October 5th. I awoke at 7am, deliberately, as I had lots of things to do and very little time left. Logs were out of the question at this point, so I merely checked email and shut the system down. I pulled my suitcase out of the closet and completely emptied it, separating the still clean laundry from the worn things, then made a smooth bed out of the interior of it using the clean laundry. I knew there was no way I was fitting everything in there, so I decided, after I’d showered, to go downstairs and ask the desk for a box.
“Do you have any boxes you don’t need?” I asked the otoosan.
“Ah, a box, ne,” he said, then put on some shoes and walked outside. He was gone for a little while in the garage downstairs, then came back up carrying a cardboard box with “Eggs” written on the side in English. It was just the right size – not too small, but not so big that I wouldn’t be able to strap it to my suitcase.
“This is perfect!” I exclaimed, thanked him, and went back to my room. I put every souvenir I had purchased so far, my extra cables, and the toaster into the box, plus the CDs. This was then set stable by used laundry, which would have been a nice deterrent had I put anything in there that was shady by Customs standards. There wasn’t though, so basically it was just extra padding. I was able to take up every inch of room in there, and this gave me lots of space in my suitcase, which I was sure I would need. After closing up the suitcase, and double and triple checking the room, I carried all this nonsense downstairs.
At the front desk, I paid for the room and the one phone call to my host mom, which I had to pay in cash. It was only 10 yen, so it wasn’t much of an issue. I asked if it would be okay to leave my stuff here until noon, and he said it was fine. I used some packing tape from him to seal the box, then put all this in the big first floor tatami room at his request. I considered leaving my backpack, but decided I might need something in it, and it wasn’t worth that possibility to leave it behind. I quickly also filled out a list of the things I needed to buy, then set out into the now-expected rain to do my standard last-minute shopping. As I passed the liquor store near to Sakura Ryokan, I made a mental note to drop by there on the way back. I really wanted to get some Dita, the lychee liqueur, and since they let you bring a decent amount back through customs, duty free, I definitely wanted to nab some.
I rode the subway to Ueno, where I though I might be able to find some of the things I was looking for. Ueno has dozens of stores near the train station, so I assumed this would be a good place to start. I was down to a mere three hours now before my assumed departure time of 12PM to catch a 3:45 flight out of Narita, so I was beginning to feel the pressure. As I exited into the station, I decided to stop into Anderson, the panya there, for one last breakfast. Many things at this point I did without reservation, saying to myself, “oh but it’s the last time!” I picked up a chocolate crème thing that looks like a snail shell and also the closest thing I could find to my cheese bread, which was a melted cheese roll. They wrapped these as always and I walked back into the station, looking for the exit that led to the shopping arcade I remember was across the street from the station. I took a random exit out of the station, but went right back inside as soon as I realized I wasn’t in the right place.
I really had no clue at this point, and when I saw a Starbucks near the panya, I gave in. I walked inside and got a grande latte. As the girl handed me my coffee, she told me to take care. At first I thought she’d somehow sensed my impending departure, but it quickly struck me that she was referring to the temperature of the coffee. I took a seat at the first empty table I could find and chowed my breakfast. The cheese roll wasn’t even close to what I really wanted.
When I’d finished the bread items, I picked up my coffee, cleaned up my tray, and set back out into the shopping area of Ueno to try and find the correct exit. The area is very upscale and most of the stores are classy and look expensive. There are a number of places that sell other country paraphernalia, like Mexican and Jamaican items. Of course none of these were useful as a souvenir, I mean, who would want a Mexican rug purchased in Japan for 10 times the cost? I went out another exit from the station, and this time immediately recognized my location. I noticed the 100 yen store and the movie theater across the street, so that meant the arcade was just down the road to the left. As I walked, under the cover of the station’s overhang, I could see it appear across the main thoroughfare around the bend. I sipped on my coffee and waited for the light to change beside some big concrete pillars.
I took a glance behind me and noticed that people were lined up about 15 feet to my rear, strangely. It suddenly became apparent that the place I was waiting in was between two lanes of traffic! I hadn’t noticed and wandered inside. Oh well, nothing really to do about it now, so I just finished the time out in that space. When the light changed, though, I was relieved to see several other Japanese people had done the same thing behind some of the other pillars.
