Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Japan Day One

Trips can be divided into those you have to take, those you want to take, and those that share qualities of both. For example, a child is made to go to Disney; most likely they also want to go. I have retained that child-like perspective on taking a trip. Even the most routine journeys – to my parents' house, or even to work – are in their own ways exciting.
Our trip to Japan starts well before the departure. A year spent deciding if we can go, and when. Juggling ideas back and forth. Asking the hard questions about whether or not we can afford it, and if our employers will let us off for two weeks. Then, decision made, begins the arduous process of buying the tickets. Arduous, because we cannot afford to waste any money, and so we have to find the most economical dates and routes. In August we bought our tickets for a December trip. The price was right, the routing good. As an added bonus, we would be on JAL, Japan Airlines, an airline I'd heard about in terms people reserve for fine cars or wines or Apple products.
Then came the changes.
In September I received an email that JAL required us to change our flight from Knoxville to Chicago (Knoxville, because that's where my family lives; we can visit with them, and they will take care of the dog, saving kennel money, and also take us to the airport, saving parking). I called Expedia – the online travel agent we used to make our reservations – and they took care of things. We'd actually be on an earlier flight out of Knoxville, which worked out great. I was dreading a short connection in Chicago, in winter.
October brings with it another email. American Airlines was the carrier taking us to Chicago, and they canceled the flight from Knoxville. Completely. No alternatives. So Expedia told me they would have to refund the reservation and I would have to make it again. I told them they were incorrect, because the fares had gone up almost $600 per person. So they had to fix it. We went round and round. The airline – JAL – told me I would have to fly to Chicago the day before, on December 23, then fly out of Chicago on December 24 to Japan. I complained, waited on hold, and really had a miserable couple of days. Yes, days. It took two days to get this resolved, and the resolution came only after I put a lengthy comment on Expedia's Facebook page complaining. I don't know for a fact that post had anything to do with it, but it is an interesting coincidence.
They put me on a United Airline flight from Knoxville to Chicago, and we'd have an hour and a half.
It would have been better to stay in Chicago December 23rd. But I was tired, and I didn't think it through.
December 24th, Christmas Eve. There was nobody in the airport in Knoxville. I don't know if I've ever seen an airport so empty. Even in Brainerd, Minnesota, which was the smallest, emptiest airport I've ever seen.
“I'm not able to ticket your flight from Chicago to Japan,” the UAL rep told us. I asked what did that mean. Turns out my insistence on flying out that morning was a bit of a problem. United isn't connected with JAL, so they couldn't ticket us.
The flight to Chicago was not even half full. I was very nervous. My legs shook like a teenager heading out on a first date. I was worried.
Chicago. We all but run from terminal F to terminal K. It isn't close, and evidently O'Hare – despite being a very large, famous airport – has evidently never heard of “moving sidewalks.” Our gate was at the far end of the K concourse. Of course. I had to pee. My son had to pee. My wife had to pee. But the tickets were first. I didn't know if they would have them. Nobody could tell me – not Expedia or United – that we were, in fact, checked in for the flight.
We were.
Tickets in hand, we found the nearest bathroom.
There isn't much to say about the long flight to Japan. Service was excellent, the seats as comfortable as they can be, with little pockets on the back of the seat in front of us to hold headphones or water. The kid behind us didn't understand how to use his internal volume control. I slept little.
Narita Airport. In all of the times I have traveled to Japan, I have never spent more than an hour from wheels-down until leaving the airport. Usually less. It took us about forty minutes this time. It helped that we didn't have any luggage. With careful planning and packing, you can do a lot with a carry on and a backpack.
Day one's plan was pretty simple. Get to the hotel, check in, and then go see Ginza. Finding the hotel was an adventure; I couldn't get a wifi or GPS signal to pull up a map, so we went old school and just asked people.
The hotel's name is Sumisho. Later, we saw a massive sign in the subway station with directions. Yeah us.
We check in. I want to use my Japanese, but the desk clerk wants to use his English, and I figure there are millions of people with whom I can speak Japanese, but relatively few opportunities for him to use his English.
I think many people would complain about the room. It is tiny, with three single beds. But why do you really need more space? It is perfect for us, with a nice desk, good wifi, and a bathtub. It even has a toilet that washes your butt (or your “front” for those that have “fronts” that need washing). On the first floor is a common bath with showers and a hot tub. Though not billed as a ryokan, that's basically what it is.
Ginza is the upscale shopping and entertainment area. We went there to see the Christmas lights. Japan really goes overboard with the Christmas lights. Entire districts string up lights. When we went to the massive display in Kobe many years ago, it was so warm that people were taking off their coats. It has changed now because everyplace uses LED lights. The scale of Ginza's lights wasn't necessarily impressive. They had a lot of them up, but no more than I'd expect any popular outdoor shopping area to have. In no way is this a criticism; they were beautiful and pleasant, tasteful where perhaps other areas can be gaudy. We ate at a Chinese restaurant named Ni Hao then headed to “Ginza Hands,” a branch of a popular store called “Tokyo Hands.” It is a department store with a broad range of goods. Joe was exhausted, so we spent very little time there, instead heading back to the hotel where we slept.
A couple of observations. First, the trains were not crowded, for all that it was rush hour. If you've never been to a Japanese city at rush hour, you might say that I am crazy, that the trains were very, very crowded. And yes, there were a lot of people. But not as much as I expected. Second, there were a lot of people riding bikes. Not your mama-chari commute bikes, but road bikes and mountain bikes, with the riders decked out for riding rather than their pants leg simply tucked into their socks.
Day one ended with a long soak in the hotel's public bath. No sooner did my head hit the pillow than I was asleep.

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