As the great high hovered over the Australian continent I had dreamed of escape into those stable and clear blue skies. I had soared up there with the jet aircraft seeking a different way life, if only for a while, from that which trapped me here.
When it came time to leave the great high pressure system was gone, to be replaced by wind and rain. It was not the journey's beginning I had hoped for and neither was the remnants of the illness that had knocked me around for the latter part of the week. But I was still determined to enjoy this holiday.
This was to be our last overseas trip before we welcomed a child into our lives. We had waited out the first trimester and cancelled a September vacation to Europe. I viewed the future addition to our family with a whole lot of joy, but tinged with the fear of the impact on our wonderful adventures in other lands.
To be fair, we had already made one such journey this year to Malaysia and Thailand. As good as that holiday was, something in my gut said that I could not leave it at that. As well, I was undoubtedly envious of our mothers who were off separately to Europe and China's Silk Road. And I felt a need to return to Japan.
I barely resisted two Jetstar sales to Japan. Then the first trimester passed and I happened to see an advert on the front page o another train passenger's newspaper. As soon as I got o work I checked online. Less than a A$1000 for two. I asked my boss, B asked hers. With their assent I booked a week's holiday in Japan.
So here we were at Sydney's International Airport on a drizzly June day, checking in for our sixth flight to Japan after B's brother dropped us off at the airport. Unfortunately he had brought our dog with him. We had dropped Kita off at the in-law's house the night before and now the dog thought we were taking him back. Instead he was forced to stare at us in dismay as the brother him away from the kerbside. It was heart-wrenching.
The check-in desk had just opened when we arrived and the queue was short. Check-in took a little while as the Qantas agent had to specially process B's Malaysian passport. The agent wasn't aware that visas were recommended for Malaysian nationals travelling to Japan, but we were now old hands at this. Still, she was cheerful and friendly.
For the first time in many travels I was properly packed the night before and got a decently long sleep, something my body desperately required of me in order to shake this bug. I always get sick before going to Japan, which is a bad thing in a such a hygiene conscious society. Fortunately, our flight was scheduled for late in the morning so there was no need to wake too early in the morning.
Understandably enough, B was still tired, so while she sat resting on a seat with our luggage I attempted to raise some excitement in myself by climbing the stairs to the observation deck.
The deck overlooks the baggage and freight area of the airport and its view of overall airport operations is interrupted by other sections of the terminal, including the Qantas First Class Lounge (who gave them priority?!?
Asiana 772 behind a Qantas 744. I miss Asiana's old livery - when we flew them
I walked back down to the check-in area and met my now-rested wife and we wandered over to the food court. We decided that an Oporto breakfast burger was much nicer than the McDonalds offering. We had not pre-purchased any meals for our flight, but could not find anything suitable for a pregnant woman to take onboard (you have to watch out for listeria). I bought myself a Subway roll to eat on the flight, but we decided that B would be better off with heated aircraft food.
The big Singapore Airlines A380 was visible parked in the distance next to Virgin Atlantic's A346. The former looks fat and ungainly on the ground while the latter is elegance personified.
We passed through immigration and security, who seemed confused by the number of hard disks on my possession (5, for the record), but who let me through without too much hassle. Once we passed through the gauntlet of shiny duty-free Gate 54 was on the right. It is tucked away in the boring side of the terminal, facing away from the runway and overlooking parking for vehicles like transfer buses.
It was a pity that this was the case; there is nothing like watching other aircraft take-off and land to get you in the mood for your own journey. Still, the weather was improving and our aircraft looked quite resplendent its silver, orange and black colour scheme.
I listened to a group of business people complain that they were flying to Osaka with Jetstar, though I gather that their flight back was on Cathay. Why they couldn't fly Qantas to Tokyo I neither know, nor care, but one was definite in his criticism of JAL's comfort levels.
StarClass passengers, the mobility impaired and families with young children were asked to board first through the dual gates. Then passengers at the rear of the aircraft. We were in the final group to board. I was pleased to have selected overwing seats for both the forward (35J and K) and return legs (34J and K) of the flights as I knew these to be the most stable during turbulence. I really can't tolerate the rear of the aircraft (and cannot afford the pointy end on multiple class flights!).
