Japan Stopover

I start off my 40-hour trans-Pacific journey at 11.40pm from Ho Chi Minh City. Six hours later I’m in Japan. I’ve never been before, and I’m excited — even if it’s just for three hours.

I’m travelling with a friend, but I let her head to the next gate without me. The smiling duty-free shill catches my attention, a handbag dangling from her perfectly crooked elbow. It’s like the mall of Japan, which I figure is as good a place to start as any.


“Airports have their own cultures,” an airplane seatmate of mine later says, and it strikes me as particularly true of developed countries such as Japan, where small-timers have a hard time breaking in. “Or rather, they boil their own culture down to ‘we eat this, we relax like this, we observe this type of hygiene in our bathrooms, the biggest contribution we’ve made to the world is this — as pictured on this magnet’.”


A Short Introduction


First off, I’m disappointed by the vending machines. Not that I expected — or would buy! — dirty underwear, but I did expect to be able to use my credit card in the coin-ops. There isn’t even a credit card-operated change machine, and eggs, cats and Star Wars lasers tease me from their windows.

The Stopover

As I walk over the pleasing curves of carpet pattern, I’m screamed at by light and colour, but not sound. A placid vacuum spreads over the airport’s halls as people look this way and that, transfixed.


I stop into the first store I see, and look down the wall of 100 novelty watches. There isn’t really a point in life I’d feel the need to acquire even one of them, but I’m also not the target demo for their six different colours of neck cushion or their seven varieties of ‘solar’ bobblehead. Underneath the bobbleheads, the words ‘no batteries’ are written — as if battery-powered is the default state of most things.


In another store, a whole row is taken up by breath-moistening facemasks, “for a comfortable flight”. A woman explaining sweets to me laughs after every comment — “You know mochi? Hahahahaha.” I take sides in a comparison tasting of Suntory v. Yamisaki whiskey. Yamisaki wins hands down, now that Bill Murray’s not around to stump for its competitor.


Around the taped-up pornography in the magazine shop, there’s a “No photos please!” sign. I’m guessing this is a problem.


Knee socks, and less sushi than I expected.

The Stopover

Was I Ever There?


I pick up several boxes of glutinous cakes in pleasing pastels — somehow more gift-motivated by these three tourist hours here than my previously uninterrupted 11 months in Vietnam. I get my mother a weeble-wobbling lucky cat toy. I pass on the gel-insert breasts mouse pad.


As I make my way to the gate I catch sight of the distant tree line, looking out of place across the endless tarmac. But it strikes me — I’ve been looking at the same products I’ve seen elsewhere in the world, and reading symbolism into them that I wouldn’t in different contexts.


On my stopover in Chicago, I head into the men’s washroom. In one of the stalls, I see a strange plastic cover on the toilet seat. As I swipe my hand past the sensor, the plastic covering rotates a full arc around the seat, leaving me a hygienic landing.


I Facebook it with the caption “Japan Airlines!!” In the comments, my friend writes, “Korean as well!”

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