I entered the shopping arcade, but up close to the station, it’s all seafood. While this is pretty and neat, none of it was going to make it back on a multiple hour plane ride, much less get through customs! I continued on, taking a gander in different stores for anything of interest. Most of the items here, however, are western clothes (I was looking for silly English stuff) that are terrifyingly overpriced. We’re talking 5000 yen (about 50 dollars) for a *t-shirt*. Nothing was that funny. I searched high and low, noticing 15000 yen jeans, and a store of hip-hop clothes owned by I think a group of Jamaican natives, based on their conversations with one another. One store had a sign “T-Shirts, American Made” but they most certainly were not made in the US, or at least not by anyone who spoke remotely decent English. Not a single thing in any of these stores was worth the money they were asking, so while there were many, many more to check out, I decided it wasn’t worth the effort. I started to walk back to the station. I did find a store that had a sign – T-Shirt 1000 yen – but as I walked inside, a woman called out, “excuse me,” then showed me a cross with her fingers. They weren’t open yet. I looked at my watch – it was ten-thirty. I noticed a sign on a department store stating they’d be open at eleven. I guess the clothing stores around here open at that time, but nobody bothered to say anything to me while I had been looking. I could see the station back across the street, and as the stress was mounting, I decided to go to Akihabara. I crossed, bought a ticket inside the station, and rode the Yamanote-sen one stop to Akihabara.
I knew I needed the exit for Electric Town, but for some reason, at the area where I’d exited the train, this was a very difficult thing to get to. I followed the signs, but kept ended up on the side closest to the Showa-dori exit. I couldn’t understand why this kept happening. After a few attempts, I managed to locate the correct exit, and took the stairs down to it. As I walked, I remembered something Ken had said. While Akihabara for years has been known as Electric Town due to the high concentration of electronics stores, it has earned a new name in recent years: Anime Town. Apparently so many anime, manga, and model shops have appeared in Akihabara as of late, what it’s been known for historically has begun to change.
One of the items I was looking for was an airplane adapter for my headphones; I’d bought one in Houston for an excessive sum of money, and of course, I’d lost it. I was pretty certain I’d be able to find one at the airport, but here I was in one of the finest areas of the world in which to purchase electronics, so it couldn’t hurt to look. I tried in a place or two, but was unable to locate it, so I decide to go into Laox as they have a huge duty free shop where I could get some items I wanted.
Laox’s duty free shop is a mixed blessing; while there are some good deals and some useful things to buy, the majority of it is filled with the chintzy, shiny plastic crap that every country tries to pass off as souvenirs. They choose a random stereotypical cultural item, render it in molded polyurethane or black velvet, and then sell it to unsuspecting tourists who take them home by the truckload to give to their friends and family while saying, “look what I got you in Japan!” The sheer fact that I was in this store gave me a feeling like I was a sell-out, and I should have done a better job trying to find “real” stuff instead of shopping at a place where they sell ten varieties of t-shirts with “Japan” and a random kanji printed on them. Like I said, however, there are some good things to purchase here – it’s all in knowing what to look for.
Time was growing short, so I raced through the place picking through what was real and what was Made in China and stamped with some random Japanese text no doubt chosen through the scientific method of dart board and blindfold. I was pleased with what I did buy, however, and since the total well exceeded 10000 yen, I was able to buy it without the 5% consumption tax they normally charge. It’s a decent amount of paperwork, however, which they staple to your passport. I was particularly happy to buy myself a ceramic knife, which I’ve been wanting to own for a while.The salesman, who was not Japanese, wrapped everything up for me in a big, double-bagged, handled sack, which he then covered with a big plastic sheath. A rain coat for my shopping bag. Excellent.
I shot downstairs noticing the severe lack of time on my watch. There were still two places I wanted to go. I took a right out of Laox and walked to the closest corner so I could cross back to the station exit area. The light was just about to change, so the pedestrian sign was blinking green, signaling it was about to turn red. I picked up the pace and ran into the street to try and beat the light. A white car approached me, apparently having turned left from the street just to the right (this is a 5-way intersection) and after some hesitation, decided to stop. I had frozen, briefly, as I was uncertain whether the car would barrel into me or not. I started a run in the original direction once more and looked right.
In the lane beside this car, someone had unexpectedly, and until now, imperceptibly jumped the green light and was approaching me at a very high rate of speed. I could see out of the corner of my eye that the pedestrian sign was still blinking green, although at the rate of bullet-time slow motion the world had suddenly become, this appeared to be extremely slow paced. I could see the auto flying at me and my brain did a calculation. At the current rate I was sprinting across the street, where would I end up by the time this high-velocity vehicle crossed my path. The crosswalk sign blinked one last time and I could see the green fade out and the red warning fade in to replace it. The calculations were taking a very long time, and my eyes blinked once while staring at the license plate of the approaching car, which by now was just about upon me. He wasn’t going to stop or slow down. No way. Due to his lack of reduction of speed, the calculations were botched, and the error message came back to present itself to me.
“You’re going to die”, it said.
