Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Death by irrelevance, or this week's enjoyable/aggravating travel note

A hero dies but once, the aphorism goes, but cowards and travelers at Tokyo's Narita International Airport will die a thousand times. This was my second layover at Narita, but the first time I was overwhelmed with the terrible exchange rate. I don't know how exactly Narita finagled its way into becoming an East Asian air hub, but I'd like to find out.

Let's start with money. Money is important. If you landed at Narita without any cash, or enough cash, you have a problem. There is, apparently, only one ATM in the entire airport. If you were in Terminal 2 (affectionately known as the Satellite, to be contrasted with the Main Building, or Terminal 1) like I was, you have no recourse but to wait for a shuttle bus to Terminal 1, where you can avail yourself of an ATM. You might try and use your credit card at stores or restaurants in the airport, but you'll have at best mixed success, given that virtually no Japanese stores accept credit cards.

Maybe you'll go the way of Benjamin Christopher Rock, an American who missed a flight to Los Angeles last afternoon. I know this because he was paged at 30-second intervals for the better part of an hour. I'm not sure what happened to him. Maybe he was unable to pay for an $18 meal of rice and tempura and was detained by airport security. Another possibility is that he was flummoxed at having to wait for about 45 minutes to get a boarding pass for his connecting flight. My guess is that he wandered the airport looking for an ATM and, finding clusters of machines selling travel insurance every 100 metres like a mirage, hurled himself under the wheels of the infrequent shuttle bus between terminals.

Narita's strongest defence against its immense inconvenience is its people. They hum, dance, hop, jump and jog on the spot while they talk to you. They will talk to you with a comical fanaticism that is bewildering because you could never muster up that much interest in yourself, but they do. This, maybe, reflects a trend in Japan over the last two decades, where many redundant jobs have been preserved. There are mail openers and parking lot attendants who do nothing but bow, a bit like the Japan Airlines employee who was arbitrarily positioned halfway down a kilometre-long corridor to bow at travelers.

I'm typing this from Korea, but I wrote this in Japan by hand and I really spent all day in Japan. On my surprisingly civil (fun fact: Air Canada now proudly advertises that they will sell you snacks on North American flights) Air Canada flight from Toronto to Tokyo, I was inadvertently seated in the section for fans of the road team, mainly Japanese university students who study in Canada. Most of them had assimilated quite well, with baggy gray track pants and Uggs, but there was one lone holdout who brought her raccoon-sized teddy bear on the plane and shared her meagre space with it.

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