I have been waiting for six whole months for this moment.
Barely after four months after my “big trip” to Tokyo, I began contemplating my year-end vacation. Fueled literally by prayer, and empowered by the incontrovertible path that God was leading me (I know I sound religious, but truly, I know that the turn of events couldn’t have been possible without divine intervention), I had embarked on my second job – another writers position, and a men’s one at that.
Enriched by our history books, the Old World has always had a sense of appeal amongst my peers. Yet for me, it’s hard to deny the phenomenon that was unfolding right by my very eyes – Asia. I was brought to mind a very simple yet powerful HSBC commercial in which a guy asks a cab driver whether he’d like to leave all the commotion of change in India to which he replies, “Why would I want to leave? Everything’s here.” So for me, at least for this upcoming trip, there was never really any doubt that I’d be visiting a continent besides the one I reside in. There was the lure of visiting the Middle Kingdom, but it didn’t seem quite right. I also looked at Korea and Taiwan, but it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. I hone in on Japan. The land of the rising sun, with its contradictions, eccentricities and cyberpunk setting has always captured my imagination, and probably always will. Having visited the capital earlier in the year, I took a greater interest in the more rural, unseen parts of this magnificent island nation. Places like Northern Honshu, particularly Niigata and Nagano in the highlands, and Fukushima, Sendai and Aomori in the northeast were appealing. Also, being slightly higher paid with this new job, my solo vacation wouldn’t have been entirely shoe strung. Perhaps one of the biggest highlights would’ve been an opportunity to ride Japan Airlines’ Boeing 787 flights from Singapore – apt, considering my interest in aviation.
Around this time, Titus and I flirted with the idea of going on a trip together, which was a little odd considering how much he abhorred budget traveling. I eventually surmise that he was seduced by my stories of chance acquaintances and unexpected discoveries – unique encounters that I’ve had an opportunity to come face to face with. Experiences impossible to recreate if you’re emotionally recluse. It’s true what they say – the whole learning about yourself thing when you travel alone. However, not wanting to appear a hermit, I indulged in my first long vacation with a travel partner. Very quickly, we hover around the Kansai region. Not quite my choice region, but I figured I’d be seeing a lot more of Japan through my lifetime, so why not Kansai?
My travel partner had an impressive itinerary, logging fortnight’s each in Australia, the States and China before going on to Japan. So, in the interest of keeping costs down, there were many aspects, particularly in the areas of transport and accommodation that were brought down to the bare necessities. We’d fly on Cathay Pacific – he’d leave two days before me since I was skeptical about spending more than three days in Osaka; I’d leave on Friday evening, spending half a day in Hong Kong, and an hour’s transit through Taipei. It’d be my first fifth freedom flight (read: aviation fanboy orgasm). Accommodation wouldn’t be quite as minimal as a capsule hotel, but it’d be in hostels – an area I gladly left to Titus to handle.
Hong Kong’s main airline, Cathay Pacific offers a mind-boggling eight flights every day between the fragrant harbor and the lion city. The Asian carrier has taken advantage of the superb geographical location of its hub in the centre of the Asia-Pacific region, as well as Singapore Airlines’ considerably inferior coverage of the Northern Asia-Pacific region and North America, offering Singapore travelers a one-stop service to virtually any point within the region. I’ve flown the Skytrax rated five-star carrier more times than any other airline, so I’m intimately aware with its schedules. It wouldn’t be my first time on flight 714, a red-eye to Hong Kong. The last time I used the service was a year ago, when I flew to Shanghai. I’d describe the flight as an annoying one – too short to fall asleep in, and too tiring to stay awake through, but it opens up the most connecting opportunities. Thus, I was determined to get aboard 714.
