I want to write a little bit about travelling long haul, jet-lag, and mystery.
Recently I travelled to Japan. My partner and I had planned it for many years. A myriad of delays, caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the Japanese government’s very cautious tourism policy, pushed the trip back from Spring 2020, to March 2023. Needless to say, the extended wait time for this trip greatly increased the anticipation, and excitement for this trip!
I had visited Japan in 2005, as part of a school exchange program, and had always wanted to return.
The 14hr flight was long, but interesting since the route we took avoided Russian airspace to the south. This lead us over Europe, the middle east and pretty much straight through the middle of Chinese airspace. While the plane ticket said “direct” the route was anything but!
We took off from London at 9am, and Landed in Tokyo sometime in the late morning. I was not at all prepared for how tough the jet lag is, flying east and crossing 8 time zones. We took off at 9 am, and landed at lunchtime in Japan. It was incredibly difficult trying to stay awake that afternoon! I managed to last till about 6pm before I fell asleep.
I was wide awake before the sun rose, it wasn’t even twilight outside. Before I looked at the time I thought to myself
If it’s 5 am I will have done really well, and will probably adjust in a day or so…
It was 2am.
The next couple of days followed a similar schedule, it went something like this.
Wake up. Wide awake feeling, 100% refreshed. The dilemma here is what do you do? You’ve travelled all this way and invested the time, money and effort to be here, but nothing is open for another 6 hours. Fortunately there were ways to pass the time. I could wash, do laundry, get dressed, and no its only 4am.
Breakfast. Given that it is still before the normal operating hours of any hotel kitchen, or fast food restaurant even we relied on the 24hr konbini (コンビニ) for a light meal. Typically this would be anpan (あんパン), a red bean paste bun. Sweet and savoury.
Given that most of the things we wanted to do would open at 8am or 9am. We would look to creative ways to kill time. Often travelling the areas before the rush hour to arrive at a destination as it opened.
I enjoy the feeling of being up before the rest of the sleeping city. The environment cues you that in just a few hours the streets will be packed with the hustle of people going to work, or attending to their daily errands or rituals.
The streets echo with the call of pedestrian crossings, the occasional squawk of a crow, feeding of the scraps of the faded nightlife that ended mere hours ago. Tired looking people shuffle on foot or in their vehicles, heading home after a long shift, or struggling with little sleep for an early start.
Ticking things of our list, there are so many things to do in Tokyo. We got a lot done, but I have an every growing list of things I would return for. By this time we’ve already had our lunch, but all I can think about is what would be good for dinner? Come on “body clock”, hurry up and adapt already.
Continue ticking things off the list. Not feeling tired just yet. But it’s coming. If I closed my eyes for a second, I would think it is evening time. But with eyes open, the sun is still high in the sky and the clock never lies right?
Now we are into crunch time. Here the sleep deprivation creeps in, and it feels like I’ve been awake for 24hrs. The familiar sounds of pedestrian crossing beeps, crows squawking, railway station jingles, the hum of vehicles, and the murmur of streets of people talking and laughing take on an ethereal quality. I hear the sounds, distinct and separate from each other, but interpreting them becomes increasingly taxing, and they merge and warp together. My vision is lazy, tired and it’s difficult to keep my eyes open.
However during this time I experienced real joy and adventure. There is something particularly unique about walking around, in a new city, in a land where you can’t speak or read the language, and your head is fogged over with jet lag. I feel like there is an enhanced sense of mystery when in this state, particularly in the twilight hours, as the streets bathe in the neon glow of street lights and advertising signs. Taking a moment to pause as you stand at the end of a street and look down the full length it. Giving your self a break from being guided by your phone, and think “I wonder what’s down there”. Sometimes we would give into our curiosity, and other times we would pass by, after all, we didn’t have infinite time to explore!
I crave the soft embrace of the bed and a pillow. I keep telling myself
Try and stay up just a little longer. The longer you stay up now, the easier it will be tomorrow.
On the first day we made it to 8pm. Not good, not terrible. Over the next few days our sleep schedule slowly acclimated to local time. But I didn’t feel fully adjusted for the first week.