Tag Archives: Travel

Golden Week Part I: Tokyo

When I first came to Japan in April 2011, I flew into Tokyo a few days earlier than necessary so that I’d have some sightseeing time. I knew a couple guys who lived in Tokyo, both of whom were friends of my brother, Mike. Ryoichi – who often goes by Rio or Leo to make things easier for the English speakers – grew up in Nagano, Japan, but studied aerospace at Iowa State University. Adam grew up in good old Fort Dodge, Iowa, just like my family, and he and Mike have been good friends since their high school days. Fresh off the plane from Seattle, these were the only two people I knew in Japan. Luckily in Tokyo, they were really all I needed for an immensely enjoyable introduction to the country.

Fast-forward 13 months, and having just completed my first year teaching English in Shakotan, I was looking for a good way to use my time off during a string of consecutive national holidays, known in Japan as Golden Week (ゴールデンウィーク).  Right on the heels of Shōwa Day (昭和の日 – the birthday of the Shōwa Emperor) on April 29th, the first week in May hosts three back-to-back holidays; Constitution Memorial Day (健保懸念日) on the 3rd, Greenery Day (緑の日) on the 4th, and Children’s Day (こどもの日) on the 5th. The way these holidays were observed on the 2012 calendar gave me Monday off, followed by just two days of working, and then a four-day weekend starting on Thursday. To make this time really count, I decided to fly to Kanto and ‘Tokyo it up’.

Fun fact:  The Children’s Day holiday was originally dedicated to only boys and went by the name Tango no Sekku (端午の節句 – Boy’s Day Celebration). Inversely, Hina-matsuri (雛祭り – Doll Festival) on March 3rdwas the traditional Girl’s Festival. Boy’s Day was changed to Children’s Day in 1948, to include all children. The symbol of holiday remains the carp-shaped windsocks known as koinobori (鯉のぼり – literally meaning “koi flag”). Leading up to the holiday, each household would traditionally fly one koi streamer for each son in the family, and this practice remains relatively unchanged today.

I arrived in Tokyo on Thursday, May 3rd (Constitution Memorial Day) to an unusual sight: rain. Apparently it’s quite unusual for it to rain in Tokyo during Golden Week, as tsuyu (梅雨), the raining season, doesn’t get going until June. Not only was 2012 a rainy Golden Week in Tokyo, but just to the north in Ikariki-ken, a tornado tore a path of destruction through the town of Tsukuba.  (When it comes to natural disasters, Japan just can’t catch a break.) I loaded my Suica Card up with money and jumped into the Tokyo Subway, doing my best to follow the instructions Adam had given me. Moving about Tokyo with my largish backpack, I surely looked like a tourist.

At the huge, busy, intimidating hive that is Tokyo Station, I encountered a small hiccup in the directions I was following. There wasn’t a way to take the subway line that I needed to reach Adam’s neighborhood. This was kind of cool though, because I got to practice my Japanese skills by asking for directions. To my disappointment, I ended up receiving help for a young Tokyoite who had lived in California for five years and spoke absolutely perfect English. With his trusty iPhone, the young man directed where to go, what line to take to which stop, and how I could switch lines at that station to get to my destination. He was a super helpful guy, a lifesaver really, I just wish his English hadn’t have been so good.

After some train hopping, I arrived in Adam’s neighborhood, Asagaya. We met up at the Starbucks, conveniently located inside the train station, and made the short, scenic walk to his house. While I’ve heard of Tokyo houses being cramped or claustrophobic or noisy, Adam and his family have a lovely home. It was a real pleasure to stay with them while I was in town. Since it was lunchtime, we went to a nearby Thai place to eat, and then Adam and I hopped on the train to meet Rio at Shinjuku station (新宿駅). When we found Rio, he was accompanied by his girlfriend, Akiko, but after a brief instruction, Akiko departed and it was just the three of us guys hitting the town.

