Our Man Stuck in Japan – Musings in the land of the rising sun during coronavirus

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Bill Hill has been in Japan since the start of the year for what was supposed to be a lovely time with his girlfriend and to learn Japanese but it’s all been a bit surreal in lockdown.

Wednesday 29 April
10.43am on rapid airport train to Sapporo. Apart from wanting to occupy myself and get out of the house, I’m interested in seeing this current state of emergency in action. Heading to the sizeable city of Sapporo to get a sense of what’s happening, or not, will give me an idea.

I was one of two people boarding at Eniwa, my local station some 30km south of the city, and there is a light smattering of passengers on board, assuming my carriage is representative. It’s mid-morning, so I wouldn’t expect a full train anyway. Few people, so you would think social distancing of 2 metres would be easy, and indeed, a no-brainer. Yet I see a few people who are clearly not together, sitting very close to each other. Of the eleven occupants of the carriage, two lone sitters are unmasked.

Today’s weather is somewhat forgettable.. cold and wet. Yet temperatures of 20 to 24 degrees are forecast for the weekend and the start of next week.

11.56am ..
Well, this is a bit topsy-turvy. I alighted at Sapporo Station and wandered aimlessly, researching inactivity & inaction. The ground floor of the station is barely alive. One or two small kiosks are open for snacks and drinks, as is the lottery stand, and one selling bento boxes, and another egg-related products. The national rail ticket office has a skeleton staff. The whole place is a shadow of its usual self. The first obvious sign of the sad scenario about to present itself to me was the closed “Little Mermaid” Japanese pastries and bread shop, just airside of the ticket barrier. Should have known something was not right. Horror ensued when a shutters-down Starbucks came into view near the station’s South exit. Didn’t augur well considering my destination was Tully’s Coffee where I often go for a fix before my Japanese classes, which are currently suspended of course.

Eventually wended my way out of the station, bound for the coffee shop. My brisk trot replaced by a melancholic gait that betrayed my fear… that it would be closed. Plans shattered, I’d suddenly have to find a new purpose. Well….

Now in Tully’s Coffee… And they’re playing an eclectic mix of upbeat jazz tracks including a version of the inimitable Bing Crosby’s “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” (.. ooh, mustn’t forget the Andrews Sisters!). Must say, with the unsettling peace I’d witnessed since arriving in Sapporo an hour or so ago, being here does feel something akin to a Xmas present.

Talking of peace, I made a bit of a booboo last night. Suggesting to my girlfriend we might see a film on U-Next (a type of Japanese “Amazon Prime Video”) we scrolled through titles and landed on ‘Hacksaw Ridge’. … “It was made 20 years or so ago and it’s about the Vietnam War” I enthusiastically explained. She likes action films, so I thought it might be right up her street, or a side street at least, being a war film and all. Not sure where I got my info from. It was of course about the US Army at war with the Japanese on the Japanese sub-tropical island of Okinawa, in an extremely bloody battle that was the last one in the Second World War. Lots of blood and guts and something that looked like napalm, and a spot of ritual Japanese suicide. Quite a good film, but unpleasant. I apologised before it really got started, and again at the end. She was totally unfazed, to put it mildly.

13.14.. still in Tully’s Coffee. As some of you might know, I get a 30 yen (23 pence) reusable cup discount.. “tamburaa nebiki” in the local vernacular. You can make out the English word “tumbler” if you squint with your brain a bit. They like their tumblers do the Japanese. Gives me an idea.. maybe the aforementioned would appreciate the 1988 BBC drama film, “Tumbledown”, about the Falklands War… Wonder if it’s on U-Next..?)

