Tuesday, August 05, 2008

"Stringing Tea": Chapter 3: The Airport

[This is part of a series of postings about my recent tea-buying expedition in Japan. Click here to see the other installments.]


Looking back, I see that my chaos-filled pickup of the crew at the airport portended the turbulent adventures to come.


The plane carrying Chris, the cameraman, and Manuel, the sound engineer, touched down at Kumamoto Airport on time. The duo were already outside waiting next to their mountain of equipment when I pulled up to the curb at Arrivals with our intrepid director, Ilka, who had arrived ahead of the others to scout the southern Kyushu locations where we’d be filming.



Kumamoto Airport.


But Chris and Manuel, when taking inventory of the baggage disgorged onto the luggage carousel, had found that a highly important item had come up missing: the case of high-definition videocassettes. A call to the airline revealed that the wayward case, unlike its owners, hadn’t made the connecting flight from Tokyo to Kumamoto. And no tapes meant no filming.


We were in a big fix.


“Call the local TV stations,” Ilka said to me. This obviously wasn’t her first encounter with this corollary of Murphy’s Law (i.e., Whichever piece of luggage is most critical is the one that the airline will lose). “Someone there will know where we can buy the tapes.”


Yes, but … call a TV station, get a technical person on the line, and have him or her track down a very specific type of professional-grade high-definition videocassettete — at 4:00 in the afternoon on a Friday? In a small town like Kumamoto?


It might actually be easier to find Aladdin’s lamp, summon the genie, and have him find the tapes for us.


“And while you’re at it,” Ilka added, “call the airline and tell them to get our case of tapes to us quickly!”


Not having a magic lamp, I instead whipped out my trusty Softbank flip phone and punched in the airline’s “where the hell’s my luggage?” number. Navigating through the phone tree I reached a live human being who had good news and bad news. The good news: the missing case had been found and sent on its way. The bad news: instead of overnighting the case, the airline had used a standard courier service, which from Tokyo would take three whole days.


Three days that we just didn’t have.


Filming was slated to begin the next morning, and our ├╝ber-tight schedule would not permit even one day of delay. This made it absolutely imperative to find those tapes somewhere in Kumamoto City in the next couple of hours.


I called both of the greater Kumamoto City area’s local television stations. My call to the first was answered by a lone receptionist who told me that all the engineers, technicians, and anyone else who would know about videocassettes were either out of the office or had already gone home for the weekend. So my call to the second TV station was going to be a real Hail Mary pass.


Luckily, the receptionist there transferred me to a late-working broadcast engineer who sympathized with our predicament. Before taking this studio job, he said, he had worked in the field for twenty years and was more than familiar with how logistical glitches like this could bring production to a grinding halt.


By this time, I had drained my cellphone’s battery and was tethered by the short-corded recharger to a wall outlet in a small snack bar just outside the arrival gate. I had dragged one of the small round tables closer to the wall so I could sit down with the phone. “Give me your phone number,” the friendly man said, “and I’ll ask around and call you back.”


In America, “I’ll call you” is sometimes shorthand for “Don’t ever call me again.” But this was Japan. And the man did sound sympathetic. Optimism was my only option. Especially since there were no magic lamps in sight.


Waiting for the kindly man’s callback, I took the opportunity to wipe the sweat off my brow and gulp down a glass of iced green tea from the snack bar. (I considered this transaction paying rent on the table.)


Outside, Ilka and Manuel were filling every nook and cranny of the van with those pieces of luggage that the airline had managed to get to Kumamoto. Meanwhile, Chris had wandered inside and taken up position next to me as I was frantically phoning. Chris wore a very British look of quiet concern.


Finally, after what seemed like an eternity but was probably closer to ten minutes, my phone beeped to life. The broadcast engineer’s voice buzzed through the earpiece.


“I found a store in Kumamoto City that has some tapes on hand.”


“Oh, that’s wonderful” I said — because “I would like to nominate you for sainthood” doesn’t translate well into Japanese. Then I instinctively cupped my hand over the phone’s mouthpiece and turned to Chris. “So, how many cassettes do we need?”


“Well, if it’s going to take the courier three days to get us the case, we’ll need a dozen at least.”


I uncupped the phone. “How many do they say they have?”


“About six or seven, I think he said.”


“Right,” I responded. “Tell them we’ll take all of them.” (Six tapes or a dozen — I didn’t need to bother Chris with details like that.)


Hai,” the engineer responded. “Oh, and you’d better hurry. The store closes in an hour.”


I thanked our saint/genie and hung up.


One hour? Let’s see . . . We were only about 50 or 55 minutes away, assuming a brisk tailwind. I hadn’t driven into Kumamoto City in about 10 years and I didn’t have a map of the city, which we weren’t scheduled to visit until much later in our itinerary.


But other than that, thing were looking up.


Cellphone in one hand, envelop with directions hastily scribbled on it in the other, and holding the steering wheel with both sweaty forearms, I drove our packed-to-the-ceiling van toward downtown Kumamoto City while pleading on the phone with the electronics store to stay open just a little bit longer until we got there, which really really, honestly this time, would be any minute now.


Finally we were in the home stretch, careening down Kumamoto’s “Streetcar Boulevard” (densha doori), only a few blocks away from the electronics store — at least according to my scribbled map.



Kumamoto City's Streetcar Boulevard (Densha Doori).


A nervous minute later, we spotted — and passed — the small electronics store crammed in between two massive, shiny office buildings on the opposite side of the street. I made an illegal U-turn across the streetcar tracks and came to jolting stop in the parking lot.


Huffing and puffing as we half-ran into the shop, Chris and I we were met by two pleasant surprises: Not only had the shopkeeper unearthed a full, unopened case of the tapes we needed — over 40 in all — but the price was lower than in Europe. (Public TV stations always have to be mindful of conserving the taxpayers’ money, you know.)


Tapes securely aboard, we rolled out of the parking lot and merged into the Friday evening traffic. The mood in the van was downright cheerful. A soft, cool evening breeze wafted in threw the open windows. Everyone was all smiles.


In the back seat, a happy Ilka chattered in German to Chris, who translated for me: “Congratulations on surviving your baptism by fire.” The crew and I had done some serious speed-team-building.


But little did I suspect that this hectic day would turn out to be an only too typical one in our three-week shoot.


Ignorance, however, truly is bliss, and as I piloted the van southbound, toward the hilly countryside of Hitoyoshi two hours away, I was blissfully proud of the day’s accomplishments.


—Mellow Monk


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