Tell-Tale Signs Of Official Exasperation

Excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

Tokyo, April 1996. Vibrating with irrational post-flight euphoria, I place my feet on size 24 yellow footprints painted on the floor at immigration and wait. Travel lore has it that Tokyo Narita is a congested and problematic airport. But at 8:25 a.m. I see no congestion and no problems—until an immigration officer waves me over. He studies my ticket, doesn’t like it.

“How long stay in Japan?” he asks.

“Ninety days.”

“Why come from Indonesia and not from America?”

“Long vacation.”

He studies my onward ticket, doesn’t like it either. “Why fly to Korea, not to America?”

“Very long vacation.” I say.

It was the idea of the travel agent in Australia, the one who sold me the ticket to Bali and the onward ticket to Japan. To get into Japan on a ninety-day airport visa, she told me, you have to have a ticket out of Japan. And if I wanted to stay longer? Get a ticket from Tokyo to Seoul, she said. It’s the cheapest way out of Japan. Stay a week in Korea and then fly back to Japan for another ninety days. Everyone’s doing it, she said.

“What are doing in Japan?” the immigration officer asks.

“I want to get to know your country a little.”

“How are you paying for your stay?” He’s polite. “Japan is expensive. I need proof you have enough money.”

I show him $2,300 in cash.

“Not enough for ninety days.”

I show him my Amex, Visa, and MasterCard.

He grunts with distaste.

“It’s a platinum,” I explain about the Amex, which converts his distaste into ridicule.

“Hotel vouchers?”

“I don’t have any.”

He exhibits the tell-tale signs of official exasperation.

“I’ll be studying Japanese.” I scramble to dig out the language school’s registration certificate, which seems to help.

“What you do for living?”

“Nothing.”

“Where your money come from?”

“Investments.”

My concise, truthful answers puzzle him. He thinks I’m flippant. He thinks I’m lying. He thinks I’m smuggling drugs into his sacred Japan.

Two customs officers spread my effects out on the counter. They ask the same questions, and other questions. They flip through my books and have me empty my pockets. They take the battery out of my flashlight and inspect my Zaurus ZR. “Sony,” one of them mumbles with an appreciative nod. And when they don’t find anything of interest, they say, “Welcome to Japan.”

Welcome to Izumi’s land, Izumi the illusion.

I need to get some yen to buy a phone card and pay for transportation into Tokyo, but I don’t want to change dollars. That’s my backup fund. So I stand in line at an ATM. It sports a Visa logo, a comforting sign. The text on the screen is in Japanese script, which is to be expected in Japan, but where the hell is the Union Jack icon? You press it, and English appears on screen. I’ve done it hundreds of times in other countries. But there’s no Union Jack. How can they install an ATM without a Union Jack at an international airport?

With Teutonic persistence, I try to advance my cause by guessing, but the only thing I accomplish is holding up everyone else behind me. Several Japanese, who pool their expertise to help me, can’t get the ATM to work either, not with my card, though it works for everyone else. To get me out of the way and allow their compatriots to go about their business, the two who speak some English take me to a bank counter. They ask in Japanese, the clerk answers in Japanese, and they translate: upstairs on the third floor there’s a foreigner ATM.

“A foreigner ATM?” I say, bewildered.

Discussions back and forth in Japanese.

“For foreign Visa cards,” one of them translates.

I still don’t get it, patently slow as I am. More discussions in Japanese.

“Japanese ATMs work only with Japanese Visa cards,” he translates.

I’m having trouble wrapping my brains around this concept, and I’m worried about losing my English-speaking guides. So I ask them to ask the banker if he could give me a cash advance on my credit card.

This befuddles them. Long discussions back and forth.

“I’m sorry, no credit card,” is their astonishing explanation, and even I see that I’ve exhausted their patience. Then everybody bows and says, “Thank you” and “I’m sorry” several times, and I do the same, instantly drawn into what must be a Japanese ritual translated into English.

Excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

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