3 August, Friday.  Departure.

 

The final packing of suitcases was completed on Thursday evening.  According to our bathroom scales, we had 39.6 kilograms of luggage in our two suitcases, just within the 20kg per head allowed by the airline.  This did not take account of our flight bags, which probably weighed a further 5 or 6 kg.

 

We set the alarm clock for 5.00 am but in the event did not have to rely on it.  Excitement and anticipation woke us in due time.  Having fed our cat, Pepsi, (our friend, Sue, would visit morning and evening to attend to Pepsi’s needs and comfort), had our first intake of caffeine and lugged the suitcases out to the car, we were ready when Sue drove round to accompany us to Heathrow.  

 

I drove the 100 miles to Heathrow Airport and we arrived outside Terminal 2 at around 7.45.  Sue drove away in our car, taking it back home.  

 

We were quickly checked in by the Aeroflot staff and secured window seats near the wing emergency exit in the non-smoking section of their Airbus 310.  This done, we went upstairs to the departures lobby and stood around until Adrian, one of our sons, came to see us off.  We went through to Pizza express for a breakfast.  Terminal 2 had no restaurant where we could get a “normal” English breakfast, so my ham and eggs was marred by pizza-type tomato sauce all over it.  Not good, although my coffee was OK.

 

Eventually it came time for us to go into the departure lobby and Adrian waved us off.  Through Passport Control and into the “Airside” area.  There were many duty-free stores.  The only purchase we made was a battery for the camera.  We saved the VAT but this may not have been such a bargain, because the same battery was for sale in our local convenience store in Japan for about half the price we paid to Mr Dixon.

 

Our flight was called and we dutifully (and in some cases, dutyfreefully) queued to be allowed into the departure lounge, passing through the metal detector while our hand luggage was X-rayed.  I could see X-rays of other peoples’ luggage, which, sadly, was not at all interesting.  X-rayed bottles of whisky and bulk packs of ciggies show no noteworthy features.

 

We sat down and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Our fellow passengers included some student-types, obviously backpacking around Russia or Japan, and a number of prosperous-looking Russians (probably travelling 1st or Business class).  Some of these heavily-built men with glamorous blonde companions looked clear candidates for membership of the Mafiya.  There were many “ordinary” Russians as well, travelling economy class like us.  Judging by the voices we could hear, there would be only 4 or 5 English speakers on board, the rest being largely Russian, with a sprinkling of Japanese.

 

Finally, the Tannoy called 1st and Business class passengers to board the aircraft.  This was a signal for the huddled masses to surge forward, in the spirit of the Potemkin riots, to claim their rightful heritage of getting to their pre-allocated seats before the bourgeoisie.  We waited until economy passengers were officially called, and decorously took our seats on the plane.  I don’t know if Aeroflot is particularly generous with the seats, but I had plenty of leg room.  Chair width was OK, but had I been a couple of stone heavier (speaking as a 96Kg weakling) , it might have been a bit of a squeeze.  Nonetheless, I found the seat very comfortable even through the 9hrs 35mins of the 2nd leg of the journey.

 

Our flight schedule was as follows:

Location

Event

London Time

Local Time

Heathrow

Take Off

10.55 Friday

10.55 Friday

Sheremetyevo, Moscow

Land

14.35 Friday

17.35 Friday

Sheremetyevo, Moscow

Take Off

16.30 Friday

19.30 Friday

Narita, Tokyo

Land

02.05 Saturday

10.05 Saturday

Aeroflot delivered.  We were pretty much on schedule.

 

Sheremetyevo airport is some distance outside Moscow.  My only experience of it is in the transit area, so my conclusions must be limited.  However, its architecture is functional but some attempt has been made to decorate its interior.  The overall impression is of darkness and gloom.  On disembarkation while the plane was being refuelled, we were forced to undertake a route march all round a circular frontage and thence had to run the gauntlet of the Moscow duty-free arcade.

 

There are two gent’s toilets in the area, the nearest, of course, being closed for cleaning.  A long walk back (via, of all things, an “Irish” bar!) took me to a gent’s at the far end that was in dire need of being spruced up.  It was vile.  I undertook the long walk back to the embarkation area, developing a thirst on the way.  Not being equipped with US dollars (the only valid currency in Sheremetyevo, apparently) and feeling that a credit card is excessive for a couple of Cokes, Val and I were unable to purchase a drink, so we sat in the waiting area for an hour and a half until we were invited to re-embark.

