The Trip of a Lifetime!

When I was a little child I had a great fascination with China and dreamed of visiting that country one day.   I was so taken up with the idea that it was on the opposite side of the globe, I dug great holes in the back garden in an attempt to dig to China.  Story books and picture books with beautiful pagodas, ladies in brilliant patterned and embroidered silk kimonos, carrying parasols to protect them from the sun as as they walked in bound 'lily' feet over arched garden bridges, distant snow capped mountains, blue skies.  These were the images I grew up with and longed to see.

In January of 1994 my daughter, then a university graduate and unable to find a decent job in Toronto, applied for and was hired to work as an instructor at a school teaching English as a foreign language to adults in Japan.  She was posted to a school in Yokohama, which once was a very separate industrial city with a large international harbour.  Today it is much the same except that it is now considered a suburb of Tokyo.  I was so pleased she had chosen to do this, to detach herself completely from what was familiar and to go to a completely new environment.  I just knew the experience would be invaluable to the rest of her life.  She attended a couple of weekend training sessions here in Toronto before going to Japan, but that was about all the introduction she was given.  It was exciting.

Danielle would mail home to me photos and relate some of her wonderful experiences that sent my mind back to those days in my childhood when I dreamed of visiting the Far East -- and I decided that this was one trip I dearly wanted to make, not just for her sake but for my own -- to experience life on the other side of the globe!

And so I made the arrangements:  booked airline tickets, purchased a 3-week train pass, arranged to have my pets cared for by a friend, worked like crazy to complete work projects before I left and cleaned house and did laundry and packed suitcases.  The last two days at home, before leaving for the airport, was a round the clock beehive of activity trying to get everything done in time.  In other words, pure chaos!  On top of everything that was required to be done and arranged for, I was so excited that I was pretty much hanging off the ceiling.  Here I was, finally going to be able to live one of my greatest dreams of visiting the Far East, a dream I had carried with me since childhood.

At that time, Canadian Airlines was still running and they had a direct flight from Toronto to Tokyo of 13-1/2 hours, non-stop.  Yes, it was a long time to be up in the air, but certainly a lot less total travelling time than a flight with stopovers would have been.   I was very happy.  Now the dates I chose to go were outside of tourist season.  I travelled to Japan the second week of January and was to return four weeks later, in early February.

The airplane was less than half full on the flight to Japan.  What that meant was that I had a triple chair seating to myself at a window, with lots of space to spread out.  As I recall now, some 13 years later, there was a very boisterous group of Japanese youngsters on the flight; I believe they were a hockey team that had enjoyed success in their travels to Canada.  But they settled down for long periods of time when there was a movie playing or to sleep.  And the rest of the time their boisterousness was fun and playful so not annoying at all.

Because of my general inner excitement I was unable to sleep, regardless of how exhausted I was due to lack of sleep the previous two days.  The airliner's crew were probably the most attentive bunch I can ever recall on any flight I've been on before.  A couple of the stewardesses came to chat for a short while at one point, very curious that I would be going to Japan all alone and expressed admiration at my adventurous spirit.  At 48 or 49 years of age I had premature white hair and so I have always appeared older than I really am; I think they thought I was closer to 60 than 50.  Also, at 5 foot 9 inches, I am taller than the average Japanese person with a large structure.  In other words, I am not a structure that is tall and lanky, but more of tall and broad; a presence to be reckoned with.

At one point in the flight a stewardess came to tell me she had permission from the Captain to take me up to the cockpit, if I'd like to visit them up there and she could take me at that moment.  I was stunned!  What an honour!  So I hurriedly followed her up to the front of the aircraft and entered the forbidden territory of a commercial airliner's cockpit area.

If you ever want to be blown away, find such an invitation for yourself!  I was told, of course, that I mustn't touch anything and was instructed just where I would be allowed to stand, behind the Captain!  The view was absolutely spectacular and nothing at all like what you see from the side windows of an airplane.  The windshield of the aircraft is like a wrap-around affair and going high and low as well.  As I peered out and all around it was explained to me that we were travelling at that moment over the Siberian area of Russia.  Apparently Canadian Airlines was one of only two commercial airlines that had rights to fly through Russian air space.  There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the sun was brilliant on the white snow below.  What seemed odd to me was the land below.  It appeared to be entirely flat with single mountains coming out of the flatness at odd spots.  There were no mountain 'ranges', just single mountains popping up out of the ground.  I'm not really sure what it was that I was seeing except that there was a vastness to it all.  We were very high up, of course, but there was nothing manmade visible from our vantage point -- just this complete vastness of sparkling white with little pointed bumps coming up here and there.  