We first headed to Harajuku (原宿), a district of Tokyo whose name has become synonymous with crazy youth fashion. The main street of Harajuku is more of an alleyway than a street, but it’s lined with countless shops on both sides and is always crowded with high school-age kids, most of them dressed in wacky attire. Despite the unseasonable rainy weather that day, the street was still packed. A moving canopy of umbrellas spanned the width of the walkway from awning to awning. There were plenty of things for the interested to peruse; lots of bows and lace and bright colors; clothing, and fashion accessories ranging from sickeningly cute to outright audacious. We were really just there for the people watching, taking in the spectacle of it all. Although admittedly, I was momentarily distracted by an impressive display of Super Mario Bros merchandise. Once we had run the gauntlet of kawaii (かわいい – cute), we walked on to the next sight.

At Meiji station, we met up with Kana, my old classmate form Iowa Central Community College. Kana and I had become good friends back in the day, singing in all the choirs and performing together in the school’s many stage productions. We hadn’t seen each other in nine years, so it was pretty amazing to finally get a chance to catch up.

We walked over to Meiji Jingū (明治神宮 – Meiji Shrine). Dedicated to the Meiji Emperor, the shrine is one the biggest and most famous Shinto shrines in Japan. It seemed to be intentionally hidden within its own urban forest, as the trail leading to shrine was surprisingly protected from the rain by thick tree cover. Once inside the shine proper, we leisurely looked around. The others had been there many times, it was only new to me, so we quickly paid our respects and were off. All four of our group had attended some college in Iowa and we found ourselves feeling quite nostalgic for the States, so we decided to do something extremely, stereotypically American. We went to Hooters.

There is one Hooters restaurant in Tokyo, the only one in Japan. Just as one would expect, it’s exactly like its North American counterparts; a playfully misogynistic, intentionally classless slice of Americana, transported to the Far East. The interior was their trademark orange, with walls covered in all the tacky minutia that always adorn the interior of chain restaurants trying to look unique. You’ll only notice this collection of random junk if you can avert your eyes from the girls, and of course, that’s what the Hooters experience is all about; the girls. The restaurant did a pretty good job of staffing the restaurant with women that fit the Hooters ideal of feminine beauty—busty, curvaceous, young cheerleader-types that can fill out a tank top and bright orange shorts—despite the fact that Japanese women don’t usually fall into category. The Japanese ideal of feminine beauty is generally considered more slender and waifish. Not only did they look the part, but all the girls talked the talk as well, speaking excellent English—complete with US colloquialisms and Hooters vernacular—to accommodate the surely foreigner-heavy cliental.

To get the full Hooters experience, we ordered a plate of deep-fried pickles, which came with a spicy mayonnaise dipping sauce, and some shakes. At some point, the music changed and the Hooters girls did a little dance for everyone. I had been snapping photos the whole time, but at this point I was told that taking pictures during “dance time” was forbidden—and I’m still not sure why. Eventually we got a photo with our waitress (which I ruined by standing in front and obstructing the view of her body) and we were off to our next spot.

We headed to Roppongi (六本木), the district of Tokyo that’s home to several foreign embassies, including the US embassy. If you are looking for Americans in Tokyo, Roppongi is the place you look. And from what I had heard, the roaring nightlife of the district is extremely gaijin-friendly, to the point of being predatory. Given this reputation, our destination was probably the dorkiest possible. We were headed to a video game-themed bar. Arriving in the neighborhood a bit early, we grabbed some drinks and food at a German pub before taking the nerdy plunge.

At 7:30pm, we entered Luida’s Bar, a standing-room-only establishment, emulating a fictional tavern from the role-playing video game series Dragon Quest (also called “Dragon Warrior” in the US). Rio had made reservations for us a week in advance, which was good because you can’t get into Luida’s Bar without a reservation. Even with your reservation, the Dragon Quest bar only accepts groups of its patrons in shifts, like an amusement park. You are given 90 minutes to immerse yourself in the Dragon Quest experience and then you are shuffled out the door to make room for the next group.

While very small, the interior of Luida’s Bar was impressive. Massive swords and other fantasy relics from the video game world adorned the walls, while the hanging lanterns provided the mood lighting. Flat panel TVs in the corners of the room advertised the upcoming Dragon Quest 10—as well as a crossover party game with Nintendo’s Super Mario and friends—flashing gameplay videos and concept art on a never ending loop. A couple bartender/cooks whipped up orders of game-themed cocktails and novelty foods, while an attractive young lady in medieval garb wielded a microphone and worked the room as the master of ceremonies.

