By Omoh Gabriel
Tales and stories sometimes appear to many as one and the same. While stories are told somehow by those who have experienced or observed events, tales and fables are told by those who never witnessed the events but were told they happened and they believed so. There has been many fables about Japan, a land so unstable that buildings in the country are put up in such a way that they swing. I have always wondered how that is possible and wanted to see such from a distance.
Two years ago in Washington DC, the board of Governors fixed the IMF/World Bank meeting to hold in Africa, specifically in Cairo, Egypt. Many African journalists were looking forward to the 2012 Annual meetings in Cairo. But as fate will have it, it was not to be, no thanks to the phenomenon now tagged Arab Spring uprising that bade farewell to Hussain Mubarak’s cling to power. Curious to know what will happen, a search on the net showed that the Annual Meeting will now hold in Tokyo, Japan. The one thought that went through my mind then was ‘Japan is just too far to travel to.’
As a regular reporter of the annual meetings, I, along with many Nigerian journalists started planning to be there. Eventually, visas were secured and means of going arranged. I decided to go by Emirates having used the airline to Singapore, almost about the same distance. While trying to book accommodation online, I chose a hotel close to the venue. Funny enough, they asked for preferences on non-smoking rooms. I chose non-smoking, and having in mind the tales that their skyscraper hotels could swing, I opted for the first floor.
Emirates took us out of Lagos on the 9th of October via Dubai, about seven and a half hours flight. We got to Dubai early but the pilot was not cleared for landing, he kept circling around the airport up to the point of discomfort. A feeling that there might be a problem the pilot was not ready to disclose was rising in the minds of many, but at last the plane landed. Dubai airport was an experience, it is massive and at any point in time, have thousands of people of different races moving in and out, connecting flights to different destinations. Attempting to use the toilets at the airport can take some time as there were several queues at each point.
Unlike what you have in the US, Britain and other developed airports, Dubai’s several terminals are not linked by metro services, it is shuttle buses that take passengers on merry go-round. It took almost an hour to link the departure at Dubai Airport to the next terminal. Emirates used airbus from Dubai to Narita Airport in Tokyo. It was like moving in a house but not feeling any motion. The plane was fully booked. There were few of us black-skinned people in the class of the plane. Most of those with good money were in the upper section of the plane that looked like a duplex. The flight to Narita Airport took about nine hours. While on air, by stroke of luck, I and Kunle Aderinoku of Thisday looked out and saw a very beautiful landscape the plane was flying over, it was like several hills, undulating and interlocking mountains of different sizes put together by nature. It was a beautiful scenario to behold. Curious to know, we asked one of the air hostesses who was also beholding the beauty of nature, to give us some lecture on what we were seeing, she was blank and went into the cockpit to ask the pilot, she came back giggling, ‘this is Himalaya mountains.’ Oh, no wonder, we have heard of the beauty of the mountain several decades ago while in school. True to what we were thought in school, part of the mountain top was covered with snow. This was not old wives’ tale told by some idlers, it is a true story. Knowing how tiring the journey is, Emirates kept us all busy with one snack, food, drink or the other. It was a pleasant trip with Emirates spoiling passengers with their different dishes. In fact, there was yam porridge with egusi soup.
We arrived at Narita Airport and had the first contact with the Japanese Immigration Service. It was as if they have been briefed to give express service to visitors coming for the annual meetings. We passed the immigration formality thinking it was government favour. It was not so, the Japanese though they neither understand nor speak the English language, they do understand and are always willing to help you in any way they can. At the airport as usual with us when we go out for international reportorial assignments, we buy SIM cards of the host country to be able to stay in touch with the office and the family we left behind, Kunle and Waheed Olaboju, General Manager, Corporate Services, Bank of Industry whom we met at Narita Airport, were the first to attempt to get cell phone SIM.
The operators’ representatives at the airport politely told us we could rent a phone, they did not say we could not find SIM card to buy. The price they were offering for renting a phone was rather too high, 8,000 yen for rental and 800 per day for local calls. I told Kunle that we should go to the hotel and see if we could get a better deal. How wrong I was! There were buses to take each of us to our hotels. We boarded the buses and got to Tokyo air bus terminal, only to discover that our luggage were left behind at the airport.
