“I’ll be staying in a hostel, ehmm, Ko...Baya...Ko Bashi, in Tokyo.”
The customs officer at the Narita airport passed my passport under the scanner and looked at my plane ticket. His strict eyes beneath narrow, frameless glasses went hand in hand with his impeccable uniform. “What is the purpose of your travel, Sir?” His English was good, although heavily accented.
“I’m here for tourism and sports.” The date on the returning ticket was three months from now.
He adjusted his glasses and sized me up from head to toe. My answer was not satisfactory to him.
Wearing jeans, a black t-shirt, and a dark green, hooded jacket, I thought I looked quite inconspicuous, yet something on me probably didn’t fit the officer’s image of an average tourist. I suspected my stature drew his attention. I was 182 cm tall (not that high for a Dutch, but definitely above average in Japan), and if I was well built before, I probably looked even stronger now, having gained extra muscle from the hard work at construction. My blond hair was cut very short, exposing my unshaved face fully. Due to my fair complexion dark circles quickly appeared under my eyes if I didn’t get proper sleep. After two restless nights spent on planes and airports, I must have looked rather alarming.
I was lucky enough that during all the years of fighting my nose had somehow remained straight without any deformities despite breaking it twice. My jaw, though, was more problematic. Since my release from the hospital, I often felt it was out of place and distorting my face. It was only my imagination because the operations were very successful and left no damage whatsoever on the jaw or my face. Yet, I got into the habit, especially when feeling nervous or knowing I was being observed, of shifting my lower jaw to the side and sliding my hand over my mandible to make sure my facial bones were all in place. With the customs officer staring at me, I could not resist a quick check-up of my face, before answering.
“I train judo.”
Judo was a respectable sport in Japan and foreign judo practitioners often visited Japanese clubs for training. MMA, while very popular due to Yamato Damashi, was still viewed upon with some suspicion by the authorities, especially due to the organization’s recently alleged connections with local crime organizations. Foreign MMA fighters, who came to Japan hoping to catch the eye of Yamato Damashi and get signed, were considered unwanted troublemakers. So a judo practitioner, rather than an MMA fighter, was a safer way to go.
“And you will train in Tokyo, where?”
“I have a friend, who will take me to his gym.”
When he saw my confused expression, he shook his head and sighed. “It’s dojo not gym.”
I nodded and smiled, while he stamped and handed me the passport. I had no idea why was it so important for him to emphasize this distinction.
A warm breeze brushed my face as I stepped out of the airport. I paused to enjoy the freshness it brought with it -- a welcome change from the stuffy air of planes and airports. The sky was clear and the temperature was higher than I expected it to be at the beginning of April. People around me were rushing, dragging their suitcases behind, while for me everything slowed down. I was in no hurry or pressured to do anything. The pleasant sensation of freedom came over me.