2:30 Japan time. Sitting in the first-class passenger lounge at Narita Airport.

Welcome to Narita! You’ll be leaving in an hour

I’m reminded of the end of Michael Lewis’ “Liar’s Poker,” when he begins to have nightmares about chewing out the concierge at a luxury hotel because his bed isn’t turned down and the towels aren’t scratchy enough. My earlier protestations notwithstanding, I’m beginning to see how people get used to this kind of life.

The buffet in the first class lounge. I recommend the futomaki

This is the first time I’ve been in Japan in 20 years. The last time I had just finished my freshman year of college, and was here for the summer as an exchange student. I lived with a family just outside Tokyo (between Tokyo and Yokohama, really). It was just like visiting my Korean relatives in Atlanta… except when it was real different.

I had a terrific time, though I probably wasn’t the most diligent exchange student who ever lived: my family was great about arranging sightseeing and a few days in the mountains, but I never learned more than a few words of Japanese (my fault, not theirs), and didn’t have a profoundly deeper understanding of the mystery that is Japan than when I arrived. On the other hand, I spent a lot of time just hanging out, absorbing the local culture, and doing seat-of-the-pants ethnography. In other words, taking the bus into the town center, wandering around the streets, and playing video games.

Japan has changed quite a lot in the last two decades-for the worse, in economic terms-but I’m not going to see much of it: we’re only here for about two hours, then it’s on to Seoul.

So I’m not going to get out of the strange bubble of Airport Culture, which is sort of a world unto itself. I look out the window, and mainly I see the blue-black tails of United Airlines planes. I could just as easily be in O’Hare. Inside the terminal, the first advertisements I saw were for Flextronics and Sun Microsystems-just like Mineta International Airport in San Jose. Then, I turned a corner, and there were three vending machines selling bottled water and phone cards; to the right, a shop with that instantly-identifiable Japanese electronics feel, all bright lights and late-model goods, helpful signs and helpful women with their hands crossed in front of them.

The lounge is a mix of tasteful furnishings that would have been appropriate for a Tokugawa-era palace, Strauss waltzes playing on the stereo, sushi and beer (maybe that explains the waltzes) at the hospitality counter, a self-serve wet bar, and CNN on the plasma screen.

A woman just came by, took my plate and glass, and wiped the coffee table. I feel like such a slob. As the saying goes, your mother does not work here. Mom never would have picked up after me.

I’m struck by how thin everyone in the lounge is, especially the women: wealth seems to breed size 4s. The men have a greater range: some are as lean, while others have the appearance of rotund prosperity. There’s a depressing sociobiological lesson in all this, but I’m not going to go there.

Okay, I just found an Internet terminal with an open Zip drive. I’m going to see if I can download this puppy onto the blog…