Travelling home: Part II

So to recap Part I, after a connecting flight from Osaka to Tokyo Haneda airport, I was waiting there overnight until my 6.25 am British Airways flight back to London. And I was having a grande time, blogging and feeling excited about going home. But, I was also extremely tired and at 3 am I made one of the worst decisions of my life; to have a nap.

I set my alarm for an hour later, thinking that would leave me plenty of time to check-in, go through security and board the plane. And it would’ve done, if I’d heard my alarm. I didn’t check which setting it was on, and later found out it was playing ‘harp’ music which, was probably lulling me to sleep rather than waking me up! My sleep deprivation from the previous night suddenly hit me and as soon as I’d put my head on the bench, I was gone. And my harp-sounding alarm wasn’t loud enough to wake my unconscious self up. It was only after three hours of deep REM sleep, that my body roused, only to find that it was light, people are moving around, and the benches which had been taken by fellow nappers were all empty.

The moment I looked at my watch, the world came crashing down on me. It was 6 am. My flight left at 6.25. All which flashed through my mind were swear words. And I continued to curse myself as I grabbed my bag, ran up the escalator and turned up at check in desk G, to find no line of people, only three British Airways staff packing up their stuff. Shit.

In my mind, I wished this was just a nightmare and I’d wake up from it, to relive the last two hours. But I knew it wasn’t. My mind was spinning way to much for it to be a nightmare.

When the check-in staff approached me, they knew exactly who I was and the look on their faces said it all. It was too late to get on the flight. I begged, I pleaded, I waved my hands in the air looking like a crazy woman who’d just woken up, hadn’t brushed her hair and was on the brink of hysteria! What ever I did to persuade them to let me on my flight, the answer was always a calm ‘I’m sorry, but it’s too late’.

The craziness then set in. If they weren’t going to let me through, I’ll just have to get myself on that plane. I imagined running through the security gate, dodging the otherwise bored looking officers and sprinting to the boarding gate just in time to make a running leap from the air bridge to the plane door as it was pulling away! All done with the 15 kg rucksack on my back…

Instead, the BA women with their perfect hair, fresh faces and smart uniform told me to sit down and they would help me. I did as they said, hating them all the same that they wouldn’t let me on the plane that was just waiting outside. Seriously, did they have no heart? Perhaps if I’d made up a different story (not say I was sleeping) they’d let me on.

The BA woman told me my flight was non-changeable, so they couldn’t offer me another flight. Moreover, there were no more flights from Haneda to London that day, so I’d have to go to Narita, and pay for a new flight. The Virgin Atlantic flight she quoted me would be about £2500 pounds. And at that moment, I thought I wasn’t going to get home. How could I pay that amount for another flight home? Instead, I’d go back to my apartment and spend the next to weeks crying over my stupidity. But then I thought of my parents turning up at the airport and waiting for me at the arrivals gate, until the last passenger had come through, and that wasn’t me. And that actually made me cry, so I decided I was going to go home, at any cost. 

I took the one hour bus from Haneda to Narita, and phoned my parents to tell them the situation and to ask if my insurance covered it. It didn’t. More cursing. But they told me to do what I could to get home and they’d help me with money if needs be. So I decided to try to buy a flight with FinnAir, a Finnish airlines that had a flight to London via Helsinki, that day. I went to an ATM and got out the limit of yen you could, equivalent to about £1500. I’ve never pressed so many zeros when getting money out. I went to the FinnAir check in desk and waited for it to open, hoping I could buy a flight and get on the next plane.

I watched with jealously as people came to the airport, looking stylish and calm, their tickets in hand, with nothing to worry about. In comparison I looked at my reflection in a shop window. My eyes red from lack of sleep and crying. My hair limp and loose from sleeping on a bench. And there was a ramen stain on my trousers from the previous night’s meal. I decided to go clean myself up. After I’d pulled myself together, I felt a lot better, and looked less like a hysterical hobo and more like a woman on a mission. I was getting home today.

From then on, my luck took a change for the better. I was told to double-check with British Airways if they could help me at all. I didn’t hold out any hope, but went to the information desk just in case. After I’d explained my situation, I was told to wait a while. I sparked up a conversation with a friendly business man from Manchester, and he told me it’ll be alright and British Airways would help me out. I didn’t really believe him, but it turns out he was right. And to my utter astonishment, when the stewardess called me back to the counter, she spoke some magic words, “Well, we can give you a complimentary flight with Virgin Atlantic, leaving in two hours time.” I couldn’t believe my ears. I’d heard of a complimentary drink, but a complimentary flight? Does that really exist?  The Mancunian smiled at me and at the moment I could’ve hugged him and hugged the stewardess. But I didn’t, and just let the realisation of what she’d just said sink in. I was going home today. And I wouldn’t have to hand over the thick wad of yen I’d spent the last year earning.

With my new ticket in hand, I went straight to check-in, security and waited at the boarding gate in a happy, relieved, astonished mess. Fourteen hours later, my parents picked my up from Heathrow and their hugs made this whole ordeal worthwhile. I was home.

