2. South Side of the Sky
Trip Start Nov 14, 2008
14Trip End Nov 29, 2008
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...It's a couple hours later and we're more or less following the curve of the west edge of North America and the Ring of Fire - that string of volcanism on the edge of the continental plate extending in a humongous arc from the American west coast up along Canada and Alaska and back down to Japan. According to the nifty little interactive In Flight Entertainment things on the seatbacks in front of us, we're smack in the middle of the Gulf of Alaska between the panhandle and the Aleutian Peninsula.
China Airlines - operated by the Taiwanese, not the P.R.C. - I would rank as "OK" as airlines go, so far. Service is OK, food is OK, seats are designed for Hobbits but... OK nonetheless. It's new and clean and doesn't stink and actually isn't too crowded. A pox on the travel agent's "seat upgrade" though, which - big shock - turns out to be entirely fictional, unless by "upgrade" she means being in row 31 instead of row 64 or something - so we'll get to our destination 0.00017 seconds earlier.
The little IFE units are nice to have too. Normally that esoteric and mind-bogglingly complex device known as a "book" is all the in-flight entertainment I want or need (well, plenty of good tunes on the Zen player too,) but the interactive flight map is sheer catnip for me. The IFE also lets you pick from between twenty or so recent movies, but for me the contradiction between "movie" and "5x7-inch screen" is a no-go - the screen inside my head is significantly larger so my book wins, hands-down - at the moment Robert van Gulik's second Judge Dee mystery, "The Chinese Maze Murders." Also available are a bunch of those cheesy Flash games you find on the Internet like "Insaniquarium" and "Luxor," plus a dozen radio stations, tourism info, etc. But my fave is the interactive map. It's one of those nifty satellite things that shows the plane's continuously-updated position and flight path and lets you zoom in & out like Google Earth - but without Google's creepy collectivist/UN/Big Brother/censorship-apologist taint.
[Standard Disclaimer: No, I have never worked for Boeing. Further, whereas wheretofore all parties exclusionary thereto are bound by retroactive sub-clauses pertaining ex post facto habeas corpus circus maximus veni vidi vici, et tu Brute you still get sued.]
A glance outside and Mr. Fripp's song title "In the Cloud Forest" takes on a whole different meaning - like maybe he's another who does not take the view outside the window of an aircraft for granted. 8^D
For whatever reason I haven't sat down and listened to this album in something like 30 years(!) - I think it's mostly because half of the songs on it have been on heavy rotation on radio stations worldwide for the duration, so it was always playing anyway. They never picked (nor wore out) "South Side of the Sky" though, despite the fact that it's a great song - dimly remembered from age ten or so, when my older brother had "Fragile" playing constantly, "a better, vanished time," as Professor Peart would say. (There is a Rush lyric....) I know with certainty that from this point onward the sound of that tune will always take me back to this particular experience.
That haunting piano melody by Wakeman three-quarters of the way through...!
Anyhow, the flight stats screen also says eleven hours & forty-five minutes remaining to Taipei. Oooyeah.
Deadliest Catch" territory now - the legendary, formidable Bering Sea. There's heavy cloud cover and kind of a perpetual sunset-twilight as we chase the sun, so though the ocean below is mostly hidden, the "cloud forest" continues to transition through different stages of "stunning," continuously. There's something that's difficult to convey in writing about the reality of being there, I mean being able to look down and see with one's own eyes the place that previously was seen only via the remote lens of television. Somewhere down there, probably right now, the "Deadliest Catch" crews are treading the edge of life and death in the Bering icebox, producing tons of Opelio (a.k.a. "snow") crab. Beyond that there's the sheer unearthly beauty outside this window...a sense of vastness on a "planetary" scale that you can only get at six miles - or more - above the surface... (accompanied perfectly by Billy Currie's second instrumental, "Keys and the Fiddle," which I've got playing on the Zen. What is it with that guy's tunes and travel?)
......Again, words can't do this view justice. The two bright pinpoints of Venus and (presumably) Jupiter trace the plane of the ecliptic in a straight line from west to southwest at an angle roughly twenty-four degrees up from the horizon, which is now just an orange-green-blue-black spectrum in a razor-sharp stripe... Breathtaking.
I'm also just a bit jazzed to see, on zooming out the map's field, that our flight path will take us directly over Japan. Well, I knew I'd get there, just not that it would be this soon. A meaningful visit will require a far shorter distance between feet and actual ground however. Patience, grasshoppah.
Tida is snoozing across seats B&C now - she misses all the good stuff. Lots of empty seats on this flight, and the nice old Chinese lady who'd been in C moved to the vacant center row, so we get to stretch out a little. Now I just need a second glass of Singha, but it's not forthcoming and it'd just send me clambering over Tida to the hong nahm anyway. So...back to Judge Dee...
First, another thought I need to get down - more rhapsodizing on the wonders of flight, I'm afraid - as we pass just north of the crabbers' haven of St. Paul Island...
Flying is something that's become so familiar that we tend to take for granted what is literally awe-inspiring: Yeah, moving across the planet at 600 mph and 37,000 feet is definitely primitive from the Star Trek / Star Wars perspective, but this is real - and though we're not even doing Warp 1 we're smart enough to have seat belts. Seriously, anyone who takes for granted contemporary industry (like aeronautics,) and business (like airlines,) not to mention the besieged (semi-)capitalist system that makes all of it possible, is not doing his mental capacity justice. Justice - speak of the devil - NOW it's time for Judge Dee.
