Saturday, September 21, 2013

Lift Off: Chasing the Rising Sun (version 2.0)

(The original post of this blog can be seen here at my other site:

"Exactly twelve years ago, today..."

(BGM: "A Beautiful Day" by U2)

The truth is, I almost didn't come to Japan.
I had a moment of doubt on the tarmac as I slowly approached my first of four planes, that day. Mom told me on the phone that she saw me hesitate. (A mother's intuition can be spooky. Cool, but spooky).

"If you weren't going to board by yourself, I was all ready to push your butt onto that plane with my own hands," she said sternly. She was serious! She knew how hard we'd both worked to make this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity possible for me. And she wasn't about to stand by and watch me give up on my lifelong dream.

(Thanks, Mom).

Although the memory of leaving her and Alaska still hurts to this day, I am happy to let her know that my sadness disappeared somewhere over Fire Island. I saw the mandarin orange glow of Anchorage lights on the horizon through the cockpit window (Cessnas are small enough to see through to the cockpit) and felt the familiar, comforting lull of forward motion. I knew for sure that I was on the right course.

One down, three more planes to go.

 The red-eye flight from Anchorage to Seattle was filled with the pungent reek of airplane coffee and the rustling of newspapers by men in khakis and blue denim shirts. I sat by a kind-eyed gentleman in his fifties with curly blond hair. He told me he was meeting up with family in the Lower 48 after a summer of fishing on Kodiak Island. He gave me the best encouragement in the world: to explore everything I could while I was young, before life forced me to slow down.

(Thanks, Friendly Lower 48 Dude. :-)

Two weeks after that terrible day that changed my nation for the worse, I was certain that flight security and baggage checks were going to be much tighter than normal. But as an out-bound traveler exiting the US, there were absolutely no problems. I was quickly ushered through to the proper lines, processed without hassle and sent on my merry way. With nearly an hour left to blow, I settled into my SeaTac Airport pre-boarding routine: a tasty smoked salmon bagel sandwich, a hot paper cup of Starbucks coffee (before it became commonplace), and a Nikkei Weekly in English from the bookstore. The front page of the paper was still covering the horrible event. I felt so strange, leaving at a time like this. But I was also completely elated, for the next stop would be TOKYO! At the SeaTac terminal, I noticed a group of excited young Japanese college-aged basketball players headed over to my country for their own foreign exchange! I told them how happy I was to get to see their country for the first time. They posed for several of my pictures and each took turns shaking my hand enthusiastically. They were the coolest bunch of boys I'd ever met! (I wonder if any of them are famous athletes, by now?) 

 My Airbus was luxuriantly spacious! In fact, I was the only one sitting in my entire row! I kept waiting for my potential neighbor to come walking down the aisle but nope! Just me! So during those peaceful 10 hours in-flight from Seattle to Tokyo, when the attendants weren't busy in our cabin shuffling newspapers and pouring ever more coffee, I followed the other passengers' lead and set my tired, swollen feet up on the seat next to mine. It was great to stretch out! Enjoying the intriguing mix of Japanese and English over the intercom, I found myself drifting, completely relaxed in a comfortingly familiar bilingual euphoria. Because our plane was only half-full, we all got extra snacks and perks for just being there! Fantastic!

Somewhere around the Aleutian Chain I must have dozed off, because what I saw next convinced me that I was having a waking dream. A few windows down from mine, stark and sure in the pinkish morning smog, I caught a glimpse of Mt. Fuji's silhouette. Without warning, hot tears flooded my eyes and my heart leaped out from its cage as I silently wept. My eyes were helplessly glued to the fleeting apparition, straining for a steady, uninterrupted view as the elegantly shaped stratovolcano kept bobbing up and down whenever the plane veered to one side, returning as it adjusted. It looked too perfect to be real, having already been built up in my mind from childhood as an iconic shrine. But this was no illusion. We were indeed circling around Shizuoka, slowly turning back around towards Chiba, so there was no mistake. In my rapture, I completely forgot to take a picture.

At Narita Airport, sweating to death in my too-heavy-for-summer burgundy velvet dress, I was greeted by two of my dear friends -one I'd known for years and the other I'd be meeting there in person for the first time. Sipping gratefully on a frosty melon soda, the three of us chatted nervously but my new friend was an expert at asking questions and breaking the ice. My older friend kept glaring at me like a protective father. I appreciated his concern. He looked so dapper in his business suit and sharp silk necktie. I was used to seeing him in flannels and fishing gear every time he visited Alaska, ready to catch as many salmon as possible. It was so wonderful seeing his bright, familiar smile. Before his time came to return to work, he handed me a bag with a beautifully wrapped food gift inside. After telling me to be careful, he waved several times goodbye, leaving my new friend and I to catch up on all the details of our lives since I departed Alaska.

