The travel day to Japan was a long one. I left my home in LA at 7:30am when a friend from work picked me up to go to the FlyAway in Van Nuys. My flight was at a better time and I didn’t want to mess around with the city bus. The FlyAway ride went smoothly and landed me at the airport at a reasonable time, even considering the very long lines for holiday travel. I waited patiently and had to pay $25 to check my overweight luggage (who ever said I don’t have a lot of baggage?), but I was able to make it up to my gate within an hour of boarding time. I waited around patiently, writing as the gate filled with Asians. My reserved seat was an aisle seat, which some would prefer for such a long flight, but with my obsession for taking pictures out the window of moving vehicles, I requested a switch. All the seats for the flight were sold, so the man at the counter explained that it wasn’t likely that I’d get a window. He was wrong, however, because the only person who didn’t show up left open a window seat in the same aisle that I was supposed to be sitting in. I was the last one to board and we were off the ground within half an hour of the time we were scheduled to depart. The window seat turned out to be not that advantageous, as there weren’t many good pictures to take. I got a few nice shots of the California coastline, which I’ve shot before, but the Pacific was largely covered by a haze throughout our trip and it was beginning to get dark in Tokyo by the time we approached the Japan coastline. At least a couple of times in the course of the flight, I thought that perhaps the whole trip was a big mistake. Her parents would be cold and rigid and extremely resistant to the idea that their daughter could be okay with someone like me. I thought about the fact that there were twelve long days ahead of me and I had no idea what we were going to do with all that time. I thought that maybe if there was an easy way to get out of the situation and make it seem like I had no choice in the matter, my life would be incredibly easier. But soon we landed and the immigration and customs folks let me waltz on through. So much for bailing out now.
My first stop when I disembarked was to change all of my dollars for yen. The rate was 115 yen to the dollar, so it would be fairly easy to monitor my spending. I could basically convert prices to dollars in my mind by dividing by 100, and the actual price would be cheaper than my conversion, meaning I would have a nice, liberal estimate for the dollar cost. My first purchase was a bus ticket on the Utsunomiya line for 4070 yen, or about $40. I went quickly outside to the appropriate bus stop and stood in the waiting crowd. The baggage men were loading luggage into the undercarriage of the bus, but soon they stopped and the large crowd didn’t seem to be shuffling forward impatiently as I might’ve expected. And then the busdriver closed the door and pulled away. Maybe I was mistaken? Maybe that bus was full and I’d have to take the next one? When the next bus came, I noticed on the side that it was headed to another destination. And I noticed that the people in the crowd, with the exception of a few, stood still. The few who moved went forward with their bags, which were loaded onto the bus as they boarded. That was when I realized that I wasn’t standing in any sort of line. I was standing in the crowd of folks who were waiting for the right bus to come. And I had missed mine. I approached the bag men and held out my ticket with a quizzative look on my face. I mumbled a few questions that they didn’t understand, and finally, in broken English, they explained that I’d have to exchange my ticket at the ticket desk inside. I hurried over to the ticket desk and exchanged it, but my new bus would leave an hour and a half after the first one did, so about an hour from the time I exchanged my ticket. The time on my body clock was something like 1am, and the bus ride would take three hours. This was frustrating. I decided to go ahead and try to call my girlfriend’s sister to let them know when I’d arrive at the bus stop.
I found one of their high-tech pay phones, dropped in my 100 yen piece, and dialed the number. I didn’t quite understand the tones that indicated that the phone was ringing, so I hung up and tried again. This time I realized that it was okay; my call was going through. Hiroka answered the phone and I said, “hello,” but quickly corrected myself with, “moshi-mosh.” She responded, “My name is Hiroka,” sounding uncomfortable formal. “Hello. My name is Chris, I responded.” I tried to explain that I’d missed the first bus and would not make it to the bus stop until after 10:30, but she didn’t seem to understand. Don’t they use twenty-four hour time? “Uh…twenty-two thirty,” I corrected myself. She sounded preoccupied, and I thought I could hear her couting something. “My sister’s not hear right now,” she said after a moment. Travel-weary and frustrated, I began to wonder if my arrival that evening was anything more than another chore for Yuuka or her family. It would be worse than I suspected: they would all be too busy with their real lives to be cold and distant towards me. They would be indifferent and preoccupied. Again I thought I’d made a big mistake by coming. I tried once more to explain that I would leave the airport in about forty-five minutes and it would probably take three hours to get to the bus stop. My time on the phone ran out and I was too frustrated to bother calling back. Why hadn’t her sister been more helpful? Ugh.