B demanded to sit in the window seat this time, so she could sleep against the wall. As she quite rightly stated, I had sat in the window seat for the last few flights and I must be terribly familiar with the scenery by now, this being our umpteenth flight north. I didn't argue!
Look, crappy old ex-Qantas blue armrests don't match the black seats.
The crew were just about to close the doors when a family with a screaming baby walked forwards from the rear of the aircraft. An announcement was made that the flight would be delayed as the family had elected to alight from the aircraft with their sick baby and, as a consequence, their luggage needed to b unloaded.
The delay last for 40 minutes, but that is life. Who knows, maybe we would be in a similar situation in future. There were quite a few kids on the flight and the same on the return. I know that some might complain, but for me it was heartening to see. I hoped to be in that situation myself soon after our child's birth.
Eventually the luggage was unloaded and we finally began taxiing out to the runway. The Jetstar CSM delivered her welcome spiel over the PA as fast as a race caller, though without quite so a dramatic finish. Then came the safety demonstration and finally we were in position.
Our takeoff was towards the south and across Botany Bay. As we turned parallel to the coast I pointed out Taren Point Bridge and the Georges River to B, then the cliffs of the Royal National Park as we punctured the cloud on our way west.
The crew seemed to be primarily Thai, with a few Australians and Japanese. We were given our 300 ml bottles of water by Beer. Or that's what the name badge of the Thai attendant said. He claimed it was a nickname given to him as his mother "who drank lots of beer when she was pregnant with him, but I don't drink beer when I'm working."
I looked through the inflight magazine and was excited to see that the Doctor Who Christmas special episode Voyage of the Damned was listed to screen on our flight. I hadn't seen that one yet! The crew came through to hand out the video on demand units and earphones. We elected not to hire one of the bulky units (we have on each of our previous flights) and make do with the cabin screens - we had Doctor Who to look forward to. We were then told that earphones cost $3! The Jetstar website and printed materials had them listed at $5 ever since I can remember, yet on each of our previous flights we were given them to keep for free, along with those that accompanied the video units. As a consequence I had left my tangle of headphones at home. The crew member apologised and told us that the price would rise to $5 next month. We decided to purchase one pair and make do when something interesting came up on the screen (a normal single 3.5" plug earphone will give you mono sound).
The captain welcomed us on board over the PA system and apologised that the meal service would be delayed by 20 minutes due to expected turbulence along the route. It's not something I like to hear (turbulence) but it was not unexpected. I had checked the turbulence forecast the night before and seen the ugly yellow and red patches between Sydney and Brisbane.
The captain was right, it was rough. We flew through the high white cloud and there were a couple of times when it seemed like a Monty Pythonesque hand of god had reached down and shaken the aircraft. Amazingly, B slept through the entire thing and claimed that this was a very smooth flight!
Once things had settled down the seatbelt light was switched off and the crew began the meal service. There were still myriad bumps and shakes, but I guess that the pilots felt that there would be no great drops now.
Snakes on a plane!
B ordered the "green curry of chicken with asian vegetables" meal while I ate half of my Subway roll. Her meal came with a stale bread roll, some coleslaw-style cabbage and carrot with a sweet chilli sauce and a Dove chocolate bar. She enjoyed the curry and the chocolate, but the salad was only passable and the roll inedible.
In between the television comedies on the main screen the flight tracking system would show. A few hours into the flight I saw that we had not even crossed over Papua New Guinea. I was not enjoying the screened programs (I let B use the earphones to listen to the single inflight movie "Dan in Real Life") and instead listened to my MP3 player. B had the window and anyway, the cloudscape was not particularly interesting with lots of bland white high cloud. In the interest of travelling light weight I had not brought a book either. Basically I was feeling a bit bored and the flight itself felt interminably long.
The hours went by slowly. I wondered why I dreamed of flying so much when it seemed all bumps, shakes and boredom. What was it I saw in all those earlier journeys?
The answer came to me after we had passed the storm belts north of Guam and the sun approached the horizon. The flight became smooth as we serenely passed high over a carpet of clouds, the cabin quiet but for the hum of the engines. Suddenly I was in love with flying all over again. This is what I loved, disconnected from the universe outside. I stared out of the window, across the world until, at last, darkness came and stole it from me.