Along with my tamburaa, today’s backpack of delights include some Japanese language exercises, including kanji practice. Kanji is Japanese’s Chinese script. In fact, the word itself simply means Chinese Character, and is equivalent to the Chinese word Hanzi, which bears the same meaning. This is the same Han as the one in “Han Chinese”, the main Chinese ethnic group… Moving on.. I also brought Isabel Allende’s latest novel, which I am doing my best (do one’s best = gambaru in Japanese) to finish off. But what I really want, or rather need, to do is formulate my next email to the on-line company I purchased my flights to Japan from. I’m planning to spend more time here, having secured an extension from the authorities owing to the pandemic, and as my original return date is fast approaching, I need to make the date change before then. The problem is, the company’s playing silly buggers, insisting I must indicate which BA operated flights I would like to travel back to London on. While I have a BA ticket number, my flights are all operated by Japan Airlines. Also, they fail to understand that my first flight from Sapporo to Tokyo is a domestic Japanese flight, and hence cannot even feasibly be operated by BA. Maybe they’ll suggest a Ryanair flight for the route next! Moreover, I think they are having trouble understanding the concept of code shares, where a flight is operated by one airline but also has another airline’s flight number. Quite disconcerting for a company that purports to book and sell … flights.

Methinks another tamburaa nebiki latte is called for…

Discount pocketed, latte supped, email response to the on-line travel company agonised over for several hours. Duly sent and received a short but vaguely positive holding reply. Need a break from that business! Now on Rapid Airport train and about to alight back at Eniwa.

Thursday 30 April, 12.46pm
Long story short … following a further flurry of unadulterated senseless gobbledygook from the on-line travel company, I have just received a message from a “Terry” asking me to confirm if I want to go ahead and change to certain “target” flights in August … flights which I suggested 3 days ago. I replied in the affirmative. Let’s see what happens. Next step is that they “apply” for this change. And I thought it was just my flight that was “long-haul”!!!

While I wait for my flight booking agent to pull its finger out (bottom dollar that it won’t, by the way. I can smell that lack of outcome.. feel it in my water). News just in: Japan’s government teetering on extending the state of emergency another few weeks. I gather it’s not breaking news though. Out with my girlfriend in a local shopping mall this afternoon, she bumped into a friend who asked me when I’m due back in the UK. My faltering nihongo (Japanese) conveys the story you all know. She comments, as if it’s just by the by, that the “lockdown” might be prolonged. “Qué!!??” I replied (my foreign language forte is Spanish, you see). Well, I’ve since checked English language sources, and this “breaking news” was doing the rounds days ago. That’s what comes of understanding next to nothing of Japanese TV and media. Many many furlongs behind the curve, am I. Or is it furloughs? Whatever. Should an extension happen, my language school will invariably follow suit. What joy. It’s becoming a toss-up as to whether I should come back soon or not, swinging several percentage points towards the “yes” vote as we speak, the pendulum egged on by suggestions that Japan’s official Corona figures might be far below the real ones, since they’re only testing 5000 to 10,000 people a day; not many for a population of some 125 million. My daily worldometers.info/corona/ feed might have been giving me duff stats all along…

To sign off …
my flight date change request has been cancelled… no explanation. Feel I should name the website, but I will restrain myself. On the bright side, I have today discovered a penchant for a certain cold green tea in a bottle, produced here in Eniwa… AND for an amazingly decadent dessert called “Catalana” (sounds suspiciously like Crema Catalana, right?.. but wait..), a frozen brûlée made from egg yolks, and cream from cows right here on Hokkaido island… Thaw very slightly before serving, and trying pouring some espresso over it for a “Catalana Affogato” … wow! (and it was my idea, I think)

May 4
…as expected, Japan’s government has, on 4 May, announced an extension to the nationwide state of emergency until end of May. People are free, as always, to come and go as they please, but fewer and fewer places are open to go to. The state of emergency is not a lockdown. The Japanese government and regional authorities can only urge and strongly appeal for people to stay at home. In accordance with the constitution, the government is not allowed to lock its people down or punish people for not heeding advice or following their instructions. I understand this restriction on government is to prevent the possibility of a return to fascism.

PS. meanwhile I’m in the midst of an almighty tussle with my booking agent, who at every opportunity, insists that that they cannot change my changeable ticket. After 8 days of countless emails and several phone calls across the globe, to both the booking agent and the airline in question, I’m still in a complete state of limbo. I’m trying to change my flight date to August, since Japanese immigration has granted me leave to stay till then. My existing flight date is now within a matter of days. I’m convinced I would be better off talking to brick wall, or a cat … in Japanese.

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