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The Japanese love of flowers

For every month in Japan, a new flower has been celebrated. From cherry blossom to azaleas, to my personal favourite, wisteria. Flower-viewing festivals still take pride of place in the Japanese calendar, but it’s not only at festivals or fancy gardens that you can see them. Japan’s fluctuating climate and hot and humid summers are perfect for growing all types of flowers, and they bloom in their droves, covering parks, hill sides and road sides with swathes of colour. Quite simply, I’ve fallen in love with flowers in Japan.

Flowers feature prominently in Japanese culture; you can see them in art, on kimonos, on stamps and even on Japanese passports. Flowers even feature heavily in Japanese tattooing, with cherry blossom and lotus flowers being popular with yakuza types getting them inked on their skin. Perhaps, not only for their aesthetic value but for the symbolism behind them. Shinto influences on Japanese culture may have something to do with flower-appreciation. The Shinto idea that gods exist in every living thing has become interwoven in the culture, creating a respect for even the smallest flower grown. Traditionally Japanese people bring small sprigs of flowers into their houses, to put in their tokonoma alcove, bringing the outside into the inside – and often complimenting the hanging within the alcove. In ‘The Book of Tea’ (1906), Okakura Kakuzo describes how he brought the art of tea ceremonies to the West. One poignant reflection on the West was the number of cut flowers that decorated the rooms of upper class homes in the late nineteenth century. He saw huge bouquets of roses, as a wasteful graveyard of flowers, cut and left to die. Instead Japanese people prefer the elegant simplicity of an unsymmetrical arrangement, even if there are only a few sprigs on display. 

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At the Kaetsu Centre in Camrbidge, I watched these ladies put together an ikebana display in a matter of minutes.

Ikebana

The word ikebana comes from the verb ikeru (living) and hana (flower), making ‘living flower’ or kado ‘the way of the flower’. It is a minimal approach to flower arranging, and developed from the spirit of making offerings of flowers at Shinto and Buddhist rites. Ikebana practitioners spend years learning the art, as well as learning the meaning behind each flower and their possible combinations. Hanakotoba means ‘hana’ 花 (flower), ‘kotoba’ 言葉 (meaning), which, translates as the ‘language of flowers’ in Japanese. Using hanakotoba, a practitioner can convey the emotions they are feeling in a colourful and beautiful way.

Here are some flowers which have deep symbolism in Japanese culture.

Sakura 桜 – cherry blossom

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The phrase ‘mono no aware’ is sadness the Japanese feel as sakura petals fall the ground. It represents the transience nature of sakura, the feeling of time is passing and is what makes cherry blossom so special. Sakura and samurai go hand in hand. Samurai warriors took note of how fleeting the life of sakura was, and how it’s beauty was intensified due to its short life. Samurai didn’t make plans for the future, but they believed that they should live their life brilliantly, however brief it may be, just like sakura which looks magnificent in bloom, but falls to the ground after a few days. This idea flourished again for kamikaze pilots, who were willing to die for their country’s cause and believed their sacrifice would be eternally remembered.

Now sakura, has become a symbol of nationalism in Japan and of friendship, such as when Japan gave thousands of cheery tress to the United States in 1912. Found in a bouquet or in an ikebana it indicates being gentle or kind, but generally it represents the end of winter and the harbinger of spring.

Tsubaki 椿 Red Camellia

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Samurai used to detest these flowers. Why? Because when they die the entire flower falls at once, its head separated from its stem, symbolising beheading. They are considered bad luck for warriors. But amongst regular people, tsubaki aren’t considered bad luck at all. In fact, red tsubaki represent love.

Chrysanthemum

Yellow and orange chrysanthemums have been a symbol of Japan’s Imperial Family since the 14th century. The imperial seal was made up of 14 or 16 petal chrysanthemums, which was displayed at shrines in Japan, as before WWII the Emperor was considered a god. Today the chrysanthemum crest appears on the front of all Japanese passports. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword’ (1964), using two strong symbols of Japanese culture to try to understand the mindset in Japan just after WWII as each represents a strong meaning. A white chrysanthemum, called ‘shiragiku’, means truth or grief. It is the most common flower for funerals, and its western meaning is also death and grief.

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At a chrysanthemum festival in Echizen, they clothe models in kimonos made from chrysanthemum.

Lotus flowers

Lotus flowers are especially revered in Japan for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is a symbol of Buddhism, it rises from the murky, muddy waters of a pond to bloom into a pure beautiful flower. This symbolizes attaining enlightenment. In July, Kanrensetsu ‘lotus flower-viewing’ is very popular. When I went to the Lotus Park in Minami-Echizen there were over eight different kinds of lotus flowers. What was astonishing was the height of them. The stalks are so strong they push the flower up to being over a metre tall, towering over the large leaves. I saw them in the evening, when there was a special light-up festival, but I would love to make an early viewing session there to watch as the lotus’ open up at dawn, when you can hear their petals literally crack open.

Like so many things, that experience is in my list of things to do for the next year.

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“In joy or sadness flowers are our constant friends.” Kakuzō OkakuraThe Book Of Tea