I’ve retold this story many a time for friends and family alike, but I’ve never written about it here, which feels like a glaring flaw on this blog. This is because, as it was my first experience in Japan, I would say that even though it wasn’t when I moved to Japan, it is certainly important enough to document (at least in my mind anyway). 🙂
So what happened? How did I get there anyway? And what made it my first night so memorable?
To tell the whole story, we have to start back in 2012 or so. I was applying to various programs in an attempt to get a job in Japan or work experience of some kind lined up after college. My mom told me to get my passport renewed, to which I said to her essentially, “Mom, it doesn’t take that long to do that kind of thing. I’ll do it once I’m accepted somewhere.”
To that she said, “No, do it now. I know it takes a long time. I handle this sort of thing at work, so do it.”
I did and it came literally about two weeks later sometime around the November/December time frame in 2012.
Shortly after, it was Christmas and my family had gathered at my Nana’s place. We were all opening presents and I was just happy because I was on vacation from school. I opened every big item up first (because why wouldn’t you?). I was a Senior, graduating soon in 2013 and yet, mostly all I wanted were books, movies, and gift cards to Jo-Ann’s Fabric and Crafts. Those smaller things would satisfy me. Finally, I opened a slightly darker teal colored envelope with the label “Graduation” on it from my mom. She told me this was my Christmas, Birthday and Graduation present from her. I eyed it suspiciously before opening it up to reveal a ticket for a flight to Japan.
I screamed. And I cried. And I hugged my mom, shaking I was so happy.
I’d been studying Japanese for the last 3 years. I’d never been before. I didn’t know what to expect. But I had been dying to go and to see the culture that I’d been learning so much about through the language. I had also just recently taken my first JLPT test and passed. Needless to say, I was excited. And we were going in January of 2013.
So in short, that’s why she told me to renew my Passport. She was bringing me on a work trip and while she worked, I got to run around by myself in Tokyo, Japan (東京, 日本).
From that point on, I had a little less than three weeks (19 days) or so to prepare. I bought a copy of Fodor’s Tokyo guidebook and proceeded to read through all 385 pages, highlighting places that sounded interesting, cool, or unique. For all the studying I had done, I still felt overwhelmed with information (and upon going there, I learned why – there’s so much to do, and I still haven’t seen it all!). I also emailed my professor for advice and wrote down all I could to get ready for my trip, doing my best to become acquainted with maps and public transit systems.
But then the day came!
On January 13th, 2013, we started off on our adventure. The night before, I stayed up literally just about all night, hoping to prepare myself for the abrupt time change and shock that was soon to go through my system. That morning, we made our way to Dulles International Airport and I got to spend time with my Mom in the United Lounge at Dulles as we waited for our flight to board, which, I’m not going to lie, was a pretty sweet place to wait, particularly for a college student. We met my mother’s colleagues closer to boarding time, at which point, we began to line up. Because of my mother’s frequent flier status, we were able to board practically first and lucky us, we weren’t completely stuck by the window. One of us took the middle (my mom) and the other the aisle (we would switch a bit back and forth during the flight).
The flight itself was pretty decent. Though it was long, there were plenty of times when we were able to get up, stretch, walk around, and watch a few TV shows or movies. And even the meals weren’t that bad (I mean, they were flight meals, but that were actually pretty good!). The trouble came at the tail end of the flight.
Like most long flights, they had the map that showed our flight path on a screen in front of our seats, which I followed pretty closely over the 14 hours of the journey. So my excitement rose quiet a bit as we neared the Japanese northern island of Hokkaido (北海道) and it rose even more when we were over the mainland. We were so close to Tokyo! So close, so… why were we turning around?
Seriously, we were turning around. And then back to Tokyo. Then back the other way. Then back to Tokyo. And on and on it went. We ended up going in about 8 circles as our flight waited to receive from Narita International Airport (成田国際空港) the go ahead to land, which was experiencing a nice blizzard down below. It never came. And we were running out of gas. Recognizing this, our flight was redirected to Nagoya (名古屋). Though Nagoya does have an international airport, we must have been directed to land at Nagoya Airfield (名古屋飛行場 or Nagoya Hikoujou) or Komaki Airport (小牧空港), which, since the opening of Chubu Centrair International Airport (中部国際空港 or Chuubu Kokusai Kuuko), had been converted to domestic use planes only. Thus, we were not allowed to leave the plane while the plane refueled since this was an international flight (so yes, we sat there for two more hours on the tarmac).
Finally, we finished refueling, got de-iced (which took another hour), and took off back for Tokyo. By this point, we must have been on the plane for a good 19 or 20 hours. We spent another hour or so flying back to Tokyo, which we circled another three times before finally getting the go ahead from air traffic control to land in Narita, one of Tokyo’s designated airports located in the Chiba prefecture (千葉県) about an hour away from central Tokyo by car. You can imagine the relief we were now all feeling as we touched down after 21 hours of being stuck on the plane. But it wasn’t over yet.
No, now we were stuck on the tarmac for another 2 hours. Why? Because there were no gates open and available for us to disembark. Talk about heinous! So by the end of the journey and by the time we were finally allowed off the plane, we had been stuck in the same seats for, wait for it: 23 HOURS!!! My body hurts just thinking about it. >.<
The flight attendants were so kind and helpful though and expressed their thanks for the understanding and patience of the passengers. In fact, they said that this was the calmest group they’ve ever seen to encounter such a delay. I personally think it was because we were tired, but none the less, we all appreciated the compliment and their service.
