March 2010


The observation deck at Narita Airport.

The observation deck at Narita Airport.

We got back to Narita airport several hours before our flight. That gave us all time to spend the last of our yen in the airport shops. A wide variety of shops pre-security are available and we spend an hour or two wandering around them. Eventually we all ended up out at the large observation deck that’s out on the roof of Terminal 1. Narita has two runways but only one, 16R/34L, is used for most arrivals and departures since the other runway is too short to accommodate 747s. The deck runs along the longer runway and provides a nice view of the planes landing. It was a blast watching planes from around the world come and go. Probably half of the planes coming in belonged to Asian airlines like All-Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines, Thai, Cathay Pacific and a few others. Other airlines I saw included most of the US carriers and even an Iran Air plane that was bound either for Beijing or Tehran. A food court is next to the deck, so I picked up some tasty pad thai and plane-spotted for an hour.

The deck is outside security and immigration, so two hours before the flight we left the deck to get through all the security and immigration checks. On the other side, Narita has some beautiful sitting areas with lots of nice artwork and chairs. Like on the flights on the way over, we were fairly certain that we would get on the plane since people don’t normally buy flights at the last minute to the US. We were also hopeful that we would get in the front of the plane as the load in first class was looking very light. Shortly after boarding started, our names were called. And spread out on the gate desk were three gold boarding passes. We had all made into first class!

It turned out that there was only one paying passenger in first, plus a crew rest seat, so we had most of the cabin to

Coach class called. They want their legroom back.

Coach class called. They want their legroom back.

ourselves. The service started with some predeparture champagne and warm nuts, plus a printed dinner menu and amenity kit. The entertainment system is an older on-demand system that uses mini-VCRs and tapes to play movies, so a flight attendant came around with a box of tapes to choose from. After takeoff, the dinner service started with a roll and oyster and quail yakitori. I also chose a glass of Riesling for the meal. For the main course, I went with the “Washoku Zen” option that United offers on their US-Japan flights. It had little bite-sized appetizers like a sushi roll, shrimp and scallop and came with green tea and soba noodles. I would have been happy if that was the meal- but there was more to come. The main dish was sea bass served with mushrooms, rice and pickled vegetables. Quite tasty. And last but not least- there was dessert! Both ice cream and a cheese course were offered. Oh, why not. I had a little of both, even though it was pretty much food overkill at that point. Needless to say, it’s by far the largest meal I’ve had on an airplane, but it was a delightful experience.

So, stuffed silly and feeling sleepy, I headed over to the lav. While I was in there, someone converted my seat into bed mode. Which was fantastic- I was out and dreaming at 30,000ft. in two minutes.

Yours truly, demostrating how to best use a lie-flat seat.

Yours truly, demostrating how to best use a lie-flat seat.

I slept for about 5 hours- I would have slept longer if it wasn’t for minor details like the plane needing to land. I was woken up in time to have some breakfast. I had a rather odd-looking cheese omelet with sausage links and a danish. Nothing amazing, but it was decent.

All too soon, it was time to land. The flight was nearly an hour ahead of schedule- a fact that actually disappointed me as I was having such a nice time.

The service throughout the flight was quite friendly, probably due to both the light load in the cabin and the fact we were non-revs. Flying in international first was a treat after flying economy all my life. The only issue I had with First is that with my friends sitting in the two center seats and me in the window, it was difficult to hear them across the aisle.

After landing, we quickly cleared customs and immigrations and headed over to the Chicago flight. The original plan was that my Chicago friend would fly back to Chicago, and my Tampa friend and I would return to Orlando from San Francisco. Unfortunately, the standby lists were looking ugly for both flights in that there was more standing by then there were seats available. The Orlando flight was looking bad for us, so we considered flying to Chicago together and then going to Orlando from there. When we got to the gate for the Chicago flight, getting on the flight appeared to be a lost cause for all of us. Something like 5 seats were available for 30+ people standing by- and we were near the bottom of the list. It appeared to be a lost cause.

On top of that, someone ran into the gate area yelling for an AED for a person in trouble. The Chicago-bound plane was connected to the jetway at that point, so the crew that was on board came running into the terminal with an AED. It was a vivid reminder that flight crews are trained in far more then just how to serve drinks.