My legs, hearing this news, did a quick shuffle in place and reversed course as fast as they were capable of doing. However, one thing no part of my calculations had taken into account was the *original* car, who, initially, was willing to wait for the stupid foreigner who was obviously in too much of a hurry for his own good. This car was a polite car when I’d first passed, but it since then had resumed its course, and, due to a sudden reversal of direction of the body for which it had paused previously, had to come to a screeching halt on the wet pavement. The grille of this automobile became a grimacing set of teeth which gritted themselves at me while I hysterically flailed myself back to the sidewalk from whence I’d originated. The dinky, meeping sound of the horn shouted at me, like some annoying mosquito which had lodged itself in my ear canal. I tripped as I caught my foot on the curb, but managed to return myself to an upright position. I turned around and watched as the traffic resumed its normal pace past this corner. I straightened my back, let my hands rest at my sides, breathed a huge sigh to cover my heavy breathing, and lifted my chin slightly as if to say to the horrified Japanese around me who had witnessed the entire event:
I meant to do that.
When the light subsequently changed once more, I crossed the street at a leisurely pace, pretending nothing had happened. I followed the sidewalk around back towards the station, feeling the stress of the time constraint pressing down on me. I still hadn’t located that adapter, and while they were going to give my headphones on the plane, I preferred to use mine. I tried a few little shops on the ground floor, but no one seemed to have one. One guy listened patiently to me while I explained what I needed, but said he didn’t think he had anything. As I told him that a simple stereo to mono adapter would work fine, he then told me, sheepishly, that he just sold walkie talkies. I looked around me and noticed he was correct; I was surrounded by not one piece of musically-oriented audio equipment. I apologized and continued on into the building above, which I knew contained a few anime stores.
The first one I arrived at was a model shop, and a fantastic one at that. It had everything I could ever want as far as models go, from anime to movies, from Macross to Aliens. They had huge busts of a human with an alien face-hugger attached to it and an incredibly detailed full-size Yoda, complete with light saber. These were really cool, and I wish I’d tried to come here earlier when I’d had more time and less regard for spending money. I was also limited on space, as everything I could purchase from this point forward had to somehow either fit in my suitcase or my backpack. The box was full, and sealed at that. I bought an item or two and walked out to the chorus of “Arigatoo gozaimashita!” that came from the various employees scattered about the store.
Around the corner to the left was a model gun store. It’s illegal to own a gun in Japan, but many people have a fascination with them, not the least of which is Kenichi Sonoda, the author of the Gunsmith Cats manga. Since you can’t own a real one, they make *incredibly* realistic model versions of them, many of which shoot small plastic pellets. I guess here there’s not much of a chance of mistaking one for a real gun, as the chances of you, not being in the mafia, actually having one are slim. They don’t try and make them look pink like they do in the U.S., where it’s entirely probably an 11 year old will pull a Glock out of his back pocket. This store also sold various porn star and girl idol fan memorabilia, which of course makes *perfect* sense.
I tried the next floor up, and was happy to find K-Books, which I’d thought had originally been in the location of that first model shop and had closed. It hadn’t. This is a great place to find a number of fun models and anime stuff for very, very cheap prices. It took great effort not to spend a good deal of money here. The space thing was really starting to be a problem. I took one last gander in a DVD shop for Shall We Dance?, but they seemed to only sell anime and foreign movies. At this point my eyes nearly popped out of my head. I had looked at my watch, and it was already past noon. CRAP!
I practically sprinted down the stairs and stopped only to buy a monaural adapter from a random store I happened to find. The store clerk was unhelpful and insisted they didn’t have anything like what I was looking for. Naturally I managed to find one. I decided to just go straight to the subway on the opposite side of the JR station, as this would save me a little time; money wasn’t really an object here. However, it dawned on my that the entrance was difficult to get to, since I no longer had a rail pass. I walked as quickly as my feet would carry me around the station, past a few adult toy shops, and into the subway entrance. I rode this the three stops to Iriya, and then practically ran up the stairs out of the station. On the way back to Sakura, I was happy to discover Dita in that liquor store as I’d expected. I bought two bottles, and wondered how the hell I was going to pack them and keep them intact all the way home.
I threw my shoes of at the top of the stairs; it was now 12:20, and I still had to get a cab and pack my bag up. I asked the otoosan for one last favor, that he would call me a cab. He said it wasn’t a problem and immediately got on the phone while I worked on fitting all the various things I’d just purchased into my suitcase. I’m really good at packing, and I was able to fit everything securely and safely outside of one of the bottles of Dita. I slid this into my backpack, which still had some room. Meanwhile I overheard the otoosan calling cab company after cab company, but he didn’t seem to be having any luck. He and his wife started talking, mentioning words like “difficult” (muzukashii) and “really bad” (taihen). It didn’t take a Japanese degree to realize what was happening; it was lunchtime, and due to the rain, getting a cab was next to impossible. I started calculating how much time it would take me to race back to the subway, carry all my crap down, and then get it all the way back to Tokyo Station and the Narita Express, which was two train changes away. Argh.
