Sunday, 20 March 2016

A Shimmin Returns

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

The Manchester flight was fine; I sat next to a very pleasant bloke heading to Bali, and we chatted about spending time in Asia (he used to work in China), our mutual interest in other cultures, and various other things. Hope he's having a nice time at his daughter's wedding.

I reached Schiphol, and was immediately confused. My plan was to find out what I'd need to do and make sure I was in roughly the right part of a huge airport, then try to nap for a while. It was about 3pm, which made it midnight in Japan. Getting at least some sleep during the core sleeping hours for a new timezone is apparently important for adjusting quickly.

There were two problems facing me. One was that I had no idea where I should be going, specifically - direct to departures? Presumably, in which case... where was it?

The second problem was navigation. The airport itself seemed to be entirely devoid of maps. I was able to get onto their wi-fi and found the maps, which begin unhelpfully by dividing themselves in two and assuming you know whether you're in Arrivals and Schiphol Plaza, or Departures and Lounge. That may seem obvious, but actually, once you've walked for half an hour from your arrival gate, it's no longer cut and dried.

It's not immediately clear whether these are supposed to be two entirely different complexes, perhaps with a shuttle bus between them? Or different floors, perhaps, as in some airports? Or maybe just parts of one sprawling whole?

Unfortunately, the maps themselves are very nearly as unhelpful as it is possible to be.

The maps depict two completely independent locations. They appear to be joined by stairs, suggesting these are two separate floors. I walked in a continuous line from my arrival gate to (eventually) my departure gate, never going up or down any stairs. Was I, therefore, ever in Arrivals at all? Or does Arrivals only pertain to people who go through customs and so on, whereas transfer passengers wander aimlessly in a zone called Departures? On reflection now that seems the most likely, but it wasn't at all apparent to me, and there didn't seem to be anything in the airport itself to tell me where I was.

The other issue is the labelling. If you don't know where you are on a map, the natural course is to look for nearby landmarks, then find them on the map. For this to work, it helps if the labelling is in some way coherent.

There are basically two sensible ways to use numbered labels with a map, and it depends whether you expect the map to be used to find a place when you know your current map location, or to navigate using landmarks. For the former, the places should be listed and numbered in a useful order, and then labelled appropriately; I personally don't like this much as it can still take ages to track somewhere down on a map. For the latter, the map should be labelled in a sequential way (like left-to-right and top-to-bottom) so you can search the key for the correct location, then easily find that number on the map; this is my preference.

What you should never do is have the numbering of both map and key be non-sequential and apparently random. This leaves the poor navigator poring over the key trying to find the right name, then poring over the map desperately trying to work out where it might be. If the navigator has had very little sleep and the map is in small print this is a particularly bad move.

I eventually gave up on the map, managed to track down a helpful staff member and asked for an explanation, and was told just to wander over to the gate - she knew it already even though it wouldn't open for four hours. So I went and found my gate, then looked around for somewhere cosy. There were a whole series of comfortable, nappable chairs near the gate where I came in - and near my departure gate, only rows of firm chairs with arms sternly between them to prevent any possible sleep. I imagine this is a deliberate policy to avoid people falling asleep while they wait.

Anyway, I managed to find somewhere to lie down for a couple of hours, but although the rest was welcome I didn't sleep. My appetite was behaving very oddly, and I wasn't sure if there'd be food, or what kind, so I grabbed a cake and a banana before heading for the gate.

The flight to Seoul was relatively painless. I think it was a bit shorter than expected, which is always good on a 10+ hour flight. I sat next to a perfectly pleasant couple who kindly synchronised their bathroom breaks (I always try to get an aisle seat) and regrettably in front of a small baby who spent quite a while kicking my chair before settling down. To my surprise I managed to get quite a bit of sleep. Well, I say quite a bit, I mean probably three lots of an hour at a time. Still, not to be sniffed at and it seems to have helped a lot.

Once it got to 9am Japan time, I stopped trying to sleep, and watched a couple of films. These were Wiplala (Dutch, children's fantasy adventure, not quite as cheerful as I'd hoped but fine) and the Minions film (basically exactly as expected). The rest of the time I listened to podcasts. I'd meant to read, but my brain was really not up to reading.

I was woken early on by our first meal, some kind of meatballs and mash with grated vegetables. As it was, according to my brain, approximately 5am, I wasn't expecially keen, but I managed a few mouthfulls of food and put the bread roll and crackers aside for later. There were a couple of snack rounds, and shortly before landing some kind of unidentifiable wobbly yellow thing was served. I had very little appetite anyway, so I just ate the bread again. And I drank water continuously, shunning caffeine and definitely shunning alcohol.