That emergency delayed boarding for the flight, since it’s against regulations for planes to fly without an AED. Finally boarding started. At the end, we were all still sitting there as the gate agent called out names of other standbys. Based on the info screens, all the seats were gone. But just before the jetway door was closed, the gate agent called the name of my Chicago friend. I’ve never seen him move so fast before as he jumped up, dashed to the gate agent and rushed onto the plane. I was happy for him though- he was going home.

Flying into San Francisco. Even with a few circles over the ocean, the flight got in early.

Flying into San Francisco. Even with a few circles over the ocean, the flight got in early.

My other friend and I had a few hours to wait before our flight left. It was the last flight of the day to Orlando, so we would be stuck in San Francisco overnight if we couldn’t get out. The info screens don’t show standby info until about 45 minutes before the flight leaves. Until the info screen updated, I didn’t have any way of know where we fell on the list. So rather then fret about the situation, I called friends, got dinner and just enjoyed watching the planes come and go from the gates.

The moment of reckoning finally came. The standby list popped up. With about 10 people standing by and 15 open seats, it looked good for us getting home. Sure enough, we got boarding passes not long after the boarding process began.

The flight home was nothing to write about. Had to gate-check my bag and sat in a middle seat. I got back to my apartment around 2am on Monday morning. I was tired and sleepy after spending nearly 24 hours straight in airplanes and airports.

Considering that I spent almost as much time in the air as I did in Japan and took the chance of getting stranded somewhere, would I do such a trip again if I had the chance? Absolutely! Getting to visit a country and its people and seeing how they live is an eye-opening experience. Just seeing how their cultural values differ from the US provides insight into how the Japanese think and see the world.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say this trip was a life-changing experience for me, although I’ve acquired a taste for green tea and people now frequently ask me which country I’m running off to next weekend. But it’s trips like this one that are the reason I started this blog in the first place. I want to see the world and have all kinds of fun adventures because it makes life worth living for me.

My friends and I are already talking about the next trip. We have a destination in mind, but just like this trip, I can’t be sure we’ll get there until we’re on the plane. But whatever happens, it’s sure to be an adventure.

On our last day in Japan, we headed over to another shrine. But before we got there, we stopped by the American shrine to coffee- Starbucks! 😉 It was pretty much like most US Starbucks, except that the menu was in Japanese and I paid for my coffee in yen.

The Nakamise-dori

The Nakamisi-dori.

We visited the Asakusa Shrine next. It’s one of the most famous shrines in Tokyo, partly because it survived mostly intact the World War II air raids the US conducted against Tokyo. The shrine has many visually striking features. One is the large lantern marking one entrance to the shrine and the Nakamisi-dori, a street leading into the shrine with many small shops lining it. The shrine also has a beautiful pagoda soaring several stories high. It’s in an urban location instead of being in the middle of the woods like the Meiji Shrine was, so it made for an interesting contrast in both design and the layout of the buildings.

After the shrine, we went to the Tokyo Imperial Museum. Outside of the museum entrance was an answer to a puzzle we had been trying to solve. Throughout the trip we had noticed outside of the buildings racks with numbered holes in them, and sometimes the holes had locks on them. We couldn’t figure out why they were there. At the museum we saw the same thing, but some of the holes had umbrellas in them. Ah-ha, they were umbrella lockers! Instead of handing out plastic umbrella bags like many US stores do, people just leave their umbrella on the rack instead and can lock them up.

Inside the museum was all kinds of Japanese art, some of it dating back several hundred years and marking various points in Japanese history. Many of the pieces were quite pretty- especially the robes and decorative bowls and boxes. I enjoyed looking at the exhibits, but towards the end of our visit, I was really starting to feel the effects of jetlag and sleep deprivation setting in. Besides feeling fatigued, I completely lost my appetite, which was a bummer since there were so many tasty food options around.

The museum was surrounded by another beautiful park area. One statue was devoted to the US president Ulysses S. Grant, who visited Japan while he was President.

Street performers.

Street performers.