The bar’s menu of Dragon Quest cocktails and food items was quite impressive, if for its ingenuity alone. Everything was shamelessly overpriced, and all hot food items, with the exception of grilled meats, were microwave-prepared junk. But each item was somehow related to the game and all were aesthetically pleasing. Each dessert item we saw was more artistically impressive than the last. Rio ordered a “potion” cocktail that came in the appropriate round glass vessel, like a prop from a medieval play. I decided to try the manjuu (饅頭– steamed buns) filled with anko (餡子 – red bean paste), which were colored blue and shaped like the iconic “slime” characters from the series.

After our time at Luida’s Bar was up, we decided to head to the train station and call it a night. Walking through Roppongi at night was much different than crossing it during the day, as my unmistakable whiteness attracted attention. Every 50 meters or so, a tall African man would approach me, aggressively trying to sell his nightclub and/or hostess bar. Each man came on strong, and their accents were a bit difficult to decipher at first—in fact, I’m pretty sure one guy was alternating between English and French, trying to catch my attention with whichever language my native tongue might be —and it immediately made me feel self-conscious and uncomfortable. Having a large, physically imposing fellow purposely obstruct your path to go for the hard sell is disconcerting, even when he’s showering you with compliments. I didn’t want to be rude to these guys who were surely just trying to get by in an infamously xenophobic foreign country, but I wished they would just leave me alone. After two blocks I had gained a much deeper appreciation for what it must be like for women who endure street harassment. (And they take it all the time!  At least I can just avoid Roppongi at night.)

On Friday May 4th, I met Rio at Shinjuku Station again. Having hit the town the night before, I was running low on cash and growing a bit worried about finding a working ATM. Since I only had a Japan Post Bank account, withdrawing money was usually just a matter of finding a post office. But we were in the middle of a string of holidays, and all the post offices were closed. For some reason, Japan ATMs are generally not open 24 hours; they usually have operating hours much like a bank. The vending machines run 24 hours a day, so I don’t know why ATMs have this restriction.

The previous day’s rain had momentarily cleared up, so when Rio and I set out walking, it was a sunny, gorgeous morning in Tokyo. We first walked to Shinjuku’s gigantic park, Shinjuku Gyoen (新宿御苑). To our surprise, entry into the park was free because it was Greenery Day (みどりの日). An old imperial garden, the park was huge, expansive and impressive. There were forested areas, great wide-open grass fields, ponds with turtles and ducks, even a garden of multicolored hedges. One forested bit in particular struck me as the ideal place to have a samurai duel to the death…or a wedding…whichever one you’re in the market for.

Shinjuku Gyoen reminded me a lot of Central Park in Manhattan, especially with the way scenes of natural splendor were framed by a background of skyscrapers. It’s a bastion of nature hiding among the sprawling urban concrete, an oasis of green amid the desert of grey. Luckily Tokyo has multiple garden parks to provide people with an escape ever once in a while.

After the park it was time for lunch, and Rio and I decided to do fast food, at Mos Burger. It was excellent. I’m probably biased, but I think a teriyaki burger at Mos Burger is far superior to anything that McDonalds of Burger King offers.

After lunch the rain returned and my search for a Japan Post ATM proved fruitless. As I discovered, all Japan Post ATMs were down for the duration Golden Week. What’s worse, all Japan Post accounts were inaccessible! Even third-party ATMs that would usually allow me to withdraw money from my J-Post account couldn’t access it. There was simply no way for me to get to my yen. Luckily, there was no need to panic, as I had my American debit card on me. Using an ATM at a Lawson’s underneath the Tokyo Pokémon center, I was able to withdraw enough yen to get me through the holiday. While there was a sizeable international transaction fee, it really was a lifesaver.

Next we checked out Japan’s capitol building, with its interesting pyramidal stone roof. Rio pointed out that the Prudential Building—the building housing the Hooters restaurant we’d seen the previous day—wasn’t very far away. With the philandering reputation of politicians, this seemed intentional. We walked on, circling the perimeter of the old Imperial Palace to get to the Marunouchi district.