The okaasan asked me, “you have a rail pass, right?” to which I told her I no longer had one, it already expired. “In that case,” she informed me, “you should take the Keisei Skyliner. It leaves from Ueno, it’s fast, and it’s cheaper.” The otoosan agreed that it was better, and insisted it was very fast. He then, in what I considered at the time to be one of the greatest acts of kindness I’d ever received, offered to drive me to Ueno personally so I could catch the train.
“Really? You will do that?” I asked in disbelief, and he told me he it wasn’t a problem.
“I have a car, and I never drive it anyway,” he said, smiling. I pulled my things into the entryway and used the strap from my camera bag to lash the box to the top of my suitcase. That thing has come in very handy! He had suddenly received a call, and was chatting it up with someone, though, and I wondered when he would be ready to leave. The okaasan noticed that I was a little nervous and asked if I had very much time left. I didn’t. She grabbed the keys and pulled the car out so I could load up. I lugged the entire suitcase-box combination down the stairs, after putting my shoes back on, and loaded it into the back of the blue Volkswagen Golf that they own. The otoosan came racing down the stairs a moment later, and hopped in the car with me. I thanked the okaasan profusely, then closed the door and we were off.
The otoosan started up a conversation about my trip, noting how I always come back and stay at Sakura, which I do. He asked where I came from, what I did for a living, and commented on how good my Japanese was. I’d had this conversation with him a number of times, but like I said, he sees a lot of foreigners. I was also happy to hear the question about how long I’d lived in Japan, since this always indicated my Japanese is good enough to pass for someone who’s lived there a long time. They’re always surprised by my answer. We arrived at Ueno a brief few minutes later, and he drove my in a covered garage-like loading zone. I ducked out of the car, pulled my suitcase out and bowed incessantly, thanking him over and over. “You’ve really saved me!” I told him, and he waved it off. He thanked me for coming, and we said goodbye. I re-lashed the box to the suitcase and entered into the Keisei Ueno station, while he drove off. Until next time, I thought.
I followed the signs in the station for the Keisei Skyliner, which are all written in English. This is the dedicated line that goes to the airport, but I’d never ridden it before. I was a little nervous about this, not knowing exactly where to go and where I’d end up with so little time left. A directional marker led me to a big area which obviously had a gate, but I wasn’t sure where to get tickets. I located what appeared to be a travel agency, and assumed that was as close as I could get. Inside, nobody seemed interested in helping me, as they were all cleaning up or talking on the phone. Finally I got a woman’s attention, and told her I wanted to ride the Skyliner to Narita.
“Narita Kuukoo desu ne,” she verified, and I nodded, indicating I did want to go to the airport. I’d find out later that the train stops in Narita the city as well, but she surmised correctly through the suitcase and backpack that I was about to fly out. The ticket was only 1980 yen, less than half of the cost of a ticket on the Narita Express. The people at Sakura were right; the Skyliner is in fact more convenient and cheaper if you don’t have a rail pass. The train wasn’t going to leave until 1:20 though, and I was surprised She asked if it was okay, and of course I didn’t have a choice. I realized a little later that was as close as I could have cut it anyway; the previous train was at 12:20, and it was already 1. I calculated in my head that I would have about an hour and a half before my flight, which was really short. Nothing could be done about it though. I’d piddled around in Akihabara too long, and hopefully I would be okay. I wasn’t so much worried about getting on the flight as getting a row with a power port again. My batteries were charged, so I’d have a good five to six hours with my laptop, but I didn’t want to have to worry about it.
I stopped into a kiosk, picking up a couple of coffees I didn’t have the cans to. More food for my collection. I kept checking the board for the correct train number and platform, but realized a moment later after seeing a sign that they Skyliner always leaves from track 2. I put my ticket through the abnormally wide entrance gate (for suitcases) and went down the escalator to the track. I sent Yuriko a text message to say goodbye, saying I was in the process of leaving. She would be at work, no doubt, so I didn’t expect that she’d get a chance to reply. I made one final purchase of a Nestle Melon Soda from the vending machine nearby, then boarded the train when the doors opened. It’s not quite as swanky as the Narita Express, but it’s not any worse than any of the trains I’d ridden north of Misawa. It’s all reserved seating, too. There’s a convenient chart of the back of the train indicating which terminal you should get off at when you arrive at the airport.
