Here and there once more
I took Air Canada 004 (AC4) from Tokyo’sNarita Airport (7:00 p.m.), a nine-hour flight to Vancouver InternationalAirport. The plan this year was to take my son across the country by train (the VIA Rail Canadian), a three-and-a-half-day trip. Since my Air Canada flight in august 2007 was“overnight delayed” causing me to lose a large portion of my holiday, I decided to fly to Vancouvera day early and spend the night at a Holiday Inn as insurance. Because the train would leave with or without me on Sunday.
This particular flight used an Airbus A320 - a two-engine airbus. European Airbus aircraft generally have more leg room than American Boeing aircraft, and they are quieter. But they are deficient in storage space under the chairs. My carry on bags only barely fit under the seat in front of me, which is a bother because I want my carry on bag close at hand throughout the flight, not stowed in the overhead compartment.
This flight was carrying a large group of Canadian teenagers home from some kind of school exchange to Japan. They were noisy and all dressed in identical red T-shirts to identify their group. During the flight many of them were quite mobile, moving around the cabin sitting on the floor of the aisle or standing around talking to their friends. (That’s how I came to be annoyed by some 18-year-old girl’s bum covered in those fashionable low-cut jeans reveal underwear as well as abdominal flesh that was just inches form my head for a couple of hours over the Pacific Ocean.)
Vancouver airport, like the city itself, is small. But it is just as modern as any airport and it is has some kind of visionary Northwest Pacific aboriginal aesthetic interior that is more than a little interesting. And, Vancouveris a very ethnically diverse city. Lot’s of people of Asian extraction there: East Indians, Vietnamese, Chinese, etc. I felt like a minority, just as I am in Tokyo.
I don’t like Vancouver. To me it looks like a big town, not a large city. The congestion of similar-looking condominium towers downtown near the harbor just looks plain ugly to me and I pray daily for the responsible architects, developers and contractors to be charged and prosecuted for criminal ugliness. Then there is the very visible homelessness and panhandling, and the ghetto neighborhoods of downtown east Vancouver. We had time before boarding our train so Ken and I were walking around downtown Vancouver and we even took a 90-minute bus tour (that stretched into more than 2-hours because of traffic problems caused by a Gay Pride parade there that day). In that time panhandlers begged money form me four times - one guy did it twice! Vancouverites think their city is something really great and exceptional, but I think they’ve got to get their act together and lose the chip on their shoulders.
And what is more, I am tired of hearing foreigners say how friendly Canadians are when my experience is the opposite. It is probably because I am spoiled by the comparatively superb quality of customer service in Japan. But in Canada I find people in shops and restaurants rude, and perform their jobs with a grudging, insolent surliness. In Japan store clerks look at me, smile, speak with an appallingly cosmetic cheeriness and, although I have complained in the past about how slowly store clerks here move, in Canada it is worse making Japanese clerks look like roadrunners. I felt so put off by Canadians that I thought I would call this story “Why I hate Canadians.”
I love the VIA Rail Canadian, the cross country train that runs three days a week eastward form Toronto-to-Vancouver, and three days a week westward from Vancouver-to-Toronto. This was my fourth trip on the west bound train. (I have never tried the east bound one.) I want to do it one more time, maybe at Christmas time because I want to feel what it is like to spend Christmas Eve on a train with strangers. But I will not be rushing to do it any time soon. I will just nurture it in my heart as another future plan.
The Canadian is a tourist train, not a passenger train, although many do use it to travel in the coach cars at the front. In the peak summer season it is very expensive - more than an airplane ticket - and the train is typically 30-carriages long, pulled by three locomotives. (Or, rather, pulled by one locomotive, using one as a backup and one more as an electrical power generator.) The winter time train is much shorter (10 cars) and cheaper. The expense does not bother me when I consider the accommodation, the service, the view, the length of the trip and the experience of it. Factor those things in and I recommend it. The long train journey satisfies my belief that it is morally beneficial
for long trips to take a long time.
