Thursday 28 August 2014

A Long Journey

The air is cool as I rise into the dark morning. At 4 am the children still sleep soundly, albeit sideways in their respective futon, and the sound of their breathing is countered by the calls of cicadas and crickets from beyond the screen door. 
I put the kettle on for coffee, weigh 45 grams of coffee grounds into the coffee filter and place the dripper on top of the coffee pot. While the water heats I prepare one of yesterdays scones with home made yoghurt and blueberry jam for breakfast. 

Mika comes out to the kitchen and we kiss good morning. The kettle boils, I pour 750 ml of water over the coffee grounds and listen as it drips into the pot. The coffee and tea pots from the last firing came out of the kiln looking beautiful, but the rain and humidity this year caused surface cracking when I raw glazed them because the moisture could not evaporate into the air. The inside of the pot expands because of the added moisture and the outside cracks to release the expansion stress. Only 10% of the pots survived. After the weeks of work making them, it was a bit of a disappointment. The cracks are only surface deep, but the vessels are unsalable. Ah, well, at least the coffee is good!

I load my suitcases into the car as the eastern sky lightens into a grey dawn. Mika drives me to the railway station at Gokan for me to catch the 5:17 train to Takasaki. We chat quietly as we drive through the drizzling rain, making sure there is nothing I have forgotten to do, nothing we have forgotten to say....
We kiss goodbye at the station, I drag my suitcases to the ticket gate and  the guard stamps my ticket. I pass through the gate and wave to Mika from the other side. I drag my suitcase towards the stairs, I lose sight of her. As I climb the stairs to the footbridge across the tracks I can see her car driving away from the station. She is gone. No, that's not quite right, even though that's how it feels. I am gone.

Standing alone on the platform, I look out across the rice fields to the misty wooded hills rising up into the low clouds. Yes, even in the drizzling rain, it is still a beautiful world, if only you take notice. The two carriage train arrives, I board the empty carriage. My journey has begun.

