Flight Record

Sunday, March 20, 2011. 6:30 AM:  Leave home, walk to Nishiogikubo Station.  6:55 AM:  Arrive station.  7:01 AM:  Catch Sobu line.  10 other passengers in car; 3 people in the driver’s compartment.  Train moves along without delays, but something feels different about its movement, like walking on thin ice if a train could do that, as if every forward motion were tentative, as if the tracks in front of us might suddenly not be there.

7:17 AM:  Arrive Shinjuku Station.  Lights are dim on the platform and especially on the upper level which I pass through to transfer to Yamanote Line.  No elevators, few people for normally crowded Shinjuku, but after all it is Sunday morning.  Yamanote Line has more people but I can sit down.  7:45 AM:  Arrive Nippori Station.  More people here, lugging heavy suitcases, restroom not crowded but other users are foreigners like me.  Only short lines at the ticket windows for Keisei Skyliner express train to Narita.  I expected crowds here because the other routes to Narita, limousine buses and JR Narita Express are not running.  I get a ticket on the next train, departing at 7:58, and for a brief moment a small amount of all the panic I’ve been making an effort to keep inside spills out as I grab my ticket, glance at the clock and think I have less time to catch the train than I actually do.  I drop my ticket on the floor as I struggle to put away my wallet, keep track of my bags, and run for the ticket gate.

Upstairs on the platform everyone is waiting in orderly lines for the Skyliner to arrive, and I pull myself together and join the mass exodus of gaijin fleeing the Tokyo area.  Some young people, perhaps students from Korea or China, look as if they had brought with them all their possessions thrown together in a hurry into enormous backpacks.

7:58 AM:  Depart Nippori Station for Narita Airport.  Empty seats on train.  Pass Tokyo Sky Tree.  It’s still standing; unlike Tokyo Tower’s spire, it is unbent.  On its upper platforms stand four giant cranes, looking from this distance like giraffes displaced from the savanna.

7:45 AM:  arrive Terminal 1, Narita after smooth, careful ride through Chiba.  The platform is no more crowded than usual.  In my rush to catch the train earlier, I used my Suica (train pass) card to enter the ticket gate, forgetting to check the balance to see if it would cover the trip out to Narita.  Now when I tap the card on the electronic eye of the ticket gate, I am refused exit.  A Keisei employee wearing a white mask is standing at the gate and he waves me through.  After passport control, I glance back at the JR entrance and see that the fare machines, where I could have refilled my Suica card, are all shut down.  I guess that explains why the Keisei man let me through.

I am the only person on the elevator going up to the departure lobby.  The North Wing is busy but not crowded.  There are plenty of luggage carts, currency exchanges are open, and shops with food available.  All around me I hear a variety of languages or heavily accented English.  Other travelers are Americans, Europeans, or other Asians.  Just about the only Japanese people are the airport employees, and later a group of young people heading off on what looks like a study tour.  The check-in line is not long; the agents at Delta are pleasant, efficient, helpful.  The people at the currency exchange window and the baggage delivery service and at security are all smiles and helpfulness.  I am momentarily overcome with self-contempt for running away and leaving them to their fate.

At the currency exchange window is a box where you can donate cash to the Red Cross.  I ask the woman behind the window if this money will go to help the people up north, and she says no, just to the Red Cross generally.  Then she goes off and asks someone where I can donate to earthquake/tsunami relief, and comes back all smiles with directions to the special box set up to collect donations.  I find it next to the information booth at the entrance to the departure lobby.  The young women sitting there smile and thank me.  I turn away to hide my eyes and find myself face to face with a young Japanese woman pulling a suitcase behind her.  She looks at me in tears and thanks me in English.  It is all I can do to voice my heartfelt “You’re welcome.”

Unable to eat very much for the past few days due to lack of appetite, suddenly I’m hungry.  I’ve plenty of time on my hands since my flight doesn’t leave till 2:50.  So before going through security I visit a bakery/cafe.  While the shelves are not piled high with offerings, there’s plenty to choose from, and for ¥636 ($8.00) I get both breakfast and lunch:  one coffee, two small cheese rolls, and a ham/vegie sandwich.  A family of four comes in and sits next to me.  Are they French? I hear Bon? Bon! a few times, and “Fukushima,” but then the father sings, “Three is a lonely number,” and when they leave he says, Vamos!  They are replaced by a young woman who spills her coffee all over her coat.  I’m not the only flustered person around here!

10:30 AM:  Long lines at security.  In front of me are the young people heading off somewhere in a group.  Their families stand behind the barrier waving them off, all smiles—do they cover anxiety or express relief?  After a ten-minute wait, I am through security in seconds.  Shorter than usual lines downstairs at Immigration: takes only 5 minutes.

As my gate has not been assigned yet, I wander around aimlessly.  Only gates where departures are imminent are crowded, and there are plenty of empty chairs elsewhere.  On the departure board, several flights have been cancelled:  KLM, Vienna, Taipei.  My Delta flight is still on course.  Behind the departure board, a row of empty massage chairs, ¥200 for 10 minutes.  I sit down and get my legs squeezed and back pummeled.

Still three hours till boarding time.  The boarding area feels emptier than usual.  I drop by Doutor for coffee and to eat my sandwich.  Noon:  sitting in Doutor, suddenly the atmosphere changes.  People trickle in, and then more and more.  Pretty soon the coffee shop is full and bustling.  I leave and check the departures board.  My flight has been assigned a gate.  By the time I get there, nearly all the chairs are full.  Lots of young women with little kids, American military wives going back to the States, leaving their husbands behind on duty.

We board on time; the plane is full.  All airline personnel behave efficiently and professionally.  As we race down the runway for take-off, I finally allow the tears to flow.



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2 Responses to “Flight Record”

  1. Pam Says:

    Something so eerie, portentous, and sad about this departure…such tenuous connections and uncertainty.

  2. tokyotree Says:

    Yes. It was like that.

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