[The following special feature appears in Shards #7, Hidden Years #19, New Blood #26, and Blood of Ten Chiefs #15. Note that the 6 photographs (and corresponding captions) originally printed with this feature are not included in this archive. --MK]
Arrival - Wednesday, October 26.
In real time, the flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo took about ten and a half hours. On the clock, however, it was more like twenty seven hours, for we crossed over the International Date Line, arriving over Japan sometime around 3:30 Wednesday afternoon. (The flip side, of course, is that on the return trip we would arrive "before" we left, but that would be days away in this trip's future.)
Most of the night across the Pacific Ocean was above unrelenting cloud cover, not that there's that much to see, but I'm not quite so jaded a traveler that I don't still enjoy pressing my nose to the window as we pass over interesting terrain. I wondered if the clouds blanketed all of our destination as well, so that my first glimpse of Japan would be a sign in kanji directing us to immigration and baggage claim. But luck or the gods of meteorology were with us, and as we began our descent in preparation for landing, before we deplaned (don't you just love the way airline people talk?) the cloud cover broke and I was able to see ground.
Narita International Airport, where we were to touch down, is about an hour's drive northeast of Tokyo. And truth to tell, I could not see anything in the landscape that said "Japan" to me. Our approach to the airport was over farmland, the fields were neatly and geometrically laid out, whatever was planted was pleasantly green, and I guess I was just the tiniest bit disappointed that there wasn't anything more obviously... different. It is tacky, I fully admit, but I think I would have experienced a warm and fuzzy feeling had Godzilla or Rodan been there, just over the rolling hills, waving hello.
There is really only one difference between Narita and any large airport in the United States. Over there, since the signs are all clearly in a very different language, there's no temptation to fall into the trap of believing what they say. Here, if you're in, say, JFK, you might be fooled into thinking that baggage area 3 is truly where the arrow is pointing. (I jest only slightly for effect; the signs in Narita are bilingual and nicely to the point. Still, the very best instructions for navigating the airport were those in the travel guide I purchased a few days before the trip. Someone had done the homework.)
Fred Schodt, our "native" guide, was waiting for us just outside of baggage claim. He'd said he would be easy to spot, as he is 6'3" tall, topping me by an inch. Still, the copy of Elfquest he was holding didn't hurt in the identification. We learned that the flight carrying Brian Stelfreeze and "Stine" Walsh, which was to have gotten in a few minutes before ours, would be delayed another couple of hours, so the arrangement had been made to take Wendy and me into Tokyo first, to check into our hotel and freshen up.
Tezuka Productions, as we discovered throughout the trip, had done things up brown for all of us, but I have to say that the very nicest amenity that they provided was in the person of our translator, Tomoko Kanai. Miss Kanai (that's how she started; by mid-trip it was "Tomoko," giggles and all. It became the sport of the entire group to catch her off-guard in photos; she protested mightily at having her picture taken, but she did so in such a charming way that we simply had to try for the good shots anyway) was our group's near-constant companion - it seems that Japanese hosts don't want their guests to have a single potentially boring moment. If/when we all return, the vote is unanimous: Tomoko, you have the assignment!
In the previous installment of this baedeker I admitted to certain feelings of apprehension about being in what I perceived to be so alien a land, so strange a culture. Those vague fears vanished about fifteen minutes after we got into the limousine provided for us and headed out onto the highway to Tokyo. I love to drive, you see, and it didn't take long at all for me to gain a sure sense, as I watched the road signs now past, that "Hey, I could do this! I could find my way!" That's when I knew Japan and I were going to get along.
The Yaesu Fujiya Hotel is located right in downtown Tokyo (now there's a fugitive concept - what exactly is "downtown" in a city that goes on and on and on?) very close to the Ginza, just down the avenue from Tokyo Station. It is what's called a businessman's hotel, which puts it on a par with any better hotel here in the States; they take businesspeople seriously in Japan. There exist swankier hotels, and we would sample one of those another day, but for now, as we "de-limoed" and got checked into our room, we were just plain happy to be moving at much less than airplane or automobile speeds. (Which is why I'm not saying anything about the legendary - and deservedly so - Tokyo traffic. Because even in memory, all I want to do at the moment is get up to the room, where the yukata and slippers are as much a fixture as the bed and the television, and relax for a few precious quiet hours, while the rest of our group arrives.)
That evening was the let's-all-get-to-know-each-other dinner, down in one of the hotel's private rooms. I suspect our hosts knew we'd be basket cases after the night, and allowed us this first night to be shut-ins. We needed it. Tokyo is fifteen hours ahead of Poughkeepsie and Atlanta (home base for Brian and Stine); twelve ahead of Los Angeles, and either way Wendy and I were exactly out of synch with where we were. Will and Ann Eisner had arrived the day before, but they'd flown all the way from Portugal, and whichever direction they'd come, they had crossed far more time zones than we had, so we were all six of us equally travel-impaired.
Somewhere around seven o'clock that evening (by which time my biorhythms were thoroughly bollixed, since it was four in the morning back home) we all gathered in the hotel lobby, and at last met our host, Takayuki Matsutani, the president of Tezuka Production Company. (If Walt Disney had a counterpart in Japan, it was Osamu Tezuka, who single-handedly revitalized both comics and animation in his homeland. Tezuka was a big fan of Disney animation, always acknowledging his debt to what Walt had created. How shameful it now seems that Simba the Lion King is so adamant in refusing to return the karmic favor to his own predeces- sor, Kimba the Jungle Emperor, a creation of Tezuka's...) Matsutani-san, as we learned to call him, is a handsome gentleman with a ready smile and the hint of danger in his eyes, who maintained perfect cordiality in the face of a half-dozen gaijin all trying to remember how low to bow, whether handshakes go before or after the bow, and the proper etiquette for exchanging business cards! I think Wendy was the hit of the introductions, though. She'd been studying the language via manga for a couple of years, and though the Japanese people will go out of their way to ease communication even if you don't speak a word of the native tongue, they love it if you can manage even a few phrases. Wendy is much better than that, though she considers herself at a preschool level, so she became our semiofficial "ambas- sador."
Dinner was a spectacular affair, involving the giving of gifts, the consumption of many courses of wonderful food (including more sushi than even I, who love it, was prepared to handle), and the imbibing of much beer and sake. I learned of a marvelous custom that guarantees ice-breaking in unfamiliar social situations: no one at a table is allowed to refill his or her own glass, and no glass is allowed to remain even partially empty; it must be topped off. This convention, under the right circumstances, can be both dangerous and fun, as we would eventually learn. That first evening, though, conversation around the table stayed mostly small talk, since Matsutani-san knew we were all seriously wiped out. We all got to know a bit more about each other, and began to get a sense of what the next few days would be about - the meetings, the trips, the expectations. Everything was planned to the minute. Late that Wednesday evening, it almost seemed... manageable.
Little did we know.
To be continued...