Northwest Airlines Flight #10, Approx. 1,410 Miles East of Tokyo
My strategy of deliberate and complete exhaustion was at least partially successful. Although I had to suck down two NyQuil pills to get things going, I did manage to sleep for at least half the flight from Singapore.
Now, checkout from the hotel was as messy as expected (the Grand Hyatt does not get high marks in any category, it appears), but thanks to a lead-footed van driver we got to the airport on schedule. After checking in our supply trunks (a fee of SG$666 creepy), I had enough time to stop by the internet station and check my e-mail.
My objective? To recover a three sentence e-mail from William, who'd written after reading about my incarceration at Narita last week. He told me how to get out of the place, and left his Tokyo phone number. And that little note saved me a lifetime's worth of commuter agony.
(I'd already had an awful past misadventure at Narita, an escape attempt that was a resounding failure.)
With William's note in my pocket, Sharon (once again unfortunate enough to be my traveling companion) and I boarded, got to our seats, and promptly passed out for most of the six-hour leg to from Singapore to Tokyo.
Upon landing, we groggily disembarked, followed the herd down a few long airport hallways, and then at the critical moment followed the sign that said "Arrivals," not "Connecting." Just as William had advised.
The next thing we knew, were were at immigration. One form later, and we were through and at custom's. One bag search later, and we were in Japan.
"I'm in Japan," I said in wonder, looking at the stamp in my passport. "And all I had to do was go right instead of left."
We emerged in the main terminal and headed straight for the tourism counter to grab a map. Sharon studied it while I gave William a call. Unfortunately he was out (I always loved his bi-lingual answering machine recordings), but I left a rambling and hopefully thankful message.
"Let's go to Shinjuku," she said. We pored over the map and the spaghetti of multicolor lines that was the train system. "Hmm," I said.
I went back to the counter. "How do I get here," I asked.
"How long do you have," the woman asked, in remarkably good English.
"It takes three hours to Tokyo," she said, apologetically. "How about Narita?" She pulled out a map clearly designed for folks like me, and highlighted a street and a couple of landmarks.
"Sounds good," I said. "Thanks!"
And we were off.
We headed down to the train station under the airport to catch the Keisei line. And surprisingly, I was struck by how little the place did to accommodate English speakers. Even though we were just outside the airport, nearly everything was in Japanese characters. And the little English we found was pretty useless.
I guess I expected, as a stupid American, to be coddled. Most of the other cities I've traveled to so far are fairly easy to navigate thanks to the prevalence of English. But in the train station, Sharon and I probably got the right tickets out of the vending machine purely by chance.
The train squealed in right on schedule, and we sat in the last car next to the engineer's booth. As we launched down the tunnel, the engineer leaned out the window, a little like a doberman in a pickup truck.
Soon we were gliding through the Narita countryside. It was beautiful. Of course moreso than in pictures and movies. When I think of Japan I always see the heart of a city, but I forget how much of it is open and rural. But soon we were in the town of Narita proper, a bustling community whose survival depends in part on the airport... an airport, ironically, the town once fought very, very hard to stop.
We got off at the Narita station, and stepped straight into a small Japanese city. Narrow streets, pedestrians trying to get along with no real sidewalks to speak of, and a huge variety of cute little cars with funky names.
"I'm in Japan!" I said.
And we slowly strolled around, talking (in part about the Japanese side of my family) and window shopping. I practiced my Japanese, asking directions and how much things were, and was struck both by how much Japanese I'd forgotten and retained. We mostly followed the street that would take us to the city's crown jewel: the Naritassan Hongwanji Temple and museum.
I can only guess it was a typical Japanese street, a business district with high tourist traffic. Stores of all variety, restaurants, cafés and bookstores, all crammed in tight, next to and on top of each other.
Eventually we got to the temple, and wandered through the gates. The temple was built on a steep hillside, with steep steps from terrace to terrace. The grounds were beautiful. We climbed steps, rested, admired, and climbed another set of steps, rested, and admired.
(We were on this tour with all our carry-on luggage, including a laptop for each of us.)
Finally we reached the temple proper, and slipped off our shoes and quietly slipped in. They were in the middle of a ceremony. It was strangely like, but definitely unlike, the ceremonies I'm used to at my family's temple in Waipahu.
I recognized some of the sutras, and some of the basic protocol, but a few things were new to me, not the least of which being some sort of ritual where the minister blessed the handbags of all the women in the room.
There was also a big fire near the altar, and a lot more drumming. Big thunderous drums. It was very stirring.
When the ceremony ended, we wandered out and up one last set of steps, this one leading to a small, gray, enchantingly serene garden. We collapsed in a heap on a small bench, and just sat.
And sat, and sat. And admired the turning leaves around us, the cold winter air, the sounds of birds, crickets, falling water (and the occasional distant commercial jet). I closed my eyes, and quite possibly fell asleep while trying to absorb the scene around me.
"Something to think about during takeoff," I told Sharon as we left.
We walked back down and out onto the street, and headed the way we came. Our stomachs started growling, and we picked a small hole-in-the-wall Japanese restaurant (based in part on the quaility of plastic food replicas outside).
It was a family joint, and a grandmother and child were playing as we entered. They quickly disappeared and we were greeted and seated. The place was empty except for us.
We both had a "sumo box lunch" (as the not-quite-fluent server explained in broken English) and of course some scalding hot tea. We sighed and enjoyed our food in silence tempura, rice, shredded radish, a small salad, sashimi, miso soup (remarkably rich, with almost sweet mushrooms). Not much, but elegantly prepared, and somehow worth the ¥100.
"This," I said, "definitely beats an ugly airport terminal."
When we got up to leave, we guessed that it was customary to tip, but apparently guessed wrong. Fortunately the hostess accepted graciously. We headed out just as the sun was going down, and the air was turning brisk and cold.
We stopped in assorted stores as we made our way back to the train station. One, equivalent to a 7-11, featured such fine household products as "What a Good Towel This Is!" and "Pocket Wetty."
We got back to the station right when we expected to, at 5:30 p.m., and bought our tickets back to the airport like a couple of pros. We caught (I think) the same train on which we'd come into Narita, and it basically completed a closed circuit bringing us back to the terminal.
The only thing that didn't work out, schedule wise, turned out to be our plane. Upon navigating through customs (an experience not as horrific as it was made out to be) and back to the gate, we discovered our departure was delayed by 45 minutes for emergency maintenance.
Immediately my flying phobia lurched back into my throat, as I envisioned an overheated jet engine or a loose body panel.
When boarding began, the announcement came: "Now boarding rows 60 and above. Business class passengers please stand by, as mechanics are still working on the seats."
Best case scenario, I figured, was that some "personal video screen" was just malfunctioning. The worst case scenario, whatever it was, would happen in business class. I boarded with the rest of the riff-raff with most of my worries assuaged.
Once again, miraculously, I managed to sleep for almost half the flight. Now I'm snacking on some of Sharon's yogurt-coated pretzels and settling in to watch "Frequency."
This battery will last, maybe, another three minutes. I'll be home in three hours. And, thanks to that wacky dateline, I'll be arriving in Honolulu one hour after I left Singapore.
Re-living a Monday a second time is not anyone's idea of a good time, but I hope to spend most of the rerun in my very own bed.