We headed back to the hotel one last time to pick up our bags. But on the way back, we ran into some street performers putting on a show involving large drums. I don’t know what the reason was behind the performance- once they were done, they picked up their drums and left. That street happened to be lined with various stores selling all kinds of wares. One store had boxes of plastic model food just like the ones outside of many Japanese restaurants. I’m not the type to bring home lots of souvenirs from trips, but I couldn’t resist picking up a plastic piece of sushi for 200 yen.

After one last walk through Asakusa, we grabbed our bags from the hotel and headed back to Narita to fly home.

Tomorrow’s post- The pleasures and perils of flying standby.

On our first full day in Japan, we wanted to see the Imperial Palace. The palace is the main home of the Emperor of Japan. We stopped by the American-turned-Japanese doughnut chain called Mister Doughnut for some doughnuts.

As we walked to the palace, we ran into some kind of big train festival. It looked like it was for the introduction of a new model of train and a celebration of trains in general.

A samurai statue near the Imperial Palace.

A samurai statue near the Imperial Palace.

The palace is easy to spot- it’s the area with a large moat and wall running around the perimeter. Inside the walls is a large grassy area with walkways and ponds. A 5k race was underway, with runners weaving in and out of the palace gates. Other people were doing yoga or just out for a Sunday morning walk. Unfortunately, most of the palace buildings are closed to the public and are hard to see over the inner moat and wall. Other features in the area include a fountain garden and a statue of a samurai warrior.

After seeing the palace, we headed over to the Roppongi Hills in the Roppongi district. Roppongi Hills is an area of shops, apartments and businesses all located in a group of high-rises. In the Mori tower is an observation deck called Tokyo City View, 52 floors up. It’s higher then Tokyo Tower and provides a spectacular view of Tokyo. I knew the city was large, but I had no idea just how large until I saw it stretch all the way to the horizon. I could see Mt. Fuji peeking out from behind the clouds around its peak.

A teahouse made of tea.

A teahouse made of tea.

Admission to the deck included access to an art museum that had an exhibition of modern Chinese art. The displays included a memorial to the children who died in the Sichuan Province earthquake to a clever sculpture made out of interlocking bicycles to a tea house that was made out of tea.

On the way out, I stopped by the restroom and found my first hi-tech Japanese toilet. The toilet had features like a bidet, heater, dryer and my personal favorite- a button that plays a flushing sound. The reason for the button is that Japanese women do not like others to hear them as they go about their business. So to avoid that problem, they often flush the toilet to cover up the noise. The button does the same thing but saves on water in the process.

Another thing I noticed about the restrooms in Japan is that nearly all of them have both Western sit-style toilets and Eastern-style squat toilets, with the squat ones being more common. The oddest toilet I saw was one I didn’t think was even physically possible- a female urinal! Like its male counterpart, it’s mounted on the wall and it’s out in the open instead of enclosed in a stall. The differences of the one I saw was that it was low to the floor and had a large bowl-like bottom. Presumably it could be used much like a squat toilet, but I didn’t see anyone using it. It was the only one I saw during the trip, so I’m guessing the concept isn’t too popular with other women either.

The Shibuya Scramble

The Shibuya scramble.

The next district we stopped in was Shibuya. It’s famous for its crosswalk near Shibuya Station that stops vehicle traffic in all directions and lets pedestrians cross in every direction, including diagonally across the intersection (also known as a pedestrian scramble). The Japanese are quite strict in following crosswalk signals. I even saw  a crosswalk guard near the palace who would blow a whistle at anyone who ignored the signal.

For lunch, we stopped in a Yoshinoya– a Japanese fast food chain known for its beef bowls. The food was tasty, although I’m not quite sure what the pickled dish was. But that’s half the fun of eating in another country.

We stopped in a park area where folks were out enjoying an afternoon in the park. I saw a lot of swordfighting going on, and lots of little dogs. I don’t know what it is with the Japanese and little dogs, but they were very popular. I only saw one large dog in the park that afternoon. In the park, I realized just how homogeneous the Japanese population is. Almost everyone I’ve seen throughout the trip looked either Japanese or had some kind of Asian background. So I was startled when I saw a black gentlemen hanging out with friends in the park. He was one of the few gaijin– foreigners- I remember seeing outside of the airport.

