I’ve never been able to wrap my head around abstract concepts. The fact that I’m sitting here writing this on the morning of November 12 in Japan—but it’s only 4pm on November 11 back in the states— is one of those abstract concepts. My mind is currently blowing up as I write this.
But I am SOOOOO glad that the space between November 10th and this morning is gone. It was a very arduous journey. Maybe it wasn’t as long and dangerous as Homer’s Odyssey, but it felt as long.
After escaping the baby and scoring a better seat on a nearly empty American flight from SFO to ORD a few hours earlier, my good luck started sputtering out not long after arriving at the gate in ORD. We arrived only a few gates from where our flight was to depart—which was awesome and almost never happens there—and we excitedly sat down to log onto the airport Wi-Fi. With only 30 minutes of free time, I somehow was able to finish the earlier aborted episode of The Walking Dead (hurray)! In fact my 30 minutes ended right as they started the final credits of the show, and that’s when my good luck came to a gasping end.
Our flight was delayed, they announced, as well as another flight at a neighboring gate. One of the two flights—I wasn’t paying attention to which—had suffered an ‘apparent bird strike’ and they were checking it out. They also casually added it was the second bird strike of the day. Awesome.
Regardless of the reason for our lateness, we were delayed only an hour or so past our appointed departure time before they finally got us onto the plane, and hopefully all birds had been shot within the surrounding areas.
I don’t know why people love the bulkhead seats. We fell into the trap and had ‘upgraded’ to them on this flight. While there may be more room to stretch your legs out, you are forced to pull the movie screen out of the side arm rail while balancing your food and drinks on a ridiculously small tray table that comes out of another crevasse in the same arm rail. AND if you’re in the middle of a movie when they bring the food around, you better hope you don’t need the restroom anytime soon. The whole set-up is just not conducive to a comfortable ride, especially when stuck there for 12-14 hours. Besides the requisite balancing acts, the good folks at American provided us with other distractions that included lots of the movies I’ve wanted to see—and many more that I would never watch had I not been trapped at my seat with so many hours to kill. I watched Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Minions, Inside Out, The Gift, Amy, and the beginning of San Andreas. Thankfully, we landed before getting too far into that last one.
Besides the plethora of movies, we were fed three meals. Now I am not that finicky regarding airline food but these three meals were consistently horrible. The biscuits and salads were almost frozen and everything else took the word tasteless to a whole new level. Oh how I longed for the often tasty food options of an international carrier. The only good thing about the flight provisions was that the wine was free. It may have been bad—but at least it was free.
We arrived into a dark and rainy Narita airport many, many, many hours later. Totally disoriented because of the long flight and rainy twilight sky, and feeling the affects of no sleep along with too much processed foods and bad wine, we were dumped unceremoniously into the craziness of this Tokyo airport.
Since my first flight to Japan back in the 80s things have gotten easier. There are now English translations on the signs for one. Following the signs and the swarms of people—who do not share the same concept of personal space as Americans are used to—we shuffled along to the immigration arrival area. The Professor, now a proud carrier of a Japanese Residence Card went one way and I, being the newbie, went another. Clutching my entry card along with my passport and its attached visa, I was pulled out of the main line by the Line Director and asked to stand over to the side. Very quickly a smiling (!) immigration worker came up to me, looked at my paperwork and pulled me over even further to stand directly outside a discreet little office off to the side of the lines of arriving passengers, and asked me to wait. A minute later I was directed inside. The office looked like a tiny interrogation room or a miniature DMV office. The white walls were dirty and scuffed with a very dirty looking white screen pulled down in the corner. There was a scuffed-up long desk area inside the door with three weird looking little machines perched atop its countertop that faced three rows of turquoise blue bench seats. I’m not sure why there were so many seats—maybe groups come in—but there was only one other arriving visitor and two men at the desk when I wandered in with bleary eyes. I was asked to show my paperwork, stick my index fingers into some kind of fingerprint machine and have my picture taken—all part of the steps to making me an official longtime visitor. I can’t imagine how horrible my photo was with my glassy stare and messy looking hair, but luckily they use the attached visa photo for the card and within a couple of minutes, I was issued a laminated residence card. Woohoo! I was now officially allowed to live in Japan for up to a year!
The friendly (!) immigration man who issued my card instructed me to take the card, go downstairs, gather my luggage and show all to the immigration officer upon exiting the baggage claim area. Leaving the well-worn office I moved forward through the swinging gate, past the other short time visitors standing in line, and down the escalator to where The Professor anxiously awaited.
