To Japan with Mum

Mums. They give birth to you, raise you, help you when you need it, look after your own little ones. Overall, they are pretty useful and deserved of thanks. Mine has wanted to see the Japan I keep raving about, but could not keep up with one of our family trips. So as a way of saying thank you I’m taking my Mum on a personally guided tour of Japan.

And restocking our supply of Japanese soap.

And so begins my latest adventure in my favourite country.

Sadly B and Alex aren’t coming along for the ride.

The day before I caught a train lone down to the city to watch the Sydney Symphony Orchestra play the music of Gladiator and did not return until after six. Alex scolded me for not spending time with him and completing The Phantom Menace Blu-ray we’d been watching in parts, so we finished it off last night.

I’m going to miss him and B. There are times when I am so overwhelmed that I feel like time alone. This is not that time. I feel like time with them. Fortunately school holidays begin the day we are back and we’ll be travelling to Japan as a family later this year.

While Mum flew up from Rockhampton (actually down from Rocky to Brissy) to Cairns the day before, I had an early flight up from Sydney this morning, which meant I had to wake before 4 am. Fortunately, 4 am today is 5 am yesterday, thanks to the end of daylight saving.

So B, Alex and I piled into the car and drove down to the airport in the dark. Curves in the road made the street lights appear to converge with Alex identifying letters in their shapes. It was a surprisingly happy farewell with Alex more excited about his friend’s birthday party at Blaxland Park – yes they are returning a week after our first visit there.

I had already checked in to my Jetstar flight to Cairns using my mobile phone, but the SMS message didn’t have the QR code like Qantas so I assumed that it was defective. Not so, said the Jetstar service desk.

I only had carry on luggage and was quickly through security. I was hungry and thirsty, but milkshakes at the food court are expensive. So I just bought a juice from a vending machine.

The silver and orange Airbus A321 was long and thin, but I was seated near the front. A large Mainland Chinese tour group filled many of the seats, but despite the pronouncement that it was a full flight there were a number of seats free.

Despite being seat a couple of rows behind an exit, a flight attendant asked me if I could assist with deploying the life raft in case of emergency. Then came the safety demonstration and we taxied out towards the main runway as rain began streaking the windows.

We took off towards the south and quickly entered the clouds, only glimpses of the land below visible, the end of the third runway, the Kurnell Peninsula, then just cloud.

With lots of niggling little bumps and most of the ground obscured by cloud it was not the most enjoyable beginning to a journey. Then the sun rose and cast the world in a better light.

It was cheerful crew on board, joking with the pilot passenger sitting a couple of rows ahead. Five dollars worth of meal was included in my ticket, enough for a muffin and coffee, or in my case an orange juice with a little left over.

I knew not our route except that we were headed north. When the cloud cleared flat rectangles of paddock were visible below

Valleys with steep ridges, mines and more farmland. As we head north it is green, the sign of a wet summer.

There was broken cloud below us as we descended over the Atherton Tablelands and into Cairns from the north. The mountain waves from the hills glimpsed below made for a very bumpy final descent. At times the land was entirely obscured by the white fog and I realised how easy it would be for a pilot relying on visual cues to have an accident.

But there was no accident and we landed safely. I rushed out, squeezing between the noisy conglormeration of Chinese tourists and quickly past the shops and out of the domestic terminal. The air was humid, stuffy, whiffing of decay. I could feel myself perspiring as I walked along the covered path to the International Terminal a few hundred metres from the Domestic.

My Mum was waiting for me there in the blue terminal. Blue carpet, pale blue walls. We checked in together, but the moral of the story is to always have a copy of your itinerary. I did, but Fiona the Jetstar check in lady wrote down Mum’s booking number on a business card for her.

Then we went straight up the escalator and through immigration and security. This time my electronics went through fine but I had forgotten my drink of orange juice in a side pocket. They let me finish it.

New to Cairns Airport was a miniature of Sydney Airport’s Duty Free tunnel between security and the waiting areas. Nothing to buy there.

Ever since I first passed through Cairns on an earlier Japan holiday, back in 2006 when the orange version of Australian Airlines still flew, I have had a soft spot for the International Terminal. That humidity and smell as you walk up the partly open airbridge. The slight air of decay and dated blues. I imagined it as some sort of colonial gateway to adventures in untamed wilderness.

But was it just imagination? Had I ever really been to such a place. I feel like I have now after our brief time in Sarawak last year, White Raja Kuching and the brief and pointless transit through Bintulu Airport. Yet I think that sense of the exotic still resides mostly in my head.

I had been upgraded to Business Class, so I had access to the Reef Lounge. Mainly the domain of Cathay Pacific, I thought I’d have a peek before returning to Mum on the outside.

