Spending a comfortable night at the Holiday Inn, Abu Dhabi, proved to be the perfect relaxation for the longest flight our writer has ever flown and for a busy itinerary in Japan
After missing my flight from Abu Dhabi to Tokyo, I was faced with the predicament of waiting almost 24 hours for the next available flight.
The airline ferried our group of stranded passengers to the Holiday Inn, where I was later to enjoy a sumptuous breakfast, lunch and early dinner. There is a good reason this business is called the hospitality industry.
The lobby manager, one Gopal and an assistant, Deki Yangtsho, were at hand to ensure my stay was warm. Their smiles melted my tiredness like ice cream on a hot day. Abu Dhabi was hot, with temperatures reaching almost 30 degrees centigrade!
After a meal of cereals, bread, scrambled eggs, mushrooms, sausages, yoghurt and assorted fruits, I retreated to my room to catnap the entire day as I read by John Grisham’s paperback, The Partner.
It was particularly gratifying that the song Hotel California was playing on the hotel piped music system as I took the lift to my room. A cab later delivered me to the airport, where my flight was confirmed and I started the nine-hour flight to Japan. It was the longest in my entire life (and I am no longer young!).
Halfway across the flight, I realised my feet were swollen. I stretched a bit by visiting the loo, which was, predictably, in great demand, but nothing eased the fluid collection in my usually skinny feet. Later, I dozed off, remembering how enormously relieved I was when we had finally taxied for take off at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, precisely at 7.45 pm a day earlier.
This was almost six hours behind schedule after our plane developed technical hitches, so I had been sure I would miss the connecting flight from Abu Dhabi to Narita International Airport in Japan….
Of course the Dreamliner is a wonderful, comfortable aircraft, which, at the touch of a button, shows you the distance already covered, altitude and areas you are overflying. If you care to look, a camera on the aircraft’s belly takes pictures of the earth below but at high altitude, all you will see are clouds and occasionally, strange features that remind you of lunar landscapes.
I landed in Japan to find a guide, Ms Aiko Furuta waiting for me, and we quickly developed rapport, which eased the tension of a first time visitor and an eager host.
I was hoping that the good English she spoke would be replicated elsewhere but I was mistaken, for in many establishments, the scanty English made ordering for a simple meal tricky. However, our guide for the eight days we were in Japan, Tadashige Murata ensured that as much as possible, communication was not a barrier. Our trip co-ordinator, Kiyomi Obo also ensured most of our needs were met.
For a first time visitor to Japan and Asia in general, my maiden experience was both fascinating and exciting, and the culture shock unnerving. A cup of coffee in the middle of Tokyo city cost the equivalent of what could buy me a juicy serving of T-bone steak, complete with a starter dish and one other course, in central Nairobi.
No wonder this is one of the most expensive cities in the world! We visited fairly high profile organisations, including the headquarters of the Japanese International Co-operation Agency (Jica), Japanese External Trade Organisations (Jetro) and the Japanese Association of Corporate Executives.
We also toured the waste processing facility at Yokohama City resource and the Waste Recycling Bureau. We met top executives of Isogo Thermal Power Plant, which boasts the highest energy efficiency in the world, Sakata Seed Corporation (ranked fifth in the world in sales and 104 years old), the National Centre for Health and Medicine, the Tokyo Sky Tree deck (an international tourist attraction) and the Disaster Reduction and Human renovation Institution (Institute) in the city of Kobe.
The Japanese, I noted, are a friendly people, and their insistence on not learning English is compensated for by their civility, politeness and extreme courtesy.
Even the casual act of exchanging business cards with formal contacts is executed with heads bowed, using both hands.
Talk of lessons in humility! It was also something of a unique experience to come face to face with the culture of using chopsticks to eat, including rice!
My colleagues and I had a rough time learning to clutch the sticks between our fingers, and within three days, we could easily pick pieces of meat or vegetables using the sticks. The first few attempts were quite comical as we grabbed air and attempted to eat it.I had been asked, as part of my orientation before the trip, if I would mind eating sushi, a sort of raw fish, to which my response was that I loved adventure and would not mind.
Perhaps it was my rather eventful life as a journalist that prepared me for this unique experience, for I found myself enjoying this rare of cuisine, served with vinegar-flavoured cold rice.
There were moments of hilarity, too, such as when we noticed our translator, Murata, quipping “Hai! Hai!” to everything he was told. It turned out “hai!” means okay! or alright! but the drama kept us entertained. After all, in casual English, it is a greeting.
The amusement was both ways, such as when I revealed to Murata that his name meant “friend” in my mother tongue (Kikuyu language). He was elated, and declared us friends. I noticed that out of every 10 Japanese men in the streets, six or seven wore white shirts or shades of white.
Day after day, most men wore white shirts. I asked our guide about this, to which he explained that it was a sign of both openness and honesty. No one can do business or enter a deal with a man in, say, red or yellow or multi-coloured shirt.
My colleagues Sharon Kantengwa (Rwanda), Orlando Vasco Macuacua (Mozambique), Rapule Tabane (South Africa) and Yohanes Anberbir Shibeshi (Ethiopia) had a difficult time learning to pronounce Japanese names. What drew our admiration most was the sense of time among the Japanese and their cleanliness.
The principle applied to trains, subways, everywhere. A senior official later said that it was taboo for one to be late —a waste of resources. I was also rather startled that in all the days I spent on Japanese soil, I did not see litter, except in litterbins.
Of course, the city of almost 10 million inhabitants is so vast and so built up that it made Nairobi feel like a market centre, let alone a modern metropolis. The prefecture hosts over 13 million people.