I’m now in Haneda Airport in Tokyo, waiting to fly back to England and meet my family whom I haven’t seen for a year. Seeming as I have a few hours to spare, I thought I’d share my journey.
From the train window
The train from Fukui goes through hidden forested valleys, past shining Lake Biwa before arriving in the higgledy-piggledy urban mass that is Kyoto. It is a route I know well, but every time I appreciate something new as each season is so different; from watching fluffy snow whizz past the window in winter, to seeing sailing boats on the lake in summer.
Today Kyoto looked hot and muggy, but from the air conditioned carriage of my train I still romanticise the small streets and the old houses, like they were in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’. Some people I know can’t stand this romanisation of ‘old’ Japan, as if it takes something away from the modern Japan today, but I see them as a continuation of each other. For example, no longer do geisha’s walk the streets, but hostess clubs provide the same experience for men wanting to be doted on in exchange of money. The narrow streets, with water running down one side and lanterns hung on the houses, are still beautiful, even if a girl is walking down them with platform heels, pink hair and an anime outfit on!
The train terminates in Osaka; the hub and heart of Japan, where people conform less to traditional values, and more to the rules of fashion. I still see fragments of an older Japan, one which hasn’t changed in decades. Taxi drivers wearing white gloves, more people wearing hats than don’t wear them, and older women sprinkling water outside their houses for some reason. Stone tori gates mark the entrance to a shrine, in a forested corner of a street, a haven of reflection between the busyness of the city. Japanese people embrace change; older salary men with grey hair, dressed in perfectly tailored suits, now have the latest smart phone. Girls ride on the back of their boyfriend’s bike, even though they have 5 inch heels on and short white skirts. Everyone looks stylish, like they’ve just rolled out of bed with perfect hair, flawless skin and a stunning outfit. I wonder how this will compare to the fashion in England.
From the airport lounge
I take the randomly named ‘Salad Express’ bus to Osaka Itami Airport and continue people watching. Airports can seem like sterile places, with thousands of faces passing through each day, but if you look a little closer you’ll see they’re emotional places too. The arrival lounge is like the opening scenes of ‘Love Actually’ with families being reunited, and on one floor higher there are people crying as they say goodbye to their loved ones. I know the ecstasy and the sadness of going through both. As I fly so infrequently, I enjoy waiting in airports, seeing people crossing paths, moving homes or just going on holiday.
Some anthropologists call airports homogenized ‘non-places’ (Auge,1992) characterised by global brands and similar procedures, which is true to an extent, but you can’t forget you’re in ‘Japan’ in a Japanese airport. The annoying sounds from a TV blare out at you, shop keepers welcome you with a warm ‘irasshaimase’ as you walk past, and salary men share platters of food and beers whilst waiting for their flight.
From the plane window
I’m not sure I’ll ever get over the excitement of taking off. The wait as the plane makes its way through the myriad of flashing lights on the runway slips, the firing up of the engine and then the sudden acceleration as the plane picks up enough speed to take off. Tonight, as we lifted off the lights of Osaka looked great, with green baseball fields lit up and roads looking like white snakes criss crossing across the black earth. The cloud layer was low, and the full moon lit them up from above. We touched down in Tokyo an hour later, and I braced myself for touch down, my least favourite part of the flight.
In the next airport
Tokyo Haneda airport’s international terminal has done well in creating an old Japanese street to house its various eateries. It also has beautifully decorated areas, using flower displays, and paper hangings in keeping with the latest Japanese festival. I see there are ‘shower rooms’ but why has no one thought of putting an onsen within an airport? Weary travellers like me, who have to wait all night until their next flight, would love to soak in the silky waters of an onsen.
Between 1am and 6am there are no flights and the airport changes into a busy bustling place, to one of mood lighting and soft music. Half-sleeping bodies are sprawled over long seats, trying to sleep before their flight. I am one of the lap-toppers, sat using the wifi of the airport, wasting the wee hours of the night surfing online. Cleaners polish the floor until it shines, a group of immaculate looking flight hostesses walk past happy to have finished their shift, and a group of friendly policemen remove a slightly odd woman from disturbing the sleeping layabouts.
For me, airports symbolise freedom. The possibility to jump on a flight to anywhere, making the world seem so small. Maybe when I’m on my 12 hour flight in a few hours, the world won’t seem so small. I hope I get a window seat.
You may want to read Part II, to see what happened just after I’d written this post.