Doing Japan Like a Star (Part 2)

At the airport at 7.00AM, two hours earlier than my usual check in time for a ten o’clock flight, I collected my passport (stamped with a Japan visitor’s visa) and plane ticket from a Chinese tour guide waving a little blue flag. It was then that I realized just how big of a group this “group tour” was. Ninety-one travelers, four tour guides, plus a number of companions and appendages. I learned that our Air China flight from Beijing to Miyazaki had been specially chartered for the group, which consisted mostly of friends and family of CITS (the largest Chinese travel agency). Unwittingly, I had signed up for the biggest and cheapest (friends and family fares) Chinese tour group to ever visit Kyushu Island. I couldn’t quite decide whether being in a foreign country with a hundred Chinese people who all know each other was a good thing or a bad thing. Oh well, I just hope they’re nice.

The plane ride was unlike any I’d ever taken before. It was sort of like the time I piggy-backed on G’s employment at a cushy hedge fund and rode on a private jet for the employees’ family retreat. Everyone on board was chatting, swapping snacks, sharing cameras, and acting chummy. Except, this time there were a hundred of them. Although I felt like the high school dork sitting with the class nerd (my mom) in our lonesome row with no one coming to socialize with us, it was amiable enough. This seemed to be a generally well-travelled bunch who wouldn’t get into much trouble. But I did hear a few funny remarks, like “I hear Japanese signs are all written in Chinese so we can get around easily once we’re there!”

The flight was short and when we landed we completely inundated the tiny Miyazaki International Airport (which wasn’t that international for I couldn’t find a single staff member who spoke English). Everything was as I’d expected – tidy, efficient, and clean. So clean, in fact, that if someone threatened to beat me up unless I licked the bathroom tiles I would’ve gladly taken the tiles over the fists. Things were even more “Japanese” than I’d envisioned. Official signage was decorated with logos painted in nursery pinks and blues. Important traveler information was illustrated with cute cartoon characters. Even the heavy duty industrial doors were a good two heads shorter than any I’d seen in Asia, much less in the Holland. This is great, aside from the two six-feet-plus athlete honeymooners and the men in our group, I would be the tallest person around for a week in Japan!

After an interminably long wait, during which several immaculately powdered and coiffed airport staffers came to bow apologetically at us in the line, I finally stepped up to the immigration officer’s counter. He greeted me with, “Ni hao”, which made me smile just in time for the security camera. It seems that Japan takes border crossing as seriously as the US and the UK (despite not having to deal with much terrorism) for I was finger printed, snapped, and my passport pages thoroughly checked. At last, I was successfully admitted into Japan and strode eagerly towards the doors.

As I stepped outside the sliding glass doors I was greeted with loud applause and an ocean of fluttering red fabric. There was a camera crew filming my surprise and several photographers contorting their bodies to take my picture from the best angle. What’s going on, was I getting mistaken for Liv Tyler again? (There was an accident once in New York when I left a restaurant where Liv was rumored to be dining).

I blinked a few times and got my mind-eye coordination going again. In front of me stood a row of ten suited up men and women holding up a large red banner with “Welcome to Miyazaki” written in yellow Chinese characters. Each of them held in their free hand a small Chinese flag, which they waved vigorously every time a new passenger came through the doors. A few others, also dressed in business formal attire, stood nearby and clapped loudly, shouting the welcome message in Chinese on cue with the sliding doors. An arm’s length away I could see one of the CITS managers who had been on the plane with me being interviewed in Japanese by the TV crew. This was literally the largest Chinese tour group to visit Kyushu and help its economy with our nouveau riche free spending ways. It was a big deal. And it was going to be on the evening news.

I stood for a short while reveling in my “fame”. Then I walked outside to the parking lot where our tour buses were waiting. Here, the travelers in my group, who had a half hour ago been complaining about how dinky the Japanese airport was, huddled in circles excitedly chatting about the welcoming committee. They were commenting that the Japanese were truly a polite people, so accommodating, and “What a reception!” Wow, seventy years of bad history swept away with the flutter of some miniature Chinese flags! I jest, it really was a nice welcome that made me like Japan before I even stepped foot outside the airport.

As the fully loaded tour buses were pulling away we saw the well-dressed welcoming committee in formation again in the walkway leading to the parking lot. It was as though they had never moved. Here they were transported outside, standing in the exact same order, waving the same props, and showing the same elevated level of enthusiasm as they shouted “Goodbye” to the departing buses. When we got onto the highway, I turned around to get a look at Miyazaki International Airport. Miraculously, the welcoming committee had moved yet again in perfect formation to the middle of the parking lot where they could wave at us even as we drove onto the ramp!

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