Monday 27 April 2015

10 days and 5 Canadians in Japan, Eh - Day 1 (Just Getting There)

T-minus 5 Days and counting: 
Wednesday, April 8, 2015:

It's five days before we're to leave on a month-long trip to Japan. We're taking my parents with us and it's been in the works for more than two years

I stop in at my parent's house to discuss details and, as soon as I open the door, I am assaulted by the acrid smell of Vick's VapoRub. It's two o'clock in the afternoon and my mother is still in bed. She's in the throes of a full-on bronchitis attack and is trying to medicate, steam and sleep her way back to health. Meanwhile, Dad’s wandering around the house in his pajamas poking through cupboards for some form of sustenance while repeating his new mantra, “I have no idea why I’m going to Japan,” to which I resist replying, “Because Mom won’t go without you.” It might be funny, but it’s completely untrue
. Which is kind of funny, too.

I return home to find my 7-year-old daughter, Rihana, feverish, listless and with red rimmed eyes. Overnight, she's blossomed into a perpetual snot factory.

Meanwhile, my 10-year-old son, Noah, has become obsessed with recent air crash news and keeps asking me what it will feel like to die at various points in the journey: Hitting another plane on takeoff, Tumbling into the Pacific, Slamming into a mountain, Crashing into an apartment building. The fact that my "I have no idea," never varies, does not deter him. I think of mentioning that flying is safer than driving, but it seems obvious where that will lead and I don't have the patience to deal with all his queries about how it will feel to die in a parkade, by hitting a mac truck, driving off a cliff or in a McDonald's drive-thru.

My wife, Junko, is losing sleep, weight, fingernails—and some hair, I noticed, while dismantling the bathroom sink drain—because she's the one who made all of the travel arrangements and she's mortified that she might have missed some critical detail.

I check the weather in Tokyo which, this time of year, is usually 20-plus degrees Celsius, hot and sunny. Three days ago it was like that. Yesterday, it snowed for the first time in 90 years. Also, category-5 typhoon Phanfone is due to arrive tonight.

All the elements are in place and everything is going according to plan. Not my plan, however.

Day 1: Mon, April 13/14: Tokyo

Dad’s been threatening to bring along his winter jacket since we first started planning the trip. Mom says he takes it everywhere, like a security blanket. He took it to Italy in June and Vegas in August. Carried it everywhere they went. Never wore it. For close to two years, we’ve been telling him that Tokyo’s going to be a balmy 24 degrees and the coat will be a burden. I just checked and whatever’s balmy, it’s not the weather. It’s14 degrees, windy and raining. I hate it when he’s right.

The kids are mostly better: Rihana has only remnants of her illness; a constant but light cough like the continual sputter of a small engine—just enough to annoy all the other passengers without alerting the W.H.O.  Noah feels ok but is wracked with nerves. An hour into the flight, he throws up. Then an hour after that, slightly missing the bag because he wouldn’t take his eyes off the tv screen. I notice neighbouring passengers shove their earbuds deeper.

My acrophobic mother's antibiotics have kicked in and she’s now comfortable and nose-deep into a thick book, apparently aware that we are flying in a jumbo jet toward Asia, while simultaneously oblivious to the fact that we are 40,000 feet above the Aleutians. Dad’s attitude seems to be relatively good for a grumpy old man. The planes’ entertainment system has poker.

Junko didn’t sleep last night over worries about all the arrangements she’s made but, so far, everything has gone smoothly, with the exception of the fact that she didn’t sleep at all last night and is now a shell of a human being and, incidentally, our only guide and lifeline, once we touch down. Fortunately, my parents have done some studying in the two years since we first planned this trip and have almost completely memorized the word "konnichiwa" (hello), so I know that they will be ok, if we get separated.

As I carefully close the newest barf-bag, I smile. For the first time in years, we didn’t have to go back home to check whether Junko left her hair curler plugged in because we took it with us. Sometimes, it's the little things in life that make all the difference. As well, no one’s crawling across my lap, crying in my ear and pretty much all of the puke went into the bags. So, it’s the smoothest flight I’ve had in 10 years.

Between barf-sessions, I notice that Air Canada has really spruced up it’s international flights from five years ago, when I last travelled. The seats are more comfortable with more legroom than I recall, the meals are quite edible, the windows have electronic shutters, and the onboard entertainment system is actually entertaining. Also, the plane has been painted a light blue.

I was very impressed by the entertainment system: You can check out the in-flight menu which allows the illusion that you have some choice. You can shop for duty-free items to lug through crowded airports and bus terminals along with the too-much luggage you already have. You can learn fun facts about Air Canada and the Boeing 787 which might give you an edge over competitors on Jeopardy as well as those crowding the escape hatches in the "unlikely event of a crash." The system even has onboard email which spams you with notifications about what the crew is doing (preparing to serve meals/drinks, preparing for landing etc) even though you can clearly see that they are chatting and placing side bets on the number of barf bags or heading for the toilet with a newspaper. A detailed map displays the current GPS position of the airplane, presumably so that you can reassure yourself that you’re on the right flight or to rub in the fact that you're not. In Noah's case this was especially useful for verifying that we had not yet died tragically and become the Zombie Fight from Hell. There's a travel information section, which began by relaying the impressive statistic that Japan has an almost 100% literacy rate which, apparently, you can confirm yourself by watching how may people spend time reading. According to the text, they do it everywhere, and all the time! I am pleased with myself for having brought two cameras.

