airport is in fact a nice place in general. Nothing’s too far away. The shops are small, and the staff don’t assault you with offers of ‘assistance’.

And the toilets…

Any public building should be judged by its toilets, and Haneda’s offers levels of comfort that even Starbucks doesn’t. Haneda doesn’t have toilets, it has rest rooms. Not in the American sense of a twee euphemism to hide the torturous embarrassment of having to utter the word ‘toilet’. No, these sparkling marble rooms allow you to go and have a… rest. For a start, they smelled of cinnamon, and thus, of Christmas. Good start, eh. And when/if one sits down, the toilet automatically plays the sound of running water over a speaker system, in order to cover your sensitivity should any of your emanations be a touch orchestral. And this is the gents. What accoutrements might be on offer to protect a lady’s public dignity, we never found out, but I suspect they carry explicit warnings of extreme comfort. And of course, to round off your rest, the toilet detects when you’ve alighted and flushes itself with no need on your part to touch anything soiled by the hands of a thousand others of perhaps questionable hygiene. In case the auto-flush doesn’t materialise, there is of course an infra red panel that you can wave at to let the machinery know it can get on with it. I left with a half-smile on my face, and with an hour to go until our flight was due to be called, a determination to pay another visit.

Having survived a 12-hour rollercoaster ride the day before, a mere 2-hour flight should’ve been a breeze. Or rather a howling gale. Even the slightest hint of turbulence sends my fevered imagination to the very depths that it can plumb. My mind flashes up every plane crash picture I’ve ever seen, every sombrely-delivered news headline I’ve ever heard. As the cabin shook, I recalled that our hotel room last night was number 404 (error!), and that the flight left from gate 13. Everything is suddenly a meaningful sign.

The approach to Kumamoto airport takes you over the mountains of Aso and Kuju. As we began our descent, we entered the thick snow clouds and the plane started to rattle and shake. The wings actually began to flap as my mind helpfully made me ponder the required force to break an aircraft’s wing clean off. I don’t like flying through clouds, mainly because of their liking for hanging around mountaintops. I awaited oblivion.

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