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-> tokyo. - Adam
-> tokyo.
201112111525 Sun, N'EX train, Chiba.

It's just been two weeks since I was last on this lovely little archipelago of the rising-sun, but that is completely unbelievable to me. I've checked the calendar three times now. Back then, I was completely done with being in Japan, but I've spent the last week completely missing it, and am now so happy to be back. Everything is familiar, I don't (constantly) feel like a big bumbling white idiot, and I think my brain has secretly attached some home'y sort of importance to the place. At least as much as it can find home'y a place where it can't understand a single fucking thing anyone says. (I've always said that I feel at home in Asia because I identify with it as a region where miscommunication is universal (and therefore massive social interaction practices have been invented to deal with miscommunication), and because I don't understand half of what people intend to tell me in English anyway. I often decorate this excuse with fanciful quips like "the less communication involves sentence structure and the more involves waving hands around, the more humanising it is", but that is hilarious and I fully intend for you to LOL when I say pretentious hippie shit like that. But seriously the removal of verbal language from communication, stripping things down to their basic declaratives, slowly-spoken nouns, and wild finger-pointing is one of my favourite parts of travel. The only thing more fun is being uppity about it on the Internet.)

It's probably strange that I keep saying Japanese, and especially Tokyoites, are so friendly, when, well, they're not, particularly. m_c_t visited here a few weeks ago and we travelled around a bit. He pointed out that for the most part I keep completely misusing the word 'friendly'. If you go up to someone in Tokyo (on the street, or even in a bar) and try to talk to them they are quite likely to be curt and sometimes even totally ignore you. I've never been one to talk to strangers either, so I rarely notice this. But generally if there is a reason to be having a conversation, it will be exceedingly pleasant, almost uncomfortably so. Obviously this is most true when they're getting paid to be, and since the service industry is absolutely huge in Japan, this is a lot of people. There is also, in the service industry, a sense of wanting to make everything happen as best as possible. Quite frequently I've had restauranteurs, JR conductors, airline staff, etc, go way the hell out of their way to make sure I had my question answered, understood the answer, and was capable of executing it. JR staff has on occasion even walked me all the way to my train, just to be sure. Personally I find all this pleasant helpfulness extremely infectious and I think while I was here for the long stretch that it started to warm my cold, dead heart just a little. (That was, of course, nothing a few days in China couldn't fix.)

I had a rough last night's sleep in Seoul. My hotel was in Myeongdong, which just seemed random (and cheap) when I booked it, but in retrospect: omg. If you've been to the dense part of Shinjuku, it's sort of like that, except louder, narrower streets, and even more crowded, with street vendors and people yelling and endless overlapping k-pop coming out of every store and into my window. Plus the bed sucked. So I was slow to get myself awake this morning, and somehow kept telling myself it was all going to work out fine, despite missing one intended AREX train after another. I finally got out of my room a bit after 0900, and quickly realized, slogging up and down steps in the metro stations (escalators being something only for the decadent Japanese, it seems), that I should have just walked from the hotel. Especially since the distance between the Seoul Station Line 4 platform and the Seoul Station Korail AREX platform was pretty much half the distance from the hotel anyway. I was of course very frantic about this, because I'm that way. (I am excessively respectful of train/airplane departure times and am constantly convinced that things Will Not Work Out Okay.)

I made it to the 0930 airport express train just in time, but panting a bit; the ticket-salesgirl appropriately recognizing that I was freaking out, and proactively called the elevators for me (Japanese levels of service!). And thus, two minutes wait, and 43 minutes later, I was somewhere vaguely near Incheon International Airport, exactly two hours before flight time (which I think just might be the latest I've ever been checking in for an international flight!). After discovering shortly after arriving in Seoul that Korean Japanese food is *amazing*, I stopped in for ramen at a Japanese place near my gate, only too late realizing that although it would probably taste good (it did), the logistics of ramen conflict with Korea in some bad ways. They insist on small spoons, round metal chopsticks, and apparently a cultural tradition of not lifting bowls off the table. In retrospect, I have no idea why they even serve ramen.

No time to visit the airport observation deck, but since photographing airplanes is apparently illegal in South Korea (out of some fear that North Koreans might learn how to fly?), it's probably okay that I didn't. The windows in the terminal are big and only lightly tinted, which would be lovely, except that they glazed the windows in a way that, yes, sigh, any photo is bound to turn out a wavy mess. So much for that.

UAL 890 starts in Seoul and ends at JFK, with only a transit stop in Narita, so it was mostly New Yorkers, and other people obviously from the east coast. In particular, there were The Contractors. For better and worse, I am extremely judgmental about everyone, especially while traveling, and perhaps my favourite group to be judgmental about are The Contractors. By which I mean, American government contractors, traveling to US military sites around the world. They're very easy to recognize because they don't fit the normal international business traveler stereotype (ie, well-dressed salespeople), and especially easy for me, because they tend to look *exactly like me*. Fat middle-aged white guys dressed like they just stepped down off a tractor. They travel in groups (little pockets of the Spokane-Tallahassee axis, wandering the world), eat giant slabs of meat, drink a lot of beer, and have no interest in the environment around them. Indeed my biggest fear is that I actually am one of these people.