As well, the system offers everything from current movies to TV shows to video games. More’s the shame then that the complimentary earbuds have the audio fidelity of frayed twine tied to a rusty soup can. I watched the first five minutes of a movie then give up because the show is too good to not hear. I guess one shouldn’t expect too much fun from a company that thinks a “fun fact” is that Air Canada is traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange under the symbol “AC-B.TO”.

Fortunately, I have moments of brilliance and the last one was in WalMart where I thought to buy earbuds for both kids. Though they cost only $10 a piece, they provide decent sound and keep the kids watching for about four hours of the nine-hour flight.

Junko’s entertainment system is frozen. This is no fault of the airline. Rather, it's the effect she generally has on computer equipment. Fortunately the flight is not crowded and I encourage her to move to another seat with a functioning system, and a bit further from the electronics in the cockpit.

As luck would have it, Dad’s entertainment console also does not work properly. Here's a taste of what it’s like explaining to a 78-year-old grumpy, half-deaf man that his entertainment system is not working, over the sound of twin jet engines? (75,000 pounds of thrust, each. Fun fact!)

DAD: It’s not working.

ME: Dad, it’s broken.

DAD: I can’t get it to work.

ME: Because it’s broken.

DAD: There’s no sound.

ME: There’s no sound.

DAD: I think it’s broken.

Finally, after moving to another seat where the sound worked well…

DAD: I can’t hear anything.

Thank god for closed captions.

When we land I see some relief on the faces of my parents and Noah's and it strikes me as kind of funny to be relieved when stepping off of a state-of-the-art airplane onto a dormant volcano surrounded by active quake faults, regularly swept by typhoons and tsunamis, and which has recently been irradiated.

At the airport we near the bus ticket booth and are approached by a stranger who apparently owns a "Jumbo Taxi" and can shuttle all six of us to our hotel at the same price as the bus, but with the advantage that we can leave immediately instead of waiting another hour. He insists on cash and refuses to take payment in advance, though Junko offers to pay several times.

It’s 14 degrees and raining. On the ride from the airport from what little we can see out the fogged windows it looks exactly like Vancouver, except with worse weather. "It looks exactly like Vancouver, except with worse weather," says my father, obviously impressed.

As we exit the bus, our driver suddenly realizes that he has made a $20 error in his calculations and apologizes profusely while simultaneously sticking to this new, higher figure. I leave it completely to Junko to resolve all disagreements with Japanese people because their culture is so overly polite, hierarchical and contextual and I didn't pack enough Tylenol to start getting headaches this early in the trip. Junko actually pays the extra, thinking that it was still a good deal for us. That's when I realize that the common belief that everything is different in Japan applies equally to my wife.

Having reached our destination (the Mitsui Garden Hotel) our travelling ends with a flourish as Noah spectacularly pukes all over his shoes, at the lobby entrance. The Canadians have arrived!

 Our room is quite basic, but clean and with a nice view. As we settle in, I notice that there are no drawers, so we will have to live out of our suitcases, which pretty much takes up all the extra space in the room.

The view from our window.

Our "Family Room" has four separate beds which certainly says something about the dynamic of the average Japanese married couple with kids, especially considering that many parents sleep with the kids in the same room, at home.

Something I'd forgotten about Japan: The pillows are about half the size of those back home and filled with dry beans, or some such thing. I find them very comfortable, but I wonder how well Mom and Dad will adjust.

Rihana, with Barbie and Riachu all tucked in. Interestingly, she never plays with such toys at home, but filled her backpack with them for this trip.
Many people think the folding of the toilet paper a nice, professional touch and find it reassuring to know that the paper roll is fresh. I, on the other hand, can't help but be reminded that the person who cleaned our toilet has touched our toilet paper.

Also disconcerting to me, considering the inclement weather, was the presence of a shoe dryer.

My daughter discovers an ornately decorated ceramic vessel with an electrical cord sticking out of one end. Inside is some sort of perfume so, while my wife is in the lobby confirming details, we plug it in and enjoy the pleasant aroma. When she returns, she informs us that it is not perfume, but insecticide.

 I am surprised that the wifi is not free and costs $1/15 minutes, but other than that, it all seems great. After having spent about $10,000 to get us all here I am chomping at the bit to blog what's happened so far, but $4/hour is too rich for my blood.

After settling in, we wander down to the lobby and enter the first restaurant that seems to be serving something recognizable. It’s a buffet. We’re all hungry, but not really that hungry… except, of course, for Noah who first regurgitated the small donut he had at breakfast and then continued throwing up so long that I wouldn't have been surprised if the last few bags were filled with baby pablum.

The buffet menu is varied, but unusual for Westerners, and of course filled with exotic seafood options. I’ve never seen my father eat so much salad in all my life.

The buffet costs us $170 which means that Dad's lettuce leaves were about $30.

My largest fear at this moment: "Just getting there is half the fun!"

Tomorrow: We explore Tokyo. (click here.)


  1. "Junko actually pays the extra thinking that it was still a good deal for us. That's when I realize that the common belief that everything is different in Japan applies equally to my wife."

    Priceless Bill, I know exactly what you mean! Great post man, makes me miss Japan and loathe the idea of flying there with my kids!

  2. Hi William, only just discovered this and I have really enjoyed it. Genuine smiles throughout.

  3. Hi William, only just discovered this and I have really enjoyed it. Genuine smiles throughout.

    1. Thanks fro reading and taking the time to comment, Peter. It was a fun excursion. The final chapter comes out next Thursday, May 21st. Bill