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Traveler's Diary

Cultures Fly Side by Side to Tokyo

May 18, 1986|HORACE SUTTON | Sutton is editor of Signature magazine.

TOKYO — Traveling to the Orient Japanese-style can be a schizoid experience, an encounter with two worlds both stuffed into an American-made capsule flying 35,000 feet across the top of the world.

I waited in the lounge of JFK in New York where the offerings were picked pretty clean by the time I got there, but there was enough in the trays to distinguish two cultures side by side.

In one tray were snippets of okaki, cocktail tidbits of lacquered nibbles made of baked rice, some tiny and square, others oblong and wrapped in seaweed. In the other tray was an assortment of jelly beans, perhaps out of respect for presidential preferences in the host country.

In any case, one could wash it down with Kirin beer in cans or with Bloody Marys, the mix in cans, too, the vodka in bottles. Bloody Marys were winning two to one.

On board JAL's flight 005, I found my place in business class, a somewhat glorified version of tourist class. Two side-by-side seats at either window and four across the middle. Tourist class has three side-by-side seats at the windows.

Top of the World

The flight, by the northern route over the top of the world of white mountains in northwestern Canada and Alaska, is so long that it eats up two full-length movies and assorted short subjects, many of them on the picturesque wonders of rural Japan. One watches them while sipping anything from sake to Pommery Brut (in first-class it is Dom Perignon, which costs 21,000 yen in Japan or about $110 a bottle). Here the nibbles are strictly out of middle class, U.S.A., Planters roasted peanuts bagged and sealed in East Hanover, N.J.

Now it is lunchtime and your choice is Western-style fillet of beef Provencal or Japanese salt-grilled salmon, teriyaki steak, marinated pond smelt, vinegary and bony. My seat mate, who was a Japanese banker, assured me that smelts are preferred by Jewish people, but I think he has these hapless minnows confused with gefilte fish.

There was a tangled mass of beige noodles called soba, served cold, and with them a container of brown sauce. The lid of the container was embossed with specific instructions on how to mix the Japanese horseradish, called wasabi, and chopped leeks, into the sauce.

After endless snacks, movies, music through the headphones and chapters read out of the books I took along, we were coming into Tokyo. We left New York at 12:30 p.m. or thereabouts and it had become 6 minutes to 5, Tokyo time, in the afternoon, a day later. We had crossed the International Date Line. On my body clock it was somewhere in the wee hours of the morning. I had left my Manhattan apartment at 10 a.m. Tokyo, I have concluded, is not around the corner.

I took refuge in the night at the Narita Nikko, a 500-room hotel 10 minutes from the airport. To go into Tokyo is madness. It costs $67 by cab, takes 1 1/2 hours if the traffic is cooperative, and I am off on a flight at 10 the next morning. A giant bus wheeled us into the Nikko hotel.

Crisply Efficient Room

It is not beautiful, but it is crisply efficient. My room had a private bath and toilet, a TV set, hi-fi apparatus and a tray with green tea, as well as a thermos to be plugged in for hot water.

A sign told me I could have a massage up to 3 a.m. if I wanted to part with 3,400 yen or roughly $20. I chose a shower and a clean shirt and decide in which restaurant to dine.

The French one offers escargot and lobster and a Pontet Canet wine for 12,500 yen or about $80 a bottle. There is a Chinese restaurant, too, and an American-style coffee shop. I chose the Japanese restaurant and had smoked duck, shrimp in what is advertised as rice porridge. It was soup, but was warm and proved a balm to the tired soul.

A singer was working the ivories and warbling into the rainy night at the Sunset Lounge with its view of Narita and the airport. It was about dawn on my body clock and I headed for my chambers. Opposite the elevator was a nest for nourishment--a green tea server, an ice cube dispenser and a change maker. The proper coins will produce a cup of sake, a can of beer, orange or lemon drink or Pepsi. The can of beer costs more than $2, the yen having risen to stratospheric heights.

Whiskey Also Sold

There is whiskey, too, a form of Scotch, though they don't call it that. You can get a razor out of the vending machine, too, but toothbrushes are provided by the hotel. I went to sleep dreaming of the things I didn't order at the hotel's Japanese restaurant--salted entrails of sea cucumber, half a snapper head with salt, cuttlefish with vinegared seaweed, eel teriyaki.

The wake-up call next morning was cheery and in two languages. "We hope you had a good rest," the voice said in English. The buffet breakfast was snappy and efficient and the price ample--$9.50. The night in the airport hotel without food costs $104. And finally there is the head tax at the airport, $11.50, the highest I've encountered, except in Panama where it is $15.

But then the security in Tokyo is excellent. I was stopped before I even entered the airport by police who examined my passport, poked into the trunk of the taxi. Riot police with their plastic face masks tripped up and, long staves in their hands, stood behind the uniformed police. When the flight was called I not only went through the machines but I was frisked, and carefully.

The flight was called and I guess it's worth it to pay $11.50 to get to my next stop safely. A head tax is a head tax, a friend of mine once said. If you have a head, you pay it.

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