The "Bullet Train" or, as the Japanese people refer to it, the Shinkansen, travelling up to 300 km per hour on major routes joining all large cities in the country.

After 13 and a half hours we landed at the airport in Tokyo, Japan... I had arrived!

After clearing Customs and Immigration, my first chore was to locate the Japan Rail office at the airport to convert my paid-up coupon for an actual rail pass.  It would allow me three weeks of unlimited travel on all transportation operated by Japan Rail, which included the bullet trains, the majority of local trains, subways and a great many busses.  There are local trains and busses in most outlying areas that are not run by Japan Rail and my train pass did not cover transportation on those but, for the most part, my travel would be on the conveyances that accepted my train pass.  I found the office for Japan Rail and it was a very simple matter of obtaining the train pass.  Thankfully, there was a very nice lady in the office that took the time to explain how it worked -- here, again, is another advantage of travelling in off-season as staff have a little more time to give to the novitiate.  From now on, for the next three weeks, all I needed to do was enter the Japan Rail office at each train station and request a ticket to wherever it was I wished to go, and one would be immediately given to me, first class.  This is a huge advantage that I cannot recommend more highly to anyone travelling.  Rail passes are a bargain and should be utilized to their greatest extent.

Now I'm trying to remember just when I left home.  It's rather awkward because travelling across the Pacific Ocean means that one crosses the International Date Line and, going west, you lose a day.  I know I arrived in Japan on a Thursday morning there which I believe, after losing a day coming west and also travelling 13-1/2 hours, means that I left home on Wednesday morning, I believe.(?)

In any event, by 1:30 or 2:00 p.m. local time, I was on a bullet train heading into the centre of Tokyo from Narita airport.  It was a long trip, close to two hours as I recall.  Now Danielle had not come to the airport to meet me because of the cost of travel; a round trip ticket for her would have cost her and equivalent of $90.00, just to go to the airport!  And so we had arranged that she would meet me at a particular train station in Tokyo.  These 'train stations' are the major way of travel in Tokyo; the trains wind themselves above and underground and form part of their subway system as well.  One moment your train is travelling underground and the next it is above ground, on a raised track with the city bustling below you.  As I recall, I got to the meeting point a little early and simply prayed that I was in the right place.  I had never seen such a congestion of people in my life!  I suppose this was about 4:00 or 4:30 p.m. and so rush hour was building quickly, and here was this very confused looking, totally exhausted, white haired and tall caucasion woman standing in the middle of a train station with her suitcases piled up around her straining to see, and hoping beyond hope to see, in the gathering dusk a familiar face come out of the crowd.  Finally, there she was, my very brave daughter who had done this all alone a year before.  We quickly gathered up my bags and suitcases and headed off to another train that would take us to Danielle's apartment.

Danielle had written to me long before that her station was named Musashi Kosugi.  As we were travelling on the train to her apartment I asked her how long it would take to get to the Musashi Kosugi station and she did not have a clue what I was trying to say.  So I said, "Well, I'm certain that was the station you said that your apartment was closest to."  She looked at me as if I were from outer space, repeated over again what I had said and then started to howl with laughter.  I had been pronouncing it completely incorrectly and this remained a subject for humour my whole trip.  The last word, Kosugi, I had been pronouncing with the accent on the second syllable as in Ko-soo'-gi.  The correct pronounciation is with the accent on the first syllable, as in Ko'-su-gi.

Her apartment wasn't far from the train station, probably just about a 10 minute walk or so.  But in the condition I was in it seemed like three days.  It was dark when we exited the station and so there wasn't much to see that night.  My main concern was keeping up with Danielle to get 'home' so I could collapse in total exhaustion.  I do have a continuing long-time back problem with herniated disks in the lower back and so, for years, I haven't been able to walk too far or too fast without frequent resting points.  Danielle, in her youth and energy, walks like an Olympic contender and I know it was difficult for her to slow down to my over-extended pace.  I simply was unable to go any faster.  After leaving the main thoroughfare, one walks along little footpaths first this way and then that way, turning left here then right there, and around the back of this building to the front of another.  Finally up a flight of steps on the outside of the building to the second floor, along to her door and, thankfully, we finally arrived!

We each had late Christmas gifts for each other and we spent a couple of hours opening those and chatting.  But before long I really needed to sleep and sleep I did.  She had been able to borrow a thin, very thin, futon from a friend for me to use while there and we pulled it out of the closet, unrolled it and I fell on it and zonked out cold until late the next morning.

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