My flight was full of them. Luckily the flight was not literally full, so I could be snooty by myself over in the corner. I got to do that longer than expected (yay!), since despite boarding early, our flight was delayed by an hour once we were on the plane. At some point, a very baffled captain came on the PA to announce that her seatbelt was broken, that United's maintenance provider at Incheon doesn't stock 777-200 captain's seatbelts, and that they were desperately trying to find someone at Korean Airlines who could sell them one of their spares (this was after they'd apparently already tried to use the one from the jumpseat, but of course it's completely the wrong part!). This seems to eventually worked, but I, being an operations nerd, wonder what would have happened if it hadn't. Would they have just cancelled the flight, over a seatbelt shoulder strap? (Probably.) I'm sure someone stocks them at Narita, it's a huge maintenance base. And heck they're probably *made* less than 1500 miles away, somewhere in China (you know, at the People's American Airplane Parts Factory that Boeing presumably outsources to). I was secretly hoping United would just buy us all tickets on Asiana instead, but considering they needed the equipment to finish the JFK flight, I'm guessing they would have put us up in an Incheon airport hotel instead.

Climb-out was over a very snowy Korean coast. There was a significant snowstorm in Seoul a few days earlier, but none of it stuck in the city, despite it being cold enough. I guess the heat-sync of the city kept it off the ground (the same thing works to Tokyo's advantage--take note, American cities! endless urban sprawl is the answer to your snow removal nightmares). Crossing into Japan, everything looked familiar. Nagasaki, Hakata, Hiroshima, Nagoya, all places I've been on the ground in the last month. The long empty space between Nagoya and Tokyo (with the exception of the little urbanisations around Hakone and Fiji-san) has always surprised me; significant green stretches with the only man-made thing visible being the ribbon of the Tōkaidō Main Line, made dashed by a hundred tunnels. The shinkansen was no match for our tailwind, coming in at an astounding 240km/hr, for a total ground speed of nearly 700 mi/hr, holy shit. Not often you get to do a 700 mile flight at 700 miles an hour. The flight was otherwise uneventful, and could have probably been done without a seatbelt.

201112111645 Sun, Akihabara, Tokyo.

And now, JR-magically, I'm at a Remm hotel overlooking the Yodobashi Akiba megastore, central radio town, Akihabara. (Remm is a Japanese hotel chain that is best likened to a half-priced ripoff of The W Hotels, with the W's elegance, modernness, awkward room layouts, and hallway lighting reminiscent of a creepy, fog-filled forest--all for, indeed, half the price.) I used to stay near here when I'd visit BitTorrent KK, back when such a thing existed, but I haven't stayed on this side of town since then (Shinjuku offers so much, at such a reasonable price, it's hard to justify staying anywhere else).

And of course, I'm reminded of my first time visiting BT KK and Akihabara and Tokyo and in fact Asia, back in 2007(...?), and being completely mystified by how streets work here. Everything disorienting, all the station exit names sounding the same, every bright loud building leading to an identical one on the next block. That was the first time I asked a random person on the street for help in Tokyo, and quickly learned that although we shared no language and neither of us had any idea where I was going, they were very eager to help. (This is probably why I don't ask people on the street for directions in Tokyo anymore.) Somehow I got there (by accident, if I remember correctly), very wet from the rain and deaf from the blaring unfamiliar j-pop, and was greeted by an excessively friendly hotel staff who I promptly had to apologize to.
9 comments or Leave a comment
octal From: octal Date: December 11th, 2011 02:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Did you actually believe the seatbelt story?

From what I've seen, a lot of the time when a minor and "safe" sounding maintenance thing is announced, it's a fabrication, and there to cover up a real maintenance issue which would terrify passengers, or some other non-equipment issue.

Also, fear of being a contractor is something I totally understand. It is quite depressing. I guess it would be easy enough to fall into the other normal business travel stereotype at some point.
midendian From: midendian Date: December 11th, 2011 02:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
She was pretty convincing in the details she gave and her general amusement with it.

When have you had them make something up and what was it? I've had them say things that are actually horrifying (eg, flaps and engine problems) enough that I don't generally suspect them of making stuff up.
darquis From: darquis Date: December 12th, 2011 01:12 am (UTC) (Link)
so how'd you handle the ramen problem?
midendian From: midendian Date: December 12th, 2011 01:12 am (UTC) (Link)
Very carefully.
From: valdelane Date: December 12th, 2011 01:58 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm really enjoying your travel writing.
midendian From: midendian Date: December 12th, 2011 02:39 am (UTC) (Link)
Thanks. I fear it is short lived, as after this week I'll be fresh out of interesting.

However, I will be in San Diego for a couple weeks after that to enjoy some hopefully anti-SAD meteorology. We should hang out, drink beer, ride bikes, and so forth. From the 21 Dec to ~15 Jan, except for ~25-30thish.
From: valdelane Date: December 12th, 2011 04:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'd like that! My calendar is currently open Jan 5-15.
midendian From: midendian Date: December 13th, 2011 12:21 am (UTC) (Link)
Excellent, I will email you when I'm down there!
cityratbuddy From: cityratbuddy Date: December 13th, 2011 05:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
Again, masterful writing. So full of character! Your posts in the past were also good, but just terse. I really hope to read more from you with this style.
9 comments or Leave a comment