Thursday, January 20, 2005

Tokyo Turbocharge Part 3 - Ohayo Nihon
Back in '98, JAL business class passengers had a choice of sitting in a smoking or a non-smoking seat. I chose smoking. Sitting in that tube with a bunch of chain-smoking noodle-slurping Japanese business men for 12 tedious hours turned out to be a bit of a stomach churner, but it's true what they say about smokers being sociable. About 40 of us were shipped out to Narita that evening but by the end of the flight it was a hardcore gang of four stained-nail Brits that had made the most progress in alleviating boredom and nerves. Dave and I had The Programme sussed out from the start. Our cynicism towards it began after our interviews when we were only selected to be in the list of reserve candidates. As 'reserves' we had automatically been categorised as losers of some sort, so we were of the mind to just exploit The Programme for all the money and travel experience we could get. Dave had been a TEFL teacher before in Italy and Spain, so we shared some passion for submersion in cultures abroad. We thought this passion was going to be of help, but as it turned out, it was going to be the death of us.

We got our first taste of what was in store when we stepped out of that plane and headed out into Immigration. A vast hall was laid out before us in various shades of metal grey and white, the floor covered with a hard-wearing plastic surface cleaned endlessly spotless by a man, the colour of whose dark combed hair matched the blotches splattered like flicked paint across one of his cheeks. He was armed with a shiny wheeled trolley holding mops, buckets, brushes and a bin, and dressed in a pea-green shirt & white trouser combo that had creases ironed so sharp they could have cut diamonds. The atmosphere of the hall demanded a hushed reverence, and amongst the gleaming surfaces our jet-lagged bodies were a contrasting scruffiness. The ceilings hung low over our heads, shining their strip-lights down on us brightly as we stood in the queue waiting in line to present our visas and passports to the uniformed officials.

My line was one of eight queues arranged in parallel along the long and narrow hall. I stepped over the line segregating the previous passenger from myself and approached the solemn looking Japanese who was going to admit me to his country. I said hello and smiled, slightly embarrassed not to know a single appropriate word to use. He looked back at me seriously from his enclosure behind a sheet of low glass and reached for my passport, a rectangle of red and gold in my hands.

"Instructor for one year", the Japanese guy said.

"Yes. One year visa."

I just kept my mouth shut after that and let him get on with his hectic page flicking, picking up, pressing and then putting down of a collection of various plastic rubber stamps. He gave me back my freshly processed passport and said "thankyou". Again I smiled lamely, then walked past his booth and down onto a flight of stairs to descend to baggage reclaim.

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