“Travel and change of scenery impart new vigour to the mind” - Seneca
I was actually feeling pretty far from vigorous as my mate dropped me off at Heathrow Airport and left me standing before the huge Terminal 3 building where, after what seemed like a whole year of constant planning and preparation, my seven-month walkabout would finally begin. The significance of the moment was dulled by the fact that a) I had inevitably not slept much the previous night, consumed with both excitement and anxiety, and knew I wouldn’t sleep at all on the imminent 12-hour night flight; and b) it felt like there was a small building strapped to my back which was seriously warping my spine when I walked.
The rucksack had felt heavy during its first foray onto my shoulders in my flat but I convinced myself I’d get used to it. Now though, lurching unnaturally through the busy terminal, I quickly realised that I wouldn’t make it past the first of ten countries like this, without a square centimetre of room to accumulate anything new.
Having to pack for seven months of life I discovered straight away what would become the most burdensome weight culprits: chargers for a start, infuriating but unavoidable if you want to use your camera, phone and mp3 player beyond the first week. Next, a suit that I’d probably only wear thrice at the most for job interviews. And finally: books, anticipating the abundance of reading time I’d have on transport, beaches and bunk beds. [Postscript: this was unluckily just before the emergence of weight-and-space-saving Kindles.]
A fortnight into my travels I shipped home a big box of stuff I was dumb enough to pack in the first place: the suit was the first thing in there, followed by a couple of books I suddenly didn’t like the sound of. For now though, at the airport and for the first two weeks, I would have to shoulder the weight, which only just checked in under the max kg limit. I waved it off gladly as it trundled away on the conveyor.
“There are only two emotions in a plane: boredom and terror” - Orson Welles
There is actually a lot of fun to be had on a Virgin Atlantic jumbo to Japan. In fact, the fun had begun at the booze section in the duty-free shop, where someone had had the inspired idea of setting up a whisky bar where you could sample a free half-shot of any whisky on sale in the shop to help you ‘decide’.
“I actually write for a whisky magazine,” was my opening gambit at the bar to set out my stall. “So I’d love to sample some of these bottles” I added, pointing vaguely at some shelves. The impassive young bartender dutifully complied, pouring out almost a full shot from four different bottles, as good as challenging me to down them all. The challenge was met head-on – each was hastily necked, before I made an exaggerated “ooh, is that the time?” gesture with my watch and hotstepped off to the boarding gate.
So by the time I’d shoe-horned myself into my economy seat on the plane, I was already aglow from the whisky sluice, suddenly ‘up for it’. The same couldn’t be said for the thirty-something expressionless Japanese man in the seat next to me, who had grunted uncomprehendingly when I asked how he was doing.
Gonna be a long flight I thought, before it dawned on me the extent of the entertainment options before me. I’d only ever flown one long-haul flight before, 14 years previously, and was unaware of how things had progressed since then, that nowadays major airlines’ seats come with in-seat screen entertainment systems as standard, offering a multitude of recent movies to watch when you want, plus retro video games to thumb-bash your way through.
When the stewardess offered the first of numerous gratis drinks I felt made up. Granted, an upgrade would’ve been a welcome start to my travels on its longest flight but as it turned out long-haul economy class wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d expected.
It was a shame that my aforementioned Japanese neighbour didn’t appear quite as contented; every time I glanced at his screen he was scrolling through the same section on flight safety and emergency procedures, while I’d launched into a marathon session of Tetris. Neither of us had any idea about the bizarre ‘rapport’ that would develop between us over the next 12 hours.
Welcome to Japan
It all commenced with the first meal trolley, offering a choice of British or Japanese cuisine. To get into the swing of things I followed my neighbour (I’m gonna call him Ken from now on) in going for the Japanese option, a traditional bento box, though when I opened it I had no idea what any of the contents were nor how to tackle them, so chose to observe and follow Ken’s approach from the corner of my eye.