They asked us to go to our hotels, that the luggage will be delivered. Not trusting them, having at the back of our mind the Nigerian or Spanish experience where your box can disappear before your eyes, we insisted that we will wait for our luggage. We waited and at the time they promised the boxes will arrive, they arrived. I got to the hotel late in the night, and was very hungry. I was checked into room 1202 at Apa Hotels, Shimbashi. The room was said to be double room, but on entry, it was just enough to contain a bed, a very small bathroom and toilet. There was just no space. I was shocked, why so small a room?
While pondering over the rooms, at about 11 pm, the intercom in the room rang, it was Ayo Aminu, he was in the same hotel. ‘Have you eaten?’ he asked, “no, I have not, let us go down and find something to eat.’ We went. To my surprise, their restaurant was small too, you have to pull your shoes, sit with your legs down a hole-like arrangement. I could not understand the menu, just saw fish and some vegetables, I indicated they should bring it, and they brought the food. It was fish and sliced tomatoes. I looked at it, I could not understand having this for dinner. Any way, we took the food and went to our rooms.
Curious to find out why we could not find cell phone SIM to buy, we went into one of the departmental malls in Tokyo, Big Camera. There we discovered the answer. We saw ipad 3 which was selling for $640. We thought this is it, it is cheap, let us buy. We collected two, at the paying counter, we just asked, does this ipad have facility for a SIM? “No,’ replied the man. ‘No ipad or phone uses SIM card in Japan. All ipad in Japan use Wifi not SIM please.’ True to type, most of the hotel rooms are linked via cables. Only in few spots will you find hotspot where Wifi services are available.
The second thing was that at every selling point, whether in a five-star hotel or road side shop, you pay in yen. Japanese do not accept foreign currency as means of payment. You have to get to an exchange center to get yen to pay. It is there also you see how useful a smart phone is. Here, phones are just mainly for voice calls. Ask any Japanese for direction, he reaches out for his phone, gets on GPRS, downloads the map of the region, and points the way to you. At the train station, directions are given via maps. They readily hand over a map to you to trace your direction.
About the second day of our stay, feeling tired of their fish-based food, Kunle who stayed in one of the hotels in Roppongi which offers parks, amusement facilities, shopping areas, beautiful sight of the rainbow bridge at night, exciting nightspots full of bars and night clubs, said there was a Nigerian spot where you can eat Nigeria food. It was like a huge joke, ‘let us go there,’ was the chorus of virtually all the journalists that were there. ‘Roppongi here we come.’ At the bar, eba, egusi, goat meat, pounded yam, were served by a Ghanaian who said he bought the stuff from a Nigerian who trade on food stuff. Roppongi became a regular spot till we left Tokyo. In Roppongi, you can hardly move without hearing the usual Nigerian noise. It is either an Ibo man talking or a Yoruba man. There were others also. If you ever go to Tokyo, Japan, just go to Roppongi, you will not spend a minute before you find a Nigerian. Do not even ask, just walking along, you will find them.
Tokyo is equally a well policed city. In every street, apart from the several circuit televisions, there are close to five policemen just standing there watching and on spotting any unusual movement, they alert the nearest policeman who keeps blowing his electrically-driven whistle. They are, however, warm and courteous and very helpful in helping visitors find their way around the city.
Tokyo in all honesty, is a beautiful city with sprawling high rise buildings. Tokyo Tower stands out clearly, a massive structure it is. The Tokyo International Forum, the Imperial Hotel where most of the meetings and events took place, occupies land areas of about two football pitches each. The architectural designs of the two are masterpieces. There are several interesting places in Tokyo, there is Asakusa/Nakamise, a shopping street of about 260m, Ueno Onshi Park where you have the zoo, Akihabara, a conglomeration of electrical appliances and computer center; and Shinjuku/Shibuya with its row of high rise buildings.
Going around Tokyo revealed that the things manufactured for the Japanese market are quite different from those exported from Japan. In terms of quality, everything used there is of the highest quality. Their products cost three times more than those exported from Japan. The models of their cars are quite different from what we have down here, big and exotic, roomy and deliberately flashy, the kind Nigerians who dream of luxury will long to have. But you will pay through your nose. As we gathered, the least paid worker earns about 500,000 yen. You just can imagine. They are very healthy people; they walk around a lot more than most other people. In all our one week stay, I saw only one pregnant woman in the foreign exchange center where we went to change money. Tokyo certainly is one of the most expensive town in the world. Our return journey took nine hours flight to Dubai and twelve hours from Dubai to Lagos. Time difference is about eight hours so be ready for what travelers call jet lag, while Tokyo is night, it is day in Lagos, your body will take some days to adjust.