Thirty seconds and a one way ride

This is part two and we are now in further north, in Tokyo

Two pos­si­bly clash­ing and prob­lem­at­ic state­ments when viewed in prox­im­i­ty. They are: “I like to buy records” and “We went to Tokyo”. Both are true but seem to run bang, smack into each oth­er. Add to that 30kg of cat­a­logues, a trawl through sev­er­al flea mar­kets and an urgent pur­chase of win­ter clothes, lack­ing in the Bangkok wardrobe, for the next jour­ney, to sub-zero Poland. That’s what this sto­ry is about. That, and David Jones, late of Brixton.

It was the first week of Jan­u­ary in 2016, some three weeks after we had been to Indone­sia where we had our ear­li­er air­line issues.

Tokyo is one of my favourite big cities in the world (if pushed the oth­ers are, in no real order, Bangkok, Prague, Paris, Lis­bon, NYC and Hong Kong) and I like so much about it, Brigid and I decid­ed to take our of-that-age Isabel­la there as an – extrav­a­gant (very) – 21st present. As much as any­thing it was to numb the fact that we were now the par­ents of some­one of that age.

So we did, and it was such fun, if icy. We ate, drank, had fam­i­ly dis­putes, and we shopped. We took pho­tos and laughed a lot. The Japan­ese Christ­mas lights were still up every­where and spe­cial. It snowed. It was all spe­cial and then we put Bel­la on a plane home and had a Brigid and Simon week.

There were flea mar­kets and we bought old movie mag­a­zines from the 30s and 40s. I found a neat Con­verse jack­et from an age long ago which will nev­er fit me and Brigid bought a pur­ple Ital­ian design­er jack­et from the 60s which I love but she is not con­vinced about. I found tick­ets and a pro­gramme from The Bea­t­les’ shows at the Budokan in August 1966 for a pittance.

A Japan­ese com­pa­ny asked Brigid if she would like some cat­a­logues – she said yes, think­ing it was a CD or three, and a couri­er arrived with 30 kg of stun­ning cat­a­logues as only the Japan­ese can cre­ate. Do you keep them? Of course.

Then we have the records. I bought a few – 85. I’ve trav­elled a great deal and as B will tell you, I have the Google map marked with record stores in each town. I can say, with­out any fear of being proved wrong, that Japan has the best record shops on Plan­et Earth. For­get Amoe­ba, for­get the mer­chants of Soho, for­get rur­al USA, Japan tru­ly is it. Any genre, and any peri­od. And the more you think you have dis­cov­ered the absolute gold, the more you under­stand the next day – when you turn a cor­ner and dis­cov­er yet anoth­er lane of over­flow­ing shops (with all their stock in immac­u­late con­di­tion) – that you have not even scratched the sur­face. One won­der­ful street in Shin­juku has 6 shops – sev­er­al six sto­ries high, and all filled with records that you are able to con­vince your­self, you may nev­er see again. A first edi­tion, on US Tam­la, of Bar­rett Strong’s ‘Mon­ey’? I’ll have that. An orig­i­nal Japan­ese press­ing of Bil­ly Preston’s clas­sic Apple album Encour­ag­ing Words? Yes, please. And so on. 85 records (and those were just the LPs) weighs something.

I’d also rushed into Tow­er Records first thing on the Fri­day morn­ing and bought a Blue fun­ny fold­er and a badge. It came with a free copy of the just-released-that-day, Bowie album, Black­star. A Japan­ese only Blu-spec digi­pak no less.

Two days before our depar­ture from Toyko we went to anoth­er flea mar­ket in Hara­juku, how­ev­er, we found an emp­ty lot. It seemed it had been delayed for two days to coin­cide with a pub­lic hol­i­day that next date. No prob­lem – our flight was a 5.45 pm one, so we would go in the morn­ing and hit the train to Nari­ta at 2 pm. There was one, we checked.

A hic­cup – we realised that morn­ing that not only were we well over our allowed 96 kg (gold and sil­ver card extra weight upgrades includ­ed) but there was no way we could a) fit it in our bags, and b) move it all with­out wheels on the new bag we would need to buy. Not possible.

Also easy – after the mar­ket, we’d wan­der down the hill to Shin­juku and get a bag and trol­ley in one of those many stores we’d seen sell­ing such, grab a train to the hotel from the sta­tion (a direct jour­ney), quick­ly repack and catch a cab to Tokyo sta­tion. Planned and sorted.