After the first two items were dispatched, Ken gives me a sideways glance after noticing I was duplicating his moves. Busted, I was forced to go it alone with the pretence of knowing exactly what I was doing anyway, however became unstuck almost instantly after cleaning my fingers in the fingerbowl, which moments later turned out to be a clear soup – Ken slurped his down noisily with an air of ridicule. Demoralised, I shut the lid on it early and returned to my Tetris.
The next embarrassing moment occurred a couple of hours later, by when I was quite sozzled and beyond self-guidance. I had stuck on the recent Coen brothers flick ‘Burn After Reading’ and was tickled by a scene halfway through in which (spoiler alert!) Brad Pitt’s character is caught hiding in a bedroom wardrobe owned by George Clooney, who promptly blows Pitt’s brains out with a revolver, splattering the whole wardrobe with gore. What I’d found hilarious was the stupid expression on Pitt’s face just before he’s shot, and rewound it a couple of times to rewatch it. Suddenly I could feel Ken’s stare, and glanced sideways to catch the tail-end of his perplexed expression. Only then did I realise he’d been watching me repeatedly replay a scene of someone getting his head blown off and guffawing to myself. That was the moment I most wished I could speak Japanese, just to explain it was the facial expression I was laughing at, not the murderous act.
Night had well fallen by then and most passengers were reclined and kipping. Hopefully Ken will as well, I hoped. As a seasoned insomniac I can’t sleep on planes, often finding it difficult in a comfy silent bedroom let alone an upright seat with the roar of jet engines in your ears. So I contentedly resigned myself to a night of retro gaming to keep me alert until touchdown. It soon transpired, however, that I wasn’t the only one who can’t sleep on planes. In fact, Ken was the only other passenger on the entire plane who remained awake with me through the night, which I confirmed during periodic strolls around the gangways to relieve cramp.
It was a surreal situation to be in, with the plane’s entire interior in still darkness except me and Ken’s corner illuminated by our screens and the overhead bulbs. What was cool was that as long as we were awake the same stewardess kept returning to offer drinks, which we both accepted every time. I love the way flight literature warns you to avoid alcohol on flights to prevent dehydration, then sometimes you're plied with as much as you can drink. It was like feeding two dogs – keep offering them biscuits and they’ll keep eating them, full or not. It was also like some kind of private battle, with Ken determined to outdo me in both drinking and sleep deprivation, a game he could never win…
By the time the rising sun shafted natural light onto us I noted we were both looking quite pale and frazzled, yet as the rest of the plane began to stir to prepare for landing, we remained fixated on our screens, silently thumb-bashing, ‘in the zone’. Ken had been playing shoot-em-ups all night, while I’d been working through old-school classics like Pong and Arkanoid. And then, without warning, and only a few minutes before landing, Ken collapsed on me! In one abrupt movement his joypad dropped to the floor as his head fell sideways onto my shoulder, then his upper body followed, forcing me to grab him with both arms before he crumpled into my lap – it took a couple of firm shakes before he roused and realised what had happened.
“Awwwww yakkatokko yakkatokko!” he apologised earnestly, the first words he’d spoken to me (that’s what it sounded like anyway), doing the bowing and praying-hands thing before brushing some imaginary dust off my shoulder. Then he retrieved his fallen joypad and returned to his game screen, but now looking painfully troubled as if he’d just brought the gravest dishonour onto himself and his entire family, leaving me to muse over exactly what troubled him the most. Was it the fact that after such a length of time his consciousness had chosen now to give up the ghost, with his homeland in sight, and had thus lost this battle of endurance with the Westerner? I recalled from those old Clive James TV shows how much the Japanese love their tests of endurance, and had read how retaining honour and ‘face’ was of great importance.
Or maybe he was just about to defeat the very last boss on his epic space invaders marathon when his brain had finally shut down and scuppered his efforts at the final hurdle. Whatever it was, he had taken it badly, and when we finally disembarked I saw him ahead of me on the gangway solemnly shaking his head as he stepped off the plane.
And so began my visit to Japan, where the surreality of the flight was to segue into an even more surreal day and week in Tokyo.