I was in Japan recently, the realisation of a long-cherished dream,
and wrote this story while waiting to fly home again from Narita
airport. Apologies in advance for its' length, but if you hang in
there you may find a small saucer of inspiration at the very end. And
to put it all in context, I gave up the devil's brew (coffee) recently.
Incidentally, Japanese people really do speak English as I have
phonetically spelt it out in the article. They will look at you
blankly if you say "New Zealand", but nod enthusiastically to
Almost home. Not that I don't regret to be leaving Japanin fact
completely the opposite. This country has just made the top of my "All
time favourite-places that I have visited and would like to be born in
next lifetime" list. Not a long list to be honest, but a list probably
in need of a shorter title.
There is always an end to everything in life, and responsibilities'
voice tells me that I have a job and numerous commitments to return
to. And besides, I am fast running out of money.
I get off the free hotel bus at Terminal 2 of Tokyo's Narita Airport.
Or should I say "de-bus", for I am at an international airport, and
here only Japanese and American English are understood. Call me a
crank, but one of these days I will refuse to leave my seat when I am
asked to "de-plane"...
But returning to the topic of poverty's pinch. I have just spent three
nights at the Narita Hilton, and am now seriously out of pocket. At
this point you may question the wisdom of staying in a four star hotel
when one is on a budget. While I do occasionally suffer from delusions
of aristocratic grandeur, delusions that I have yet to precisely
place, in my defence I got a very good price via the internet, after
failing to secure a reservation at six cheaper locations.
Also in my defence, neither the website, nor the barely comprehensible
American call-centre operator named Chuck, who processed my credit
card, said a thing about the fact that breakfast, gym use and internet
would be additional. Thank goodness for hotel room push-ups.
I have timed poverty's approach to approximately the door of airplane.
Once on board I will no longer need coin or currency, and I am almost
there. A quick check of the entrance-way terminal map, and I head
straight for the Air New Zealand check-in desk.
And then back again to the map.
"Yes, Air New Zealand, Aisle D" I confirm mentallyit says so right
here in English. Again I traverse the Great Wall-like queue at the Air
China desk in vain.
"Um, excuse me, this is Aisle D, but there is no Air New Zealand
counter in sight" my internal monologue continues unbidden, and
completely rhetorically. And then out loud to a semi-articulate but
genuinely helpful lady at the information counter near-by.
"Air New Zealand-da, Flight-ta 90-a, check-in-na at-ta 4.45pm", is her
answer, but not the solution to my problem. And no I can't enter my
frequent flyer airline lounge without checking in, and besides that
particular lounge is in Terminal 1this is Terminal 2.
"American-Express-a lounge-a 2nd-da floor. Pay at door to enter-a?"
she offers helpfully.
It is only 11.30am and I am near broke in the airport of the most
expensive city in the world. Too broke to even eat the wax food
effigies that double as menus in the restaurant windows.
With a full five hours to kill my first thought is getting rid of my
bag, seeing as it doubles as a portable film studio and is
ridiculously heavy. After all I've already had my hotel-room work-out
Conveniently placed behind the check-in counter where I can't yet
check-in is a bag storage service, slightly more expensive than the
lockers, but the only option when one is travelling jumbo size. I
hand, or rather bodily lift my bag to the attendant, and fill in the
proffered baggage check form, noting the charge of ¥500 per day (about
US$5) with the practised nonchalance that only having a well-paying
job can bring.
"Do you take credit cards?" I ask blithely, for only in hindsight will
I remember that this is Japan, possibly the most technologically
advanced nation in the world in all regards except it's banking
systemthe use of foreign issued credit cards is everywhere a lottery.
"Yen only" he replies. "Pay-a on pick-up-u."
I mumble near incoherently something resembling "thank-you" and "I'll
find some cash"not that clarity is a top priority when people don't
speak more than 10 words of your languagefor it has just occurred to
me that I spent my last ¥-flavoured coinage of note on an iced-coffee
from the hotel lobby store. The attendant smiles politely, as everyone
in Japan does.
It's not that Japan doesn't have ATMs, for it has almost as many as
the ubiquitous roadside coffee and softdrink vending machines, but
ATMs that work with foreign cards are another matter. As are foreign
issued cards that are over their limit and then some.
