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Entry #2

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve flown in to Narita International Airport, certainly more times that I have fingers to count on. But the process of arriving in Japan seems to always occur in a great rolling haze, and I struggle to remember all the details.

 

All arriving passengers descend a staircase and enter the immigration corridor. Painted on the wall for everyone to see as they arrive, it says in English: Welcome to Japan.

 

Emblazoned next to it is a simple string of Japanese kana, read phonetically as okaeri nasai: Welcome home. I have always smiled a little to myself upon arrival, feeling as if the paint on the walls is personally greeting me a warm welcome back.

 

This particular trip, sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Japan Travel Bureau, is one of just three trips to Narita where I have not had the privilege of using the special Re-entry Permit Holder’s queue. Reluctantly, I stood with the rank and file of passing foreigners in the general queue, wondering to myself if any of the people around me consider Japan to be as special and important as I do.

 

I love Japan. I’ve missed it every day since I moved away in August 2010. Something about the people and the scenery and the society hits home with me in a way that no other place I’ve traveled to has ever done, not even my own country America.

 

But as much as I love Japan, how quickly I forget all the things I don’t love about it. It took no longer than fifteen minutes of standing in the immigration queue before I was reminded very suddenly of one of the less lovely parts of this fascinating society.

 

I handed the immigration official behind the counter my paperwork.

 

‘Mr Foley, do you live in Japan?’

‘I did, but not any more.’

‘I see. Well, these papers, they’re no good,’ he says, pointing to the immigration card I filled out on the plane.

‘Why’s that?’ I look at the officer, a little puzzled.

‘You’ve filled them out in red ink. That’s no good. You’ll have to use black ink.’

‘I don’t have a black pen. Red is all that I had.’

‘Well, you can’t fill out this form in red. You’ll need to use black.’

‘Can I borrow yours?”

‘There are some on the desk at the rear of the corridor.’

 

I didn’t complain about the wasted time standing in line. I could tell there was no way around the system. But that’s what make this place the way it is, for better and worse.

 

I recalled briefly the stories of people waiting patiently in line for hours at the shops in the days following the disaster on March 11. There was no looting or theft, not even when a shop’s power went out and the cash registers were rendered inoperable and everyone just put their shopping back on the shelves and walked home empty handed.

 

I filled out my immigration form in black and got returned to the queue. When I made my way to the counter again, the crowd had thinned considerably.

 

“How long will you be in Japan?” asks a different officer.

‘Just a week.’

‘For sightseeing?’

‘I suppose I’ll do some of that, yes.’

‘Where will you go?’

‘Fukushima’

He looks at me like I’m crazy. Then repeats back exactly what I’ve said to him, to reaffirm his suspicions that I am indeed a loon.

‘Fukushima?

‘Yes. Fukushima.’

‘You can’t go to Fukushima. It’s not safe there.’

‘I lived there for three years. I have to go back. It’s the whole reason I’m here.’

‘And you’re not worried about radiation?’

‘I’ll be in Iwaki City. It’ll be safe, I’m sure.’

 

The officer’s co-worker was listening in our our chat. He chimed in to say he thought Iwaki would be a safe place to visit, but that I should take care.

 

Welcome home indeed.

 

***

 

Now it’s sundown and I’m on an express train bound for Tokyo.

 

The waving green fields of rice contrast distinctly with the rigidly right angled buildings that rise above them. The setting sun casts a beautiful light across the land and I sit there silently, taking it all in – the colors, the shapes, the neon signs, the people. All so familiar.

 

Suddenly I start to feel sad and alone. Tokyo has a way of doing this to me. The anonymity of being one in sixteen million, surrounded by strangers and concrete and neon. This is Tokyo. The neon city. It pulses and grinds, like a great machine, yielding to no one.

 

A train attendant passes by pushing along a cart of sundries. It seems like a fine time for a beer. She hands me a can of limited edition Kirin, the autumn brew. I open it up and take a sip. I’m still just as alone, but now at least I’m happier. Any hardworking Japanese man will agree, a good beer can make a huge difference.

 

After a solid seventeen hours of traveling, I finally arrive at my hotel in Shinjuku. I left my apartment in California at dawn on Monday. It’s now Tuesday night. The first day of my week-long trip is already almost over. I’ve only a handful of hours left before the trains stop running for the night. It is imperative to waste no time. I get a hold of my good friend Ryan. The last time I saw him was nine months ago, when I stayed with him for a week during a cold Tokyo winter. His wife is pregnant now, due any day. The baby isn’t mine, but I like to think that I had at least something to do with its inception.

 

I’ve taken to sleeping in small two hour bursts. This can’t be healthy, but it seems tactical. Trying realign my sleep cycle for a week is not going to happen.

 

In the morning I chat over breakfast with a man traveling from Okayama.

‘Where will you go?’ I ask between mouthfuls of rice.

‘He holds up a fat stack of bus timetables. I’ve not decided. I’ll go where ever I like. These buses are cheap!’

‘Have you thought about going to Fukushima?’

‘I have. I thought maybe of going to Aizu City.’

‘That’s an old samurai town. There’s a great castle. If you have a chance, I think you should go.’

‘It will be a long bus ride from Tokyo.’

‘Yes, it will. But it will be worth it. Fukushima is a beautiful place.’

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