Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Back to the Future (almost) or arriving into Japan after some years in the West

Yesterday I arrived into my beloved Japan after almost three years not visiting the land of the Chrysanthemum and the first few hours here reminded me how far the country is in some technological, organizational and social issues from the Western world.

The story should start with landing in Chubu International Airport, located on a purpose-man-made island and an example of efficiency and cleanliness. Both the immigration and customs were very quick (overall 5 minutes) and the staff was more than very polite. Those looking for the negative side of the situation would point out to that one of the possible reasons for the speed in the immigration procedures lays on the fact that there were not many passengers because not many international airlines operate in the airport and that the airport is one of the examples of Japanese government spending in the unnecessary (the also very modern Kansai International Airport is quite close and Narita, in Tokyo, becomes also not too-far due to the impressively good train system), but it could be argued that the spending was necessary to starve-out the recession few years ago, that it is investment in infrastructure more than spending and, finally, that the speed also rests on having all the immigration boots staffed regardless of the number of people arriving (something that they could copy in England when at times there are several flights arriving and only a couple of immigration officials on duty). When it was time to collect the luggage it was very easy to spot the non-Japanese, even those that had oriental facial features, because there was (there always is) an area around the luggage belt with a different colour (sometimes is just bordered by a line) and only non-Japanese would wait for their luggage inside that area. After living in Japan so many years that situation still bothers me in every non-Japanese airport I go: is it too difficult to understand that your luggage will not arrive earlier just because you stick very close to the belt and that, if everyone stays about a meter from it becomes easier to spot and retrieve your bags? Interesting enough, there is no sign saying to wait outside the area but, as with many other things in Japan, the social norm is stronger than any formal regulation.

After taking that luggage and going through the already mentioned polite-mannered staffed customs, I got in the also spotless lobby where you have all the usual signs guiding you to all the possible means of transportation. Followed the sings to the train station and once there I went to the ticket office, where the “almost” of the title enters into play. I ordered a ticket to the station where I had to change to the subway (you cannot buy one all the way because they are different companies) and when trying to pay with the credit card I got a big surprise when I was told that no credit cards were accepted and that I needed to get cash (I had seven different currencies but no Yen in my wallet). I went to an ATM to withdraw cash and the ATMs did not accept foreign debit or credit cards (I knew that that was the case normally but I imagined that in the most modern international airport things would be a little more international). I tried with my Japanese credit cards but the ATMs were not of the issuing banks, which meant that they didn’t work either. Then I understood why the man in the ticket office asked me to go to the currency exchange counter (nothing else would work) and I did so, where I change some of the currency I had into Yen.

I finally got my ticket for the following train (originally I was going to get the 13:07 and I took the 13:17) and in less than one minute I was inside of the reserved-seat area of a spotless, nice and bright train. Exactly at 13:17 the train departed and, after crossing into land from the artificial island, started rolling through the usual Japanese suburban landscape of modern and old houses, apartment buildings (here called “mansions”) and the occasional rice field, but all with the unique added beauty of countless sakura in bloom (sakura is the Japanese cherry tree). The train ride was comfortable and quiet, because train didn’t make any noise when running and because people inside the carriage respected the sign saying to not use your mobile phone inside it (both the signs and the announcements ask you to refrain from using your phone and to put it on silent mode). On the mobile phone side of things, I was amazed to see that my Blackberry worked here (usually foreign phones don’t work in Japan) and not very surprised to see that it had full 3G signal everywhere at every time (it is true that England has probably one of the worst mobile networks that exist but I still get quite annoyed by the fact that, as example, is very unusual for me to have 3G in my phone in most parts of England, including London, and in my house in London most of the time I don’t have any signal at all).

Several stops later I transfer to the also (you imagined) spotless subway, where many things, yet again, reminded me all what I like about Japan. The photos shows the inside of the carriage, people wearing masks (either because they have a cold or because they are affected by the trees’ pollen, which is in the highest point this week) and the velvet style covered seats. There was mobile signal in the subway but nobody was talking on the phone. Many people (actually a lot) were using their phones for texting, but not a single sound was coming from their phones. Then in one station a rather old man run to get into the subway when the door was closing and the driver opened the door again to let the person in but once the train started moving the speakers brought the voice of the driver saying -“to the person that rushed into the train, please don’t do that again”-, to which the man “replied” by bowing (probably apologising to the driver or to us fellow passengers). One station later the door opened and a member of the subway’s staff put a ramp and helped a man on a wheel chair to get into the train. The man on the wheel chair did not move during the trip and few stations later when the door opened there was another staff waiting with a ramp to help the man out of the train.

I made it to my final station where I got off, went back to the surface and walked the few blocks leading to my house. There (here), after few greetings and checking a couple of things using the old 100M Internet connection I have at home, I collapsed in bed to wake up today at 3 am (when I am writing this).

I assume that my jetlag will keep waking me up around these absurd times, so in next days I plan to engage in the regulatory issues causing or arising from what I tried to describe above…

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