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.

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