The landscape slides past the windows, the mountains and hills fall further and further into the grey distance. At each station commuters board the train with yawns and bleary eyes. Salary men, high school students, office workers. Numata, Shibukawa, station by station the train slowly fills. Some of the passengers read books as the travel, just as it was when I first arrived in Japan 25 years ago. Most of them now have mobiles in their hand, texting, gaming, reading the news. A few of the high school students are doing their maths homework. When we arrive at Takasaki, the whole swarm stampedes out the door, leaving me to drag my luggage out onto an emptying platform. 
There is a half hour wait at Takasaki, but at least I don't need to change platforms. I carefully read the signs on the platform to make sure I am near a door when the train arrives, and settle down to wait. Gradually other passengers flocculate onto the platform, they seem to drift to the yellow line like dish suds pulled towards a swirling plug hole. And there we stand, balanced on the edge of the drain....
The 6:27 to Ueno on the Takasaki line arrives at the station, the ten carriages slowing down until a door stops right in front of me. A momentary flash of smug self satisfaction vanishes as I realize the car is for reservation passengers only, and I dash down the platform to a non reserved car as fast as my luggage will let me.
There is an empty seat in the corner near the door, priority for elderly, disabled, nursing or pregnant mothers. For the moment I deem my luggage a handicap, and take a seat. I can always stand up again if someone with greater need appears.
The train pulls away from the platform, moving through a vista of dirty factories and back streets ofshopping  districts, before giving way to an urban sprawl punctuated with small vegetable gardens. As I leave takasaki behind, the horizon widens, with rice paddies and market gardens stretching to the grey distance. Occasional splashes of habitation and industry interrupt the landscape likes yoghurt on a patchwork quilt, and web of power lines links them all like the circulatory system of some great transparent beast. They get thicker and denser as I travel across the kanto plain towards it's great throbbing heart. Houses, apartments, factories become more concentrated, like penicillin on a petri dish, the space between them getting narrower, the building getting taller. Every now and then a spore of green trees  and gardens relieves the beige crush, with a temple or shrine resting calmly at its centre. 
Sora bought a five journey "seishun 18" train ticket for going to university open days over the school holidays, and there were two left when school started yesterday. Each ticket offers unlimited travel on the standard JR trains for one day, so it is very economical. The catch is that they must be used by a specific deadline. Waste not want not, or so they say, so I am taking the standard train on my journey today. Who knows what adventures I may encounter on the way to my destination? 
A salary man takes the seat beside and is asleep by the time we get to Kumagaya, occasionally sliding over and leaning against me. A stretch of my shoulders gently puts him back on his point of balance and he can continue to slumber in preparation for a hard day at the office. I'm sure that he, along with most of the people on this train, enjoy the splendour and excitement of this journey every single day. I look down the train at the growing crowd. 80% are in various stages of sleep, some nodding, some resting their head in their hands, some with their heads leant back against the wall and their mouth hanging open pumping z's of various magnitudes into the increasingly musty air. A pungent mixture of perfumes, aftershaves and antiperspirants mingled with the fragrance of cleaning products, body odour and, yes, just a hint of halitosis. A veritable feast for the olfactory system. At each station the view becomes more restricted down the carriage, clogged with a collage of fashion statements, exclamations and questions. The hum of the electric motors is counterpointed by a myriad of squeaks, groans and rattles as the train rocks on it's tracks and pulls in and out of the station, with sniffs, coughs and even a subdued snore from the gentleman beside me to ad to the urbane symphony. Occasionally a soprano diva performs a solo in an electronic voice from the speakers overhead introducing the stations as they come on stage and telling us from which side to exit and the connections we can make from here....
Looking out the window gives me a bifurcated view of the world, the shopping malls and factories, high rise apartments and scrap yards as we pass by, and the semi silhouetted figures of the commuters packed tightly in the reflection of the carriage behind me. A train zips past the window going the other way on the parallel track so close that I could touch it, save for the barrier of reflected people on the glass between me and the outside. 
By the time I get to Omiya the seat beneath me seems to be growing harder, my gluteus maximus becoming painfully aware in some parts and numb in others. It is difficult to move or stretch in the space between the wall, the suitcase and the slumbering salary man. I wriggle and fidget but to no avail, there is nowhere left to run. The train stops at Omiya Station and exhales a gust of passengers through its automatic doors onto the platform before inhaling the innocent people who were waiting politely beside the doors and didn't have the sense to run. The carriage is now clogged with passengers, pressed together in one clump of humanity, like a vacuum sealed plastic pack of shimeji mushrooms. The air is thick with a myriad of aromas, from the rich smell of leather hand bags to the crisp fragrance of newspaper and ink.  There is more space for me beyond the window now, as there are more parallel tracks between me and the buildings rising beside the wire fence. At Urawa the train breathes once more, and just when you thought you couldn't fit any more people in this carriage, surprise! Individual activities like reading a book or a newspaper can now only be performed in the dead space over the heads of seated passengers. I can feel the  pressure of that dead space filled with paper and print hanging over my head and wonder how long it will be till I reach the final exhalation in Ueno? At Akabane station a platform attendant helps the train to ingest the last occupants of the platform in a gluttonous waist stretching gulp. I marvel, once again, in my bubble of vicarious space, at the flexibility of the human form to adapt to such constriction, and the tenacity of human spirit that drives all of these constricted heroes to brave this commute every single day.
"Oku," sings the diva, "Next stop Ueno." Such sweet music!
At Ueno the train disgorges it's surprisingly undigested passengers, as this is the terminal, a description I have often thought is rather grim. I wait until all the other passengers have disembarked, and drag my luggage into....a mob of reformed passenger now being sucked inexorably into the mouth of a ravenous escalator. I wait, my luggage stoically defending my personal space, and let the mob flow around me. Before long the jostling crowd is gone and the satiated escalator waits patiently to carry me and my luggage down to the ground floor and the central exit. Occasionally wading across the flow of commuter streams, I make my way through the ticket gate, across the lobby and out into the relatively fresh air of the Hirokoji exit. 
Stopping on the pavement for a moment to put my ticket away, I take in my surroundings. Across the intersection is the Okanoeisen cake shop that makes the best Mame daifuku in Japan. The bean paste is not too sweet nor too smooth, and the outside mochi pastry with the firm beans blended through it has just the perfect touch of salt to make it a delight! Unfortunately the shop is still closed at 8:30 am, so I grab my bags and head off to the right under the railway overpass. Beside the railway lines across the road is the Ameyoko market, a bazaar where you can by almost everything. Smells of cooking food, fresh fish and rotten cabbage drift on the breeze and dance gaily with the diesel and traffic fumes before they reach my waiting nostrils. Aah...Tokyo! Under the railway there is a congregation of homeless men with various bundles and bottles amidst their squatting forms. They seem to accrete here, though they don't seem to interact with each other, as if they are mutually invisible. One of them reads a comic, another picks his scabrous swollen right leg, another pours a clear liquid which may or may not be water from one pet bottle to another. I pass them, feeling as invisible to them as they are to the other passers by. Across the pedestrian crossing and past the stair the the park, I enter the Keisei train station. 
An elevator takes me down to the ticket counter where I purchase a ticket on the 8:43 Keisei Skyliner express to Narita airport. Through the ticket gate and down another elevator to platform 1, onto carriage 4, reserved seat 13A. I put my luggage in the racks provided, sit down in my reclining chair, and relax for the trip to the airport. Bamboo groves, copses of trees and rice paddies flash by at incredible speed. I have barely caught my breath when we arrive at Narita terminal 2. I am going to terminal 1, the last stop. A dozen passengers disembark form my carriage here, leaving me and perhaps half a dozen to go to the last stop. It is 9:30.
The Japanese lady at the Aeroflot ticket counter is very polite. She checks my passport, makes sure that I have my residency card for returning to Japan, and weighs my suitcase. 18.4 kg, no problem. She gives me two boarding passes, one from Narita to Moscow, one for the second leg of my journey. I can collect my luggage from the final destination. "Enjoy your trip." She says politely, returning me my passport. The planes boards at 11:15.
I find a phone and let Mika know I'm safely this far. 
" How was the train trip?" She asks.
"You can read about it on my blog!" I say to her cheekily.  We chat for a moment then say our goodbyes, again. 
The staff at the security check at Narita are freindly, laughing at me and sending me back through the metal detector when my steel capped work boots set of the alarm. I go through again in socks and joke with them about my big feet. 
Immigration is crowded. The immigration officer apoligises for the delay, but I point out to her that all the best restaurants have long queues. We laugh, and I pass through to the concourse. 
Because of security restrictions I am only able to buy three 100ml bottles of sake to take with me. Not quite enough to fill a "tokkuri" sake bottle, but it will have to do. I have a sake set in my hand luggage, a gourd shaped tokkuri and five guinomi sake cups, the bottle holds 2"go", the traditional measure of liquids in Japan, which is 360ml, enough for two serves in each cup.
The flight to Moscow is crowded. I find myself in the centre seat, a russian gentleman who speaks no english on my right and on my left a japanese cameraman. He is part of a film crew doing a television documentary about crossing siberia and visiting the World Heritage sites along the way. The plane taxis out onto the runway, with the dour cabin staff making sure our luggage is stowed and belts buckled. The plane accelerates up the runway and amid shuddering chasis and roaring jet engines we take to the sky. 
 There are two meals during the flight, and at each we are given a choice of beef or fish. I choose beef for the first reminds me of the first time I ate barbequed black excercise in, well, jaw excercise. I wash it down with the token paper cup of wine they offer. Four movies later I decide to try the fish...I suspect that it, and the spaghetti it was served on, came from the same bear. After another bum-numbing journey we come screaming in to land, the braking so hard all the passangers are thrown forward in their seats. Welcome to Moscow! 
The stonefaced immigration officer wordlessly checks my passport and waves me through to security. When the security guard has finished texting on his cell phone, he stamps my boarding pass and waves me through to the metal detector. Having learnt my lesson in Tokyo, I remove my belt and shoes and slide them through the xray, and the metal detector stays satisfactorily silent as I pass through. Once I have belted up and rebooted I am ready to go insearch of the ticket gate. 
It is a very long walk, from one side of the horse shoe shaped terminal building to "terminal E" at the other end, past a couple who are trying to wake up the shop attendant at a cafe so that they can buy some water, and when I get there I am greeted with an unexpected sight..."Foster's Bar"! As an Australian, I cannot resist the patriotic call, and as I still have three hours before my next flight, I go in and ask for a fosters!