The train left on time, as always, and took pretty much exactly an hour. It arrived at Narita Terminal 2, and I yanked my stuff off the train and walked, quickly, towards the exit gate. You have to show your passport to get in, but it’s a pretty quick process. There are spaces for luggage searches, but nobody seemed to be getting stopped. I followed the signs towards the check-in area, which was on the third floor; I was in the basement. As I passed the JR office where you trade in your rail pass voucher I snapped a picture for posterity. This is also where I should have asked for the English train schedule, but didn’t. I was in too much of a hurry now, and I didn’t need it anymore. Next time, maybe I’ll remember.
I saw an escalator which pointed to the check in area and got on it, going up. This was The World’s Slowest Escalator. I guess because they’re designed to also carry the smart carts for luggage they have everywhere, they make them run extra slow. I could have jumped to the next floor faster. I had to ride five of these super slow transit devices, as one of the floors was in fact split halfway. As I exited into the check in area, I was filled with awe.
This was indeed Narita Airport, one of the largest, if not the largest airport in the entire world. This room spans for what seems like forever, and I was right in the middle. Dozens of check in sections exist, one for each of the 50+ airlines that fly into, out of, and through Japan. I had no idea where Continental was, and I checked a map. Outside of “Foreign Carriers” being to the right, I still wasn’t clear on where it could be. If I made a mistake, I could be walking for 30 minutes in the wrong direction. Fortunately for me, I chose correctly, and Continental happened to be practically right in front of me.
This didn’t change the fact that the line leading up to the 14 check-in windows was about a mile long. “I’m so screwed,” I said to myself, and ran to the back of the massive line. There were literally three to four hundred people in front of me, and that was only as far as the luggage scanner. There were hundreds more already past that point, waiting in line for a window. I was down to a mere hour and fifteen minutes until departure, so this was really cutting it close. The line moved relatively quickly, surprisingly, and I had to show my passport to a woman to continue waiting in line. My phone beeped at me; Yuriko had sent me a message asking if I was going back to Texas. I wrote back (I had the time) and told her I was at Narita. A moment later it rang, and Yuriko was calling. I clenched my eyes shut hoping I had enough time left on my phone to actually talk. We chatted for just a moment, and she thanked me for coming once more. I told her when my plane was leaving, and that we’d see each other again soon. I also said I’d email her when I got home. We said goodbye, and I hung up, I’m sure a few pennies away from being completely out of time. I half expected another message from Vodaphone, but didn’t get one. As I shuffled forward a big sign informed everyone flying on C06 to Houston that the plane was delayed, and it was now departing at 5:20. I was no longer worried about time, just the power port. I sent Stephanie an email from my phone to let her know, hoping she’d get it okay.
A lot sooner than I could have expected they passed my bag and box through the really cool scanner, which seemed to show the contents in 3-D! When they came out the other side, they put a sticker across the zipper of the suitcase and the lid of the box to show that it was checked, then I took these and picked a random line down the far end. There were a number of loud, annoying American guys in the line next to me, and they had, I swear, four bags each. They were all discussing various things about where they were going next and where their buddies were. They seemed to keep losing them somehow.
As each passenger checked in, the ticket counter person would weigh each bag, tag them, then move them just behind where they were sitting. Two middle-aged guys were walking around and carrying these back past the waiting lines to a cart where they were stacked for delivery to the planes. “That doesn’t seem very efficient,” I said to myself, as they guys carried the endless bags from the Americans to the cart, mumbling how heavy they were each time they passed. I was able finally to check in, and the woman was able to seat me in a row with a power port, although she only had middle seats left. I didn’t care, so long as I could plug in. She also told me the flight was delayed and that I was going to miss my connecting flight back to Austin. She asked if it was okay if she put me on another flight, which I thought was an odd question. “Nah, I’ll just stay in Houston,” I wanted to say sarcastically, but I didn’t think it was going to translate. I received my boarding passes, and she put a “Heavy” and “fragile” sticker on the suitcase and box, respectively. I thanked her and walked out of the exit. When I looked back, the check-in gate had nearly completely cleared out, surprisingly; they’d managed to go through all those people in a mere thirty minutes. Amazing.
I decided to go find some food, but first stopped into an electronics store they had on the second level for that adapter, which of course they had. At least the one I bought in Akihabara wasn’t expensive. They have many restaurants upstairs which serve all sorts of food ranging from pizza, sushi, Japanese food, Chinese food, to an English Pub and even McDonalds. Intermixed with all these places are souvenir shops, duty free shops, which still sell electronics, in case you missed them in Akihabara, fruit stands, book stores and business attire places, all of which were teeming with people. I compared different menus trying to find exactly what I wanted, which was basically that curry/ramen combo I’d had in Hachinohe with Gene. During my search, I was happy to see a crepe place, and put that on my list of to-dos for dessert.