We went to the mar­kets and they were pre­dictably fab. I bought more Bea­t­les stuff. For inter­net access in Tokyo, Brigid and I always use a cou­ple of those uber-fast mobile hotspots (our Thai phones are patchy there and NZ roam­ing is offen­sive­ly expen­sive every­where and lim­it­ed). They are deliv­ered to your hotel and you throw them in the mail at the sta­tion on the way back, in pre­paid bags. We each login to our own and use What­sapp or Skype to converse.

We made a time to meet at the mar­ket and as it approached I called her. My inter­net was dead. Shit. I tried to reboot my device and my phone. Noth­ing. Time was pass­ing and I pan­icked a lit­tle, but then I saw her and gath­ered myself. We’d lost half an hour but that was still doable. My wifi worked again. Hers had died too and was now work­ing. Damn – we’d tak­en each other’s device. They had worked whilst we were less than 20 metres apart but as we wandered …

Down the hill to the … where the hell was that bag shop? There? No. There? No. A bag shop! No, cheap bags, no wheely things. Anoth­er 30 min­utes gone. We grabbed the train to Gin­za – Tokyu Hands has every­thing. Wrong train exit (train sta­tion exits can be quite a thing in Tokyo). We were pan­ick­ing. There it is. Wrong store entrance. Around the cor­ner. There … bags on the 10th floor. Ele­va­tor stopped at every floor. 10th floor and after a sprint around and around, we found one of each. Yay. Soo slow to serve. No, we don’t need it wrapped. Nor do we need points. Ok. Lift. Wait­ing – up, up up, every floor. Down, down, down … every bloody floor.

We grabbed a cab and, damn he was fast. Thank god. But it was well after 1 pm. Pack, but even with the wheel­ie thing it was almost unman­age­able, but we do and go down the 25 floors to the always attend­ed cab rank. There are none. One arrives but it soon becomes clear that one cab is not enough. The door­man hails anoth­er and we con­voy it – two cabs, Brigid and me, 6 bags and well over the bag­gage limit.

Japan­ese cabs are amaz­ing. We once had one guy stop at a 7‑Eleven to buy us a gift because he’d gone to the wrong address.

I did not have an amaz­ing cab. Mine went to the wrong door of the world’s biggest train sta­tion, and the oth­er fol­lowed. It was about to get far worse.

Tokyo Sta­tion is not only a behe­moth, it’s also an almost impos­si­ble to nav­i­gate behe­moth with almost no obvi­ous sig­nage. Get­ting a train to Nari­ta is a guess­ing game unless you’ve done it before. We had, but we had well over 100 kilos of tum­bling and unman­age­able bags. Around and around we went look­ing for the entrance, and Brigid and I were scream­ing at each oth­er as we dragged and fell and dragged. There … We know there is a lift but where? No sign. So it’s to the esca­la­tors. Now, the Nari­ta Express is four lev­els down. That’s four steep esca­la­tors and on each, we were both try­ing to pre­vent 100+ kgs from rolling down onto either our­selves or hap­py unaware trav­ellers below. We had no tick­ets!! It was now 1.50.

Wrong tick­et machine. Right machine. Cash only! #$#$!! Ok, sorted.

We strug­gled, almost dead – I was by now sweat­ing offen­sive­ly –  to the final esca­la­tor and down it we went to the short cor­ri­dor to the plat­form – cool. As we got near the bot­tom a large Kore­an man pushed bru­tal­ly past me and then tried to do the same to Brigid. She was clear­ly not that keen on being passed, most­ly because as there was lit­er­al­ly no room to do so, bags and all. He then he pushed her and she fell, the bags cas­cad­ing to the bot­tom. I screamed, ‘no!’ (see the Indone­sian tale, this was a habit) and went to strike him. I didn’t, because I don’t and because Brigid grabbed me and the large and offen­sive man wad­dled away.

We recov­ered the bags, and Brigid looked like she could take no more. Drag­ging the weight just a few nec­es­sary metres more, we saw the 2 pm to Nari­ta head­ing out. Damn. No prob­lem, they go every hour and we were still on track, if a lit­tle shat­tered. It would be a wait. We could sit on the bags and recov­er with the aid of a dis­pens­ing machine on the plat­form. We’d giv­en the wifi units to the hotel to post so we thought we’d have an inter­net free spell. We wait­ed until 3 pm and there was no train. Shit. The signs make lit­tle sense so we asked some­one. Reduced ser­vice for the hol­i­day. Fuck. 4 pm. We were well fucked now. Or maybe not. It arrived at 5. Maybe the gate closed at 5.15? Maybe.

