It took me 36 hours to get home from Japan.
That included 14 hours of layovers, four trains, three planes, one cancelled flight, a thunderstorm, a subway accident and many, many, many bottles of Diet Coke.
But there was one bright spot in this transportation debacle. It occurred during the time I expected to be the most lonely: my four-hour, pre-dawn layover at Nagoya airport. I arrived in Nagoya at about 1 a.m. on Sunday morning (JST), after enduring the multiple train rides, the thunderstorm and the subway delay, only to find that the airport itself was closed until 5:20 a.m. I'd need to wait on the floor of a cold sitting room, located right outside the main entrance, until the airport opened.
Cold, wet and exhausted, I maneuvered my 50-pound suitcase to a free space and sat down to contemplate how exactly I'd pass the next four hours. Fortunately, that dilemma was resolved for me. Within five minutes, a 20-something Japanese guy approached me.
"Hello. Do you speak English?"
I nodded yes, not sure what exactly I was getting myself into. He proceeded to squat down next to me and showed me a stapled packet of papers.
It was a take-home English exam.
"I not understand question 24."
So, I switched into English teacher mode, despite the fact that it was now nearly 1:30 a.m. We discussed the ever-fascinating subject of English verb tenses until our conversation turned to more interesting topics: why exactly we were both sitting on the floor of an airport waiting room at the crack of dawn. Turns out he was a helicopter pilot for the Japanese service, heading home to Kyushu to visit his one-year-old son for the holidays. He was studying English with hopes of getting a job promotion.
He chatted away, using broken English (him) and broken Japanese (me) and plenty of gestures. After about 30 minutes, our conversation sparked the interest of another 20-something guy (turns out he worked in finance, and was on the way back home after visiting his fiance in Hokkaido). His impression of America:
"I been to Hawaii. Hamburgers is very big."
The three of us talked for the next three hours - about nothing and about everything at the same time. It was "internationalization" at its finest. Among our many topics of discussion:
Fart, hiccup and yawn. We swapped vocabulary words in our respective native languages. They wrote the Japanese down for me so I'd remember. It's he, shakkuri and akubi, respectively, in case you were interested.
The difference between "rap" and "lap." There are no "L" sounds in Japanese, so English words with the "L" sound are pronounced as "R." They asked how I kept in touch with family back in America, and I told them I used a laptop. They replied with, "Rap? Like 'yo,' 'yo,' 'yo,?" The helicopter pilot threw in a West Side-esque hand gesture for emphasis. Hilarious.
They learned about my adoration of all things Mexico and wondered how I could ever love a country that wasn't Japan. "The Japanese are the friendliest people in the world," the finance guy told me. I'd tend to agree, if these two guys were any indication.
Time flew by. We laughed out loud, catching dirty looks from other sitting-room dwellers who were wisely trying to sleep. We compiled lists of new vocabulary words for each other. We took turns buying snacks and beers from the 24-hour conbini conveniently located across from the waiting room. It was, hands down, the most fun I've ever had during a crappy airport layover.
As 5:20 grew closer, I prepared to say good-bye to my two new friends. But before we parted ways, they wrote some kanji on the bottom of my list of new words: 一期一会
Ichi-go Ichi-e. "One time. One meeting." Once in a lifetime.
"THIS is ichi-go, ichi-e," the finance guy explained, referring to the past four hours and our unlikely but instant friendship. He then bowed and walked away.
The extra explanation was kind, but it wasn't necessary. I understood the meaning perfectly because I'd been living it everyday for the past five months. It's fascinating that the Japanese have a term to describe that making-random-friends-in-an-airport, climbing-mountains-in-a-hailstorm, eating-fried-shirako, being-lost-and-finding-your-way-and-yourself feeling exactly.
Once in a lifetime. Random but beautiful.
Merry Ku-ri-su-ma-su, everyone.