Those last few hours were spent waiting in vain for Doctor Who to screen. Instead, it was inexplicably replaced by a documentary on ice from the return leg's entertainment! Fortunately, the next day's online version of the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that it was to be shown on the ABC on June 29, so the suffering wasn't too great.
Half an hour before our rescheduled arrival the aircraft began its descent. One parent had to chase a highly energetic child who was running up and down the aisles. When caught and restrained for landing the toddler screamed his displeasure.
The skies around Kansai International seem rough in my experience, but it's good to know that you will soon be on solid ground. The man-made island sits as a patch of lights surrounded by darkness, then the multicoloured brightness of Japanese suburbia once you strike the coast. The jerk of crosswinds as we touch down, again a common feeling, then we are slowing down the runway. Outside I could see a giant ferris wheel lit bright green. Then we pulled up besides a Cathay Pacific A333 and were connected to the aerobridge.
As we exited the aerobridge and entered the terminal we could see the passengers for the return trip waiting for the delayed flight back to Australia. The terminal is quite far from the main building, connected by an automated train. B couldn't wait to get out. She was tired and hungry for dinner. We had not realised how the pregnancy constrained her meal times until this trip - life is normally a routine anyway. Fortunately, I was feeling a whole lot better than on my last flight to Kansai, when I had the most awful headache.
We made our way as quickly as possible to immigration, only to be forced to wait in a long queue. The new fingerprinting and photographic procedures introduced since our last flight have really slowed things down. The energetic toddler, now unconstrained, amused himself by running under all the guidestraps.
Out of immigration, bag collection was quick and we walked to rail office with only a quick and fruitless detour for tourist brochures. As our destination was close to Namba station in Osaka we decided not to use our JR
Passes and instead catch the private Nankai line. The Nankai Rapi:t train is the most amazing looking train I have ever seen, part Darth Vader, part retro-fantasy with its oval windows, church-like aisle, wooden interior and cheetah print seats. It's comfortable, relatively cheap (in contrast to Sydney) and good fun.
From Nankai Namba station it was a little walk through the crazy Osakan streets to the Cross Hotel. We quickly dumped our bags and returned to Dotombori Street to eat udon in the same restaurant as last time, then back to the hotel to use my favourite bathroom (where you sit down and bucket hot water over your head, Japanese style).
The following day we caught the Shinkansen to Okayama, then an Ampanman decorated train across the huge Seto-Ohara bridge to Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku. There we walked up to the fine old wooden castle and I had a bath at the Dogo Bathhouse (B, being preggers had to enjoy the free foot spa instead), which was used as the model for the bathhouse in Miyazaki's animated movie Spirited Away (we had watched it again prior to flying to Japan).
From Matsuyama we cross Shikoku to Takamatsu, where we had the sublime experience of sipping on green tea in the Kikugetsu-tei teahouse in the beautiful Ritsurin gardens. Seated on the straw tatami mat floor while we gazed out across the pond, all we could hear was the tinkle of a waterfall in the distance and the susurrus of the warm wind as it passed through the pines and through the open teahouse. Then a train ride back to Honshu and into Nagoya.
A day trip to Tsumago, a historically preserved village in the mountains that retains its gentle charm despite the tourists. The following day was back into the Japan Alps, to Takayama, a favourite of ours. More historical streets, wooden craft and succulent Hida beef grilled at your table or boiled as shabu-shabu.
Photographed out of a train window near Nagoya
Shabu-shabu with Hida Beef
Hoba miso with Hida Beef
Old streets in Takayama
The temple district is well worth a wander
Japanese style hotel room (much more comfortable than it looks!)
Returning to Osaka, it was time to do some shopping, for B, for the baby and myself, and eating, before we returned to Australia.