Around 5 to 4, bored, I dis­cov­ered free wifi on the plat­form. Idiot. Every­where in Japan has free wifi, except the Nari­ta Express itself of course. I logged on, checked the emails and got dis­tract­ed by one. The train arrived so we dragged our bloat­ed bag­gage onboard. I sat and decid­ed to check Twit­ter as the train began to pull out – before the station’s free inter­net died.

RIP David Bowie” .. and the train left the station.


The next hour was hell. We agreed we had like­ly missed the plane and would have to bite the bul­let and get the next flight we could. 24 hours more in Japan was fine. We had to deal with absurd lug­gage weight issues. It would cost but what could we do? But all that was ham­mered into insignif­i­cance by one sim­ple 12 let­ter tweet.

RIP DAVID BOWIE. And I had no way of know­ing more until I found a work­ing inter­net connection.

It was an end­less 60 min­utes and we pulled into Nari­ta at 5 pm exact­ly. The exit from the train to the sta­tion sev­er­al floors up is both slow and method­i­cal in a typ­i­cal­ly Japan­ese way, but some­how we man­aged to jump assort­ed queues. We assumed, though, that we had missed the plane and jour­neyed up the floors to check-in with­out any sense of urgency.

Arriv­ing at the desk it was almost desert­ed, just three staff – all youngish females – shut­ting it all down. All the pas­sen­gers were long gone.

We wan­dered over and either Brigid or I said, “We know we’ve missed the flight, when is the next one?” A girl nod­ded, and asked for our tick­ets, “yes, you have.” She looked sym­pa­thet­ic. It was fine though as we’d come to terms with it. “What hap­pened to David Bowie?” I asked sev­er­al times with­out any obvi­ous response. Real­ly, how would she know? She’d been weigh­ing bags and print­ing board­ing pass­es for two hours. In Japan, check-in is quite a thing. You watch the staff all lin­ing up 45 min­utes before the desks open. Man­age­ment (junior one assumes) lec­ture and instruct the staff fer­vent­ly before they all chant some­thing and bow. They then take their posi­tions and are inspect­ed by the man­ag­er. Then, and only then, do the desks open.

Anoth­er girl said, “I’ll make a call…” She did, men­tion­ing our gold cards on the phone, “quick, put your bags on the scales … you have 115kg!!” “We do? I guess we do..”

Don’t wor­ry”, she said, quick­ly hand­ing us a cou­ple of board­ing pass­es. “Fol­low me and run…”. She took off as if Toky­o’s very exis­tence depend­ed on it and kept call­ing back, “run, run…” We were try­ing, we real­ly were, but there are lim­it­ed. I was torn between the need to expand on those few words, RIP DAVID BOWIE and find­ing the nec­es­sary ener­gy to get on this plane. We were rushed through the diplo­mats’ queue at immi­gra­tion with only a cur­so­ry secu­ri­ty check.  We were gate 46 ­– the very last gate in an air­port size of Maine. “Run, run…”.

She looked ani­mat­ed and enthu­si­as­tic as she ges­tured towards an end point we couldn’t see. To be hon­est, see­ing any­thing was a prob­lem as the weight of our bat­tered bod­ies gave up after the haul across Tokyo com­bined with an-almost-brawl with an unfor­giv­ing aggres­sive Kore­an prick (this is not intend­ed as a slight on all Kore­ans, BTW, just this one exam­ple). My vision was also com­plete­ly swamped by the sweat flow­ing from my fore­head. I sim­ply stopped. Brigid said, “C’mon” encour­ag­ing­ly, but the time had come and I just said, “No, it waits or we miss it” and she agreed. We were at gate 12 or so – near that won­der­ful sushi joint which, on a nor­mal day, would entice us in – and we walked. The first girl from Thai Air­ways hand­ed over relay-style (we were the batons) to anoth­er equal­ly enthused girl who jumped, squealed and point­ed towards a dis­tant wait­ing gate. We smiled and walked. We were inca­pable of more.

She was encour­ag­ing but it was to no avail. We walked. Even­tu­al­ly, Gate 46 loomed – desert­ed apart from one staff mem­ber – and we found a final burst of some­thing and hand­ed her the board­ing pass­es. We walked the final few metres onto the A380 and as we walked in they shut the door behind us. The stew­ardess looked at me, smiled and point­ed towards two front row seats: “You made it, now relax and I’ll bring you a beer as soon as I can.” She did.

The news on the screen said, ‘The death of rock star David Bowie was announced today … ” I logged onto the onboard internet.

Share your thoughts