Colorful characters in Harakru

Colorful characters in Harajuku

Near the park by Harajuku Station is an area famous for “cosplayers”- people dressed up in outfits from anime comics. That day, at least half a dozen people- mostly girls- were dressed up in colorful outfits and just standing around talking to friends. They did get the attention of the crowd who kept looking and taking pictures of them.

Next up was a visit to a Japanese shrine- specifically the Meiji Shrine. The shrine is in a heavily wooded area. The entrance is marked with a torii– gate- leading into the complex. The shrine included barrels of sake donated to the shrine, prayer wheels and many walking paths. In the center is the main part of the shrine and  visitors use a fountain to go through a ceremonial handwashing before entering. The shrine had a large plaza where workers were setting up seats for a play happening later in the evening. Further in was a place to pay homage to the gods. It was a peaceful place to be in. I saw some priests walking about and a mother with her child who were both dressed for some kind of ceremony.

In stark contrast to the calm of the shrine was riding the subway at rush hour. So many people crammed in a small space. And yet, it stayed very organized. Subway employees would hold people back at the entrance to keep the platform from getting overcrowded. The trains stayed right on their very precise schedule. Everyone was so polite in the train even when everyone was jammed in shoulder to shoulder.

Prayer wheels at Meiji Shrine.

Prayer wheels at Meiji Shrine.

We headed to another part of town to see the neon signs at night. We also stopped into a restaurant for dinner and had some tasty tempura. While we were walking around, some guys were handing out packages of tissues that advertised different businesses on them. It really shows just how much the Japanese emphasized cleanliness.

Before heading back to the hotel for the night, we stopped into a hole in the wall place for some yakatori. This was the first place that didn’t have an English menu or any pictures or plastic food models. So we had to rely on our English-Japanese dictionary to figure out the menu. The cook working that night quickly figured out that we didn’t know Japanese and printed out pictures from the restaurant’s website to help us out. Through more gesturing and our limited Japanese vocabulary we managed to order five pork yakatori skewers. When the cook brought out the skewers, he point at each one and then pointed at his cheek, then his heart, then his stomach. We realized then he was indicating which skewer had which pig organ on it. I’m still not sure what all we ate that night, but it was good. We also got to talk to the cook more since it was a slow night and found out that he had been to New York City before. It was one of the most memorable conversations of the trip, language barriers and all.

After feasting on various piggy parts, we called it a night and headed back to the hotel.

Tomorrow- Street performers and what happens when I get jet-lagged.

After clearing customs and immigrations at Narita International Airport, we stopped to get some Yen from an ATM. Finding ATMs that accept international credit/debit cards in Tokyo are difficult to find. Also most stores do not accept credit/debit cards for payment, so it’s best to stock up on the yen think you’ll need for the trip before leaving the airport.

Subway

Waiting for a train in the subway.

Narita is not actually located in Tokyo, but is about 40 miles (65km) from Tokyo. Options to get from the airport to the city include bus, taxi and several rail lines. The two rail options are JR’s Narita Express (NEX) that covers the distance in 53 to 70 minutes, depending on the final destination and time of day. It’s also the most expensive rail option. JR also has a slower Kaisoku Airport Narita line that takes about 90 minutes. Keisei has regular trains that are the cheapest and slowest option. Keisei also has a Skyliner that covers the distance in 51 minutes. We opted for the regular Keisei line that took around 90 minutes.

As the countryside grew into a vibrant cityscape, I watched the sun set on the land of the rising sun- nearly 21 hours after I saw it rise in Orlando. That was the moment I realized that I really had travelled halfway across the world. It still felt so unreal to me.

After the train arrived in Tokyo, we needed to transfer to the subway to get to the hotel. One of my friends had been to Tokyo before and knew how the system worked. Most of the signage is in Japanese, but the ticket machines have an English option. Figuring out the fare is a matter of knowing where you’re starting from and where you’re going to. If we did have the wrong fare, refare machines are at all the exits.

One interesting feature on some trains and subways are the women-only cars. Mostly used during rush hour, they are designed to protect against chikan– groping- usually by men against women. As a female, I didn’t experience any problems while I was there.

