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November 1996, Japan

Hits 2266 | Created 1996-11-01 | Modified 2007-09-27

As always, I forget to pack my penknife into my backpack, and only realise as I set off the metal detector.



'It's this,' I sigh, and hand over the penknife.

The customs man raises his eyebrows, silently chastising me for trying to take a knife on board a plane. This is in the days before 11/9 (British format), so I'm not escorted to a cell to be beaten, strip searched and possibly detained indefinitely as a suspected terrorist. Instead I'm taken to a quiet corner where I watch my knife being sealed into a bag which my name is then written upon.

'You can collect it in Narita.' Beams the customs man.

'Oh, thanks.' I say and board the plane.

The plane is an old Aeroflot model, complete with fear-inducing peeling paint, and maintenance crews who seem to do more lounging around on your luggage than inspecting the wheels or anything useful.

Inside there are wonderfully over-made-up Russian air hostesses - bright blue eye shadow daubed on with a large thumb, so it appears.

I like the accent, they ply me with red wine and are saucy.

There's no entertainment to speak of, and to my utter amazement, people are smoking rowdily at the back of the plane. The hostesses seem not to notice, or choose to ignore it. The plane is so old that it still has ashtrays, and doesn't even seem to have a no-smoking sign to light up.

We have a two hour stop-over in Kiev. We're escorted into a large, cold aircraft hangar by armed guards, and left to our own devices under the watchful eyes of the soldiers.

Everyone sees the Irish theme bar at the same time and ambles over to it only to discover it closed, and quite dusty. The Guinness pumps mock us as we sit on cold metal benches and peer at the swirling, bitter Ukrainian wind outside.

I spend some time peering through the windows of the closed duty-free shop and almost fall over a hippy whilst doing so.

'Hey.' I say.

'Hey.' He replies.

(Ah, eloquence is in safe hands with our generation I think).

The hippy is skinning up. I can't quite believe that he's planning to smoke a joint in an old USSR aircraft hangar whilst guards with semi-automatic assault rifles loiter nearby.

'Are you skinning up?' I ask.

'Yeah, gotta use it before we land in Japan, eh?'

'Um, yes, I suppose so,' I admit, walking far, far away from him.

Back in the air sometime later I am approached by one of the lovely stewardesses.

'Is this your knife?' She purrs, in a bewitching accent, showing me a plastic bag with my penknife in it.

'Errr, yes.' I say.

She then smiles and hands over the bag, walking away.

Thoughts of hijacking float through my mind, then float away as I fall into an easy slumber, stretched across three seats.

Narita airport looks like all airports from the viewpoint of the plane (apart from Turkmenistan's Ashkabad that is) - lots more planes, little golf carts pulling bags around, trucks, wiring, pipes, fences and a view of an industrial complex next door.

We're unloaded and despatched with efficiency to a small room where there is immense confusion over what we have to do next. Some people join a queue, others march through some open doors, and the rest start to fill out some little green forms that there seem to be a lot of in the room.

I, being British, join the queue. When I get to the front I'm told to go back and fill in a little green form, then re-join the queue.

Pah.

The rest of the process is painless. I'm searched on the way out by a curious customs officer who roots through my socks with interest?

'English ah?'

'Yes.'

'Holiday?'

'Yes.'

At this point he's fingering my work shirts and ties, but doesn’t say anything.

'Enjoy Japan.'

'Why thank you.' I say, and saunter past the smoking cubicles which look as if they are designed to punish smokers by cramming them into a small Perspex box with all the other smokers.

Welcome to Japan.

I stand, stare, and feel that mild panic associated with not being able to read a single thing and not having a clue where to go, or what to do.



I spent most of my time in Japan in Takasaki in Gunma, which is a bit like the countryside in Japan, though to me it looked like a bloody big city. The accent, so I'm told, is a bit like Dorset in the UK, so people who learn Japanese there head for Tokyo and get sniggered at by the city-slicker Japanese. Add to this fact that most Gaijin men get taught the language by their Japanese for-the-moment girlfriends and you're in for a great style of speaking - Japanese women speak differently to men, and so you can end off speaking a bit like a lady-boy.

I worked for Mr Horiguchi as and English teacher (after a brief spell with some pakistani car dealers) and he was nice enough to give me a car and mobile phone.

'Ah, Ralph-San,' he would say whilst noisily slurping noodles, 'I have had bad experience with English men before. They lie and do not stay as long as they say they will. I take a chance with you, Ralph-san.'

So, given that I lied about my experience and supplied forged certificates... and with what happened next and all... suffice to say that Mr Horiguchi is no longer employing English teachers from England... (sorry all)

The best part about Takasaki was Suzy's Bar where Mino and Dobu ran the shop in the manner that I would run a bar - forever drunk and setting fire to the place.





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