We weren’t out of the woods yet though. After debarking, it was a little after 11 PM local time and the blizzard had not let up yet. But even in my tired state, I remember thinking “I’m taking my first steps in Japan.” By this point though, the trains had stopped running, the buses were gone, and even the taxis were nowhere to be seen. I went to the information center and asked in Japanese if they might know of some other way to get to Tokyo so that my mom, her colleagues, and I could make it to our hotel, to which they regretfully informed us that no, they didn’t. But hey, it was my first use of Japanese in Japan with a native speaker, so there was that kind of fun memory.
So now we had been on a plane for 23 hours, but were stuck overnight in Narita Airport. The situation just seemed to get better and better, and yes, that is sarcasm. In any case, we found a couple of spaces on the floor near the doors and began to wait, hoping that a bus or taxi would show. None did, but imagine our surprise when airport workers began to give out water bottles, crackers, sleeping bags, and mini-inflatable air mattresses!! It was so incredibly kind of them. They kept saying what roughly translated to “Excuse us for the circumstances” over and over again. I wanted to tell them not to worry! It wasn’t like they could control the weather. But all I could muster was a polite “Thank you” (ありがとうございます or “Arigatou Gozaimasu”). I was so tired.
So what can one conclude from this part of the story? If you have to sleep overnight in a blizzard in an airport, do it at Narita.
Eventually, we gave up on a taxi and decided to move to level 4 where it was warmer and not so close to the doors. We slept there for about 4 hours before waking around 5 at the first signs of buses arriving downstairs. We shlupped ourselves downstairs, bought our tickets, loaded our suitcases into the bus, and boarded. Onto Tokyo!! It was nearly a two hour drive there, despite it normally only taking an hour, as the snow and ice had caused a major traffic jam.
While most people slept on the bus and I tried to myself, I couldn’t seem to get the hang of it. I was inJapan. My mind, though sleep deprived and exhausted, wanted to see everything. My thoughts kept going through all of the places I wanted to see in Tokyo and I wanted to take in all of the sights on the way there. I remember trying to read all of the signs I could that were in Japanese. I even remember thinking “Wow, there are a lot of hospitals on the way to Tokyo.” as I did so, as in particular, as I saw a lot of signs reading “Byouin” (病院) or “Hospital”. I saw rice paddy fields turn into neighborhoods and neighborhoods turn into crowded markets and markets turn into towers. Finally, we were nearly there in Tokyo.
The closer we got to Tokyo, the worse the traffic got, but eventually we made it to the bus depot where we got a taxi to take us to our hotel, the Courtyard Marriott Tokyo Ginza Hotel in Ginza (銀座). We moved our stuff inside, up to our rooms, and my mother promptly passed out on her bed. I wasn’t about to do that. I put on my best top, my boots, my nicest jeans, and my good coat, before grabbing my purse and heading out on my own into Ginza.
I was in desperate need of sleep, but I didn’t care. I was in Japan and I wasn’t about to waste a second of my time there. I walked up, down, and around Ginza, discovering Depato (デパート) like Mitsukoshi (三越) and Matsuya (松屋) along with their scrumptious Depachika (デパ地下), or downstairs shopping areas, with all manners of delicious yummy foods. When I had exited my hotel, I could see the scaffolding covering the Kabuki-za (歌舞伎座), which at the time was under construction (though I wasn’t quiet sure what it was at that time, I know what it was now). There was a beautiful stationary store Kyukyodo (鳩居堂) that sold everything from stamps and colorful paper to Shodo (書道), or calligraphy, tools.
I also discovered for the first time one of my favorite places “Manneken” (マネケン) a waffle shop with different flavored waffles covered in chocolates, caramels, peanut butter, and so on. They made them in the perfect size so that you could eat them there or save them as a treat for later. All I can say was that they were (and are) amazing.
I learned a lot that day walking around. For one, I realized there was a very different in feel from the Avenue of the Americas in NYC in Tokyo, with a kind of neatness everywhere from the streets and stores to the people themselves. People even avoided walking while eating! And from that realization, came the revelation that there were no trash cans anywhere as well, thus everyone would carry their trash around neatly in their bags until they got home. (It then made sense too why people waited and ate their waffles at Manneken! There was a trash can there!).
It was rather refreshing and fascinating to learn about. At the time, I did feel a little out of place as a young foreigner who had just landed there (literally), being inundated with information that was so different and yet interesting all at once though. But, the thing was, I was alright with that feeling because well, I just couldn’t be brought down from my cloud nine as this was my chance to experience something exciting and new. 🙂
Eventually, I found myself too exhausted and tired to keep going up and down the glass escalators and white staircases, so I returned to my hotel and passed out. I told my mom about the waffles and the stationary store. She would be going to work tomorrow, but I would be starting my first full-day solo adventure out into the great metropolis that was Tokyo.
So… that’s the story. And while I know a lot of this doesn’t sound like it was the best experience and that my first night/day was essentially 48 hours of exhaustion, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was a good day and I knew that I had just begun the adventure of a lifetime. I think when you find a place that you love, next to nothing can dissuade you from that love and adoration. But even more importantly, what this experience taught me was that you get out of something what you put into it. Your attitude is what determines if what happens in your life is positive or negative. And really, I’m very happy that I didn’t let this dissuade me from loving Japan, as because of this signal trip, I was able to experience two wonderful years of my life there, make wonderful friends, and grow as a person in so many ways.
And hey, who else can say they spent their first night in Japan on the floor of Narita Airport? Now THAT’S a story. 😉