One hundred and ten degrees of longitude separate St. Petersburg, Russia, and Tokyo, Japan. For eight weeks in 2005, I'll be crossing this large chunk of the world solo. I've set up this blog so that family and friends can keep track of my whereabouts, my activities, and my well-being. It might also be useful for someone planning a similar trip. Please bookmark this page so you can check up on me at your leisure.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Extremely Thorough

I made it to Shanghai/Pudong International Airport this morning with plenty of time to spare, which meant I could relax and enjoy a free lunch in the JAL lounge. I thought that maybe the check-in people would give me a hard time about the weight of my duffel bag, and make me pay extra for it, but that didnt happen. [Please forgive me... I cant find the apostrophe on this computer, so youre going to see some donts, cants, wonts, etc.] The airport architecture was impressive -- such high ceilings; so much light; such clean lines and curves. There were several steps in the bureaucratic procedure for leaving China, but none were onerous.

The flight to Fukuoka was short -- only an hour and fifteen minutes. Coming in over the city, I thought that it looked like it was made of Lego. Thick, lush vegetation on the small mountains on the outskirts looked like it was ready to advance and cover the city completely. My Lego impression only got stronger when we landed, because the men in hardhats and jumpsuits working on the tarmac looked like Lego men.

[Oh, I found the apostrophe, up at the top with the numbers! Don't, won't, can't. Hurray.]

I had the "Foreigners" line all to myself as I passed through Customs, and thought to myself, "Wow, that was quick." I was wrong. Customs officers escorted me into a small white room with a big table and conducted an incredibly thorough search of my backpack and duffel bag. Three officers searched while two others interviewed me. First, they had me look over some laminated sheets with photos of different kinds of illegal drugs. I shook my head at each one and made a hand gesture signalling, "Don't have any of that!" They were all very polite and soft-spoken. The bag-searchers often looked over from the table and gestured at me apologetically with some object from my luggage, raising their eyebrows as if to say, "May I open this?", or "May I take this apart?" They x-rayed my Russian dolls. They opened up a tin of tea I bought in Beijing as a gift for someone, poured all the tea leaves out into a sterile metal container, and sifted through it with rubber-gloved hands. They were puzzled by the Mongolian branding iron, so I had to act it out for them. Surprisingly, they didn't ask about the Siberian pine gum, which at first glance could be mistaken for a lump of something illegal. Meanwhile, the interviewers were getting me to explain every stage of my trip, what I had done in each city, and what I intended to do at each stop in Japan.

Although I had never been through such a serious search before, I was pretty relaxed about the whole thing because I had nothing to hide and nowhere that I needed to be at a specific time. Also, because this is Japan, I wasn't worried about the officers being corrupt or hitting me with truncheons. Finally, I reflected that all of the other border procedures during my trip had been a breeze, so it was only fair that one of them be a bit more complicated. Karmic balance.

I took a taxi to my ryokan in the Gion district and breathed a sigh of relief when they found my reservation right away. It's an attractive, tranquil, and traditional type of place, with tatami mats on the floors and a little rock garden out back, and all the shoe etiquette is in full effect, but they didn't force me to have a bath right away as I thought they might. A robe and cloth belt are waiting in my closet, and I'll throw those on and go for a bath tomorrow morning.

I had a big nap and then went for a walk down the street to Hakata Station, the big train station where I'll catch my shinkansen (bullet train) to Hiroshima on Thursday. I'll need to find the right kiosk or office at the station to activate the rail pass that I purchased back in Canada. I saw convenience stores called "Heart-In" and "Colon Booth." I passed a large, garishly lit gambling hall with a sign in English on the outside saying, "The secret of success is to never quit!" I'm not sure that is an appropriate sentiment in a gambling context, but whatever. If people here in Fukuoka are staring at me because I'm a foreigner, they're a lot more discreet about it than the people in Shanghai were. I felt almost invisible as I was exploring, which was a refreshing change.

Kashima Honkan, the inn where I'm staying, has an internet connection and two laptops set up in the lobby that guests can use for free. The search for a place to do my blogging was therefore an easy one.

My only plans for Fukuoka are to explore the city centre tomorrow and go to a Hawks baseball game in the evening at the Fukuoka Dome. I think I can get a ticket for about $10 Canadian. As always, I'll be toting both my cameras around. I've already noticed that Fukuoka has some distinctive-looking manhole covers, so those will certainly be documented.


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