Shoe locker

A shoe locker with a pair of slippers inside.

We soon got to the hotel and the gentleman at the desk didn’t speak much English. But it was enough to convey that we had a reservation there. He pointed over at the vending machine in the lobby. I knew Japan was famous for its vending machines, but I never thought I’d be paying for my hotel room that way. After getting the ticket from the machine, the gentleman at the desk gave me a room key.

The lobby had another interesting feature- the shoe lockers. It’s a tradition in most Asian countries to remove your shoes before stepping into a home. All the shoe lockers held a pair of slippers in them. So guests could remove their shoes, wear the slippers and store their shoes until they were ready to leave the hotel.

The hotel room itself had more Japanese features in it. A teapot and hot water heater took the place of a coffeemaker so guest can make ocha– green tea. The pillow was filled with hard rice husks, which sounds uncomfortable, but I slept fine on it.

After dropping off our bags, the three of us hit the streets of Tokyo. My first impression of the city is that I felt like I was back in New York City, except I couldn’t read any of the signs. Tokyo has all the glitz, glitter and people that the Big Apple has.

A tea set in the hotel room

A tea set in the hotel room.

We had worked up quite an appetite after going halfway around the world, so we needed to find a spot where we could grab some dinner. Fortunately we had a lot of places to chose from. Many restaurants in Japan like to set up displays outside with plastic models of the food they serve. Considering that my entire Japanese vocabulary consists of about 4 words, the displays made it much easier to figure out what places were offering.

After looking around a bit, we picked a sushi bar. This bar had a cool feature- a conveyor belt ran around the bar with plates of sushi on it. Guests just reach over and pick up whatever they like off the belt. The food is priced according to what color plate it is on. And if there’s something specific a diner wants, they can ask one of the sushi chefs behind the counter for it. The bar had menus printed on the tea cups that identified the food in both Japanese and English. The bar had some other interesting features, including hot towels (although these are offered in most restaurants in Japan) and hot water taps that are used to make ocha- green tea.

The sushi itself was tasty and quite fresh. It was fun trying different types of fish and squid.

After dinner, we went on the hunt for a karaoke place. We found one just a few blocks away from the sushi bar. My friends and I enjoy doing karaoke in the US, but it’s set up differently in Japan and other Asian countries. Instead of a singer getting up in front of a crowd to sing, groups of people will rent out a private room and sing among themselves. So we walked in and after a bit of gesturing and sign language, we rented a room for an hour or so.

The song list was quite large and was the size of a phone book. Several thousand songs in over half a dozen languages, including Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean and English, were available. It was a fun way to do karoke, especially when one mischievous friend started cuing up Japanese songs to sing. One advantage of this karoke setup is that there’s no long wait for your chance to sing. Another interesting feature is that food can be delivered to the rooms. As we were heading out, I saw one group get a pizza delivery.

Walking through Asakusa.

Walking through Asakusa.

After karaoke, we wandered around a bit just to see what all was in the area. This was about the point where I simply could not believe that I was on the other side of the world. I felt like I had been picked up and dropped off into some weird version of New York City. We stopped into an arcade and played one of the great Japanese exports- Dance Dance Revolution.

After all the walking, singing and DDRing, we stopped into a noodle shop for yakisoba and wonton soup before heading back to the hotel for the night.

One thing I noticed on that first night was not what I saw but what I didn’t see- homeless people or beggars. In every large city that I’ve been in so far, I’ve come across beggars within a few hours. It’s possible we didn’t go into the poorer parts of town. But what I suspect is that Japanese culture doesn’t approve of homelessness and has either managed to keep them out of sight or come up with some solid support systems for them (after doing some research, it looks like the latter is true). It’s one of the many elements that sets Japan apart from US and Western culture.

The next morning we all headed out dark and early for the airport. The first flight we wanted to get on left around 8:30am. So with a 45-minute drive to the airport plus needing to get there 2 hours early to allow for the usual security shenanigans meant a 5am wake-up call. The loads were looking light for the flight so we probably would not have to resort to any of our backup flights.

