Flight Complications: Quick Trip, Long Story

Sunday September 4, 2011 – My big brother Mike was getting married, and I love wedding receptions. However, I was still in the middle of my self-imposed exile from the States, it was expected that I would have to miss it. My friends in Japan were downright appalled that I miss my own brother’s kekkonshiki (結婚式 – wedding). Both Yamazaki-san and Nozomi-san preached the importance of family. Even if it meant using all of my vacation time and buying an unbelievably expensive ticket (and it did), it was probably worth it. Having already missed the weddings of some very important friends this year, I decided that missing Mike’s would be unforgivable. I had to go.

Even though the company was pretty clear about wanting us to save our vacation days to use at times when we were sick, I went ahead and asked for all five of my days off for the trip. Next, I had to make a trip to an immigration office in Otaru to procure a Re-entry Visa. (Little Shakotan doesn’t have such an office, so it was either Otaru or Sapporo.) For any other foreigners living in Japan, if you’re planning on leaving the country, even just a short vacation in Korea or a weekend sex tour in Thailand (I’m on to you, sicko), you need to get a Re-entry Visa before you leave Japan. Without it, your work visa becomes invalidated when you exit the country. On a Friday morning during my summer break, I made the trip to Otaru and got my “permission to come back” documentation pretty easily.

My parents helped me get my ticket, both with the booking process and with paying for it. (It really was a really expensive ticket.) The best part was that we kept the plan a secret so Mike wouldn’t see me coming. True ninja style.

The day before I was to fly out, a typhoon made its presence felt in Hokkaido. Once it started raining, it didn’t let up. On Friday September 9th, during my 5:00am drive from Sapporo to New Chitose Airport, the strong winds nearly blow my boxy little car off the road. Once I got to the airport and parked my car, I made the mistake of thinking that I needed the International Terminal, since I was flying internationally. Oddly, that terminal wasn’t open when I arrived, and I sat around and waited for 20 minutes or so for it to open up.

When the raised the metal gates and I entered the International Terminal, I didn’t recognize a goddamn thing. Realizing that I wasn’t in the right place, I double-checked the airport map. The International Terminal in the Sapporo airport only flies to Asian destinations, the most obvious one being Korea. Because the first leg of my flight was to Tokyo-Narita, I needed the Domestic Terminal.

I literally ran to the Domestic Terminal, passing through the shopping mall-like area that was familiar to me, and waited in line to check in for my flight. By this point I knew that I was getting dangerously close to missing my check-in time. Standing there holding my bags, the airport seemed uncomfortably hot, and sweat trickled down my lower back. When I got up to the counter, the conversation I had with the JAL airline lady went like this:

“Good morning, sir. Do you have an e-ticket?”

“Good morning. I have this. I think I’m running a little late.”

“Pardon?”

“I’m late? I think I’m a little late.” I desperately searched my brain’s data bank for the Japanese word for “late” and came up with nothing.

“I’m sorry, what was that?” She leaned forward with a quizzical look on her face, clearly attempting to decipher my English.

“Never mind,” I said with what I hope was a smile.

After printing some boarding passes and clarifying that I would need to recheck my bags in Chicago, I made to my gate just in the nick of time. Surprisingly, I received a phone call in the airport, Yamazaki-san checking up on me. He said he had been a little worried about me making my flight, but I assured him all was well. He told me to be careful and wished me luck.

While the first leg of the journey went just fine, there was baggage related troubles in Tokyo-Narita. Apparently the baggage sorting system failed somehow. After boarding late, we waited motionless while the staff apparently tracked down and loaded all the bags by hand. By the time we took off, we had been delayed by two hours. Once in the air, the flight was 11.5 hours long.

When I arrived in Chicago, I was really surprised by how much “Welcome to the United States” crap they had all over the place. Immigration at O’Hare International Airport was overflowing with people, at 11:00am on a Saturday. Waiting in the line for US Passport holders, I was surprised to see many different people bumping into old friends or colleagues, and striking up conversations about business and/or mutual friends. I really don’t understand how so many of these random travelers knew each other.

