My last night in Japan before coming home to America for a month was spent in an appropriately Japanese way. It just happened to be the night of the summer vacation enkai, the last teacher drinking party before the long holiday (during which I assume most teachers will be going in every day anyway). I’m used to these events by now, so it wasn’t nearly as special or interesting as my first couple were, but I still find these to be worthwhile experiences.
It took place at a fancy hotel and tennis club not far from the Togane Culture Hall (venue for the Chorus Contest and Spring Concert), a kind of place where weddings are held. The meal was 5,000 yen per person, and consisted of about five small portions of very fancy, very traditional Japanese cuisine (mostly bizarre seafood concoctions). A few speeches were made by the principal and head teachers about the school-year so far, as well as an impromptu speech by one of the new teachers from each grade.
I was also called upon to put the teachers to a kind of trivia quiz with a twist—the twist being all the questions and answers were in English—and it was slightly embarrassing because no one had told me about it beforehand and I was just kind of thrust up to the microphone and told to go ahead. The teacher who put it together, the young one who has hard time speaking English, apparently spent all her time translating the questions into perfect English and no time thinking about how the quiz was actually supposed to work in terms of who competed and how they were supposed to answer, so we had to figure that out and explain it to everyone on the spot. There were some excruciating moments, like when I asked a question on Japan’s voting age (it’s 20, by the way) and none of the teachers knew the meaning of the word “vote”. I don’t know it in Japanese either, so I couldn’t help them. Eventually one of them asked an English teacher and got it. But for the most part it went smoothly enough, with easy questions like “What’s the highest mountain in Japan?”
Almost everybody drove to this place (I rode my bike) so almost nobody was drinking, making this a far less loose affair than usual, and there was no karaoke after-party this time either. But even if there had been I wouldn’t have gone, as I had to get up at 4:00 a.m. the next morning to begin my painfully long and excruciating travel ordeal.
It started with a 5:00 a.m. train from Togane to Chiba with a transfer in Oami. The Oami to Chiba train-ride at that time of morning is apparently quite crowded so I didn’t get a seat, but just to add to the anxiety there was a spider moving about and spinning a web right over my head, often dangling down just a foot or two away from me and igniting my arachnophobia. But the train was too crowded for me to move, so I just had to put up with it for thirty minutes. I only had three minutes in Chiba to change trains, but I was able to get to the Narita Airport Express easily enough and arrive at the correct terminal with plenty of time to spare.
Going through immigration this time was a bit different than last time, as this time I’d checked with Interac beforehand to ask what I needed to do to get the proper re-entry permit. They told me that the rules are actually changing and I wouldn’t need a re-entry permit this time, but the guy at the immigration counter was giving me a hard time anyway. I still had that stamp from back in April which expires on August 15th, do when I told him I’d be back on the 31st he was confused. I told him that my employer told me the rules were changing and I didn’t need a permit anymore, and although he did let me through he took my Alien Registration Card and punched a hole through it, saying it’s no longer valid and I’d have to get a new one when I return. I wrote to Interac this morning just to be sure I also don’t need to apply for a new visa before coming back either.
As opposed to the April flight which was just a nice straight shot with United Airlines from Narita to Newark, this time I was flying Air China because it was about a thousand dollars less than any other airline. But it meant I first had to fly four hours in the wrong direction, from Tokyo to Beijing, and transfer flights there. I only had an hour between the landing of one plane and the departure of the next, so I was a bit worried I wouldn’t make it, and when the line at the transfer desk was taking forever and you had to go through a security checkpoint after that, my stress level rose. But I made it to the right gate with about five minutes to spare, and felt much more at ease once I got on the plane that was actually taking me to New York.
The flight itself, however, was rather painful. It was about 14 hours, and unlike United Airlines it had no amenities whatsoever. For their long international flights, United now has little TV screens for each seat, equipped with hundreds of on-demand movies and TV shows for your entertainment. They’ve also got electrical outlets in the seats, which is what made my last cross-Pacific flights a piece of cake to endure because it allowed me to play addictive, time-consuming computer strategy games. The Air China plane was super-old and had no such things. There were no electrical outlets so I’d only be able to get an hour or two of gaming in at best (I didn’t even bother), and there were only three screen in the whole cabin—two small ones to each side too far away from me to see, and one bigger projection-screen which was so feint as to be barely visible. Not that I would have been interested in the entertainment anyway, as it was just Chinese movies with Japanese subtitles. So for fourteen hours I just cycled between listening to an album on my iPhone and reading a few chapters from A Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a. the “Game of Thrones” book series), with one two hour podcast-listening session on my laptop, which drained half the battery. I’m thinking of buying a couple of spare batteries for the return journey to make the more bearable.