Going through security in Orlando can be a hassle at times simply due to the high number of tourists coming through who are not familiar with all the security procedures in place. Lots of families with kids and folks who only fly once or twice a year can really back the lines up. Fortunately that morning the lines hadn’t built up yet so we breezed through.

Once we got to the gate the waiting game began. Non-revs get seat assignments only after all paying customers get taken care of first. So we could be waiting until just before the doors close to find out if we’d get on board and where we might be sitting. Lucky for us that morning we didn’t have to wait until the last second to find out our fate. Just before boarding began our names were called. All three of us got seat assignments in first class! It was certainly a nice way to start the trip.

I admit I felt a bit out of place sitting in the front. I nearly turned right instead of left when boarding! It was the first time I had ever flown on United and my first time in the front of any plane. Whether it was getting drinks in actual glasses instead of plastic cups or in a can or just being able to stretch out were all little touches that told me I was no longer in the back with the masses. For most of the flight, I either doze or listened to Channel 9- United’s audio channel that plays the air traffic conversations between the plane and the controller. It’s a feature I’ve only seen on United, and it’s not always on (it’s up to the pilots if they want it on or not). But when it is, it’s cool to hear the plane get cleared for takeoff or listen to other pilots give condition reports or just the constant call of “good day” as pilots switch frequencies. It’s a feature I would love to see on other airlines.

The flight was fairly short- only 2 and a half hours, so we were soon landing at Dulles Airport in D.C. Once we got to Dulles, we had a couple of hours to kill before the next flight. This was my first time to IAD, so I enjoyed looking around some of the terminals and taking a ride on the ubiquitous “moon buggies”. The moon buggies are technically called mobile lounges and they carry passengers between the main terminal and the midfield concourses. They get the moon buggy moniker because they are very large, very white, and have moon rover-like wheels on them. The lounges roll up to the building and connect with the building so passengers walk right on- no need to go outside like with a bus. The lounge then rolls around the airport, sometimes having to stop for other traffic, until it gets to the next concourse. It’s certainly one of the odder ways I’ve connected in an airport.

A "moon buggy" at Dulles International Airport

A "moon buggy" at Dulles International Airport.

Some of the moon buggies have now been replaced with the Dulles AeroTrain that opened earlier this year. The airport is working on several construction problems with the hope of phasing out the lounges entirely.

But no matter how futuristic-looking the moon buggies are, they can’t carry people all the way to Japan. So it was time to spin the wheel again on standby roulette for the IAD-NRT leg of the trip. We were fairly certain that we would at least get on the plane- people usually don’t decide at the last minute to go to Japan. But what we weren’t sure of is where on the plane we would all be sitting in. Some seats were open in both first and business classes, but several passengers were also trying to upgrade into those seats. All we could do was wait until all the passengers were checked in. United has large information screens hanging at the gates that show the boarding process, including when the different classes have checked in full. Unfortunately for us, business checked in full, which increase the odds that one or more of us would be in the back.

After hearing the gate agent page other passengers for a while, he finally called our group. The good news was that one of my friends made it up front. The bad news is that my other friend and I were in the back. We did get into different rows of E+. E+ is United’s version of premium economy that has about 4 inches of extra legroom over regular economy. When you’re flying for 13 and a half hours, every inch makes a difference.

In the end, I would not have minded if I had gotten stuck in a non-reclining middle seat by the lavs- I was thrilled just to be on a plane to Japan with good friends. The rest was just details.

The flight itself was long, but not bad. The plane was a Boeing 777 and it was my first time on this type. It’s also the largest plane I’ve been in. The -200ER subtype that we were on holds 253 passengers. One advantage of being on such a large plane is that there’s plenty of space to get up and walk around. It’s quite a contrast to the Boeing 737s I usually end up in. My friends and I often met up in the back to chat after meals.

In the back, United has an in-flight entertainment system with small screens on the back of every seat. It’s not an on-demand system, so movies started every two hours. They offer seven channels of movies and two TV show channels. For the easily-amused like myself, it was enough to keep me entertained for several hours. I got to catch up on several movies like The Proposal and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 that I hadn’t seen yet.

The beef option

The beef option in United Economy.