I went to the first of many vending machines that I would see on my trip and purchased a cup of coffee. I was exhausted and thought maybe coffee would help, but I would have to take my chances because I couldn’t read the descriptions underneath the various coffee items. I pushed one of the buttons and got a small cup about three-quarters full with sugar and cream. Not so great for a black-coffee drinker, but it was strong so I didn’t mind too much. I sat on a chair in the lobby and tried to close my eyes for a few minutes as I waited for the bus to come.
Once on the bus, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to try to sleep or try to see Tokyo as we drove through. I ended up staying wake for most of the drive and took some video footage of the ride because the still photos weren’t turning out well. At the second bus stop they tried to have me get off because I’d only said “Utsunomiya” when I bought the ticket. We were at the Utsunomiya stop on the Utsunomiya line, but there was one last stop and that was where I was supposed to get out. I kept trying to say “next stop,” but the driver didn’t get it. Finally I said “last stop,” which he understood. “It’s okay?” I asked. “It’s okay,” he answered.
At the last stop, the driver removed all the bags from the bus and we were supposed to present the baggage claim tickets given to us when we boarded. I’d shoved my tickets into one of my pockets, but now as I scrambled to find it, I was turning up nothing. Everyone else had their bags and it was clear that the only remaining person should match the only remaining bag, so once again, he told me, “it’s okay.” He drove away as I stood holding all the contents of my pockets in my hands. I scanned what had quickly become a desolate, dark parking lot for any cars that might be waiting for me to no avail. I stepped into a very nice enclosed waiting room with sliding glass doors and put on my heavy winter coat, which I hadn’t yet needed since my trip to Illinois in November. I’d stuffed my belongings back into my pockets, with the exception of the printed copy of the Japanese (in roman characters) that I would read to Yuuka’s parents when it was time to ask for her hand in marriage. I now suspect that I dropped that on the ground when searching for my ticket, but I wouldn’t discover that fact until sometime the following day. For the time being I simply stood and waited.
After fifteen or twenty minutes, a car rolled into the lot rather quickly and pulled up to my little waiting room. Three figures emerged. At first I thought it would be Yuuka and her brother and sister, but it turned out to be Yuuka and her parents. We were introduced to each other and I said hello and “hajime mashite” (it is the first time we meet–a customary way of saying “nice to meet you”). They laughed and we stood and looked at each other for a moment. We all seemed to ask ourselves at the same time, “are we waiting for something, or can we get in the car?” We climbed in and drove away.
We drove first to Yuuka’s grandmother’s house to pick up a cake to take to the uncle’s cake shop, which was our second stop. Yuuka was more affectionate than I expected her to be, sitting close to me and holding my hand in the back seat. One of the page I’d copied out of a book for international travelers mentioned that male/female affection in public was a no-no in Japan. It was the first of many expectations to be shattered on the trip. We took the cake to the shop where Yuuka’s brother and sister were hard at work preparing the 1500 or so cakes that would be sold the following day, (the sister wasn’t just goofing off when I called, as I’d suspected), and we waited in the car as they took the cake inside. Yuuka reassured me that things would be okay and apologized that she wouldn’t be home until late the following night because she’d be busy helping sell cakes on the busiest cake day for Japan. One of the close family friends with whom she grew up would be at the house, she explained, and he spoke decent English, so I should be okay. That sounded fine to me. I just wanted to get to sleep.
We then took Yuuka back to her grandmother’s place to stay the night and made our way to the Bannai household in Minamikawachi, about twenty minutes away. We tried a couple of times to talk to each other but it was strained. Finally we arrived and headed inside, where I met Takahiro (Taka-chan), who I’d come to realize is very much like my old friend Billy from Espresso who now lives in Michigan. Taka-chan is deeply passionate about animal conservation and has spent some time researching Japan’s sea turtles and the beach erosion that is threatening the population. Yuuka’s mom, (Kimiko is her given name, her children call her Oka-san, a rough equivalent of “mom”) struck me immediately as very warm and affectionate, and overjoyed to dote on my like one of her own children, serving me curry, rice, and tea before letting me go to bed. Taka-chan and I shared Yuuka’s brother Satoki’s room; Satoki was also staying at the Uncle’s place. We slept on bedrolls on the tatami-mat floor with lots of heavy blankets. The room was quite cold, but underneath all of those blankets I was quite warm. I fell into a fast sleep, but woke up once or twice in the early morning as my body wondered why I was sleeping at that time of day. I managed to get back to sleep, however, and soon woke up for the start of my first real day in Japan.