But at least I got a few awesome firsts out of the journey. I had a window seat for both flights, so I got to see Korea for the first time on the first flight, and although I never left the airport I can now technically say I’ve been in China. On the flight to New York I got to see a bit of Russia from the window, the really vast sea of nothingness part of it that I believe is known as the “steppe”. (Coincidentally, the podcast I listened to was part of a history series, the most recent of which just happened to be about Genghis Khan and his Mongolian Army, straight from the steppe I was flying over).
But coolest of all was seeing the polar ice-cap. As Beijing is practically on the same line of longitude as New York, we flew almost directly over the North Pole. The sun never actually set during the flight—just dipped down near the horizon and swung back over from west to eat. I’d never seen the actual arctic ice-cap before and it looked pretty cool, like some alien landscape on an ice-moon like Europa. The ice was all cracked up too, which makes me wonder if that’s how it always is or if it’s like that now due to global warming. In any case, given my window direction and our flight path, there’s a chance I actually laid eyes on the actual North Pole.
Whenever we passed it, we went from flying almost due north to almost due south in an instant, and the second half of the flight took us into New York. They switched the lights off after both meals—one early on and one at the half-way point, and both times I managed to doze off slightly but of course it wasn’t nearly enough to ward off jet-lag.
After that eternity of flying was over, we finally landed in what I’d thought was Newark airport because I hadn’t checked the flight info the previous day closely enough. When we landed the cabin crew announced “Welcome to John F. Kennedy airport”, and I immediately hoped my dad had checked the flight info carefully before coming to pick me up, as I’d told him Newark in the e-mail I’d sent the night before.
I got through immigration easily enough—the guy didn’t say a single word to me as he just took and stamped my passport, then waited nervously for a good twenty minutes at baggage claim, uncertain that my luggage had been as lucky in making the tight one-hour Beijing transfer as I had. But my bag did appear and I breathed a sigh of relief, and when I got through customs and spotted my dad waiting for me, the relief was now complete. I’d made it. All that remained was getting back home to New Jersey.
Unfortunately, even that proved to be a bit of a hassle. A drawbridge on the Belt Parkway had been stuck when my dad drove out there, so he tried to take a different highway back to avoid the bridge but by now this was extremely clogged as well. We ended up getting off the highway altogether and driving through the streets of Brooklyn, though we somehow get turned around and were going the wrong direction. I had to use his iPhone to navigate us back to the Belt Parkway, and we lost an hour total in the process.
A long, traffic-congested drive later, we were finally back in Clinton, and we stopped at a bar for dinner, some cold beer and delicious pizza. The meal and the atmosphere it was in—a redneck bar filled with rednecks and redneck families—could not have been a larger juxtaposition from the fancy Japanese cuisine formal dinner of the night before.
When we got back home, my dad had been invited over to visit some neighbors he hasn’t seen in awhile, and although I was ready to pass out at any time I figured I’d join him for the hell of it. (My mom is vacationing in Jamaica right now and won’t be back until late tonight). So I went over and found myself drinking beer on a typical back-porch of a typical American home with a bunch of typical American families. It felt like diving in head-first.
It also happened to be the night of the Olympic opening ceremony, so I ended up watching that as well once it started raining and we went inside. There was another family visiting so it was a pretty decent crowd, with two couples, a single mom, three high-school girls whom I haven’t seen since they were middle-schoolers, and two middle-school boys whom I haven’t seen since they were elementary-schoolers. It was a pleasant enough time, going back and forth between answering questions about Japan and cracking jokes about the Olympic ceremony.
At 10:30 my brother came home from work, so my dad and I headed back home and watched the rest of the ceremony with him. It was midnight when it ended, which meant that with the exception of a few very brief dozings, I’d been awake for 33 hours straight.
So if I consider the last 48 hours total, it was quite the eclectic series of experiences. A fancy dinner with my Japanese colleagues, my first time in China, my first glimpse of the polar ice-caps, a journey through the back-streets of Brooklyn, pizza and beer at a redneck bar, and watching the Olympics with American neighbors—quite the mish-mash of events indeed.
The upcoming month promises to be full of fun and interesting experiences. Let the summer of 2012 begin!