 

During the next leg of the flight, we soon found ourselves flying in darkness.  The Aeroflot cabin staff fed and watered us and then distributed little packs containing velcro-fastened slippers, eyeshades and a toothbrush and toothpaste, all in a tasteful maroon.  There were blankets and little pillows already provided.  With seats inclined, we managed to sleep quite well for a few hours.  Aeroflot woke us up and provided a breakfast.  The food on Aeroflot in general was good, at least by airline economy class standards.

 

By now, it was Saturday, and a few minutes late we touched down at Narita.  We got off the plane, and walked through to Japanese Immigration.  (Somewhere in this process, we took the unmanned shuttle from the arrival extension to the terminal proper, but I forget the order in which this happened.)

 

At Immigration we discovered that we had made a mess of filling in our disembarkation cards.  We had to provide Stephen’s address in Japan, which meant much ferreting in Val’s bag to find it.  (In the event, the address we had for Stephen had just been changed by the prefectural authorities, so what we told Immigration in good faith was in fact wrong!)  The disembarkation card was not very clear as to what address was meant.  The immigration official did not seem very happy in his job, so we made a point of smiling broadly and thanking him profusely for his assistance.  The words “water” and “duck’s back” sprang to mind as we walked through.

 

Anyway, on to baggage reclaim, through customs and then on to the Arrivals hall, where Stephen was waiting to greet us.

 

After much hugging and general good-to-see-you-ing, we walked through to the JR (Japan Railway) station within the terminal complex.  We validated our JR Rail Passes (effective from Sunday) (and incidentally were mightily impressed by Stephen’s evident command of the language in the process) and bought tickets from the ticket machines. 

About an hour’s train and tube journey in air-conditioned comfort brought us to Myoden station on the Tozai line, where I first set foot on Japanese soil proper.  And first experienced the August heat and humidity.  It was almost like being punched in the solar plexus, such was the impact of the temperature.  It was well over 30 Celsius, which was nothing abnormal during our stay.

 

Eschewing the papal kiss (who wants a mouthful of dust, anyway?), we walked the half mile or so to Stephen's apartment.  Both suitcases had wheels, but the smaller one had ideas of independence as it negotiated the various bumps and kerbs, which made it difficult to control.  Every pavement in Japan has a “track” of paving stones with raised markings.  This is for the benefit of blind people, who can confidently negotiate the pavement with the aid of a long stick.  (Actually, I only saw one blind person during our stay, and he was being guided by someone holding his elbow.)  Advantage for the blind was a disadvantage for the wheelers of luggage, but by no means begrudged.

 

A welcome cup of coffee (tea for Stephen and Val) helped us as we unpacked.  Stephen and I then went out in search of food, while Val remained behind to rest.  We went to one of the many “family restaurants” available – it seemed - everywhere.  This one was called “Gusto”, operated by the Skylark chain.  At Stephen’s suggestion, I ordered a “set” meal of sashimi, miso, rice and as much non-alcoholic drink as I could take.  The sashimi was raw tuna (maguro) and (remember this was my first experience of it) was extremely delicious.

 

I think I impressed Stephen with my prowess with chopsticks (hachi), but then of course, I had spent three of my juvenile years in Malaya, where we frequently used Chinese chopsticks.  Japanese chopsticks are somewhat thinner than Chinese ones.  In restaurants they usually are made of wood and are given in little envelopes.  The pair of chopsticks is joined together and have to be snapped apart.  There must be a considerable industry turning old chair legs into chopsticks.  I suggested as much to an English-speaking waiter at one restaurant, and he was most indignant: chopsticks come from sustainable forestry, apparently.

 

Back, replete to the apartment for a bit of a rest.  Yasuko returned from work a little later, and we all went out to the “DAN” Izakiya.  An Izakiya is a traditional Japanese restaurant, where they serve many small courses of food, mainly raw and grilled.  Among many other things, I had octopus sashimi.  This is slices of raw octopus tentacle, where you could clearly see the cross-section of suckers on the rims of the slices.  Dipped in seasoned soy sauce (shoyu), it was surprisingly good, with a crunchy texture.

 

Home again, futons laid on the floor and into a deep and dreamless sleep.  Thus ended our first day in the land of the Rising Sun.

 

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