You have no idea how strange it was to be sitting in DFW
that day, with a carry-on bag containing:
I was fifteen, and a long-time native of the extended Anglosphere
. Now, I was hanging around this airport terminal in a Rotary Youth Exchange
blazer, waiting to be whisked off to Osaka
for something approaching a new life.
The flight was long. Very long. I ate a lot of food and drank a lot of soda and took a piss several times. I kept reading over the part of Idoru where Chia gets off the plane in Narita and gets culture shocked. My watch was slowly ticking away, and I kept figuring the number of hours left, from six, to five, to four, to three, to two...
Westbound transpacific flights are a bitch on your sense of time, because the outside of the plane sees daylight for hours and hours and hours. While it was 4 AM in Dallas, the plane was still flying through daytime, and if I cracked open the window to search for land, it would flood the cabin with stratospheric sunlight and effectively blind me.
What the fuck. I was excited. Ever since my mother died when I was in seventh grade, I had never gotten excited about many things. But this was so... crazy go nuts. Japan was something I knew about mostly from Ranma 1/2 and Gung Ho: what was it going to be like in reality?
By my own estimation, we were supposed to have already landed. All I could see was the Pacific Ocean. I quickly asked the flight attendant, and figured out that I had compensated for Daylight Savings Time in the wrong direction. Drat. Two hours to go.
Breakfast was served, and once it came, the airplane awoke again and the windows came open. Soon, the mountains of Honshu appeared below in an eerie greenish-blue, smothered in eccentric patterns of housing developments and rice paddies. We turned around the south end of Osaka Bay and spun a slow, wide circle around the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, left wingtip over Kobe and then Tempozan, circling and circling, descending into the sea, until the island of Kansai International Airport appeared from nowhere right below us.
Men in green jumpsuits and white hard hats guided the plane into its berth. I was now officially no longer in Kansas.
The people mover took us to Immigration, and there I showed my passport to the inspector. He looked at the visa for a moment, and then asked me, in Japanese, "Do you speak Japanese?"
"Um," I stammered in halfassed Japanese, "a little."
He gave me some paperwork written in what might as well have been Elvish, and told me, in English, to take it to the municipal office as soon as possible. I smiled, agreed, and moved on.
Now came the baggage claim. I had two bags checked: one was full of clothes and presents, while the other was empty and intended for bringing stuff home. (I ended up taking four bags home with me, shipping a couple of boxes, and sticking a wooden staff from Mount Fuji in the airplane's coat closet.) The empty bag appeared: the full bag did not.
Shit, I thought.
So I went over to the Japan Airlines clerk and told her what happened. She filled out a claim form for the missing bag, using a version of my host family's address that I had unknowingly misspelled. I then took my few worldly possessions through Customs and was greeted by a group of incredibly bored-looking people limply toting a banner that said "WELCOME TO JAPAN."
As I came out, they immediately perked up, and I apologized for keeping them waiting, explaining to the elder Rotarian what had happened to my bag. The valiant oyaji were hell-bent on finding the missing bag, but I eventually joined up with my host family and left the terminal.
The doors opened. The smell of Asia blew in, a smoggy slurry of incense, takoyaki, Mild Seven, and industry.
My host father's SUV was parked in the garage. I thought it was cool as hell. It had LCD navigation in an era when no Americans had heard of such a thing: the screen even doubled as a television with a tiny remote control. And in that setting, the ride home commenced: he drove off the island, and merged from the airport access bridge onto a four-lane expressway running through a tunnel of corrugated aluminum.
My host sister asked me a couple of questions. Nansai desu ka?, that sort of thing. I answered in my ten words of Japanese, and then we all quieted down.
Some time later, we got out of the tin freeway and cut through the inner city streets, going through the core of one of the world's largest cities. I thought of Manhattan, but quickly forgot Manhattan and only thought about what I saw. Endless convenience storefronts, shiny black taxicabs, salaryman groups in black and gray suits, and then the towers of Umeda and the lights of the Midosuji.
And that evening, I took my first Japanese bath and fell into a futon, letting the cicadas and the humidity lull me to a deep, deep sleep under a red sun and an infinite sky.
< what came before - what came later >