Japan – Day 0: day of flight

[10 September (US)/11 September (Japan)] I began my trip by frantically finishing up my database program (with advanced stop-gap features) for work—that’s right, I was furiously finishing my program the morning of the flight.

[Through a major miracle, the damn thing would actually work while I was gone.]

I picked Brian up an hour later than we planned, thanks to my accursed program; my saving grace was that we had enough wiggle room figured in for me to get away with that. At Andy’s we met Myles and Betsy, who gave us a lift the final leg to PDX. Before that, though, Andy packed, Brian copied plans into the notebook he was bringing, and Betsy played Kirby: Canvas Curse on Andy’s DS.

Our flights, incidentally, were booked with Northwest. When we left for Japan, Northwest’s mechanics were on strike—and there had been news about a handful of their airplane tires blowing out. (Another story featured a Northwest flight that somehow clipped its wing on another plane […].)

We grabbed a bite to eat at a PDX pizza parlor while we waited for our flight. Andy chatted some with a UW professor and (?—my memory’s rusty) grad-student sitting at the bar about the football game playing out on a TV. After eating we hit the restroom, and then discovered that our plane was boarding—so we just walked on. It was easily the most pleasant airport experience I’ve had; that’s saying something, because I haven’t really had a bad experience yet.

On the (full) plane we discovered that we shared row 31 with two friendly gals on the left, a Japanese lady (stuck between Brian and Andy) who didn’t seem to care to interact with us… and the professor and grad student we met in the pizzeria.

In 2000, when I went to Europe, the plane was equipped with three LCD monitors at the front of each section of the plane. This allowed them to give you a graphical depiction of where the plane was and which direction it was going—effectively squashing any kid-like questioning of are we there yet? and how much further?. Time has certainly changed plane travel: the plane we took to Japan had an LCD monitor for every seat, in addition to the three at the front; in the armrest was a controller/remote controller. Using the controller, we could choose to listen to music, watch a variety of on-demand movies, or (the killer feature for the three of us) play Reversi or a trivia game against others aboard the plane.

Brian defeated—there’s no nice way to phrase it—me handily in Reversi; the outcome of trivia matches were much more random, depending on the types of questions asked. At its peak, we were playing trivia against “Hans” and “J” (the professor and grad student) and a handful of others in the plane. Trivia is most entertaining when you can interact with the other contestants, I’d say… so it was nice that most of us were in a row.

A bloody eternity passes. Ten hours later, we’re almost to Japan… but “weather” (the remnants of a typhoon) forces us into a holding pattern for an extra forty minutes.

Our first thought of Japan, as we’re stepping off the plane and looking out windows: This looks like Oregon! (Then the 90% humidity hit us.)

One customs official making sure Andy’s bag doesn’t have false walls later, and we’re free to roam in Narita. Our first order of business was to call the hotel and let them know that we’ll be a bit late; Brian exchanges some money and then enters into epic battle against the NTT phone. (Turns out that the Tokyo area code is “03,” not “003” or “3.”) We then pick up our two-week Japan Rail Pass—which gives us free access to all JR lines (handy!)—and hop on the Narita Express for Tokyo-eki. [Japanese lesson: eki ~ station.]

The Narita Non-Express failed to impress us. Andy started questioning why our train was stopped for extended periods of time; the Japanese businessman who had the misfortune of being seated with the three gaijin promptly fell asleep.

Tokyo-eki (as was Narita, and as would be every train station) had bilingual Japanese/English signs, and so was quite easy to navigate. We made our way from the top-secret ultra-underground base where the Narita (non-)Express stopped, up to ground level and the famed Yamanote line. [Incidentally, as far as we’re concerned: “Yamanote green” is a legitimate name for a color.] We hopped the Yamanote for Ikebukuro, where our first hotel—the Crowne Plaza Metropolitan—was located.

The Yamanote was decently packed, and we found ourselves standing in the center of the car with our bags. The experience reminded me quite a bit of London’s Underground, though I recall (perhaps erroneously) a decent number of the seats on the English trains were oriented front-to-back, whereas almost all of the Japanese seats were on the sides of the car oriented left-right. [The reason for the Japanese arrangement, we’d note later, was that the seats get folded up during rush-hour so they can cram that many more people in each car.]

Our hotel has a swank front desk area, and a handful of expensive restaurants located on the lower floors. The bellboy shows us to our room*, which uses magnetic insert-and-remove cards for the door, and we crash fiercely. Our room is on the 24th floor, however, so we end up having a pretty good view of the city (this shot was taken later, during the day; we arrived sometime around 8:00 pm, and so were actually greeted with city lights):

That’s right: city all the way to the horizon.

[* One of the neater things about Japan is that good service is a basic expectation, and not something that is rare and needs to be rewarded. In other words, the service is almost always a cut above—and you never tip for it.]


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