For some reason, Japanese people always seem to travel with more luggage than anyone else. Check-in for a flight going anywhere near Japan means spending hours staring at a distant desk from behind a wall of gigantic suitcases which inch towards the check-in counter like vast black glaciers. Their owners, dwarfed by their monstrous luggage, urge the vast things forward like sluggish elephants, then abandon them to the baggage handlers with a sigh of relief and scamper briskly off towards the gate towing their carry-ons, modest little wheelie bags scarcely as big as an average mobile home.
Finally checked in and wedged into a middle seat, I saw little during the flight. At one point, standing up to stretch my legs, I caught a glimpse of a vast ice-filled bay, the white surface of the pack ice cut by the long black ribbons of leads. Later there were snow-covered mountains that stretched to the distant horizon.
At Tokyo, the Japanese seem to have caught security fever. A line of cleaners waiting to board a flight were being solemnly wanded down, their transparent bags of toilet rolls and cleaning supplies submitted to detailed examination. Inside the terminal, the screeners had slippers to hand out to passengers obliged to remove their shoes for scanning.
The bookshop at Narita seemed to have expanded. On earlier visits, I remember scanning the racks for books in English and coming up only with bad thrillers and slender volumes with titles like “Kinky co-eds in heat”, not anything I could see myself wanting to read on a sixteen hour flight over the Pacific. This time the kinky co-eds were there in smaller numbers, largely displaced by an expanded ‘bad thriller’ section, the ubiquitous Harry Potters and an entire shelf of Paulo Coelho, mostly priced at around $25. I didn't buy anything.
I got an exit row seat for the onward leg and the stewardess in the jump seat in front of me, an Asian girl from New Jersey, struck up a conversation with me about my book, Jon Krakauer's “Into the wild”.
“I didn't like it.” she said.
“The guy must just have been an idiot.” The previous owner of the book, who had scored it with underlinings and scribbled comments (plus an occasional heartfelt ‘Jesus!’ alongside some of Krakauer's more purple passages) seemed to agree with her. I wasn't quite so sure. If nothing else, the book and the strange sad Odyssey of its protagonist seemed to mesh with some of the things that I had been thinking about, and it raised both old and new questions in my own mind. It made me think of Vincent's line from Gattaca:
“I never saved anything for the way back.” That could almost have been McCandless's epitaph.
Deplaning at Bangkok was like stepping into warm soup. I took a taxi to Nana, searching the darkness for familiar landmarks. At the corner of soi 1, I stopped the cab and walked the rest of the way on foot, threading my way through the midnight crowds on Sukhumvit. A new eating place had opened off the tunnel between soi 5 and 7. Otherwise, everything seemed the same. It was as if I had never left.