......JAPAN! There's an odd cluster of bright lights below, at a point that's still out to sea roughly straight south of the Kuril island chain to the east of Hokkaido. 'Must be a fleet of boats - big, bright ones. Or maybe a squadron of UFOs hovering for a little sightseeing? (woo-woooo-woo-woo-WOO-woooo...)
In keeping with my generalized Japanophilia and the sudden ability to...look right down at the place itself(!)..., I've got some cuts from the soundtrack of the very first Japanese drama I ever saw, "With Love," on auto-replay on the Zen - "Once In A Blue Moon," "Miniature Garden," and "A Day Like This." [Note: "A Day Like This" appears between 3:27 and 4:27 in the clip.]
"With Love" was produced in 1998 by Japan's FCI TV network as a 12-part miniseries, aired subsequently in the US on the International Channel, and is virtually impossible to find with English subtitles now. It's similar in plot to the Hanks/Ryan flick "You've Got Mail," but with ten times the artistry despite the TV soap opera format and absence of a huge film production budget. It's still one of my faves, and I don't care if you're the biggest, baddest PKA/WBA/ECW macho dude on the planet, if you're not a blubbering, sniffling sap by the last episode you should just start checking for a pulse.
The apparent unwillingness of its original producers to release the English-subtitled version on DVD is shortsighted on their part and intensely frustrating for everyone else who's seen it. I watched the entire series a second time on Crunchyroll.com a few months back and was just as moved as I was a decade ago, though the computer technology central to the plot is understandably dated and the glacial pacing remains the series' most noticeable flaw. It's subsequently been taken down from Crunchyroll but is still posted in full at Dramafans.org - for the moment. See it while you can, because...they haven't produced it for sale on DVD and probably never will. Arrgh.
Anyhow, the original soundtrack - almost as difficult to lay one's hands on as the actual series itself - has become somewhat iconic of all-things-Japan for me, plus solo piano is always a good thing, in this case an excellent thing. (One day I will adapt and teach myself "A Day Like This" and "Once In A Blue Moon" on the Chapman Stick - assuming it's physically possible to do a piano piece justice on a fretted instrument - but that is definitely a goal to be filed under "full plate.")
As Mr. Murphy would have it, the in-flight entertainment system crapped out just as we were getting to Hokkaido's southern edge, just before midnight Los Angeles time, and took the GPS non-Google map thing with it. Also as Murph would have it, long-delayed sleep has dumped some serious fatigue on me too - so the exhilaration of "Zowie! I'm in Japan!" is dulled a bit by drowsiness. The system came back up by about the time we'd gotten inland from Honshu's east coast and were passing over Gifu - kudos to the flight crew for working to reboot the system, especially given the fact that only a few night owls are still awake to want to use it. But there is ample reason to remain conscious, at least for me: The city lights as we cross from Gifu to the Tsu/Ise peninsula at a diagonal vector are a billion glittering jewels of light in the black, tracing highways and urban centers and defining the sharp curves of coastlines....just spectacular.
From Ise the map says we'll be crossing the gulf south of Shikoku to the southern tip of Kyushu - passing directly south of Kumamoto City and...Reigan-do cave. Another "Miyamoto Musashi moment," along with flying over Ise. I don't know if Yoshikawa's fictional account of Musashi traveling to Ise temple is based in fact, but since it's been a standard pilgrimage destination for centuries I assume so. At any rate I'm looking right down at the Ise lights to the south, which means we're flying more or less directly over Nara and the ancient domain of the Yagyu family, and we definitely know MM spent time there. (Yagyu village - a must-visit when I get to the Kyoto area.)
So I'm sitting here feeling a little like a fool, getting all psyched just looking down from six miles at Musashi's footsteps. Actually walking into Reigan-do cave, the Yagyu compound, the grounds of the Sanjusangendo temple in Kyoto where Musashi defeated Yoshioka Denshichiro... I suspect it will feel a little like walking across the Gettysburg battlefield or like stepping into Michaelangelo's studio. 'Don't know why Musashi is such a fascinating historical figure but he is - obviously because of his stature as the ultimate swordsman and a brilliant artist, also his lifelong individualism and single-minded pursuit of self-betterment. Easily one of the Top 20 people I'd seat at that hypothetical "If you could pick anyone from history" dinner table. But...I digress.
Next was only an uneventful span of ocean and sporadic dozing, then Taipei, another vast scatter of brilliant jewels in the night. I didn't spot Taipei 101 but it was oh-dark-hundred, I don't know the geography of the city, and I was fading fast in terms of consciousness. TPE itself was a blur - pretty nondescript even as airports go - maybe like a larger Bob Hope Airport. No stinky tofu in evidence, but then we didn't have time to venture outside the gate area to the main concourse. All we found were the omnipresent Duty Free shops, and oddly, each one was staffed with a veritable army of attendants. I had to stifle a laugh as they just swarmed around us at each store we entered, offering to be of service and trying to steer us in the direction of merchandise that was...all around us anyway.
The second leg, from TPE to BKK, was pretty dismal:
Tida's sisters and their families were waiting - names will take time to sink in as per usual; about a half-hour drive and we were at her sis and bro-in-law's house near the old airport, Don Mueang.
Horizontal is good; shower is good, even with cold water (no central hot water in Thai residences, apparently.) So at long last it's time for...a nap? It's Sunday morning here, and since we're the only ones on vacation and Tida's family have rented cars to take us to the beach, this is going to be another rough day sleep-wise. But...I'm in Thailand.
Kinda like: "It's raining!"
"Yeah, but...we're in Paris."
Over & out...zzzzzzz