Travel to Japan, Part 1: Getting there.

07/14/2011

I recently spent two weeks wandering around Japan, visiting a friend in Osaka, and then taking trains around the country to see Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Tokyo. It was quite an adventure for two reasons – first because I don’t speak or read any Japanese, and most Japanese don’t speak much English, and second because I don’t eat seafood, and the Japanese do. A lot of it in fact. More on that later though. Here begins part one of the journey – getting there. Please note I wrote a lot of this while in Japan (usually on a train) in a ‘letter back home’ format, and decided I’d simply repurpose a lot of it for a travel log.

The journey here was long and arduous. Many great men were lost along the way. It turns out that getting to the airport 2 hours before your flight doesn’t really do you any good if nobody is working the check in counter at the airport. DFW is a cold and lonely place at 3am.

The flight to Toronto was mostly uneventful. I was seated next to a man who didn’t say anything until we landed, and then was complaining about Air Canada. He reminded me of Creed from The Office. The Canadians are a strange people. Hopefully we never have them as an enemy, because they seem able to move among us undetected. Turns out that South Park’s portrait of them with flapping heads that disconnect entirely at the jaw is not accurate.

The flight to Tokyo was delayed an hour or so on top of the 4 hour layover, so I got to know every square foot (or “meter”) of Toronto’s Pearson International terminal. I sampled some of the local cuisine, a “hamburger” with “fries.” I think they avoid calling them “french fries” so as not to offend the Quebecois, or maybe it’s just implied in the bilingual menu.

While the ‘change your seat’ diagram on the Air Canada website suggested I would have a whole row to myself on the flight to Tokyo Narita, this was not the case. I was seated next to a window, with a precocious 4 year old named Nathan next to me, along with his mother. I believe they were on their way to Thailand, which I would someday like to visit. However, after 12 hours in a chair, the thought of another 8+ hours of travel made me want to throw open the emergency exit and abandon ship. Or at least book an airline with in-flight wi-fi next time.

Nathan, being 4, and apparently not having a “tiger mom”, had a really hard time sitting still. Before we even backed away from the gate I had him in my lap so he could look out the window. I figured I might as well make friends with the guy who could potentially be screaming and crying for a good portion of the journey. We had many meaningful conversations about “clouds” and “sky” and the the existential idea of travel without the appearance of movement.

In return for my kindness and friendship, however, Nathan came to expect that I would accommodate him in any way he desired. If he wanted to open the window and look outside, he just jumped on top of me to try and do so. After inadvertently showing him that there was a button on the armrest that turned the overhead lights on and off, I was rewarded with a disco light show. I did manage to tame him for a while with what few games I had on my iPad (note to self, download more), but this again seemed to give Nathan the idea that he could play with it whenever he wanted. I was quick to correct this notion while trying to watch The King’s Speech.

Eventually Nathan calmed down and went to sleep, and 30 minutes later we landed and had to wake him up.

I managed to find my way around the Narita airport, kinda. I had several mission objectives – get through immigration and customs without being imprisoned, locate my suitcase, find an ATM to get Yen, exchange my rail pass order for the actual article, and find the hotel shuttle bus. I managed to escape imprisonment by finding the right combination of “yes/no” answers on the various forms (hint: say “no” to everything), and found my suitcase without issue.

The third line I got into that appeared to be about trains turned out to be the correct one to obtain my rail pass, but after searching all over the second floor I never did find the post office that was supposed to have an ATM. I had $100 in cash on me just in case, so I went ahead and exchanged it at the currency window (which required yet more forms). No sooner had I collected that cash did I find an ATM (though no sign of a post office). Checking my balance in Japanese Yen gave me a bit of an ego boost though – I think I’m a millionaire here. It felt strange to ask the ATM for Y10,000 and be given only a single bill in return. Best not loose that one.

I also managed to find the hotel shuttle bus area without much trouble, though I kept finding buses with my hotel name on them that were seemingly abandoned. I finally found a driver for one who gave me a pick up schedule, and the correct bus arrived right on time. I got checked in to the hotel (which required more forms! And why do they care what my occupation is?), the 3G internet device I ordered was ready for me, and I got settled in to my room about 6:30, around 24 hours and 7500 miles after I began my trip.

In the morning the real journey would begin, in navigating Japan’s rail network across several hundred miles to get to Osaka. Continued in part 2…