Foodwise, the flight included dinner shortly after takeoff, mid-flight snack, and a light lunch along with several drink runs. Dinner was pretty much a “chicken or beef” affair. The snack was ramen noodles and lunch was a choice between pasta or stir-fry. Overall, the food was fine for economy-class fare.

About a month or two before our flight, United had changed their drink policy to free drinks for all passengers, including those in economy. No doubt this change was made to make United more competitive with other international carriers that have had that policy for years. It certainly helped make the flight more bearable. Between chatting with my friends, the movies and dozing off somewhere over the Bering Sea, the flight flew by. It was a fairly quiet flight- since we were chasing the sun across the Pacific, nearly everyone kept their window shades closed to keep the cabin dark. Between meals, most passengers just watched movies, read a book or slept.

Soon the blue waters of the Pacific turned into the green farmlands of Japan. We made it!

Coming tomorrow- the first night in Tokyo.

The Japanese countryside.

The Japanese countryside.

In the fall of last year I took one of my zaniest trips yet. I flew all the way to Tokyo with two good friends and stayed there for just over 48 hours. It took almost as long to fly there and back as the time I spent in the country. But it was worth every minute.

A Shrine in Tokyo

One of shrines in Tokyo

The trip started out because one of my friends that I’ve known since college happens to work for United Airlines. As part of his benefits, he has buddy passes that he can give to friends and family that lets them fly standby at a deeply discounted rate. So he, another college friend of ours and I thought it would be fun to pick a weekend and go to a foreign country just for the fun of it.

So the first challenge of the trip was to pick a country. First, we were limited to destinations served by United. Since we were all flying standby, we also needed to pick a place that looked like it would have few people flying to it during that particular weekend to increase our odds of getting on in the first place. We really wanted flights that had light loads in business or first class. We all wanted to go to someplace in Europe, like Amsterdam, since the flights would be shorter. Alas, the flight loads to pretty much everywhere in Europe were pretty full- partly due to Oktoberfest that was going on at the time- so Europe was out.

Since we were only going for a weekend, we also needed a destination with lots of flights per day so we could maximize our time at the destination. So places like Dubai that only had one flight a day wasn’t going to work out well. Plus

So Tokyo, with its multiple flights from different hubs, was the winner. We also had Toronto as a backup in case flight loads went up at the last minute. Of course, flying standby meant that nothing was guaranteed. We could very well end up in Toledo or get stranded in Tokyo if something unexpected happened.

Like a monster storm.

In the week leading up to the trip a super typhoon named Melor popped up and was predicted to go right through Japan as we were planning to be there. In the US, the equivalent of a super typhoon is a strong category 4 or 5 hurricane. If the storm caused flights to be cancelled, trying to fly standby becomes a dicey proposition. Not to mention that storm damage could turn the city into a mess.

But since this blog post is titled a weekend in Tokyo and not Toledo, we did make it. Melor ended up barreling right down the center of the country. But it also picked up speed and got out of the way the day before our trip. Plus, the most severe part of the storm missed most of Tokyo and Narita where the international airport was located. For the most part, flights were unaffected by the storm and the city fared well due to the strong building codes Japan has.

For the trip, we decided to fly from Orlando to Washington D.C. and then to Tokyo. The flight loads looked pretty good, especially if we got up early enough to catch the 8am flight out of Orlando. So everyone crashed at my apartment the night before and we started doing some research on where to stay in Japan.

While doing that research, I discovered one of the first of many cultural quirks about Japan. The country is famous for its “capsule hotels”- hotels that are filled with small rooms not much longer and wider than a bed and just tall enough for a person to sit up in. These capsule hotels were originally created for Japanese businessmen who for whatever reason missed the last train out of town and needed a place to stay for the night. Because they were designed for businessmen, women are not allowed in many of these capsule-style hotels. So ladies, if you’re looking for the capsule experience, you’ll need to be sure you’ll be let in first. Plus, couples staying together in a capsule isn’t permitted either (not to mention two people would find the capsule cramped anyway).

My friends and I didn’t go the capsule route, but did find the Hotel Asakusa and Capsule that offered single rooms at a good rate and was located near the subway. So we booked three rooms and called it a night.

Tomorrow- the 13+ hour flight to Tokyo.