Tokyo Station

Marunouchi (丸の内) is an upscale centrally located neighborhood where all the heavy-hitting financial companies do business. It’s home to Tokyo Station, the massive transportation hub where several metro lines and the Shinkansen (新幹線 – bullet train) connect. Since the station was under renovation, not all of its façade was visible, but one could still see that it has a distinctly western architectural style.

While he wasn’t with us at the time, Adam works for a financial company in Marunouchi, so we decided to check out his building. The outside of the skyscraper looked like an imperial cruiser from Star Wars, but the interior was super posh and classy, with marble floors and gilded accents. We took the escalators up to the 10th or 11th floor, where we found several fine dining establishments. Craving espresso, we found one café to be irresistible, the aptly named “So Tired”. After some delicious cappuccinos and cake, we were on our way.

Mandarin Hotel

Though I’ve only visited Tokyo twice, Rio and I have a started a little tradition. We go to an ultra-fancy hotel—usually one that has their reception on the 40th floor or so—use the restroom, and leave. Yep, that’s all there is to it. We started this tradition when I first arrived in Japan and Rio took me sightseeing all around Tokyo. We headed to the Park Hyatt hotel, specifically because it was featured in the movie Lost in Translation. But since we were only there to loiter, we scoped out the lobby, used the restroom, and left.

The thing is, these hotels usually have a really impressive view of the Tokyo skyline, and you can get a great perspective from the bathroom window. Plus, in keeping with Japanese customer service, the staff is always extremely polite, never failing to thank you when you leave. So we walk in, use the restroom, walk out, and are thanked for our trouble. It’s rather pleasant.

Mandarin Hotel toilet

In keeping with our new tradition, this time Rio and I went to the Mandarin Hotel. It was honestly amazing! From 38 stories up, the bird’s eye perspective on Tokyo is already impressive, but thanks to the newly constructed Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー) towering in the distance, the view from the Mandarin Hotel men’s room is unbelievable! And the hotel has made the view as accessible as possible, constructing the exterior wall completely out of transparent glass. Instead of a wall behind them, the four urinals have only giant windows. It really takes the piss out of every other toilet.

Can you see the 円?

After enjoying the Mandarin’s men’s room, and taking plenty of pictures, Rio and I lounged around the lobby, as if we were actually guests of the hotel. When we got up to leave, I took some time to enjoy the view from the opposite side of the building and spotted something interesting. Rio’s friend had told him that the Bank of Japan was shaped like the kanji for yen (円 – actually pronounced “en” in Japanese), but from the building map at ground level, it looked like that wasn’t the case. However, from our view from above we were able to see that the building’s roof really does have a yen kanji motif! It was a lucky find.

Soon thereafter, we perused a store called Sembikiya which has the most expensive fruit I have ever seen. While I’m sure that not all fruit is equally good, that some specimens are more delicious than others, I don’t know how anyone can justify spending Sembikiya prices, even the super rich. This isn’t like your grocer jacking up the prices of organic fruits, it’s complete madness. For example, one apple will run you ¥2100. Two melons cost ¥33,600, 40 cherries for ¥15,750, or twelve strawberries for a mind-blowing ¥6825. That’s hundreds of dollars for a bag of fruit.

For dinner, we went to an izakaya that Rio had personally selected. Apparently the place was known for its excellent Kyushu-style food and it also had a wide selection of sake, which I was excited to sample. It wasn’t until our drinks arrived that I remembered how Rio doesn’t drink. It wasn’t long before we were joined by Akiko, Rio’s girlfriend. Luckily for me, Akiko enjoys sake, so I could imbibe without being the lone drinker. The three of us enjoyed an evening of traditional Japanese fare and partially Japanese conversation. Rio and Akiko were a ridiculously cute couple, so much so that I felt like they could be used as models in a prescription drug advertising campaign. (You know, the kind where the couple is so active, attractive, and incredibly happy that you wish you could have genital herpes too?)

To Be つづく’ed…

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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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