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
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.
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.
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.