The closest I could find was a curry/soba set, and since I’d not had soba yet this time in Japan, which is what I usually eat often, I thought it was a good final meal. I was seated in short order and made my request for the set. Two girls sat beside me commenting on how good their udon was, and in front of me were six Japanese guys who were most certainly on my flight. They mentioned Houston and how it was in Texas, and I wanted to speak up. They were a little far for conversation, though. My food arrived a moment later, and it was pretty tasty. Not exactly what I wanted, and the curry was a little on the bland side, but outside of that was a good final meal in Japan. I finished my food, went to the front to pay, then headed to get a crepe.
Unfortunately they didn’t have my peechi-nama-kureemu, so I decided on a strawberry custard crème one, which also looked yummy. A girl was standing in front of me, and looked up, so I ordered. She apologized and pointed at the cash register, which was currently serving up a pair of foreigners. I bowed and waited in line. I didn’t feel bad anymore when I saw a Japanese woman do the same thing a moment later. I ordered my crepe, and when they got around to fulfilling it, the cash register had messed up, and they didn’t know what I’d ordered anymore. The first girl I’d talked to politely asked what I’d paid for, and I told her, surprised she didn’t remember as it had only been a minute or so. She giggled and handed over my freshly made strawberry and custard crepe. I ate this slowly, savoring each bite as I examined “The Dog” merchandise at the store behind me, which I’d not really seen much of in Japan this trip.
They had a few pug keychains, so I took some to the counter to pay. She told me the amount, and when I paid, I accidentally gave her a 1 yen instead of one of the hundreds. I realized my mistake when she called out the total amount, not seeming to notice it was 99 yen short and seemed about to give me change. I replaced the one yen with a hundred coin, and she wrapped up my keychains. I stopped in one more place for some postcards and checked my wallet. I had only one 1000 yen bill left. Uh oh. Normally they always charge an exit tax for everyone passing through Narita, which is usually 2000 yen. I didn’t have it anymore! Ack! I went back down to the check-in level, looking to see if the exit tickets cost the same. I wandered a little, but wasn’t able to find the automated machines I remember from days past. I started to look for an exchange place, annoyed that I’d have to change money this late in the game, but noticed an information booth at which I politely inquired. I explained to the woman about the ticket, but not knowing what it was called, I had a hard time. She got the gist of it though, and told me that the procedure had changed; now this tax was included in the price of the plane ticket.
“You’ve already checked in, right?” she asked and I said I had. “Then you’ve already paid for it.” I thanked her and walked off. This always made more sense to me anyway, and I felt relieved once more. I stopped by the massive electronic board that showed all the flight information, and the status of mine said, “Go to gate”, so I decided to follow instructions. I showed my passport and boarding pass to the security guard, then put my things through the x-ray scanner, which I had no delay at whatsoever. I went through customs once more, again having the brief terror that someone was going to point at my expired date on the main page, but he just scanned the bar code and I was past in moments. One short train ride later towards the gates (which they have at least 99 of) and I had taken a seat by my departure gate, with still a good deal of time left.
I had at least some entertainment; two one year olds were running around with their mothers. Both of these girls were obviously fathered by foreigners, based on their appearance and the fact that both of the mothers spoke English to their daughters. The woman on the right was very attractive, and had dark skin. What was more interesting is that she would switch between English, Japanese, and a *third* language I didn’t recognize when talking to her daughter. This girl had a little cat doll that would meow a little (she called it “meow meow”) then start vibrating and screaming like it was attacking someone. Following the cat’s lead, the little girl would carry the doll around from waiting passenger to waiting passenger, and when it started freaking out, would have it attack the person, typically on the knee. It was cute. She even did it to the big African American man sitting behind them, who broke out in an unexpected grin. The obnoxious Americans were to my left, and I really wondered what they were doing in Japan. At first I thought they were some music group, but eventually determined them to be military, based on the haircuts. At some point, the pretty mother got a phone call from someone, and began yakking it up in that extra language, which to the best of my ability I determined to be Portuguese. It sounded somewhat Spanish-like, but was definitely not Spanish. That was pretty impressive, and as I’m always attracted to women that speak multiple languages, I developed a little crush on her. :)
They finally started boarding at 5:50PM, and I went to hover around the boarding gate, waiting for my row to be called. I noticed a ramen booth, and I was pretty sure they had a ramen/curry set. Drat. After waiting for a while, and being unable to hear the announcements, I realized they never called out rows, just generic coach boarding. I hopped into line and was able to get on the plane. A 777 has three sets of three seats across in coach, so I was right in the middle of the plane this time. I took out the laptop and the hardware I needed for the flight, then put the rest of my backpack into an overheard. I was sandwiched between a Chinese-American woman on my left and a Japanese man on my right, to whom the flight attendants kept speaking English to. He would take a moment to comprehend. The ironic part is that the woman to my left was spoken only Japanese to, even though she spoke English and Chinese, based on what I’d seen her read and eventually write on her laptop. I guess it gets confusing with so many nationalities on board.