The Canadian is typically late because of rail traffic congestion. VIA Rail does not run on its own tracks. Instead, it rents tracks from CN Rail, a freight carrier, and CN trains have priority all the time, first, because the tracks belong to them, and second, because their freight traffic is where the money is. So many times we had to pull over onto a siding in a rail yard to allow a 100-car train carrying iron ore, wheat, gas and oil, lumber, automobiles, and various manufactured goods and commodities to pass. We were two hours late leaving Vancouver on Sunday afternoon. (I felt badly because there were six Japanese aboard, bound for the Rocky Mountain town of Jasper, and I know what a bad impression lateness makes on Japanese. Being late is the second worst thing in Japanese culture.) Then we were three hours late arriving first in Jasper and then in Edmontonthe next day (Monday). Monday night we rocketed across the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan and we arrived on time in Winnipegon Tuesday. But then we lost another hour-and-a-half Tuesday night in Northern Ontarioand another hour-and-a-half during Wednesday while making our way south towardsToronto, eventually arriving three hours late at Toronto’s Union Station.
I love the rocking of the train, the experience of sleeping, showering and eating on the train. I like sitting for hours in the domed
observation cars and looking at the scenery day and night. But I’m afraid that this was a bit boring for my 10-year-old son. Children like to do things all the time, but as an adult I enjoy leisure time to do nothingas much as possible. Still, I was surprised to see more families and more youngsters on the train this year than I have ever seen before.
The train was downright cold - too much air conditioning. It is true that the outside temperature was a lot cooler than Tokyo. But it was still too warm for a sweater or any kind of warm torso covering. That judgment was reinforced each time we were able to get off the train for a short time at a few of the scheduled stops and felt the air temperature. Yet on the train I wished that I had exactly that kind of clothes and fretted that I packed my
suitcase wrongly before departure.
Rainy and cool. What a bad summer. Farmers aren’t happy with the rain, and all kinds of precipitation records have been broken. That’s global warming at work! My son’s primary objective for any summer time visit to Canada is swimming in Lake Huron, or “Huron-ko” as he calls it in Japanese. But that was out of the question this year because it was too darned cold. So as a substitute excursion we made the shorter drive to Niagara Fallsand had a fine day there. I beat the crowds in the early morning and landed a great parking space directly across the street from Table Rock and the Horseshoe Falls. The big things in my hometown for me were doctors’ appointments, shopping and jumping on my brother’s trampoline every day, and for my son it was the joy of playing with one of his cousins, a boy almost his age. I’m the only one who seems to jump on the trampoline any more. I am the second oldest of the boys in my family and yet neither my brothers nor their children do it. Why? My brother said it wasn’t good for him. Does that mean I am in better shape than my siblings? Or maybe I am more immature than they for continuing to like it.
My hometown’s downtown core looks like a social, commercial and architectural disaster zone. Somebody, please, rescue and renovate those beautiful, old 19th century buildings before it’s too late! I was shocked when three people begged money form me in the space of two blocks, much like Vancouver’s cesspool of a city. But my hometown of Guelph, Ontariois a mere 120,000 souls, so I did not expect to see the depravity that I did. Finally, part of the problems of downtown Guelph are caused, or at least aggravated by the exodus of commercial businesses to strip malls or shopping malls on the outskirts of the city, where all the expanding residential development has been occurring for the past 30-years.
The best thing for me about the city of Guelphwas the greenery and the smell of chlorophyll. Like I said before, the whisper of the air through the leaves of the trees still sounds like cotton underwear slipping off your girlfriend’s thighs.
There are many East Indians employed at the Torontoairport, and here’s the thing: it’s quite difficult for me to understand what they are saying in English because of their accents. It causes problems for me, too. For example, at the security check point I was focusing so much on trying to understand this Indian lady’s instructions that I forgot to remove my belt with the big metal buckle, thus setting off the metal detector alarm - the very thing I wanted to avoid by removing all the other metal from my body before I was distracted by the woman’s instructions. Ken was stopped because the X-ray machine found a math compass in the pencil case inside his backpack that he was taking onto the plane. I didn’t know he had it. It was the same pencil case inside the same backpack that was cleared through Japanese security on August 2nd. But when the woman said that Ken had a compass in his bag I didn’t understand what she meant. I thought she meant a directional compass - you know, North, South, East, West, that kind of thing. Multiculturalism is great, but it meant that our citizenry is more and more isolated form each other, not closer in a delightful stew of brotherly love.
We took off on time in fine weather from Torontoin in a wide-bodied Boeing plane with less leg room than an Airbus but more bag-under-the-seat-in-front-of-you room, which is more important to me than leg room because I want to keep my carry on bag close all the time. It is a very nice aircraft, with a 3-3-3 layout it is wider than the old DC-10 which had the same number of seats in a 2-5-2 layout. There is a lot of overhead space, and each seat has its own personalized video mounted in the seat directly in front, so passengers can select their own movie or TV show choices from a menu by touching the touch-sensitive screen. It is only the second time I have enjoyed having the individual video screen.