Due to the baggage delay leaving Tokyo, I just missed my next flight, from Chicago to Des Moines, Iowa. The airline automatically moved me to the next one, leaving around 2:00pm. I wanted to call my mom and let her know about the change in plans, but I only had my Japanese cell phone, which doesn’t work in the states. Also, the only payphones I could find seemed to only accept credit cards or phone cards. It then dawned on me that I hadn’t brought any phones numbers with me, whatsoever. I thought back to my childhood and actually managed to recall my mom’s home phone number and—quite oddly—my Aunt Mary Ann’s phone number. I dialed both, calling collect, and hoped that I didn’t ruin the surprise.

After a few tries, I managed to reach my little brother Patrick, who as it turns out, already knew about my secret visit. He texted Mom for me and still managed to keep things hush-hush from Mike and Kevin. Everything, it seemed, was alright. Then, just before boarding, my next flight was abruptly canceled due to weather.

While my long journey seemed to getting longer and longer, I still was in good spirits. A fellow traveler and I talked about how were being inconvenienced by flight cancellation as we rebooked for later flights. Her name was Melinda and she was traveling from Michigan to Des Moines to visit her boyfriend. When I told her about my brother’s wedding and my surprise visit plans, she was quite entertained. The next flight to Des Moines left at 4:30, but we could only get stand-by for that one, and we were booked for a 7:00 flight instead.

While waiting for the chance to possibly board the 4:30 flight, Melinda kindly let me use her cell phone to call my mom and explain the situation. (Patrick had given me Mom’s cell number.) We sat at the gate and chatted until the flight started to board. It looked like the plane would be full and we would have to wait until our 7:00 flight. A few passengers walked down the jet way and presumably were sitting down on the plane when the announcement was made—the 4:30 flight was also being canceled due to weather! Everyone with tickets to the 4:30 flight scrabbled to the counter to get on stand-by for the next and final Des Moines flight of the evening, the 7:00pm flight for which Melinda and I already had tickets. It was a shocking reverse of fates.

Melinda and I killed time before our (hopeful) flight by grabbing dinner together. We talked about family and travel and had a grand old time. Eventually when 7:00 rolled around, our flight was on time, and thankfully, not canceled. The small Bombardier puddle-jumper we boarded was definitely not going to accommodate any of the folks waiting on stand-by. By 8:15pm, I had landed in my homeland, Iowa.

My mom, patient as can be, greeted me at the Des Moines airport and we drove straight to Fort Dodge, where most of my family was still having a rehearsal dinner. Those in the know had made up stories as to why my mom wasn’t present at dinner, using the unnecessarily embarrassing alibi of a digestive illness as cover. When we made it to the hotel where everyone was celebrating, my mom’s husband got everyone’s attention.

“Kathleen has made a miraculous recovery,” he said. “And she even brought the doctor that helped her.” Then I walked in the room and watched the jaws hit the floor. I raised my wedding invitation, which Mike had mailed to me in Japan and said, “Yeah, I’ll take the beef, if that’s okay.” There were hugs and smiles all around, a happy moment that made the whole trip worth it.

The next day was the wedding, and it was beautiful. Mike sang not one, but two original songs during the ceremony. One song he had written specifically for Samantha in secret, and surprised her. Surprises became a recurring theme of the event. When the newlyweds walked down the aisle to the closing tune of the theme from Love Actually, even I was moved to tears. The reception was also fantastic; good food, good wine (and beer), a photo booth, dancing… I delivered a speech at reception, which I had been looking forward to for quite some time. I was especially pleased to see not only family, but also a couple of my Seattle soccer friends, who I think of as family. A good time was had by all. Now back to the travel stories…

I woke up at 5:30am (CTS) on Thursday, September 8th, feeling congested and rundown, like I was coming down with a cold. I was flying halfway around the world, so it wasn’t the optimal condition to be in, but it would have to do.