I am wander around the terminal in a financially motivated
panic-induced daze, clarity of thought deserted, wondering how on
earth I am going to retrieve my bags with neither coin nor
linguistics. Call me hopelessly attached, but I am quite keen to leave
the country with everything with which I came.
The world changes when you are poormentally if not substantially.
Suddenly, to my eyes, everyone I see possesses a security which having
money brings, a security which I now lack. It may be only a
perception, and the wiser part of me knows that perceptions are just
thatchangeable, relative and often mistaken, and on these terms easy
to dismissbut this perception is gripping me tight, like the sense of
fear gripping my throat. Childhood memories of losing a parent in a
public place are revisited, and a similar almost uncontrollable fear
and sense of helplessness is pressing strongly against the poise and
detachment that I normally practise if not embody.
Then an event happens which is hardly conducive to my slightly shaken
and stirred state of mindI am stopped by two policemen and asked for
my passport. Polite and friendly in a very sincere way you will almost
never find in other countries, none the less I still have to swallow a
new feeling: slowly rising, angry indignation.
The officer who asked for my passport begins examining the finer
details of my nationality, copying them to a piece of paper which
already contains several names, while the other asks my occupation.
"Designer" I say quickly, making a mental calculation as to which of
my various job descriptions will most easily be understood. He looks
slightly confused, so I move to what is the universally understood
occupation of our time: "website developer" ("film star" wouldn't have
"Ohhhh, website-u designer-ah" he nods approvingly, repeating
phonetically the same in Japanese to his colleague, whom to my relief
has so far politely avoided making any comment upon my more than
unflattering passport photo. "This is YOU?" or "Sir, are you on
medication?" the unspoken commentary that springs to mind.
So it seems that I do not pose a high enough risk to airport security
to warrant further action, action which, although it may have helped
pass the remaining time in hand is, I suspect, best avoided. Perhaps
they were after another "handsome, European male of average height and
powerful physique." Or completely short-sighted.
I walk past people in café windows laughing and drinking coffees.
Something which, financially thirsty, I cannot do. Laughter may still
be affordable, but I am not in the mood.
In the process of simultaneously looking for a working ATM and
considering ever more fantastic outcomes to what common sense tells me
is really a minor predicament, a brief moment of clarity intrudes, and
I remember to check the change pocket of my wallet, currently heavy
enough to be a bodily appendage in it's own right.
In one of those fortuitous moments of cosmic synchronicity which can
never be planned, yet occur daily in even the smallest details of a
seeker's life, I have precisely ¥500 in changenot a "go-en" less or
more. My deposited bag is secured; so is my poise.
The story behind the story
This story takes it's events from a trip I made to Japan in July, and
I had initially intended for it to be my very first web diary post.
However, my normal predeliction for both perfection and incessant
polishing saw it languor for over two months before seeing the light
of publication, here today. Hopefully it is as enjoyable to read as it
was to write...
Jolted from the self-sustaining feedback loop of fear and worry, worry
and fear, confidence re-emerges like the sun from behind a cloud, and
in its' secure warmth I find my way to a more than tiny Post Office in
the shadows of the Terminal basementthe one dependable place in Japan
for securing currency with international cards. With ¥500 already in
my pocket, and like a gambler drunk on sudden success, I am going for
brokeI may yet strike a coffee and cake jackpot with which to pass
In the end I was a winner¥2000 yen remaining on an assortment of
magnetically stripped plastic cards whose balances I dared not read.
Enough to buy, against my waistline's better judgement, a white
chocolate latte and cinnamon danish from "Starbucku", and to my
further delight, access to a wireless internet connection in same.
Glazed with minor fortune and fuelled with caffeine, the first draft
of this post was the result, a giddy stream of infectiously confident
prose written in a single take in a Narita coffee shop.
It was all a minor predicament of course, made larger than lifelike
through my thoroughly fanciful imagination, but in final judgement,
another valuable lesson in the meditative prerequisites of calm and
poisecore subjects in a life-long course I intend to master.
Note: to those of you who disapprove, I have recently given up my
sweet invocation of the "Dark Lord"...