Ballarat to Tokyo

“Do you think this is infected?”

It had become the catch cry of the last two weeks. Just thirteen days before taking two of Australia’s loudest and most boisterous pre-schoolers to one of the world most serene and polite countries, Asher started having skin issues.

It started as impetigo – simple school sores. And as every good child knows, if there is a bump to find on your skin, it must be picked. She understands this rule in a record breaking capacity, and before soon, it had evolved from impetigo to something papular, to urticaria, to something resembling scabies. All of this, the day after a play-date with the dermatologist’s child.

“Oh my god, we’ve given a dermatologist’s child scabies,” Suse said.

“We haven’t given him scabies,” I said, unconvincingly, before texting for her exact opinion of this very rash.

* * * * *

For the next five nights, we dutifully immersed ourselves in bleach baths, lathered on ointments, slapped on creams, covered ourselves with moisturisers, took antibiotics, and probiotics, and hoped and prayed. Not that medical treatments are unavailable in Japan, it’s just that I still really struggle to say 抗生物質が必要です。.

And so it was, that we completed this regime, all with the guidance of our kind dermatologist friend, whilst somehow managing to avoid giving her children scabies. Instead, Asher had developed an what is known as an ‘id reaction’. This is not to say that she had an unorganised personality structure containing a basic instinctual drive, as Freud would suggest – even though this pretty much defines Asher when she has not had enough sleep – but that her body’s immune system had revolted in response to the school sores, and broken out in suppurative lesions all over her back, neck and face. The average duration of an id reaction is two weeks. We followed doctor’s orders to the letter in attempt to shorten this duration and stop her scratching like a flea on the plane. Things had been going well.

That was, until this morning.

I marched into the bathroom and stared at her bottom, frowning, and feeling my frustration rise. There sat a reddened, inflamed area on her plump skin, 2cm across. There was a central de-headed area, which her sharp little nails had scratched off.

“When did this happen?”

“How should I know? It wasn’t there last night. Her skin was perfect last night.”

We both looked at Asher, who stood there patiently, the perfect patient of the last two weeks.

We both stared again. “How can any child’s skin do this in such a short time?” I’m not even sure who said that.

“We’ve got four hours till we have to go,” I said. “I have to write a script and go and get antibiotics.”

* * * *

Four hours later, we left the house, with just nine bags. As everyone knows, the amount of luggage you require is inversely proprotional to your age, to the point that when I’m ninety-six I plan to travel naked. But at this age and stage of life, with a three- and five-year-old, heading on their first ever trip overseas, we don’t travel light. Four of the bags were for skin products alone.

The first leg of the trip was a piece of cake. Melbourne to Sydney, no sweat. Off we got. Sit down. Wait for a train to the international lounge. Walk through duty free. Line up again. Show your passports. Don’t smile kids. Oh, two hours past your bed time? Definitely don’t smile then. Stand some more. Get on a plane. Sit down. Don’t go to sleep, we are about to serve you some piping hot fish soup. Mmm, child, enjoy.

And don’t go to sleep.

With their eyes officially hanging out by now, the hosties eventually took away the untouched fish soup and let our children sleep. Which they did, fitfully, until I made the executive decision to ignore the announcement about lying down on the floor and do exactly that, so at least two of us could get some sleep. And I don’t mean me.

I don’t know how many of you have ever laid down at the feet of an aeroplane’s seat aisle. It’s quite an experience. When I was fifteen years younger, it was a great way to get around. But this was from a time when I would happily sleep on the floor of buses, train stations, escalators. Now I’m over forty, it’s not as quite as fun as I used to think. Four metal struts are strategically placed either side, to ensure nerve compression at several points of all limbs. Multiple carry-on bags provided support in all the wrong places. And with two disoriented children above, I could exoect a foot to the face, or some cold water, or some hot fish soup on me at least every thirty minutes or so.

But we made it. We were told to please leave the aeroplane, which I promised to do as soon as my legs began working again. We limped into a cavernous airport, and wound our way around to an increasingly official looking area. Our greasy portraits and fingerprints were taken, while our noisy children disrupted the quietude of customs at Tokyo airport. Customs is a dour affair anywhere, but even moreso in Japan, without knowing a sceric of language, bearing a set of greasy fingerprints, and with two children rolling on the ground and into the next line.

We weren’t deported instantly, primarily because of Asher’s curls. We caught a cab to our hotel. Equipped with a smoking room, the first thing we noticed in the lobby was the smell of three decades of cigarette smoke, and then a second-hand rugby ball in a glass cabinet, a bowl full of individually wrapped lollies, and a giant and slightly grubby teddy bear on with windowsill. Suse spoke some French and a little bit of Indonesian to the lady at the desk, while the children accosted the beat, and I sat in the corner, smelling the wall, pretending I was in the seventies.

“Oh,” I heard her say. She turned, smiling wanly. I raised my eyebrows. Check in is at midday. I looked at my watch.

It was 6.30am.

And then they handed a lolly to each of our tired and emotional children.

* * * * *

There is a special prism through which the world is viewed the day after having not slept at all. The light is brighter, and a little warped at its edges. The crust at the edge of your nose is particularly dry. Your taste buds in the centre of your tongue are numb. And the walls smell even staler.

As we walked out and into Shibakoen, staring at a tourist map without a single character from the Greco-Roman alphabet, I tried to remember the rules from charades. We found our way to the main street, surprised by the lack of people in this metropolis of 13 million people, before remembering it was before 7am on a Sunday.   We walked past several closed eateries, before it gradually dawned on us that our first meal in Japan was destined to be from McDonalds.

Six dirty hotcakes and four hash browns later, and if we didn’t already feel crusty and a bit broken, then this was the clincher. We made our way to the closest park, and sat next to a man lying on the concrete, and ate.

From here we walked to the closest site, Zōjō-ji temple, just over the road, built in 1393. The Sangetasumon gate at its entrance is designed to symbolise the three states one must pass through to achieve nirvana, none of which include a Qantas flight to Japan. The girls ran ahead, up the hundred steps, until on the ninety-ninth, I heard a sickening thud – as Asher’s jaw hit one of the steps. She let out an instant cry, which I took to mean she was still alive. I ran up to see exactly how many teeth were left, worried that she would have to no choice but to barrack for Collingwood. No blood. No teeth missing. No reason for deportation at this exact moment.

With teeth still in place, we wiped our tears and apologised for interrupting a thousand-year-old ceremony, before retreating to find hundreds of Jizo statues, carved from rock, each wearing a red bonnet. Jizo, the protector of travellers and children, takes care of unborn children, those who die at a young age, and it seems, those who have flown a long distance and are currently without home. We then found a bloody big bell, Daibonsho, one of the three great bells from the Edo period, made in 1673 and weighing 15 tonnes, and managed to avoid any accident with this at all. Harper performed an Irish jig on a shrine, reinforcing her deep respect for the culture. And finally, we elected to continue the intercontinental culinary bastardry by visiting the closest French patisserie for an early lunch.

Five hours after first arriving in Tokyo, thirty hours between sleeps, we traipsed back to our hotel, and sat in the main lobby looking like four competitors from dancing marathons during the depression.

And finally, with the uttermost politeness, we were allowed up to our room.

At which point we collapsed into our beds and fell into a deep coma.

* * * * *

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