They look at me strangely, and find the only staff member who speaks english, who cannot understand what I am asking for...he finds an english menu, and shows me the beer selection. There is no Foster's. They seem to have never heard of Foster's. I don't, therefore, have a Foster's. Instead I select a local beer with a cyrillic label and hope for the best. It is cold and hoppy. They are redeemed.
I leave the bar and take up vigil outside Gate 41, just as my boarding pass says I should. An hour passes. Two. I am sitting alone still, and begin to feel insecure. I check the overhead screen, Flight Su2496 to Copenhagen is now checking in at Gate 40. Strange, Gate 40 is right beside me, and there is nobody there either, and the screen above it says Amsterdam. It is 8:00 pm in Moscow, still tuesday the 26th. Home in Japan it is 1:00 am tomorrow now. It is turning out to be a very long day. I am about to go searching for the transfer counter when an announcement comes over the PA, "There has been a boarding gate change for flight SU2496 to Copenhagen which is now leaving from Gate 33." Of course, it is back at the other end of the horse shoe. 
I find gate 33. The screen above the gate says, "SU3200 Warsaw". I check my boarding pass again, check the screen above the gate, check the schedule screen, and go in search of information. Upon discovering the information counter, I also discover that there is nobody there. I now go systematically to every boarding gate; Amsterdam; Riga; Paris; Brusselles...Gate 40 now reads Copenhagen! Yet there is stil nobody there! I take consolation in the beautiful sunset over the airport runways, and take a deep breath.

