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Home alone

The problem with Japanese airports, I've decided, is that they are too stuffy. As I was flying straight back to work the next day I wanted to be fresh and clean, but that's rather hard when, after having a shower using the airport facilities, you just start perspiring again. Plus it makes me feel a little queasy.

Or maybe that's nerves. I rarely look forward to the flight home, no matter how much I want to see my family again.

I spent the remaining time I had in Japan shopping for rice crackers (a good selection), sweets (they had sold out of mango fettucine Gummies!) and watching aircraft from the outdoor observation deck. Dinner was Japanese style hamburger patties and salad.

I like some of the more down market shopping landside at Narita, but once airside it is mainly luxury in nature. I glanced through the electronics offerings, but the only thing that caught my eye was a Japanese bidet toilet seat. Pity the price tag was around Y80,000.

I had to catch the automated shuttle train towards our gate. As I was browsing in one of the small duty free stores near gate 82 I thought I heard the gate desk calling out my name, which is a little difficult for Japanese speakers.

It was indeed me they were after to let me know that, due to a full passenger load, I had been upgraded to premium economy. I had never flown in Qantas premium economy more, so this was quite exciting. Not a window seat but, hey it was to be a night flight anyway.

They asked passengers seated at the rear of the aircraft to board first, a long slow process for such a big aircraft. Finally it was my turn!

Tonight's aircraft was VH-OJA, which I believe to be the oldest 747-400 in the Qantas fleet and soon to be retired. The economy seats were still the old blue coverings, but the premium economy section was installed much more recently. The seats were wide with a reasonable amount of legroom. I couldn't decide if I like the leg rest or not as it didn't extend very far up. Noise cancelling earphones, a thick blanket with a backing sheet, bigger pillow than economy and a small amenities kit had been placed on the seat. The table and personal entertainment screen were each hidden in the armrests. When I sat down my first thought was "Wow! Comfortable!"

We were offered pre-flight drinks; I chose orange juice. The lady next to me at the window was flying back to Brisbane for a week to help organise her Alzheimer-suffering mother's estate after living overseas in Japan and elsewhere in Asia. As she had two young kids we had some interesting conversations about the differences between Japan and Australia.

I was very sleepy, but surprisingly didn't drift off during the taxi. I watched what I could through the windows across from my companion, but there was no photo taking this time. With our screens all stowed the safety demonstration was all manual. Once we rolled on to the runway the engines were powered up and then it was off into the sky.

The seatbelt light was switched off quite quickly, then the captain came over the PA to tell us the welcome news that it was likely to be a smooth flight all the way, just what I wanted to hear.

The flight attendants came through with menus, immigration forms, drinks and small bags of almonds and pretzels. Dinners were served quite early, which was very welcome. White cloths were laid over our tables and the tray of food looked posher than economy, though the standard was definitely more rear of the aircraft than business. I had the western option, not-so-crispy skin chicken with tomato sauce, potato wedges and vegetables, which was tasty without being spectacular. My seating companion had the Japanese beef cheeks with sukiyaki sauce.

I made both my neighbour and the flight attendant laugh when I apologised for bringing out the camera, explaining that I do trip reports for fun. The crew were wonderful on the flight, very friendly and professional, nothing was too much trouble. When it came time for tea or coffee I asked if I could have the "Italian style" hot chocolate that I read about in the menu. The attendant explained that they only served hot chocolate in economy, but she'd get one for me, which she did. It was bitter and nowhere near as nice as the old hot chocolate they used to serve, despite the marshmallows.

Service over, the lights went out and we flew in darkness until midway down the Queensland coast. I didn't think I could sleep yet, so I watched some movies on the screen. First The Hobbit, which I knew would keep me entertained for the next three hours. It's a pity that the screens in this old aircraft were not of the best quality to do the movie justice, but at least the retained 747's will all be reconfigured with the much nicer system.

Fruit and biscuits were offered in the darkness. I miss fresh fruit while in Japan as it is not usually served with meals, so I really enjoyed the sweet grapes and crisp apple.

Even so tired and with the seat reclined far back I couldn't stay asleep for long, so I watched another movie, Oblivion, which features an Earth having suffered through one of the worst terrors imaginable: a massive army of Tom Cruise clones. Perfect movie for watching in flight, scenic and dreamy.

With all this entertainment this smooth flight passed quickly. Breakfast service began quite late in the morning, a good thing for sleeping passengers. The warm chocolate filled croissant and orange and hazelnut muffin were delicious, as was the fresh fruit salad.

When my neighbour opened the window shades near Scone we were treated to some spectacular morning scenery with wispy fog filling the craggy valleys under a clear gold-tinged sky. The first officer explained our flight path across the city, then turning back across Botany Bay to approach the airport from the south, past the sea cliffs of the Royal National Park and over the Kurnell Peninsula.

A soft landing, then we were straight to the gate, a lot faster than normal on a Sydney morning.

The crowds at immigration were the worst I have seen for a long time with multiple international flights arriving at once. Luggage also took a while to appear. I was waived through quarantine, the officers satisfied with my explanation of the contents of my bag. I think they had far more worrisome targets on the flights from Indonesia and the Philippines.

Then it was onwards to the city to meet Alex and B and for a day at work.

What a trip! I had used this time away to its full advantage, seeing as much as I could - 2200 kilometres of railway line - without the constraints imposed by travelling with others. Finally my dream of traversing the entire length of the Sanin line had been realised, along with exploring more of Shikoku. Am I satisfied? No way! There is still so much of Japan yet to see and as this trip proved, who knows what surprises will be lurking along the way?


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