Seoul began with a lot of confusion, as the KLM staff issued two sets of paperwork and instructed us that everyone needed to fill them in even if you were transferring, and you'd also need to collect your luggage, unless you were transferring via Busan for some reason. I was a bit puzzled by this, but I carefully double-checked with the staff on the way out. I was transferring to a flight to Japan and not leaving the airport at all; did I really need to go through immigration, collect baggage, take it through customs again, and then re-enter? Apparently so.

I dutifully went to the immigration area, filled in my paperwork, and got ready to join a queue. It was only when I was confused about the order of doing things that I asked the airport staff. Should I follow the signs to immigration, or the signs to the baggage check? Immigration was the first one you reached, but I couldn't work out any logical sequence of events where I could both go through immigration (landing on the other side of the security line) and go through a luggage area that started on the gate side of immigration. Honestly I'm still not sure what that was about.

Anyway, I explained my confusion, and was told to completely ignore that and go straight to the transfer area, my baggage would be taken straight through to Japan without my intervention. So that was fine.

The plane I arrived on, as I disembark

Sun setting over the airport and the mountains

Back on board! I found the loading of the plane next door quite interesting.

The seats on the Korean plane have USB ports, which is just how things ought to be really.

I liked just how blue everything looked.

Fire laser annihilator!!!

Ah nope, that's some contrails and a couple of lights.

This was a bit of a strain, because I needed to keep awake and my brain was becoming very keen to change that. It was only mid-afternoon, and sleeping would probably be disastrous for my new Japan-time sleep regime. Also I'd been on planes for many many hours. I wished dearly that I didn't have a rucksack and a laptop case as I walked repeatedly up and down the airport, listening to HP Podcraft and The Double Shadow.

I also ate a cereal bar and an apple, since my stomach suddenly insisted it was absolutely ravenous. One of the odd things about the change in sleep schedule is that it seems to have completely detached my eating requirements from normality, so I get hungry at random intervals, and appetite fluctuates fairly wildly. I'm spending a lot more time utterly, stomach-gnawingly ravenous than normal. I'm hoping all that will stop soon.

Thankfully the warm, yellowing afternoon sun was a good cue for my brain, so I carefully hung around by the windows absorbing as much as possible. Late afternoon, okay brain? Late afternoon. Which is to say, you can sleep in about five hours.

The flight was pretty straighforward, with no notable features other than a mysterious greenish-yellow sandwich I accidentally accepted from the staff, but sensibly decided not to touch based on its peculiar smell.

I landed in Fukuoka bang on time at 8pm, and got through customs and luggage relatively painlessly. It took me a while to remember how to get to the subway; the airport keenly points you towards a bus to Hakata, but is very reticent about the fact you can hop on a free shuttle bus to the domestic terminal before taking the subway.

Descending into Fukuoka

This is your welcome on leaving the airport, and also (apart from the overexposure, sorry) kind of my mental image of Japanese cities.

Then and Now

One of the striking things is just how different the experience was from first arriving two years ago.

Two years ago, I arrived in 28C heat and pouring rain. I waited in long queues and fought to sensibly and comprehensibly answer the airport staff's questions about my taxable goods and my visa situation. I spent about an hour walking around the airport and going up and down floors between increasingly puzzled (yet infallibly polite) booths and information points, trying to find my phone. I was utterly exhausted, appallingly hot, and increasingly stressed by my inability to get the phone I'd carefully arranged and paid for. I had very little idea what anything around me might be, nor what it said. When I did track it down, I stumbled zombie-like to the underground, where I stressed out again over how to actually operate the system. I slumped on a train, struggled to get through the ticket gate, and got off in a dark underground passageway that looked like some kind of far-future dystopia where cyber-gangs might lurk to offer me bizarre alien drugs. Eventually I reached Befu station, where I disembarked and had to ask a nice lady where I actually was, since the stations all have several exits and I couldn't navigate to my mansion without knowing my starting location. I got drenched in the 30-yard walk to my apartment and had to wait for 15 minutes for an agent to appear to let me into my flat, accompanied by a lengthy welcome and explanation of everything which I was almost totally unable to grasp despite it being in English (on account of that exhaustion business). I had very little idea where to get the basics I'd need to feed myself for the next few days.

This year, I arrived in a pleasant 10C on a dark, dry evening. The customs procedures were familiar and painless. Having no need to collect a phone, I paused for a bit to remember how to get to the subway, then wandered off, entirely unperplexed by all the notices nearby. My only problem with the subway was remembering which train I needed to get (Meinohama, as it happens). I got slightly lost looking for my apartment, but thankfully the combination of a printed map and Maps.Me app (offline maps, although frustratingly short on useful detail like shop names) helped me track it down. I got the key from the letterbox and strolled up to my apartment, where I had a pretty good idea how everything worked. Then I just went to a conbini and bought a few essentials. Although I wasn't familiar with this part of the city, it was interesting just how strange none of it felt.

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