The long ride home

The final day in Japan is never easy, never relaxed. There is always so much left to do that it usually ends up as a rushed frenzy of activity rather than a quiet goodbye. We always leave with heavier bags and even heavier hearts.

Departing the hotel on time has been a constant problem throughout this trip. Firstly we had to wait for a sleeping baby to awake (and who would have thought that we would ever complain about that) and then to be fed. In order to accommodate Alex and our own schedules we have missed many meals on this holiday. I was sad that we never sat down for a proper breakfast, one of the highlights of our previous trip.

B’s mission on this final day was to purchase rice crackers. Asakusa is the most popular place for rice crackers in Tokyo, but cannot be reached directly from Shinjuku.

We boarded the Yamanote Line, but only made it as far as Ikebukuro, the nearest ToysRUs that we knew of, as B wanted to purchase some other Japanese baby items. On emerging from Ikebukuro station you feel like you have entered a canyon of department and electronics stores. We walked past the Pachinko parlours to Sunshine City, but were disappointed at the range of products available at ToysRUs.

Next stop was Ueno, because we knew that there was a feeding room there and that we could change for a subway line to Asakusa. After feeding Alex we caught the subway and emerged into a dense crowd of locals and foreigners, concentrated around the cracker and souvenir stalls of Karimon-dori on the path to the Senso-ji temple. With Alex and a big daypack attached to my body it was tough trying to make my way through the crowd, so B had to make the purchases by herself.

Unfortunately, we were running out of time, so we couldn’t make it all the way to the Senso-ji temple, which is a pity because the cherry blossoms were just starting to bloom and it would have made a nice last scene to remember Tokyo by.

By using the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line and the Toei Oedo subway line we returned to Shinjuku and retrieved our luggage from the hotel, then we rolled and carried it to Shinjuku Station. We hurried, but, for once, arrived at the Narita Express platform with plenty of time to spare. We had not eaten lunch or breakfast and there was not even a kiosk on the platform.

The Narita Express is one of my favourite trains. The hour and a half journey from Shinjuku to the airport was a relaxing postscript to the hectic day. It begins in central Tokyo, full of shops and skyscrapers, continues on out towards the dormitory suburb of Chiba, with tall apartment blocks and the imposing overhead monorail, then finally emerges into a rural Japan of rice fields and bamboo forests. A round Buddhist pagoda towers over the final city of Narita, then we go underground into the airport complex. I’ll miss this version of the Narita Express when it is upgraded later this year.

Though I was sad to be leaving Japan, I just wanted to be at home right then. I was not looking forward to the long flight back. The truth is that I was scared. Scared of turbulence, scared of Alex flying out of our arms as the aircraft dropped, scared of looking after a crying baby while others around us tried to sleep, scared of the boredom.

Despite not eating anything much during the day, the fear removed my appetite and I only picked at the rice and tempura we ate for dinner. We had checked in more than the free weight in luggage, but the check-in stuff had ignored the extra. We carried extra hand luggage in the form of paper shopping bags, but this too was ignored by the flight attendants. I guess that travelling with a baby has some advantages!

It looks like Narita’s airside shopping and eating has improved since we were last there, but we had surprisingly little time before boarding our aircraft, especially as we had to take the shuttle train out to the satellite terminal. I did have enough time to discover that the odd toilet out there is of the wonderful bum-washing variety, though some were standard western seated or standard Japanese squats.


Like most sources of fear, the reality is a lot less scary. We took off on schedule, at about 8:30 pm, into dark skies. It was a reasonably smooth flight, with the seatbelt sign only lit while we were off the coast of Papua New Guinea. But sitting in the aisle seat made it more difficult for me to cope with the bumps, as I couldn’t look out the window and reassure myself that it was only high level cloud or that we were dodging storms.

Alex was unsettled early on in the flight, but not too bad. While he lay in the cot I found one way to calm him was to hold my portable media player above him so that he could watch the video on it. He is such a tv addict! He spent most of the night sleeping on B’s lap, where he was much more settled.

I watched (or rather mostly listened for the first two episodes) to the excellent last three episodes of the new Doctor Who Series 3. Then I watched two episodes of Double the Fist on another device. I wanted to watch Ghost Town on the main screen, but Alex was too distracting during the screening. I really missed sitting in the window seat, especially once the magnificent sunrise arrived. B was on photography duties.

We descended through bumpy clouds, then across a serene ocean into Coolangatta Airport on the Gold Coast. Exiting the aircraft down stairs we emerged into a large construction site. As in Narita, the security staff let me keep the Baby Bjorn on while passing through the metal detector. The transit lounge was dreadful, a small duty free store, a cafe that only opened an hour after we arrived, no windows or televisions for amusement. I hope that it will be improved before the mid-2010 completion date for the new airport terminal.

After a two hour layover, we boarded another Jetstar A330, though the flight number was retained. We were delayed by about 10 minutes with four passengers stuck in the terminal due to a fire alarm. They were a very different set of passengers aboard this aircraft, a shock after being surrounded by Japanese for the past two weeks. Finally the last two boarded and we took off into sunny skies.

The one hour trip to Sydney was one of those flights that make you love being in the skies. High above the cloud layer, only a few bumps here and there and a smooth descent across the Royal National Park and Botany Bay into Sydney. If only I had the window seat to enjoy it!

Our baggage appeared quickly, we were waved through customs despite declaring items on our passenger cards (though I suspect the Philippine Airlines passengers queuing at the same time were screened more thoroughly).

Now began the final stanza of our trip: the journey home from the airport. Firstly a train from the airport to Wolli Creek. Then a change of platform to catch the train to Sutherland. Fortunately both the railway lines and the elevators were operational this weekend. We were stuck at Sutherland for about half and hour waiting for the bus to Menai, so we made use of the time to eat lunch. Our first meal back in Australia was a meat pie from the bakery opposite us. At least we are back eating the local foods!

Last, but definitely not least, was dragging the bags back from the bus stop to the house. It was too much for B, so I had baby on my chest, daypack on my back, B’s carry-on bag on my shoulder, two shopping bags in one hand and the big roller bag in the other. She dragged a roller bag.

Home! In perfect weather. Much as I loved Japan, it was good to be back in our own house. There is always a feeling of utter contentment upon a return from overseas. But it feels strange to be back in Australia, to see non-Japanese, to use the English language again and, as a consequence, participate in society again.

Was it worth travelling with such a young child? I would have to answer yes. We may not have been as flexible as before, as free to pack to choose as we will and to pack in as much in as day. But it was wonderful to spend two weeks with my family, to hold my baby close to me, to look after him in a way that I cannot when I must work. I watched him grow, watched him develop in those two weeks.

During the flight back from Tokyo I was convinced that I did not want to fly overseas, or fly at all, for a very long time. I even felt that I had been cured of my overseas travel addiction. A day later and I’m not so certain. Sitting in the aisle seat spoiled the flight for me, but the flights themselves were pretty good. And the sound of the jets flying overhead still makes me dream.

Next trip will be different. Maybe we’ll stick to Australia for a while, there’s plenty to see here. And if we do travel overseas then Alex will have changed. A month and a half from now he’ll have started on solid food. He’ll be mobile, be able to use a tiny umbrella stroller.

For now, I’ll be missing my family. My shoulder might enjoy the rest, but I’ll miss having my son held on to my chest, being able to look down upon him. I’ll miss spending the day with my wife, sharing lunch and breakfast with her (when we actually took those meals at all!). That’s what these travels are about, sharing new experiences with my loved ones.

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