Back in Japan

I arrived back in Japan the other day, and will be here for a month. There’s not a lot going on in the rally world at the moment, but after the events on the Granite City Rally, the mad rush to get my PhD fieldwork finished and the uncertainty over whether I’d be able to travel or not due to the rather surreal volcanic ash situation it was great just to get away.

For the first time ever I flew with Japan Airlines despite the Japanese national carrier having filed for bankruptcy protection earlier in the year. I hadn’t actually had much choice due to the very tight transfer I would have had to go through at Charles de Gaulle (an airport I always allow four hours to get through) had I flown with Air France and the potential uncertainty at the time of booking over British Airways staff taking industrial action. With flights through other key European carriers such as Lufthansa and Finnair appearing to be prohibitively expensive to me, I found myself back at Heathrow preparing to fly with JAL.

The chaos I’d expected to find at London’s main airport due to the surge of repatriated Brits failed to materialise, as did the havoc I thought the London Marathon would wreck on the city’s public transport network. The upshot of this was that, having planned for a prolonged and stressful trip to the airport, I found myself waiting outside Terminal 3 four and a half hours before my flight was due to board. Good one.

At Heathrow. Early.

The passage through the airport was swift and painless. Having taken quite a few long-haul flights now (yes, I know, I’m a bad person and I’m destroying the planet, but there is a very interesting ethical and philosophical debate on air travel and personal relationships that I would like to explore in relation to this) I’m getting quite good at doing things like getting through security quickly and knowing what to do so I’m not zipping around like some kind of loony. Nonetheless, there is still a great deal of stress involved in making sure one gets into the right place at the right time to catch a flight one has paid an awful lot of money for, so I always like to be as early as possible. There’s enough to contend with without having to worry about time as well.

The ridiculous amount of time I had to kill in the airport was not as care-free as I’d have liked. My flight didn’t have a gate assigned, so as I sat in one of the main terminal lounges and battered away on my PSP I kept casting anxious glances up at the departure boards to see if a number had come up. Nonetheless, a Boots Meal Deal kept me going once the fantastic breakfast my sister and her boyfriend had provided me with had worn off, and I was even calm enough to resist thumping an inanimate object when the engine on my virtual Ferrari F60 let go at the Hungaroring during a prolonged F1 2009 session (had it been real life, my pace in previous laps would no doubt have led Jonathan Legard to declare that I was ‘on a charge’, and post-detonation Lee MacKenzie would no doubt have surmised that I was ‘bitterly disappointed’. I watch far too much F1).

A very long corridor

Eventually – well, actually at the time it said we’d be told – the gate number for flight JL402 to Tokyo Narita flashed up on the screen and I found myself on the way to the gate, via a huge corridor. The gate was at one of the furthest-flung parts of the terminal, meaning it was eerily quiet. As only a small number of passengers were assembled for the early-evening flight, advance boarding was followed almost immediately by ordinary boarding. In fact, so limited was the number of people on the plane that the crew chief, noticing nobody was coming forward for priority boarding, invited the rest of us onto the plane without putting the microphone back in its holder.

Flying JAL meant I’d be back on the Boeing 777, the kind of plane I’d taken to Japan on my first three trips. Owing to the perceived potential for bits of ash to still be in the sky I would have been happier to be on something with four engines instead of two, but dozens of other two-engined airliners had taken off in the half hour preceding and none of them had dropped out of the sky. Inside, all of these things look much the same to me, except that this one was decked out in the JAL corporate colours of grey and beige instead of the deep blues I’d become accustomed to with Air France and British Airways. Oh, and it was blooming roasting because the heaters were jacked up to full, which made me wonder my mum had taken up a new career as an air steward.

Before it got dark

We took off without drama into the sunset, and very quickly it started to get dark as we were racing away from the already setting sun. I enjoyed looking out over the clusters of lights scattered around the eastern European countryside, taking particular delight in the way the shadow of the bright, full moon swept over towns, houses and lakes below like some kind of supremely powerful searchlight. Unfortunately, we were soon told to put the blinds down, otherwise I would have spent the entire flight enjoying this strange high-altitude version of Google Maps By Night. This forced me to turn to the in-flight entertainment, where I enjoyed an appropriate and timely screening of Up in the Air before going to sleep. I’m of a very strange age and disposition where I inexplicably think of George Clooney as Batman because that was the first film I’d seen him in, but I enjoyed Up in the Air and its associated tips on air travel and face-to-face contact.

By the time I had woken up it was light – that doesn’t mean much because it night had only lasted about three hours due to the time of day and speed and direction we were traveling in. I almost blinded myself as I lifted the shutter to be faced with head-on sunlight and an aggressive reflection off the white wing of the plane, but once the green blobs had disappeared I was afforded a fine view of the Siberian Plateau. Occasional railways and ruler-straight roads cris-crossed the otherwise empty icy expanse below, and the whole scene looked like the kind of thing I was used to dog-fighting with MiGs and Sukhois over during prolonged sessions of Ace Combat on the PlayStation. At least this time, if there were SAM sites and rocket trucks on the ground they weren’t aiming at us.

Siberia

More dozing ensued, followed by an acceptable breakfast and entry into Japanese airspace. I was somewhat startled to spot a small racing circuit nestling at the foot of some mountains as we traversed the main Japanese island of Honshu from west to east, and spent a good twenty minutes trying to figure out what it was (I’ve come to the conclusion it was the small, private Ebisu circuit). A large sports stadium on the coast similarly appealed to my nerdy instincts for the remainder of the flight, and turned out to be the home of the all-conquering Kashima Antlers J-League team.

We landed in short order to a sunny, warm and dry Narita airport. The wide corridors of Narita make it easy for one to carve past slower-moving travelers and thus beat the queues for the supportive but rigorous international immigration desks. A fresh stamp in my passport, I headed down to baggage reclaim where I was delighted to find that in spite of being the first person to check in for the flight back in London, my bag was already off the plane and making its way round the conveyer belt. One brief interaction with a customs officer later and I was back inside Japan.

Mt Fuji. I thought planes were supposed to be avoiding volcanoes...

The JAL 777 at Heathrow

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