Tuesday, March 30, 2010

From Touchdown to Take-Out

Entering a foreign country can be the most emotionally taxing experiences in a human being's life. The routines are different, and rarely is there somebody there to fill you in. One is thrown into an environment where they don't know what they don't know. One doesn't have the answers, because they weren't privileged the questions, and never is it more apparent then when attempting to find, and pass through, immigration services at an international airport.

Having morphed into a tangle of pain and discomfort over the 10 hour flight, I collected my carry ons and proceeded out of the plane and into Narita International Airport. Looking back on it now, I realize the first thing I should have done off the plane was report to the health office; perhaps the staff there could ease some of my suffering, or at least untangle some of the mess I had become. Instead I made my way directly to immigration, telling myself "if I can just get to Sakie, everything will be alright".

I have never been through immigration in the U.S. but I am willing to guess that, thanks in large part to homeland security, getting into the United States is a complicated, intensive, and time consuming affair. Getting into Japan was nothing of the sort. After waiting in a 20 minute line, I was pointed towards one of the 10 desks up and running, I showed my passport, handed over whatever paperwork they asked for, and gave them fingerprints and a photo on one of their little white machines(national security brought to you by Hasbro).

Being spat out the other end of immigration in less then 5 minutes left me in a state of shock. I spent what felt like hours looking around, afraid to move, like if I did security was going to tackle me to the ground screaming "We're not finished with you yet!". Realizing I was simply in the way of others trying to get out gave me a new reason to make my way down the escalator towards baggage claim.

It was no big surprise when I reached the baggage routundra and saw a white sign saying "Abraham Haskins-Murphy please report to Baggage Claim Services" after all, I had flown United Airlines, famous for breaking guitars, stealing anything of value from, and then losing check luggage, and just all around terrible customer service practices. Sure enough, my check bag containing all my clothes was somewhere in Vancouver B.C. In a stroke of luck, however, the woman handling my claim may have been the friendliest woman on the face of this earth. After locating my luggage and taking my information so that it could be sent to me once it arrived, she personally assured me it would be to where I was staying by Sunday night. Often you hear people say "I will personally see to it..." but it never seems to carry much weight anymore, but this woman was sincere in that her idea of personally seeing to it meant she would see to ever detail: Collecting the bag when it arrived at Narita, Getting Sakie's address so they could deliver it, and sending it off; at any other airport you might expect this to be handled by a team of people. Her kindness didn't stop there, as she proceeded to take me through customs, all the while asking me questions about AIU, PSU, and the sights I would like to see while in Japan. After following me to the exit of the airport, I turned around in preparation to say my goodbyes and thank her for her help in the matter of my bag, but instead, before I could say a word she said "Now, lets find out the fastest way to get you to Akita". This woman came with me from baggage claim, to money exchange, and then showed me the train station, what line would get me there the easiest, and how much it would cost, stopping just short of buying the ticket for me. I myself am still not convinced it wasn't a fever induced apparition.

Finally, an hour after returning to land, I was really alone. Alone in a very strange sense of the word, surrounded by a half million people, but not able to talk to a single one, with nobody there to help me, no phone to call for help, it was just me and what I had in the bags slung over my shoulders. To tired to think about anything for to long a period of time, I let my cement feet carry me where they wanted. Hop on the Narita express, off at Tokyo Station, drag my heavy body to the Shinkanzen ticket office, lift my leadin hands to the counter to get a ticket to Akita Station, find my train, and pour myself into the rough felt upholstery of the economy class seat. I have never been able to really sleep in situations like this. Even during an 15 hour drive to California, where sleeping was an essential part of the plan, I could rest my eyes, doze, but never for more then 15 minutes at a time, and never the kind of sleep that does anything more then confuse the mind. The bullet-train to Akita was no exception, stuck in a hazy half-reality for 5 hours with Japan flying by my window at 200 miles an hour.

My arrival in Akita was a sweet relief. The sun has set and the temperature had settled in at 0 degrees. After making my way to the main lobby I picked up the receiver of a bright green payphone and began to dig my notebook out of my breast pocket for Sakie's cell number. No sooner did I get it open then I heard my name being called by the front door. Sakie had been there waiting for me, lucky for me too, I never would have figured that phone out.

The last few days have been spent in and out of the hospital and under heavy blankets trying to regain a small part of my humanity before orientation on the 2nd, but I have been able to see bits and pieces of the city I will be calling home for the next year. Akita is a unique place, unlike many other places in Japan that I've visited. Yasunari Kawabata couldn't have chosen a better name for this part of Japan then YukiGuni or snow country. The snowbanks are part of the natural scenery here, but every morning the sun raises, and melts the snow from the past night, opening the city to the people that live here, and every night the snow falls to tuck the city in to sleep. The study abroad advisers like to say that Akita City is alot like Portland, and they are right. Its not like downtown, but alot like Southeast Portland with its mix of small shops, larger chains, and privately owned food stops, my favorite so far being the Ramen shop just down the street from Sakie's apartment we hit after she picked me up from the station. I hope to regain my health quickly, so that I might start to really explore all that this place has to offer

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