My sentiment when I get to the Departure Hall is one of melancholy rather than elation. The quietness, nearly empty atmosphere at the airport mirrored and enhanced the non-event of my presence – at the end of the day, I was only but a statistic. I proceed to the check-in counters to drop my bags. The whole procedure went by fast, but the fact that there were no separate counters for bag drops meant that I was stuck in a bout of a queue. It’s difficult to imagine that in this day and age, that Singapore, a destination which is served with a shuttle-like frequency by Cathay Pacific has no dedicated bag drop counters… I had time, so I wasn’t too bothered. Within many minutes, my bags were tagged to Osaka and I received my boarding passes – one slotted into my passport, and the other, neatly and graciously placed in an elegantly presented ticket holder.
With no one to look forward to, and not much to do in the public area, I headed airside only to find myself bumping into Jeremy, my Editor. I knew we were departing on the same night, but I didn’t seek or stake him out so it was definitely lovely to see a familiar face before nearly 20 hours of strange tongues and bodies in motion. He had to board already, so I went on, biding time for mine. I do not do much plane spotting this time for the scene this evening is virtually the same nine, fourteen and eighteen months ago when I flew to Tokyo, Beijing and Shanghai. I do faintly make out the recognizable kangaroo tail fin of the Qantas Airbus A380. At that very moment, I realize that I’d probably never see that picture again in Singapore. After nearly a decade after it was foretold, the Australian flag carrier will soon bypass its Singapore stopover for sandy pastures in Dubai. The carrier, which will maintain flights to Australia, promises its commitment to Singapore through its low-cost affiliate, Jetstar, but it will nevertheless be an end of an era. I don’t take a picture, though, for the kangaroo’s paths and mine have never crossed. This evening’s departure is out of gate D41, just outside my usual haunt, Starbucks. So, I grab my usual pre-departure aperitif, a warm milk as I wait for boarding to be called.
I spot the tail fin of the Japan Airlines Boeing 787.
As the sound of shutters come down at the various airport concessions, the opening of the gate at 12.30am is a welcome sight for many increasingly restless passengers and a mad slew ensues. Hot into the school vacation season, the 1.15am departure, which is operated in cooperation with American Airlines as flight AA 6108 , is predictably full, filled mostly with Singaporean vacationers off to Hong Kong for a simple, fuss-free, familiar destination. The fragrant harbor’s cooling temperatures are met with different reactions evidenced by the passengers’ varying outfits – some guys, perhaps in a show of masculinity, maintain the usual tropic attire of tees, berms and shoes, while others are more modest with a light jacket and jeans. The girls are inadequately clad. There were quite a few who seemed to be connecting, including all the Mainland Chinese who were sporting luxurious, stylish coats, and a handful else, mostly solo travelers, like me, with winter wear up in arms. Having performed online check-in two days earlier, I was disappointed that this evening’s flight wouldn’t be on the airline’s newer product. One of the reasons I had selected flight 714 was because in June, it was still scheduled as a Boeing 777-300ER, an aircraft with the newest long-haul seat – with its fixed back seat, generous illusion of recline and state of the art inflight entertainment, it was the perfect cure for a red-eye flight such as this. Alas, I suppose the airline finds it wasn’t worth it to send such planes our way.
As expected, the flight is completely uneventful, but I suspect that the agenda of the crew was to accord the passengers sleep. The catering, quintessentially generic SATS fare was nothing to write home about except for the little touch of Haagen Dazs ice cream that really separates Cathay Pacific from most other carriers. The Airbus A330 is highly preferred by both airlines and travelers, and for good reason: it’s fuel-efficient, its mid-size keeps “cattle class” manageable and cozy enough, and the brilliant Airbus engineering yields an ultra-quiet cabin from takeoff to touchdown. I managed to get some shut-eye, but I’d be lying if I said I had a good rest. The airline’s older product, with its immovable headrests thicker seat cushions and large inflight entertainment box under the window seats made for generally undesirable sitting positions. Before long, we cross the South China Sea and we’re done for a twilight arrival as the wheel kisses the tarmac at about six in the morning. The airport is anything but quiet. Cathay Pacific’s arrivals from the US and Southeast Asia make for long lines at transfer and immigration counters, but as a testament to Hong Kong efficiency, I’m waved through the border into Hong Kong.