Not modern fashionable like a Qantas Lounge, it evokes a sense of the tropical in keeping with the rest of the airport. Minimal snacks, self serve drinks, potato and leek soup (how inappropriate for the tropics), it had a shower, free wifi and, most importantly, a two computer business centre with printing facilities. So Mum now had an itinerary to show.

Then I returned outside to Mum, feeling sticky and smelly from the lingering humidity of the terminal. The shops were fewer than before, the sole food outlet now in the middle of the area. Cairns is not particularly well served internationally, Jetstar to Japan, flights to Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Guam, Hong Kong and China. I watched the grey-green-blue Cathay Pacific A330 pull into the gate, it’s livery complimenting that of the terminal.

Then it was our turn to board. I said goodbye to my Mum at the gate as I marched through the Business Class queue. Am I cruel for keeping Business to myself? Well, it’s my status that got me the upgrade and I need it to keep status. Plus I have the power. Well, the flat devices that need the recharge!

The small business class quickly filled up, mainly with Australians rather than Japanese. There was a blanket, pillow and amenity pack waiting on the seat. An attendant quickly came over and showed me a printed menu with the food choices for the day. Once I selected she took the menu back. A drink was offered; juice, champagne, water.

The captain announced that it should be smooth flight, a confidence booster for me, and that there would be good views as we took off towards the south.

The airport, residences and mountainous coastline curved away from us as we rose into the air and turned away towards the sea. However, our path took us into big clouds waiting off the coast and it was a rough ascent.

The turbulence decreased as we gathered altitude, but cloud meant reduced views of the land and sea. Dark mountains, bright blue waters with coral reefs painted in brown. Sand mining on the Cape. Then thick clouds closed in as we left the land and headed out over the ocean.

High cloud still meant bumps now and then, nothing too bad. We were asked our drink selection with nuts. I chose Coke, hoping for some wake up effect. I dropped off briefly a couple of times.

Lunch was served after over an hour of flights, as we crossed over cloudy Papua New Guinea. The service had changed again. Instead of white “tablecloths” we were served an entree of potato and leek soup, leafy salad and a bun on a tray. When the soup (which was nice by the way) was finished it was replaced by my main of a big chunk of steak and vegetables in a teriyaki sauce and rice. A bit overcooked unfortunately. Dessert came later, either a cheese plate or Movenpick ice cream, which I had. Not frozen rock hard as airline ice creams usually are.

We had been given iPads earlier. I first listen to some classical guitar. After crossing over PNG, the northern half less cloudy than the southern, it was just ocean. So I decided to watch a movie. The last movie I watched in an aircraft was the first episode of The Hobbit. I was tempted to do the same here with the second, but it didn’t feel right. Most of the movies were not particularly escapist fare, which is my preference for a flight movie.

Instead, on the basis of its John Williams’ score I chose the Book Thief, to give some context to the soundtrack I already own. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the story. It wasn’t as bleak as I feared.

The story of decent Germans trying to survive Hitler’s reign touched a nerve. At Cairns I had read that the Australian government wants to discipline public servants who criticise it on social media, even if they do so anonymously. Even the Human Rights Commissioner is in on the act and the policy calls for informers to dob in critics.

As the day has worn on the air has smoothed with only a few high cloud bumps now and then. Sometimes it is a carpet of cloud we cruise high above, other times there are the shadows of scattered cloud over a Sun shimmering sea. It is a picture that dates almost decade now to my eyes.

I am comfortable in my big chair, my area a mess with the scatter of charging wires and electronic devices.

At about 5.30 pm we are served a light meal, a tasty steak sandwich, more a burger, and some chocolate. Afterwards I try to watch some more video, but it is time for the units to be collected.

We begin our descent through somewhat rough skies as the sun produces a magnificent sunset, golds and oranges against the dark grey cloud. Below, the islands of Japan are also grey and mysterious.

The last time we landed at Kansai International the colours were similar, but it was dawn. I was quickly off the aircraft, but Mum took her time and, despite the early arrival, we were far behind in the slow immigration queue. The baggage carousel had already been stopped by the time we reached it.

A stop at the ATM for money, then another long queue to collect our Japan Rail Passes. Finally we boarded the comfortable Haruka for Shin-Osaka station, giving Mum a glimpse at the night lights of a Japanese city and the odd floodlight sakura. I love the quiet and the lively streets at night.

The shops of Shin-Osaka Station were getting ready to close for the night, but in our state of exhaustion there was little need to use them anyway. Hotel REMM Shin-Osaka is very convenient for the station, but also has that very modern, very practical design that the Japanese do so well, packing everything in so neatly in such a small space. A raindrop shower with a stool to sit and wash on. What a great idea for the tired traveller.

Back in Japan. Pity the rest of them aren’t with me too.


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