The plane eventually departed, and was generally uneventful. I watched Around The World in Eighty Days first, as they gave us a meal almost right after we were in the air. It’s okay, less bad than the reviews led me to believe. I put the TV away, though, and worked on my log file for several hours so I wouldn’t be quite as far behind. I assumed I’d have plenty of time to finish the last three days up. I was pleased to see that my powered laptop outlasted my neighbor’s battery (well duh, it’s plugged in) and my decision to buy the in-flight power cord was vindicated. Two more meals later, I watched the latter 2/3 of The Terminal and wasn’t close to being done with Sunday’s log. The plane was already in American airspace, and we had barely an hour to go. I don’t know why the flight back always seems so short. For some reason I always want more time, which is insane. I had decided to wait for one of my rowmates to get up before I tried to use the bathroom, and at that moment the Japanese guy got up. I walked to the back and waited for a room, but apparently people were taking a nap in there or something. I waited for a good fifteen minutes, but none of the four bathrooms became available. The final, pre-landing meal was arriving, so I gave up and took my seat. They somehow managed to skip me when the beverages came, and I had to call back to the flight attendant to get one. That’s the first time that’s ever happened. I guess each side thought the other was handling me.
We filled out the forms for landing soon after, and were on the ground in Houston in another half hour. I was very tired at this point, having already been up 23 hours by now. I had taken a brief nap very early on in the plane ride, but since food was always coming, movies were playing, and I was working on the computer, so I just never really got the opportunity to sleep any more. By then I needed to stay up anyway; sleeping would have only hurt my chances at getting over jetlag soon. As we exited the plane, they pointed visitors to the US to a horrifyingly long line to the right. Scarier still was that there was a twin to the line across from the Customs entrance. Fortunately, a woman was directing U.S. citizens and permanent residents to a third line, which was virtually non-existent. “It’s good to be a citizen,” I said to myself and hopped in the line.
The initial line just checked out my form, and a man stamped it and circled the “YES” I’d checked about meat products. I had my squid on me, and I was trying to be honest. I’m sure I would hear about it later. As I hadn’t gone to the bathroom on the plane, I was about to burst. Always go on the plane before customs. You can’t once you’re inside, generally, and there’s no way of knowing how long it will be. I went down to baggage claim in the Customs area, in which no pictures or cell phones are allowed. I located a restroom, thankfully, although it was right near the exit, and nowhere near where my bag was. I didn’t care. I passed a man with a drug sniffing dog, and it took all my effort not to bend down to pet it. I’m sure they would have cuffed me on the spot! The dog lived for sniffing bags, and whenever one went past he would strain on his leash to try and sniff it. I was reminded of the episode of Family Guy where Brian becomes a drug dog and gets addicted to cocaine, and I laughed.
My suitcases took forever to arrive; I was afraid they had gotten lost. I put them on a cart and rolled them to the Customs exit where people were getting checked out. The man asked about the meat checkbox, and I pulled out my squid, which he tried to ask me not to, but I beat him to it. “That’s IT?” he asked, annoyed that his curiosity had been peaked by the change in dull procedure only to find out it was something benign. I told him it was and he let me pass. Well that clinches it. Next time I’m not claiming that to be meat. All three times I’ve done it they look at me like I’m insane.
I was able to re-check my luggage and had to go through a security check one last time before I could re-enter the Houston airport. I removed my shoes, as they were asking everyone to, and put them through the conveyor belt x-ray.
“Do you have any coins?” the woman asked and I said I didn’t. I remembered having removed them in Tokyo. I patted my pockets and felt a jingle. Oh yeah, I’d put them back.
“Sorry I guess I lied,” I told her, and dumped out the change into the tray. I cleared the metal detector, nabbed my stuff, and re-laced my shoes before entering back into the Houston main terminal. I wasn’t home yet, but this was a big step in the process. I called my mom as I walked across the airport once more to Terminal E, the newest terminal in George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
I wandered around the main terminal for a bit; I had a good two hours before my flight. I noticed a big difference in Japanese versus American cell phones; my cell phone cut out, twice, while talking to my mom. I had forgotten that cell phones did that! After a while, jetlag was starting to set in, and I could feel myself getting very, very sleepy. While talking to Debbie at work, I decided I needed some coffee to stay awake, and the green and white sign of Starbucks beckoned. ‘Wow, two lattes in the same day,’ I thought, and started towards it. Something occurred to me, however.
