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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From Tokyo to Fukui

Konnichiwa! It seems like a lifetime ago that I said a tearful goodbye to my parents at Heathrow, but it’s only been a week since I left the UK. Boy, what a week! The mix of jet lag, meeting hundreds of new people and travelling across Japan has made it seem like a month’s experiences rolled into one. Here is the concise version!

The 11 hour flight left me dazed and bedazzled by the bright sunshine we were greeted by in Tokyo. The humidity and high 30’s heat added to the utter confusion I felt on that day, not knowing the time, orientation or my room number. The JET Programme generously put up the 1000 or so JETs who were in a likewise state of mind, having taken similar flights from America, Ireland and South Africa, in a 5-star hotel in Shibuya, Central Tokyo. The Tokyo Orientation is meant to be a place to adjust to the time difference as well as the culture, but this proved extremely difficult as we had meetings from 9 till 5 for the first two days! My body decided that staying awake through these meetings was physically impossible, so I gave in and slept during the afternoons and went out during the evenings.

First night, we went to a yaki-tori restaurant (BBQ’d chicken skewers) and then wandered round the neon-lit streets of Shibuyu. Second evening, we met the other ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) going to Fukui Prefecture and bonded over two hours of karaoke, loosened up by a good deal of beer drinking. Third night, we were welcomed by the British Embassy with English wine, coronation chicken sandwiches and fish-and-chips on sticks! We had a serious, turned not-so serious, talk about Japan’s harsh penalty system (drink driving or drugs= deportation/prison) and the way they like to make examples of foreigners. One Brit when intoxicated punched someone else’s blow up snowman and was made to leave the country for this act violence towards another person’s property! After the multiple warnings to not do anything stupid in this country, we were treated to a taiko drumming performance. The loud cicadas were humming in the trees and I was itching having felt something land on me. Next thing I know the Ambassdor’s wife was spraying me up and down with mosquito repellent! After I was thoroughly drenched in the stuff, we fell into conversation and I heard what it was like to live in an Embassy and have A-list guests dropping in every week. She told me that every night there was a reception like this and I felt a lot less special!

After getting a taste of British food, we met Sayuri, my Japanese student who I’d taught in Cambridge, and she took us to the coolest restaurant I’ve ever been too. It was Ninja themed, so all the waiting staff were dressed in black clothes and to get into the seating area we were led by a ninja waitress through a trap door and over a draw bridge to get to our dining cell underground. We ate many weird and wonderful foods that evening and were entertained by the best magician I’d ever seen. Seeing Sayuri and her husband Shio in her own country was great too, now I was the one sitting there like a lemon whilst she ordered the drinks!

The next day we left the comfort of the hotel and boarded a coach to take us to Fukui. When my geography teacher in Year 7 had told me that Japan was 2/3rds mountainous, I didn’t really believe her. How could such an economically strong country be so successful when there are just mountains? I believe her now. On the highways from Tokyo west to Fukui there were steep-sided, forested mountains and then flat, valleys with lush rice paddies or greenery growing. The humidity is obviously good for the environment! The mountains don‘t get in the way of the highways, tunnels let the roads go through them or the highways hug their lowest contours. The service-stations are also some of the most remarkable in the world. Like everywhere in Japan, they are clean with not a single wrapper on the floor. The toilets come with a remote control for heated seats, flushing sounds and a bidet squirter for ‘your posterior’! But the canteen is the most impressive. Not only are all the drinks in vending machines but you choose your meal from one as well. Once you’ve paid and got your ticket you hand it to the counter server who in minutes puts your meal together and calls out your number when it’s done. Amazing!

Once arrived in Fukui city we were welcomed by an annual lets-see-what-we-can-feed-the-new-ALTs dinner. Raw horsemeat, a bowl of sashimi (raw fish) and a salad with tiny fried fish (with eyes which look at you) was served on our table, all leaving me wanting my fish-and-chips-on sticks back! I knew I had to branch out at some point,  so I squeamishly swallowed a raw prawn and felt it slip down my throat, half thinking it might come alive again on it’s way down! The company was far superior to the food and we met some of the 70-so Fukui JETs who have been here from 1 to 5 years. I was one of the 23 new JETs, who are mostly American, starting their time on the JET programme.

After another morning of orientation we were taken on a town-tour where we tried the best shuu cream puffs, set foot in our first 100-yen store (where you can literally but anything for about £1) and had our photographs taken in a purikura machine (where it lightens your skin, enlarges your eyes and generally makes you look more like an anime character than human)! We had a BBQ by the river in the evening and I met my predecessor James, a New Zealander who has stayed five years and is leaving Japan with a Japanese wife. I have moved in to his apartment and  am taking over his position at Takefu Dai Ni Junior High School, so I have a lot to learn from him!

The final day of orientation was a welcome ceremony where we met our Japanese supervisors. These are generally someone from the English department at your school who takes care of settling you in so is half way between your boss and your mother! So when I’d registered at the city hall, got a bank account and seen my school, I finally got to see my apartment. It’s on the third floor of an apartment block, has a kitchen, living room, utilities room, bath and shower and toilet. My bedroom has tatami mats and everywhere has sliding doors. James and his wife left it in such a way that I don’t even need to buy a box of tissues! The two air-con units are keeping me cool as it gets pretty hot, but as Steve’s is on the ground floor I can just pop over if mine get’s too hot!

I wish I could describe all the sights and smells of Japan but it’d take all night! More to come soon.