After another ten minutes a lady in uniform arrives at the boarding Gate 40 counter, though there are no other passengers waiting nearby, and I go and ask her. 
"Yes, of course this is it." She says with a withering sneer. Perhaps I have lived in Japan too is 9:00 in Moscow and the sky is darkening. I sit and quietly wait. A smattering of passengers gather near the gate. A lady with a face like a lemon juicer joins the one with the sneer, and they open the gate for boarding. I let a pleasant faced old lady in line in front of me and the queue edges toward the gate. A man in the line ahead asks if there are spare seats so that he can stretch his legs. 
"No." Says lemon squeezer, "No spare seats."
My turn in line comes, she takes my pass, tears the perforation and gives me back the stub with a perfunctory command of "Downstairs."
There are stairs to the right and an elevator to the left, and the lady in front of me has pressed the elevator button, so I wait and go down with her. As we step out onto the landing we see a tape barrier across the bottom of the staircase, secured to a movable metal post, which has stopped all the other passengers in an awkward queue behind us on the stairs. The old lady and I wait on the landing. Other passengers come out of the elevator with the same puzzled expression on there faces, and the landing starts to fill. Finally, lemon squeezer steps out of the elevator and begins to admonish us for not boarding the plane yet, then realises that the tape is across the staircase. She marches over and drags the metal post across the floor with an echoing, tooth rattling, metallic screech, and waves everyone through to the plane. As I walk down the ramp to the plane I begin to laugh. So does the old lady. Infectiously it spreads through the passengers until we are all laughing as we board the plane. The are, perhaps, twenty of us. We all go to our reserved seats, squeezed together in three or four rows in the middle of the plane, while the rest of the seats remain empty. A conversation ensues in Russian between some of the passengers and the two young flight attendants, and most of the passengers stand up and spread out to the other empty seats. Leaving me in a window seat in a row alone. When we have settled, the attendant gives a safety demonstration with a ragged yellow life jacket, torn at every seam.  We eventually take off and, just as I feel myself drifting to sleep the attendant wakes for a meal. Cold mixed vegetables with mayonaisse and two rock hard buns (which prpbably came from the same bear), stale cake with butter cream and a glass of water. Yes, it tasted as good as it sounds. Sleep seems to have left me for the moment, it is still an hour or two to Copenhagen. I close my eyes optimistically.
Copenhagen airport is beautiful, with parquettry floors and modern art on the walls. I breeze tyrough immigration and baggage claim, there is virtually no customs check, and I am out of the airport loke magic. I find the train station ticket counter, the young man is polite and helpful, and within minutes I am on platform 2, with its beautiful granite floor, waiting for a train to Copenhagen Central.
The train is perfectly on time, I change at Copenhagen and take the connection from platform 6 to Slagelse and arrive just after midnight local time. Unfortunately, the last bus has gone. It is too late to phone my friends. The first bus will be at 6:00 am. The 7/11 at the bus station is closed, it will open at 5:35...I.settle myself on a bench at the bus stop with my hand luggage as a pillow and lie down to wait.
It is cold in the wee small hours, I find that a cannot really sleep. Digging through my luggage I put on several more layers of clothes and wrapp my towell around my head like a cowl. Dozing in fits and starts, woken by passing freight trains, I look at the stars, trying to work out which way is east. Eventually one portion of the sky begins to pale, and one bright star hangs in the cobalt of bourgeoning dawn beyond the red brick buildings with their teracotta tiled rooves. People start to move around the station, eventually the 7/11 opens and I get a warm bagel and a hot coffee. The bus for Skaelskor arrives and I ask this bus driver how to pay my fare? He explains to me politely, takes my fare and as we drive through the undulating countryside he points out sites of interest for me, the bridge from Zealand to the next Island, the wind turbines across the water.
There is a low mist across the surface of the water and it lies in the valleys. We descend into it and rise out af it at every dip in the road, and the light of the rising sun turns the surface of the mist into a rainbow feild. 

I bid farewell to the bus dricer at Skaeskor, and drag my luggage the final distance to the International Ceramic Centre at Guldagergaard. Today begins the final preparations for this weekends "2 nd European Woodfire Conference". On Saturday morning I will be addressing 140 delegates an the library auditorium. 
It is 7:00 am. I have been travelling for 36 hours. It has been a very long journey to the other side of the world, but I am here, and there is much to do.