“I don’t have any cash!” I complained to Deb. “How am I going to get any coffee?” Indeed, my pockets contained only a few Japanese coins and the 1000 yen bill I had left over from the airport. This seemed like an insurmountable problem, most likely due to the impaired judgment on my part; I was now up to twenty-five hours without sleep. I couldn’t let myself get overly tired, however, and caffeine seemed the only escape from that. My brain tinkered with the issue at hand and it came to me in a flash.
“Oh, wait!” I said to her, excitedly. “This is the U.S… Everyone takes credit cards!” I moved full speed to the Starbucks counter. My mouth began to form the order for a grande latte, but I caught myself as it formed the Japanese version of this phrase. It took a lot of effort to ask for a quad grande latte in English, but it managed to slowly come out. I blissfully whipped out my debit card and paid for the drink, not even having to sign at this establishment. Cool. I told her I’d just come back from Japan and she asked where I was going. “Austin,” I said, and she confided to me she always wanted to move there someday. “You should,” I told her, “it’s a great city.”
I managed to make it the remaining hour and a half by calling various people, and was talking to Megan all the way down the jetway until the cell phone cut out once more. I decided to just shut it off at that point, after sending her a text message apologizing for the shoddy service. As I approached my seat, a pretty flight attendant was sitting in the window seat of my row; I was in the middle. She looked up at me and said hello, to which I responded back, pulled my laptop out of my bag, and put the rest into the overhead. I figured I could work on the captions, but as it turns out, I wouldn’t really have a chanced.
At first it was a choppy conversation, as she had in earplugs, but she eventually removed them and we had a pretty good time talking about movies, Austin, and the fact that she thought I looked like the guy from Office Space, which is why she had said hi in the first place. Her name was Nancy, and she seemed very nice. The plane arrived very, very quickly into Austin Bergstrom, and we got off together and walked down to baggage claim. At this point, I decided I would give her my number, and was cursing myself for having given away my last business card somewhere in Japan. However, just as we reached baggage claim she said to me in a full trot, “Well, Marc, it was nice meeting you, you made the flight go by very fast,” and continued out the door. Not a chance. I shrugged.
I located my friend Stephanie a moment later; I had contacted her in Houston to know when I was getting in, and she was there on time. A few minutes later my bags were in the back of her Prius and we were on our way home. We called Casey to let him know we were on our way there, as he was meeting her for a movie, and was going to bring my pugs to me! Good, good Casey! No driving necessary. Cathryn called me as well, as she was meeting them as well and wondered where Steph was, but everything worked out. We arrived at my house a little while later, and Casey was already waiting out front. He opened the door as we parked in the driveway, and Kira and Mao hopped out of his car and sniffed around the yard.
“Kira… Mao!” I called and they both stopped in their tracks. Their heads popped up and they looked in my direction. At that moment, they turned into little pug homing missiles racing over to me, where they jumped and leapt all over me, licking my hands and face. They missed me! I was so happy to see them, too. At this point I noticed something weird, and I cocked my head while looking at Casey, trying to figure out what it was.
“Holy Mother of God,” I said. Casey had cut off his hair. For as long as I’ve known him, which is close to fifteen years at this point, Casey has had long hair, and has kept it in a ponytail virtually every minute that he’s not in the shower. This was totally unprecedented. He looked weird, but not bad.
Steph and Casey helped my lug my things inside, where I quickly gave them their gifts, then they dashed off to meet Cathryn at the theater. I forced myself to stay awake for another few hours, visiting my next door neighbor, Kathryn, but as I was literally nodding off talking to her, I decided it was time to go home. I finished off and posted the log I’d done on the plane, then practically fell into bed where I was out almost instantly. Even the cats missed me; Ifurita was determined to come into the room when the pugs and I went in, and Tigger also sat outside crying, which she\\\\\\\'s not done in years.
Normally, I wake up at weird times, and that night was no exception. I remember having a weird dream involving the pugs, and having my brain trying to translate things that didn’t need translating and hence become very frustrated. This made it difficult to sleep, and at two I woke up briefly. I went right back to sleep, however, and got up at 6:30 in time to get ready for work.
Well folks, this concludes the Japan portion of the trip. I’ll make another post in a week or so, summing up my thoughts and experiences. The travel log, however, is pretty much complete, and once again, I’m sorry for the wordiness of it all! Thanks for reading.
- Marc, Kira, and Mao