This new friend and I had been pen-friends for over a year already, and we had all the familiarity and rapport of best friends, so meeting him felt strangely like coming home. We wandered together through the boisterous, colorful shopping aisles, trying to find a nice and quiet part of the terminal where our chatting wouldn't bother anyone else. He ceremoniously presented me with a glistening silver omamori (protective amulet) and saw me on my plane to Sapporo with a warm, healing hug and a handful of phonecards so I could call him should I need anything. Even on this side of the Pacific, I had a guardian angel looking out for me. That was an incredibly comforting feeling. (I was floating in my euphoria, actually. It was 'a beautiful day,' indeed!)

The plane from Narita to Sapporo lasted only about an hour and before I knew it, I was escorted into a very small blue car with a roof too low for larger humans. Rubbing the bump on my head from hitting the car door frame on the way in, I stared out the front windshield, watching dark, reflective green roadsigns written in both kanji and English whoosh by and disappear. The next thing I knew, I was sitting with knees pressed tightly together on a train with my university's international exchange coordinator sitting beside me. He didn't utter a word to me, except a grumpy mumble warning me not to rummage through my bag while on a public train -it would only draw attention from other passengers. His head shiny and smooth like a Buddhist monk, he peered over his steel-rimmed glasses at me at me with startled yet compassionate eyes. He seemed quite worried about me, that I might have a hard time getting on in his country. My luggage had been put on the wrong plane in Seattle and was en route to Japan behind me, so already he felt sorry for my challenge. We stepped off the train, transferred to a waiting taxi and the driver pulled us up to this 4-story white concrete building streaked with dark patches of mildew and dirt.  This would be my new home for a year.

The coordinator kept gently prodding my shoulder from behind, telling me to hurry because we were late. (Now how could this be my fault when someone else booked my tickets for me?) Too exhausted to react, I was hoping I could just take a quick shower and hit the sack. But no go. Instead of being shown to my room, I was told to take off my shoes in the entrance and step onto the dirty linoleum floor, ushered quickly down a smelly red carpet stairwell and forced to contort and squeeze myself into a tightly-packed group of 80 girls, all sitting on folded legs with no room to stretch out. (All students had to attend the weekly 8:00pm meeting. No exceptions).

So here I was, dizzy with sheer exhaustion, culture shock and jet-lag, reeling in this musty-smelling basement filled with these women -half of them Japanese, the other half 'foreigners' like me, from places as far away as Russia and Egypt. After 30 hours of little sleep, my eyes kept shutting uncontrollably as the women chatted on about policy. Once it was over, I learned that I wasn't allowed to shower until the morning. Even if I could, I had no towels to use (they were in my lost luggage). I was escorted up four flights of stairs in that hot, steaming building and led to the farthest corner of the hallway. Three black bags of garbage blocked my door. The hall rep had the wrong key. Once let inside, I wondered where the heck my bed was! Just a wooden frame with a bag on it! I was told to open the bag and spread out the futon set inside: one brand-spanking new mat with a cover blanket. Better than nothing! Still in my sweaty velvet clothes, I fell lifelessly down on my futon, completely drained. With no shower, no sheets and a broken screen window, I didn't care. I just needed silence, darkness and my legs in a horizontal position. But once inside the peaceful womb of night, my mind drifted back to Tokyo and the bliss of that very short, but electrifying transfer. So many emotions and sensations in the tiny span of a few hours! I drifted into a very exhausted but satisfying sleep.

"AAAHHH! AHHHH! AAAAH!!!!!" The horrible sound of some guy in passionate ecstasy woke me up around 5:30 am. Man, they're really uninhibited, I mused, and then dozed off again.

"AAAHH!!! AHHH!" It was now 8:40am and the sound was very close outside my window. I thought maybe one of the girls living below me had a male visitor. I was not impressed. Preparing to turn the perpetrators in, I sat up and looked through my window with no curtains. My motion startled a huge black carrion crow, which flew away from the window ledge with a final "AAAAAHH!"

Woah! The crows even speak different over here, I thought. (Alaskan ravens have more of a xhaou!, xhaou! sound, like water dropping into a bucket). 'Might as well stay up and see where I am, I thought.

Copyright 2013 Robynn. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

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