My mother was driving me back to the Des Moines Airport and my dad had expressed concern that we were leaving Fort Dodge too late to make my 8:50 flight on time. In theory, if we left the house right at 6:00am, we would have just enough time to get to the airport and get me checked in. (Des Moines is pretty small potatoes as far as airports go, so once checked in, I could be through security and at my gate in like five minutes.) However, he hit some random construction on the way, and then—the killer—Des Moines rush hour traffic. When we made it to the airport, I was 10 or 15 minutes late to board within the minimum 30 minutes early that they ask you to be there. Mom even got a $20 parking ticket because, in our rush, we had just parked the car at the terminal’s arrival gate and left it unattended. It was only there for a couple minutes, but as we all know, that zone is for “loading and unloading only”.

So I missed my flight and needed to rebook. However, because we had purchased through Travelocity, we had to call them to do it. Travelocity informed us that since I had missed the first leg of my flight by my own fault, not the airlines, it counted at as no-show. Even though it was a return trip of an already wildly expensive international flight, we had to buy a whole new ticket! We talked to the people at the American Airlines counter (JAL’s “Sky Alliance” partner) but they couldn’t do anything to help. We talked to an amazingly helpful guy at the United Airlines counter (Steven Something), and he made some calls and talked to the folks at the AA counter on our behalf. To his surprise and our dread, Japan Airlines policy dictated that we were totally screwed and had to buy a brand-new, one-way ticket to Sapporo.

Long story short(er), we bought a new ticket with United Airlines, which was damn expensive, but half the price of the JAL ticket we were offered.  And my new itinerary was longer (Des Moines to Denver, Denver to San Francisco, San Francisco to Tokyo-Narita, and finally Narita to Sapporo), but it was the layovers that would make it a total beast. For example, I was looking at a 12 hour, overnight layover in San Francisco, followed immediately by a transcontinental flight over the Pacific Ocean. With this new itinerary, I was supposed to arrive almost exactly one day later than my original plan.

Since my new flight plans weren’t getting started until 7:15pm, Mom and I spent most of the day killing time in Des Moines. We first went to breakfast and sat around the restaurant talking for about four hours. Then we hit the used bookstore and got some frozen yogurt, before returning the airport SUPER early to check-in for my flight. By the time I was boarding the first leg of my flight, I had already been in travel mode for over 12 hours.

The flight to Denver was about two hours. Once there, I bought a vegetarian sandwich at the food court, and a 16oz Americano from Caribou Coffee. I had about two hours there, and then another two hour flight to San Francisco. I arrived at the San Francisco Airport around 11:35pm, and wandered a bit to begin my 12 hour, overnight layover. The place was super quiet, almost deserted, and a bit chilly. I thought the atmosphere was borderline creepy, but fine.

I found that I could actually access the airport’s Wi-Fi; I just had to watch an advertisement video to get it going, and then re-watch it sometime later to stay connected.  After walking around, surfing the internet, and walking around some more, I decided to try and sleep.

By this point I’m feeling pretty cold and I’m kicking myself for wearing shorts on such a long trip. If I had long pants, I probably would have been fairly comfortable, but my leg hair wasn’t proving to be very good at insulating my body heat. To make matters worse, I didn’t have anything to cover my legs with, expect maybe my track jacket, but that was busy keeping my torso warm. Remembering a scene in Back to the Future where Marty wakes up a homeless guy, I recalled that the homeless guy used a bunch of newspapers for a blanket, and scoured the area for a newspaper. The cleaning staff was actually hard at work, doing a great job of tidying the place, so it took me forever to find a discarded newspaper. Once I had one, I used my messenger bag as a pillow, covered my legs with newspaper, and drifted off to sleep, probably around 2:30am or so.

When I awoke around 5:00am, the airport was abuzz with people. The gate at which I had crashed was now filled with travelers waiting for a flight to Salt Lake City and I was surrounded. Groggily I sat up, looking truly homeless with my newspaper blanket still covering my legs.  I collected my things and got up for a walk, freeing up three more seats for the folks there. The rest must have done my brain good because it was at that point that I realized I wasn’t at the International Terminal. A short jaunt later, I found myself in the right terminal, a much bigger space with better chairs for sleeping.

