Sunday, September 22, 2013

Traveling Tails: The Journey to Japan

6:45 AM
Arrived at Grand Rapids airport.
After getting my bags checked, my mom and my sister sat with me for a while by the security line. Nothing terribly poignant was said here; we mostly chatted about the ungodly hour and where they would get coffee after I left. After about half an hour of steeling myself, I forbade them to say anything sweet that would make me cry and said goodbye. I still cried, but only a little. They waited to wave goodbye when I got through security, but I didn’t turn around. With 24 hours of traveling ahead of me, I couldn’t afford to fall apart before it even started.

7:55 AM
Boarded Flight 1: Grand Rapids to Denver
This flight was on a very small, cramped plane with barely enough room to think. I had the window seat, and the person in the aisle seat was a middle aged man who smelled nice (score!). This flight was a little less than three hours and it seemed to last forever.

10:45 AM
Arrived in Denver.
I’ve been in the Denver airport before, so I found my way around pretty easily. My second boarding pass didn’t have a gate assigned yet, but a particularly clever boarding agent gave me the number of the gate she thought it would be. I kicked off my shoes and camped out in the vast section of nearly empty seats.

11:27 AM
I distinctly remember having this thought: “I must be at the right gate; Japanese people are filing in.”

11:45 AM
Boarded Flight 2: Denver to Tokyo.
The plane was gargantuan, with the coach cabin housing rows of nine seats segmented by two aisles. I had an aisle seat in the middle section. The Japanese woman next to me was about 500 years old and—based on how much her traveling companion translated for her—spoke no English.

This flight could have easily been a nightmare (twelve hours stuck on an airplane is never going to be fun), but it was as wonderful as any modern air travel could hope to be. I watched copious amounts of The Big Bang Theory, first by choice, and then because the touch screen on my seat-back computer rebelled and refused to leave the TV comedies. They fed us three whole meals on that flight—which is pretty astounding in and of itself—and they were all actually good! What was great about that is that every time I got really antsy and started to lose my mind from boredom, the flight attendants came through with the cart and gave me something to do with my hands. Well played, United Airlines. Well played. Meanwhile, Milady Methuselah in the next seat openly stared and watched me eat when I chose chopsticks instead of a fork.

Somewhere along this flight, as I was watching us curve up over the Pacific on the plane screen, this quote from The Fellowship of the Ring came unbidden to mind: “If I take one more step, it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.”

2:15 AM (3:15 PM Japan time)
Arrived at Tokyo’s Narita Airport.
Luck was on my side when my flight from Denver pulled into the gate. The guys in front of me were American and—I learned through some skillful eavesdropping—were transferring to a domestic flight like me. I followed them like a bad stalker to immigration, which is where it got a little interesting. Anything more than one flight in a day makes my ears plug up past the point of resolution. Even after using pressurized ear plugs, I could still barely hear upon landing in Tokyo. This made immigration extra-special because I couldn’t hear what the immigration personnel said to me. It was so bad I honestly don’t know if they were speaking English or Japanese. I assume I did what they told me to, because no one tackled me on the way to baggage claim.

Walking off my chilly Denver-Tokyo flight into the non-air conditioned airport was akin to walking into a wall of hot, humid air, and I was a sweaty mess by the time I wrestled a backpack, duffle bag, and two large suitcases through customs. The customs agent did speak English, but the poor man had to repeat himself three or four times before I heard what he wanted me to do. Nevertheless, I got through customs with no problem, managed to get my money changed over, and followed the signs to recheck my baggage for my last flight. I really appreciate Japan’s willingness to cater to people like me and put English on their signs. I was nervous about navigating an international airport, but it couldn’t have been easier.

3:15 AM (4:15 PM Japan time)
Arrived at the gate for my final flight to Nagoya.
I had been awake for about 20 hours when I walked into the smaller wing of the terminal that housed the five or six gates reserved for domestic flights. Between the lack of sleep, the inability to hear, and the general surrealism of airports, I lived this last segment in a sort of dreamlike state. The perfectly-coiffed boarding agents were making announcements in both Japanese and English, but they spoke so quietly I had no idea what they said in either language. I was one of maybe five foreigners in a room of at least 500 people, and I was a sweaty, hearing-impaired mess. America, represent!

Side note: when I took a quick trip to the bathroom, I initially walked into a stall with a Japanese squat toilet and—being the coward that I am—walked right back out. Google it.

When it was time to board, my boarding pass scanned and produced a buzzer instead of a beep, throwing the doll-like boarding agents into a flurry. They rushed around to print me a new one while I imagined half a plane’s-worth of passengers in line behind me standing on their tiptoes to see the troublemaking foreigner. My new boarding pass had the same information as my old one, so I can only assume the Japanese scanner didn’t want to read my American barcodes. #RACISM #FirstWorldProblems

After a quick shuttle out to the plane (where we actually boarded via stairs from the tarmac), we proceeded to sit… and sit… and sit for nearly an hour. I was in the middle seat between two Japanese businessmen, and it was a very long, very silent delay.

6:40 AM (7:40 PM Japan time)
Arrived in Nagoya.
After retrieving my baggage and resolving (futilely, I’m sure) that next time I will pack lighter, I found my new boss and my predecessor/trainer waiting for me. They were lovely and helped me with my luggage, despite the fact that they tried to kill time on the observation deck while waiting for my delayed flight and ended up getting soaked. I was only semi-lucid for the hour-long drive to my new home, but I did my best to hold up my end of the conversation. We drove in the left lane. I was not in Kansas anymore.

8:00 AM (9:00 PM Japan time)
Arrived in Midori.
I dumped my stuff and met my roommate-for-the-next-two-weeks, who is energy incarnate. I thought I was ready to collapse, but my stomach won the argument with my brain and Roomie and Trainer took me out to eat. We took the school car—with permission, of course—and drove to a small, casual place where we were the only foreigners and the menu was entirely in Japanese. I let my companions—who have been in Japan for a combined four years—order for me, and we ate a ridiculous amount of delicious fried things on sticks.

9:23 AM (10:23 PM Japan time)
I collapsed (luckily, in my bed).

All in all, I traveled about 7,000 miles in one day, so there was a lot of space for something to go wrong. However, things went very smoothly and I was very, very lucky.

No comments:

Post a Comment