So it’s been just over a month since I’ve come to Japan. It seems like a hell of a lot longer than that, you know? So let’s start from the beginning, not the absolute beginning, but one arbitrarily chosen for dramatic reasons.

So the day I fly out I didn’t finish packing until the last minute. In retrospect I should have packed a hell of a lot less, as I’ve used only about half of what I brought up here with me. After hastily shoving things willy-nilly into crevices and crannies (ruining the complex sequence of space saving and suit preserving folds I had made) I was out the door and in the car to the airport. While riding I continued my process of haphazardly getting my affairs into order, starting by canceling my cellphone and ensconcing all my bank information someplace I have yet to uncover. All the rushing proved unecessary after arriving at the airport and somehow making it through security and the departures gate with 2.5 hours to spare. Lacking internet access (I wasn’t going to pay, that’s for sure) and with annoying Hawaiian musak for those who simply can’t stand the short bursts of silence between jet engines whining and half-garbled announcements, I decided to hit Starbucks and play Go on my laptop to while away time. Reading wasn’t an option, really. Too scattered.

As I waited and played some bouts (poorly, as always), I watched as my fellow passengers filtered in. All in all they were returning tourists, looking as pleased as one could possibly be about returning to the stifling heat and grinding jobs they left behind. I noticed that in the holding pen area (why it was necessary to keep us all passengers in a pen I do not know), Duty free store clerks were flogging merchandise from the wings, more than that, people were buying in droves. I guess last minute omiyage (obligatory gifts to coworkers, family members and supervisors demanded by cultural tradition here) are better than nothing at all.

That brings to mind another important note. If you’re one of those people who consistently can’t make the luggage weight and size restrictions, fly JAL. I was allowed a 40 pound carry-on and two checked luggage items at 70 lbs. max. Everyone else I met when arriving in Japan had much smaller limits imposed on them.

So after watching the festival of knick-knacks, high end booze and American cigarettes fly off the toted shelves, I decided it was time to enter the holding pen. It was packed, and I seemed to be the only gaijin on the flight so far. Not surprising, as most gaijin fly in to Kansai or Narita and transfer, Honolulu just is lucky to have direct flights straight to Chubu. Due to this fact I got my first full blown experience with the gaijin effect. It was at a level that was pretty slight, one that I’m completely immune to now. Let me put it this way, it’s when someone who clearly isn’t Japanese walks into a packed area where there are many Japanese. There’s a slight rippling like a pebble thrown into a pond, as the crowd realizes an outsider has come in, and then adjusts itself. The first time is pretty chilling what with the seat shifting and averted eyes, but I’ve come to realize it isn’t so much hostility as just awkwardness that passes quickly as you go about your business without any further ado. Still, the first time, it seems pretty damn off-putting and I sat by a older gentleman with a distinguished moustache who didn’t seem too affected by it, as he was chatting away on his cell phone and with his travel partner in Japanese. Later when he took out his paperwork, I noticed he had an American passport. Well that explained that.

So when we finally enter the plane, I’m struck by the differences from American airlines in general and what JAL puts into the air. First off, everything is slightly smaller and more cramped than in an average American airline. I have difficulty seeing how someone weighing more than 200 pounds or over 6’2″ could fit into the seats. I’m just a smidge under the six foot mark at 5’11.7″ and my knees were rubbing against the back of the chair in front of me if I slouched even a little. Thank God I didn’t need to leave some momentos behind during the flight, otherwise I’d have to sit on the can with my knees pinned against door.

Also different are the stewardesses (no, I refuse to call them flight attendants, these were definately stewardesses). They had immaculate uniforms on, complete with kerchiefs and perfectly placed little caps. While they weren’t all gorgeous, they definately weren’t bad to look at, and even the older ones had kept themselves well. While I wondered at the time how they managed to keep smiles on the entire flight, I would come to know the exact means of how one is able to do that, as I have to do it myself.

As I sat and observed, I noticed that from the nametags, the majority of them weren’t Japanese, especially the younger ones. They seemed to be Taiwanese or SE Asian, though all with particularly “Japanese” features. Interestingly enough, they seemed to partially change uniforms every time drinks and food were served, and then back again for the regular parts of the flight. Those girls were on full hustle mode the entire flight, with only short breaks of sitting down. Again, I now know what it means to work like that, in my own special way. 

Even more weirdly there was an inflight shopping channel on the radio and commercials on the inflight TV. There literally was a Duty Free cart for people to order even more shit on the way home. Considering how we were flaqued at the airport by the duty frees, I was amazed to see people actually buying even more stuff to take home.

Speaking of the airplane radio, it was much worse than normal. There were several channels of unlistenable American pop music and even more unlistenable Japanese pop music. Add to that the shopping channel, and the NHK news channel (It’s like the MacNeil-Lehrer New Hour, only with less color) and all there was for me to listen to was the classical channel, and the Enka (think Japanese Standards) channel. Annoying thing is, they only had one hour of music for each, on an eight hour flight. There was also the movies to watch, and I actually submitted myself to watching some of it when I could no longer read, the “Spyderwyck Chronicles” was a decent enough kid’s movie, but “27 Dresses” was a cinematic abortion. In choosing between being forced to watch Katherine Heigl flounce about and having a glass catheter shoved into my urethra, I’d choose the catheter.

The in-flight magazine was okay, and they served yuzu (Japanese citron) juice during the flight. It was great, but ironically I’ve not been able to find yuzu juice in any store since I’ve been here. The food was excellent, and if you’re a drinker, then you’ll love Japanese airlines. Free beer with meals if you so desire. The guy sitting next to me had about three, and this little petite lady a row over somehow managed to pack away six of them during the entire flight with no effect. The meals were Japanese, some tofu dish and Japanese curry. It was also the best damn food I’ve ever had on an airplane.

Some interesting behavior noted: Japanese seem to use the bathroom all at once on airplanes. After meals, it seemed half the plane was lined up to use the can, whereas for most of the flight the bathrooms were empty. You’d think that someone would figure out that going right before the meal is served would save them the discomfort, but then as one watches Japanese, they seem to really be into doing things in unison. Another thing: They’re good catnappers. In America, I’m a pro at catching 40 winks in odd places and times, but here I’m a rank amateur. I can’t sleep on planes, but my two seat-mates were happily unconscious except during feeding and drinking time upon which they awoke without any bidding.

Much more was noted and happened while on the flight, but time and space constrict. Lord knows I could go on forever, but I’m well over a thousand words, it’s late and my neighbors are annoyed by my typing (more on that later). The next episode has us landing at Chubu and navigating our way to Nagoya.

lights a cigarette and cues theme music for the night: a duet between a shamisen and an oscilliscope hooked up to a sound generator with synthesized jet noises and garbled airport transmissions punctuating