A bit hungry, I bought a decent breakfast sandwich that came with terrible breakfast potatoes, and found a new spot to settle down. I connected to Wi-Fi again (watching the same advertisement video to get it going), and check my email and such. This time I actually caught my girlfriend, Marissa, online in Africa. We had a Skype conversation; it was the highlight of my travels.

Fast-forward to 11:15am and I takeoff in a Boeing 747 bound for Tokyo-Narita. The flight only took 9.5 hours, but unlike the cushy JAL flight, this plane didn’t have individual screens for each seat. This meant that instead of having access to a ton of movies, I could only watch the utterly forgettable romantic comedy Something Borrowed, followed by episodes of House, M.D. This was probably a good thing, since I needed to sleep. Plus I had a real blanket for my legs, so I was happy.

Arriving in Tokyo-Narita Airport, I went through customs, which was very busy. Luckily, the line for people with Re-Entry Permits was only four people long, so I bypassed a line of like two hundred people. I picked up and re-checked my big bag, and started looking for my next gate. As it turned out, I still had six hours to wait and my gate’s security checkpoint wasn’t even open yet. I would need to kill some time.

At this point, the strap of my messenger bag tore off. Apparently I had overburdened my bag with the weight of my laptop. I very nearly caught it before it hit the floor, but the corner of my computer surely felt the impact. Summoning my inner MacGyver, I managed to attach the end of the strap to another part of the bag by hand, essentially fixing it, at least for the time being.

I discovered that the Tokyo-Narita Airport has a huge shopping area and food court. It’s like there’s a mall inside the airport, with lots of food and omiyage (お土産   – souvenir) options. I bought a bottle of green tea, a delicious nikuman (肉饅 - meat filled bun), and a matcha bagel. It was already good to be back in Japan.

In a room containing comfy chairs and a TV inexplicably playing CNN, I found an outlet to power my laptop. Luckily, my battered Toshiba powered up without any problems, apparently not damage by the drop it endured earlier. Using my Docomo USB internet key, I accessed the internet on my own, and checked my email and such. Then the TV actually caught my attention with “Breaking News” of a ferry that had sunk off the coast of Zanzibar. It had been carrying somewhere between 800 and 1,000 people. They zoomed in the map and I saw that the boat’s destination was actually the island of Pemba, where Marissa was! I found this more than a little unsettling, and shot off an email of grandmotherly-like concern.

When I finally was able to go through security, I found myself relieved to be out of the United States. Airport security is so much more reasonable and respectful of individuals in Japan than in the perpetually terrified United States. I was momentarily embarrassed by my country, but the feeling comes and goes fairly often. Looking around a little shop near the gate, I accidentally knocked down a shelf of ANA toy airplanes. A store employee rushed out, apologized to me repeatedly, and picked up the mess that I had created. Even when I bought a bottle of water after the incident, the staff was exceedingly nice to me.

The flight to Sapporo-Chitose was just 1.5 hours. I was home…almost. I picked up my bag, walked down to the parking garage, and by watching other returning passengers, figured out how to pay for parking. The bill for parking my car at the airport for one week:  8600 yen (about $112)! Since the airport is all the way in Chitose, I still had an hour and a half drive. I arrived at my friend’s apartment in Sapporo around 9:30 or 10:00pm, Japan time. After a much-needed shower, I finally passed out. With the rescheduling and all the delays, I estimate that my total travel time, door-to-door, was around 50 hours.

The following week, back in Shakotan, I had dinner with some of my fellow JHS teachers. Everyone had questions about my trip and the wedding. Yoshimura-sensei asked me what my brother did for work, and this is where hilarity ensued. First I said that he worked for Boeing, which was met with raucous laughter. Then I tried to clarify, explaining that he was an aerospace engineer. This only cracked them up further.

Yusuke later explained to me that Boeing sounds like “boin” (ぼいん), meaning “big breasts.” And aerospace contains the word “ero” (エロ), which in Japanese means “erotic” or “eroticism”, so I had only made the misunderstanding worse. If only engineers’ jobs were so interesting.

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Filed under Sapporo, USA

One response to “Flight Complications: Quick Trip, Long Story

  1. Pingback: Surprise Root Canal in Japan | Rebel Without A Tan

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