Our flight to Tokyowas estimated to last 12-hours and 47-minutes and we arrived almost right on time. I think the original schedule said we would arrive at 3:05 p.m. and we actually touched down at 3:10and then reached the gate at 3:20 p.m. on Saturday, August 16th.
Our plane was not only full, but over-booked, and Ken and I were at first assigned two aisle seats several rows apart - him in 42G and me behind him in 50H. We resolved that we would have to fly like that, with me keeping an eye on him from behind the whole way. As soon as I saw my 50H seat I immediately despised it because it was a bulkhead seat - the kind that I like the least because since there is no seat immediately in front I cannot stow my bag at my feet like I described. I know bulkhead seats are popular because they have the most leg room, but I don’t care about that. I care about having my belongings at my feet because I need to access them periodically throughout the flight.
But the flight attendants managed to get a couple of passengers to agree to switch seats so that Ken and I could be together. So we were soon relocated to seats 42F and G, which is where we sat out the flight.
Early in the trip - maybe about 90-minutes - there was some old Japanese man having an attack of some kind, or taking sick somehow and being tended to by three female flight attendants in the galley just behind us. I had gotten up to help Ken find a vacant toilet when I witnessed the man, who was standing up in the galley and leaning against the wall there, fainting and heard one flight attendant say to another,
“There he goes.” Or, maybe it was, “There he goes again.” I’m not sure which.
I used the toilet opposite the galley myself just a short time later and when I came out the man was flat on his back in the galley with his feet protruding into the aisle. I thought maybe it was just a bad case of motion sickness, and then wondered if the flight attendants would judge it so serious that the captain would make an announcement asking for a doctor among the passengers or, the worst case, if we would make an emergency landing so that the passenger could be attended on the ground. But neither of those happened.
This flight was a lot quieter, more subdued than our AC004 flight to Vancouver on August 2nd. That plane - an Airbus A-320 - was full of noisy teenagers returning to Canada from some kind of school exchange. In addition, the service on the non-stop Toronto-to-Naritareturn flight felt much better than that on the Vancouver leg of the trip.
The individual seat touch-sensitive video screens are great. But the system is delicate and seems to fail too much or too easily. For the last couple of hours of the flight to Tokyo my screen was not working while everyone else’s was. I did not call a flight attendant to complain about it, however, because they all seemed so busy with the last meal service followed by stowing everything away in the galley in preparation for arrival. In mid-flight Ken’s video screen also was not working for a time until we asked for it to be fixed. And, early into the flight one of the flight crew in the cockpit made an announcement about the video screens, that we could only activate them one section of the aircraft at a time, not all at once lest the surge of users caused the computer’s video operating system to crash.
Ken kept looking at me and asking, “Now? Now?” and I repeated that we had to wait until the pilot told us we could start the video system. “Not yet,” “Wait,” “Not yet.”
When we landed in Tokyo the weather was about 30º C and humid. Rain was threatening and it did start to rain later in the evening. It was the so-called “U-turn rush,” which explains why the Air Canada flight was over-booked. Last week was the annual O-bon summer holiday in Japan, and you know that at holiday time many Japanese travel all at once. O-bon is one of those holiday times. Overseas travelers were all returning on the weekend, creating a returning crush of passenger traffic at all ports of entry. I don’t think I thought of that when I arranged the dates of our trip. Still, Ken and I got through Japanese Customs and Immigration pretty easily. It was my first time re-enteringJapansince the new anti-terrorist entry procedures took effect last fall. I mean, it was the fist time I had to submit to fingerprinting and photographing upon entry. In the Letters-to-the-Editor page of The Japan Times newspaper I had heard a lot of terrible stories about long, long line ups of foreigners waiting to be fingerprinted and photographed. But I went through the line in just 10-minutes or so. It was easy. Stupid, of course, but easy, leaving me to wonder what half of the whining fuss is about.
Our Airport Limousine Bus made it into the city in good time - 1-hour and 15-minutes. Then we very quickly got a taxi cab for a smooth 15-minute ride home. I was standing in my apartment just 2½-hours after landing at Narita - much faster than anything I am likely to experience in Canada.