Our suitcases were just coming out as we arrived at the luggage carousel and we grabbed them, quickly going through customs. That was the easy part. After following the signs to exit the area, we emerged into a confusing cacophony of sounds, crowds of people, and desks offering lots of different services. I spied a currency exchange and made a dash for it to exchange a couple hundred USD to Japanese yen. Unlike other countries, we learned the last time that the Japanese airport is really the easiest place to exchange your money and it offers a decent exchange rate.
Finally, with money and luggage ready, The Professor then ran off to buy tickets on the SkyLiner—a bullet train-looking airport train that gets into the city quickly for about $25 pp. Besides this option, there are other train lines available or a limo bus-type option as well. One should definitely do homework before leaving home so the best option can be determined ahead of time. (It’ll mean the difference between getting out of the airport quickly to one’s destination—or rocking in the corner, crying softly soon after deplaning.) Narita is far from the city AND we arrived at rush hour so we opted not to deal with anything that required a road. The train option would take over 40 minutes and we would then need to switch to a local subway.
This brings me to a very important point and why there is another service one may want to contemplate upon arriving at the airport. That service is bag delivery. For a small fee, this company will deliver your bags to your destination the next day at an agreed-upon time. The subway infrastructure in Japan was apparently built before anyone ever learned about escalators or elevators. In other words, one better be able to pack one’s bag up and down multiple flights of stairs—because upon leaving the airport there are only stairs in many of the subway stations. Able to take our bags on escalators to the SkyLiner, after leaving that train we were not so lucky. Knowing now what I didn’t know then, I would have packed appropriately and opted for the bag delivery service (bringing the things I needed with me in one small bag and leaving the rest for next-day delivery would have been priceless).
The SkyLiner train is a great way to leave the airport. The seats are assigned and the car number and seat number are both printed on the ticket. All that is needed is to follow the signs to the escalators and continue on to the correct train track, following along the track to the spot that designates the assigned car number.
We walked down to the spot designated for the number four car and got behind its taped-off area to wait the 30 minutes for the arrival of the train. Announcements are made in English as well as Japanese and the trains are all ON TIME. If the train is scheduled to depart at 615pm, it WILL arrive a minute or two before the assigned time and will leave on time. Score one for Japan.
We got on the train and deposited our bags at the end of the car and walked to our seats. While the train tickets on the train are not checked, they are inserted in the gate upon departing.
A loud chiming announces the stops and we got off at the last one—UENO. Upon exiting this train line, we followed the signs to the local subway lines. For these trains, separate tickets are required and we used The Professor’s already-purchased train cards (these Suica and PASMO cards are refillable and usable for various things like transportation and groceries and are purchased at kiosks in a variety of places throughout the city as well as at the train stations.)
Luckily, The Professor had figured out the trains the month before which was great. By this time, my nerves were frayed and it was all very overwhelming and I was grateful that we didn’t have to stop and figure out the train lines. Transferring to the local subway train we were able to use an elevator to the line. After this initial subway train, however, we transferred to yet another subway line and this is where the hell began. We found ourselves looking at multiple sets of stairs with three 50-pound bags, and three carry-ons containing a total of three laptops. With only the two of us and being severely sleep-deprived, we were faced with a herculean task of hauling them around. And, unlike New York where people will stop and offer bag-carrying assistance, the Japanese do not.
Huffing and puffing we dragged our bags down various sets of stairs, through a relatively crowded train platform onto a relatively crowded commute train, then we transferred to another train after 6 long stops—repeating the aforementioned process. A few stops later we reversed these steps and exited the station (holding the laminated Suica cards over the round sensor at the ticket gates told us we were paid in full). After exiting the train area, we were faced with three or four more short sets of stairs to climb before getting to the street. At this point, I had hit the proverbial wall and told The big and strong Professor that he was going to have to carry all three bags out and possibly me as well. Luckily, he was able to carry the bags up in two trips—albeit huffing and puffing a bit. I helped by dragging myself up the stairs and saving him a third trip.
Exiting the station, we came out to a rather dark four-lane road surrounded by ramen shops and a three-story grocery store. Crossing these four lanes we headed off down a dark , quiet side street towards our new Japanese home. This was not the ambiance I expected in the Shinjuku neighborhood—as it's known for its neon, bars, restaurants and lively goings-on. It was a nice surprise.
After dropping off our bags, and getting my two-second tour of the apartment, we went back to the grocery store, bought some prepared food, returned to eat it, unpacked and fell into bed. GAWD we were tired.