Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Japan, Day 1: Flying into a typhoon

It was almost a year ago during the Chinese New Year reunion dinner that we were talking about taking another family vacation. The last time that my wife and I took a vacation with my children was in 2014 when we decided to go to Hanoi after cancelling our initial plans to Bali because of my hospitalisation.

We were discussing where to go this time around and for quite a while, we were looking at St Petersburg in Russia as a destination. But then we decided not to cross so many time zones and plumb for Japan instead. (I think everybody were more excited about Japan than Russia).

The only decision left was the date of travel and eventually decided on the end of October when the raining spell in Japan was starting to dry up and the weather was still not too cold. With some luck, we could even see some fall colours during the transition from summer to autumn. I settled on the 22nd of October till the 29th, and we all agreed to enter Japan through Tokyo and depart through Osaka. We would take a one-way trip by rail from Tokyo to Osaka and experience their bullet train along the way.

So there we were, Saw See, Jeremy and I, flying down to the KLIA2 on the 22nd morning where Michelle would then meet up with us. We were ready. We boarded the AirAsia X flight D7522 which would depart at 2.25pm and scheduled to arrive at Haneda international airport, Tokyo, at 10.30pm.

Everyone thought that this would be, or should be, an uneventful flight. But unbeknownst to my family, I was a little nervous. No, actually, I was more than a little nervous. No thanks, of course, to two jokers on the opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean.

On one side was a maverick dotard now in his latest role as the President of the United States of America and on the other side was an unpredictable little rocket man from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea with a penchant for playing with missiles and nuclear weapons. Between the two of them, there was no predicting when someone could be trigger happy and war could break out at any time. The situation grew more tense as the year rolled along. South Korea and Japan, caught in the middle between the United States and North Korea, could face the dire consequences and there we were, having already decided to visit Japan. Fortunately, there was a two-month lull from mid-September when the lovebirds did nothing much except trade insults, and I felt that it would be safe enough to travel. But I wouldn't have hesitated from aborting the family trip if there was escalation in the tension.

There was a second reason for my nervousness. Typhoon Lan. Days before our trip, I had begun checking on the weather conditions in Japan and noticed that a typhoon was threatening to strike at Japan at about the same time that we were to arrive. A friend in Tokyo wrote to me on 20 October: "Tough weather forecast. Heavy rain and thunderstorm on Sunday. Typhoon warning for Monday. Bring umbrellas."

Yup, a typhoon named Lan was bearing down on Japan but what could we do? It was a natural phenomenon. The flight was still taking off on schedule from KLIA2 on Sunday afternoon. I suppose typhoon weather is all quite normal circumstances for airlines. Nothing extraordinary. Nothing for them to worry about. The aircraft could still land in stormy weather. Or so I thought.

Only things was, this was a very different cup of tea. At about 10 o'clock at night, Japan time, I knew that we were already in Japan airspace. Preparations were already taken to land the airplane. I could hear the outboard and inboard flaps on the wing being engaged. I could also imagine that the landing gear was down too. However, the problem was that there was nothing reassuring to see from the window. Except for patches of grey clouds whizzing by, everything else was in pitch darkness. No sign of city lights on the ground. No approaching landing strip lights could be seen. And the engine was straining against the wind. Loudly. Making all sorts of noises that I normally wouldn't associate with landing. I could feel the bird strain but fortunately, it remained very steady. I suppose the airplane must have circled the airport once, perhaps twice. Then suddenly, the pilot came on the air. All airports in Japan were closed on account of this particular typhoon. He was diverting the aircraft to Incheon.

It took me a moment to fathom this decision. Incheon? That's Seoul's international airport, isn't it? In South Korea. That's about two hours away from Tokyo. So this wasn't any ordinary typhoon. It was a typhoon strong enough to close all the airports in Japan, from the northern to the southern parts of the country. At least, this decision meant that we no longer needed to worry about a dangerous landing under an utterly stormy weather condition. The weather at Incheon, the pilot assured us, would be fine. We would wait out the storm there and fly out to Haneda first thing in the morning.

To be continued....

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