Okonomiyaki and what's left of the yakisoba
Again the Nankai Rapi:t was what we caught to reach the airport. It had started to rain and darkness was falling as we raced out of Osaka, but ride was still interesting, especially as we crossed the ocean bridge across to the airport's island. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 9:50 pm and we had arrived with three hours to spare, so after checking in we wandered around the terminal. I didn't think that the shops were quite as interesting as in Narita, though I did get a good deal on a pair of Panasonic noise reduction earphones. Both of our stomachs were feeling a little strange, and B's enhanced sense of smell had turned her off miso and heavy soy scents, so we ate tonkatsu in the same restaurant as last September. It wasn't great tonkatsu, but it was food...
Once we passed through security the shops were restricted to expensive brand-name duty free, not that it mattered much because they were all closing for the night. We knew our flight was delayed, but when we reached our gate the display said "this flight is greatly delayed" against a red background. There was nothing much to do, but wait. While B slept, I found a free internet area with terminals and wireless access. As all terminals were in use I pulled out my new toy, a Sony MyLO, to access the net wirelessly.
Our aircraft eventually pulled up at the gate and we watched the passengers disembark in a role reversal of us a week ago. I was feeling a great amount of trepidation about this flight. With all the bad weather around I was scared that it would be rough and, as I am a poor sleeper, a very uncomfortable 10 hour flight. I might have done this very trip, and many like it, before but my last night flight, from KUL
, was so awful that I feared a repeat of the experience.
After taxiing through the colourful fairyland of lights that is an airport at night, the initial take-off into the rain clouds was, as I had predicted, rough. Like the flight out, the seatbelt light was illuminated for a substantial length of time as we weaved through the clouds. After a while we levelled out , the seatbelt sign was switched off and I amused myself by watching the cloudscapes illuminated by the yellow moon.
We partook of no meals onboard, having brought lovely soft bakery and patisserie items from the Takashimaya department store basement. This time earphones were handed out free and I half watched a few programs, like Absolutely Fabulous and Charlie Wilson's War, while B slept. I even slept a little.
As we approached north of Guam I noticed lightening flashing in the big storm clouds below. I was actually waiting for this point, the same in all our flights, wishing for us to pass it as quickly as possible. Soon enough the seatbelt warning lights were illuminated once more as we dodged and bounced through the storm. Eventually we were through it and back to the same old same old bumps and thumps as usual.
I watched the Moon set beneath the clouds, and the Milky Way come out above us, far richer in stars than we can see from the ground in any big city. Despite my fears, there is a real beauty in night flights when most others are asleep and the cabin is quiet. I am, by nature, a creature of the night. At home I can push myself to work through the wee hours, though it always seems more exhausting midair. Like those all nighters working on a project there comes a time, just before dawn, when the exhaustion departs, just for a while, and you can enjoy things once more.
As we crossed over Papua New Guinea the first hints of dawn appeared. An orange light suffused the cabin, the interior of the aircraft silhouetted against the brightening sky. The flight became smooth and below us the carpet of clouds stretched endlessly across the horizon. As with dusk on the outward flight there was a true feeling that we were suspended in the air, in a dream. And I loved it, loved flying once more, forgot my exhaustion and just enjoyed the experience.
No great sunrise photos this time as we were sitting on the western side of the aircraft.
Time for a nap - this is boring cloud
The clouds cleared in the bright sun as we approached Brisbane. We flew over the long causeway bridge at connecting Redcliffe to the rest of the city, then turned sharply over Moreton Bay, aligning ourselves with Brisbane's Airport. I don't know why, but the approach into Brisbane is always a bit rough. Still, we landed without problem and taxied to the International Terminal to join the other aircraft already parked there, including Pacific Blue 737's and an Air Niugini 767.
Though we would continue on to Sydney on the same aircraft, same seats, we all had to disembark. Many passengers finished their flight at Brisbane, while others, some only flying domestically, joined the flight at Brisbane to Sydney and onwards back to Osaka. While we waited to reboard we grabbed a bottle of flavoured milk from a cafe and sat down at an empty table, of which there were a few.
The crew recognised us with a smile as we reboarded the plane. We took off to the southwest and had great views of Brisbane city and the river as we turned south for our hour long flight to Sydney. I listened to the repetitive, but relaxing "Let's fly away" Jetstar theme through my headphones until it eventually stopped. The clouds returned partway through the flight, but it was nowhere near as rough as on the flight out.
