Thomas Wolfe was wrong. Turns out you can go home. Much to our chagrin.
The last few days of our stay in Tokyo were filled with many ‘Last Times’ and ‘One Mores’. We took a final walk along our neighborhood river and through our local zen garden, a final visit to our local tofu shop to buy freshly made tofu from the nice obaasan, and a last grocery-buying trip at our neighborhood store where the clerks greet you happily, then thank you profusely when you leave. It really is nice to be appreciated.
We also spent the days packing and wondering how we were going to get everything home. We had brought too many clothes originally. Having never had to pack for living somewhere for 9 months before, we didn’t know what to bring. I brought clothes for working a job I never looked for. I brought skirts—that I never wear at home—in case I needed to look nice. I brought puffy winter clothes knowing we were going to Sapporo for the snow, but warm weather clothes too. My two weeks of girl-scout training in the fifth grade kicked in when we left home and caused me to think too much. And to pack way too much.
And leaving meant adding to this over-packed disaster. Thankfully, we had not shopped and bought much during our stay. But there was enough. The Professor had added sake and beer bottles, and tea-filled canisters for work gifts along with my collection of strange and wonderful treasures. I had vending machine toys; weird magnets to add to my collection; amazing kitchen gadgets; multiple brochures, maps, and guidebooks I’d picked up along the way; sushi- and Godzilla-themed items; and weird facial masks (snake, snail, bee venom anyone?) to also stuff into the already overstuffed bags.
When we were done, we had four large suitcases weighing over 65 pounds each and four ‘carry-ons’. I use the term carry-on only because they could, in theory, be shoved into the top bin on an airplane. A large airplane. But these carry-ons probably weighed as much as a case of wine or a small farm animal (neither of which is allowed to be shoved into an overhead airplane bin, I’m pretty sure). But thankfully, American Airlines doesn’t weigh carry-ons and we were good, as long as we could somehow get them to the gate without pulling a muscle.
We had what in the olden days would be considered a caravan worth of stuff and would have required pack mules. Since pack mules weren’t an option, we had to resort to other means. And this is another example of where Japan rules. For the equivalent of sixty dollars, an unsuspecting man came to our apartment and carted three of our four 65-pound suitcases to the airport to store for us until we arrived two days later! What a concept! What a country!!
May the good people at Yamato Transport always live blissful lives in thanks for their awesomeness!
The night before departure our family friend, Aki, arrived. He had bravely volunteered for the thankless task of getting us, and our four overweight carry-ons and one checked bag to the airport. Since our flight was leaving at 1AM on Wednesday, he picked us up Tuesday evening. Being cynical Americans we wanted to get to the airport by 8PM in case there were issues with the massive bags we had sent ahead to wait for us. We should have known everything would be fine. We ended up having lots of time to kill after we easily and quickly reclaimed them, but that’s the way it goes.
We arrived before American’s desks were even manned so we checked in at the kiosk and waited for them to arrive. It was quite interesting to watch. Promptly at 10, the designated opening time, all the agents stepped in front of their stations and stood facing us, an announcement was made thanking us for choosing American, they all bowed deeply, then stepped back behind the station and were open for business. Very civilized!
We were traveling in Business (!!) on our trip home, so after checking our baggage monstrosities in with AA, we went through security and headed for the airline’s private lounge where free food and free booze awaited us. It was so nice to get away from the unwashed masses while we waited for our flight. I could truly get used to traveling this way and could easily forget I’m an unwashed mass member. For a couple of hours I was one of the special people and it was fun.
Reluctantly we finally left this oasis of calm and free champagne (that’s right!), and wandered (a tad drunkenly) to the gate. It was time to leave and head back to the hard, dirty, in-your-face-, what-are-you-looking-at life of New York City. Eventually. But first we had San Francisco to help gently transition us back to American life.
On the plane, we nestled into our little pod homes in business, sucked down more glasses of free champagne, pushed the various buttons to choose movies, move the footrest up, then down, then back out, while digging through the free amenity kit. But maybe that was just me. By the time we landed 9-1/2 hours later, my little pod resembled the lower part of the Tenderloin in SF with garbage everywhere. I made the most of my little slice of pod heaven.
Which was a good thing because when we arrived back in the US of A, reality was waiting to give us a good kick in the shins. A quick Reader’s Digest version follows.
We landed in terminal 2, had to deplane dragging our overweight carry-ons, walk down a couple of verrrry long corridors, up a flight with an escalator, up some stairs with NO (!) working escalator, and down another long corridor until we came to customs. (What? No dragons to slay?) I was exhausted by the time I arrived.
But once in the customs area, the Strength and Patience Test didn’t end. They kept moving the lines forcing me to haul my 100 pounds of carry-ons further and further. It was ridiculous. And The Professor had signed up for Global Entry and was long gone.
Finally, I went through the customs desk meet-and-greet, met up with The Professor, gathered up all our bags, dragged them past the next bunch of customs guys, dumped the bags back off, then ran down to terminal 4 to catch the bus that takes passengers to the gate for the flight to SF. We were stressed because boarding time was quickly approaching as we ran through the airport.
We needn’t have worried. American was running late. When we finally boarded, the flight was already late, but we then sat on the plane for 2.5 hours more. We were waiting for the co-pilot who never showed, and it was decided that we all had to deplane. I was sad because we had been in First Class! At least we got to drink champagne and eat snacks the whole time we sat there. It was so much more civilized than economy. I don’t want to have to go back to being an unwashed mass member!
The bad news was it was the last scheduled flight of the evening.
Even worse news was that American did not have a hotel for us or a seat booked for us on the next flight out, or on any flight apparently. We were told to call and book a flight. Oh, but by the way, since they didn’t have it in their system that the flight was cancelled yet, that wasn’t possible either.
We called and booked a rental car instead.
We then gathered up our baggage—all 400 pounds of it—and piled it onto two luggage carts and began running for the Hertz bus. In my zealousness, my luggage cart got off-balance and spilled all over the sidewalk, taking me with it.
We gathered everything back up, and The Professor and I, now wounded with a bruised ribcage and two bruised knees, ran for the already crowded Hertz bus. Guess how popular we were, as we hauled our 500 pounds of luggage onto the bus?
We got to the Hertz rental place, got our car, crammed all 600 pounds of luggage into the Toyota Corolla we were able to snag, and started out of the parking lot. Turned out The Professor’s driver’s license had expired while we were in Japan and though he had renewed it through their website, did not have anything to prove it.
We were instructed to go back to the counter to add my name to the agreement. We went back, parked, and ran into the rental office to find there were lots of other people renting their cars at 2:00AM and we had to wait in line. There were only two windows open. Both of which apparently were dealing with very complicated issues because the customers stood at these windows for many, many, minutes discussing many, many things.
2:30AM saw us leaving the parking lot. And after a pit stop at a Denny’s in some godforsaken place along the 5, we began the long, arduous journey of driving from Southern California to Northern California.
We arrived in SF around 9:00AM.
Though we fell in love with Japan and made lots of wonderful friends, it was nice to be back in America, and especially in SF, and to see family. It was a fast trip of only a few days, but I was able to speak to people in English, listen to English being spoken all around me, and to read many menus and labels—all in English. And I understood most everything.