Brisvegas from above
I think that we were both ready to finish the flight when we began our final descent into an overcast Sydney. We flew in and over my workplace, shaking and bumping through the cloud layer, though I hardly cared now, knowing why, knowing that we would soon be back on stable land. Landings are exciting, seeing a city closely from above, another perspective on the place you live or are visiting.
Over the container yards and Alexandria we flew, directly towards the main runway from the northwest. With a thump we settled down on the ground and the flight was over. After waiting for another Jetstar A332 to depart, we were back at the quiet end of the international terminal gates and disembarking from the aircraft.
Immigration was very quick, with most of the non-transit passengers going to the foreign queues or the domestic pass holders (or they were just confused Queenslanders). Our luggage was also retrieved in quick time and there was a queue of one at quarantine. This was the advantage of arriving in the middle of the day. We were late to arrive, but it didn't matter because we weren't actually late for anything. It was time to go home.
Reflecting on these flights it seems that they were in five stages:
The first is when you take-off. With the powerful thrust pushing you back into your seat there is excitement. You watch as the ground disappears beneath you, trying to locate features before you disappear into the clouds.
Then there is the turbulence, shaking you around in your seat. You hope desperately that it won't be like this the entire journey, focus on watching for the next entry into the high cloud that we begin the bumping again or the exit into blue sky that means some relief.
After a couple of hours or so you get a bit inured to the turbulence. You still don't like it each time the aircraft quakes, but it ceases to consume your every thought. You look outside and all you can see is featureless high cloud. The sun is either very bright or is on the other side of the world and all you have is darkness for company. You get bored and wish that the flight was much shorter.
With three hours left to fly the sun is either setting or about to rise. You notice that the shaking has stopped and you are cruising high above a sea of clouds in a pink and blue tinged sky. This is why you love to fly, suspended up here above a peaceful world with only the hum of the jet engines for company.
You are both disappointed and relieved to begin your descent into you destination. As you puncture the cloud layer you feel the shaking begin again, but you are okay, you know that it will be over soon and anyway, you are busy studying the landscape below. You are excited again.
If only we could discard stages two and three!
Now I feel I begin to understand the difference between flying a low cost carrier like Jetstar and a full service airline such as Qantas or Cathay Pacific over long distances. Jetstar's cabin entertainment is pretty limited and the video on demand units aren't much fun to use, especially in turbulence when you think of what a brick might feel like dropping into your lap. However, the nifty seatback entertainment systems of a modern full service carrier mean that there's always something to watch, even if it's only the flight map to tell you where you are and how long you still have to go.
There's the food too. You certainly wouldn't pay for an airline ticket just to eat - it would likely be your most expensive restaurant meal ever. But there is the fun in the mystery of not knowing exactly what you are going to get. If you fly Jetstar then you pay $15 for the privilege, on Qantas the cost is hidden away in your much more expensive ticket. And you get nibblies too!
I'm not knocking Jetstar, but after three consecutive holidays flying Jetstar long haul I feel ready to try another airline, a good quality full service airline for our next trip, whenever that may be. I know I'm actually ready for a nice comfortable business or first class seat, but I can't see that happening. After this trip I'll be lucky if I can fly overseas half as many times as in the preceding 7 years, but it was good to see other families with young children doing so. And parenthood is a very exciting journey in itself.
If you want to read more about my trip to Japan then please see my blog
and other photographs
You may also enjoy my other trip reports:
Into The Pink, Away From The Storm: QF SYD-CBR-SYD
The Smell Of Durian: AK KUL-BKK-KUL (pics)
Back To Malaysia: JQ SYD-KUL Return (pics)
Let's Fly Jetstar Part 2 Redux: KIX - SYD A332
Let's Fly Jetstar: SYD - KIX A330-200 (pics)
QF And AO: SYD-CNS-KIX, NRT-SYD On 767's (pics)
Just A Day Trip: QF: SYD - CBR
How Many Airlines? Adventures In China (pics)
SYD-ICN-AMS: Asiana, KLM Y Class In 2004 (pics)
Honeymoon In Paris: Flying QF1 Y Class In 2001
[Edited 2008-07-03 06:29:25]