Tokyo: My first international experience
I meant to write about this experience much sooner than I have. I have been so travel exhausted in general and continued working an incomprehensible amount of hours that I never had the time to decompress and write. I was too rushed and flustered. I kept a journal but found myself unable to write much on my travels. I would hope it would just stay within me and I would be able to express it better at a later time.
So, let's start off by saying, I planned Tokyo on a total whim. I didn't plan much and I couldn't due to lack of internet and time. I was working in Alaska at the time on the ocean with zero internet and zero down time. Seeing some of the aftermath of the tsunami at the time, I guess it just was in the forward part of my brain.
I decided in a tiny fishing town in an even tinier library in Southeast Alaska: “That's IT! I'm going to go to Tokyo!”
So I bought a round trip ticket for a month in August.
Then it hit me how amazing it was going to be, however scared I was to experience an environment that I would have no real knowledge of.
So I worked up until the day of my flight, without a single day off and no real time to pack. I shoved all my clothes into my REI 65 liter bag and brought an additional backpack. I jumped on the plane on my 31st birthday and headed to a place that would change my life.
I had two connections from Sitka, Alaska, to Seattle, to LAX. Little did I read the fine print on my ticket that said I had 59 min to make an international connection.
Let me just tell you in case you don't know what that entails at LAX.
At LAX the international airport is not in the main airport. It's about a 45 min walk if you're lucky or in my case, a thirty minute SPRINT. I got out of the terminal expecting the connection to be right there. The flight attendants gave me a look when I inquired about my flight that said “You're not going to make it in time.” But another flight attendant stepped forward and gave me quick directions as if she believed I could do it. Then I felt like I could do it. So I grabbed my huge bags and made a run for it.
I made it to the international airport after looking frantic and freaking people out. There were so many people there! I was not going to miss this flight on my birthday!! I now had to find where exactly I had to go in the sea of international arrivals and departures. I went up an escalator knocking into people with my bags and found my airline. I had to wait EXTREMELY patiently as families from overseas with all of their belongings asked a million questions to the two airline attendants. Finally a spot opened up. I made a mad dash, where I got my boarding pass and had about twenty minutes to spare. They inform me I have to go through another security line.
No big deal.
I round the corner and the longggggggggest security line of my life. International people being patted down, the line moving at a snails pace. I'm dying. I'm sweating. And I'm about to cry. There was one extremely attractive security guy (welcome to Los Angeles) who made my wait a little better, by chatting me up with a killer smile and saying it was cool where I was going and how he thought it was admirable I decided to venture off solo. I tried to concentrate about getting my stuff through and yelled at him thank you as I made it through and ran to find my gate in a chaotic whirlwind. I made my flights with 5 minutes to spare and collapsed into my seat in the aisle.
So on my flight I was exhausted from working 9 weeks straight on the open ocean, where you think I would have passed out on my flight. But no, I couldn't sleep a drop on a 14 hour flight. I tried to learn Japanese on the video monitor, but I was too excited to pay attention. So instead I opted to watch the movie Unbroken, not having any previous idea what it was about. (Go figure)
Since it would be my birthday the next day I was super excited that I would get two birthdays since I was crossing time zones. Two birthdays in Japan. I mean what more could a girl ask for? I would get one on the plane and one the next day. Well, turns out I calculated wrong, when I left it was August 9th and when we landed it was August 11th. The universe had skipped my birthday completely. That's what you get when you think you know everything.
We finally landed at 7:30 pm and I was so ready to get off the plane. I made my way through customs after nervously filling out the paperwork. The way the English was worded on the customs forms was peculiar so it took me while to translate what they had meant. I made it out without any real issues, found my bag and now had to figure out the intimidating task of navigating the Japanese railway. I went to the currency exchange and got a couple hundred yen. I had previously bought a bunch of Japanese apps on my phone (translator, subway system map, currency exchange converter) all of them which did NOT work without WI-FI. Which I ultimately learned, WI-FI would not be available throughout the length of my stay in Tokyo, besides Starbucks or a hostel. 4G phones did not work (at the time) with Japanese WI-FI. (UPDATE: you can now access wi-fi in Japan) You can buy a disposable phone there, but really it's not that big of a deal. I survived without it.
This lady patiently explained to me what rail stop to stand under, and how to get down there. I repeated it back about five times to make sure. I was headed to Asakusa, (pronounced a-sock-sa not a-sa-koo-sa) but because it was so late, I had to make a transfer.
I think my ticket was approximately ten US dollars. I nervously tried to find my stop and finally did. Also, I was drenched in sweat from my Alaskan clothes. (Just a side note: I completely underestimated the weather and it was extremely hot the entire month of August. I had to cut my clothes to have things to wear.)
So I waited at the stop and looked around for the first time. Everything was impeccable, immaculately clean. Everyone was dressed polished, simple and modern. There were vending machines with Japanese soda and coffee drinks everywhere, on every side of every block. The vending machines look a bit child like at first. Bright colors and almost a synthetic appearance. I felt like I didn't fit in...immediately.
My train arrived and I boarded with my too big tourist bags. I thought in my head everyone would want to talk to ME (since I obviously look out of place) and ask about MY travels. No one even looked at me. Everyone was on their phones like robots.... well so it seemed to me that way considering I just came from complete remote isolation in Alaska. The automatic train computer voice bounded on and on in a bubbly Japanese voice. I had no clue what they were saying. I desperately looked around for English. Nothing. So every time the train stopped I manically searched out the window for the stop name. I finally got to the transfer point after an hour and then made it to Asaskusa.
In Tokyo, you will walk more than you ever have in your entire lifetime. You know in the states you can just exit the subway? In Tokyo, you will get off the train and go up and down numerous sets of stairs and walk down countless hallways before you find the sun again.
When I exited the Asakusa stop, it was about 85-90 degrees. As I previously stated, I had my Alaskan gear on and needless to say I was dying. I got a few smirks from some foreigners as I got off the train and turned onto the first street that I didn't even recognize it as a street. By this point, nothing is really in English. So, using my handy paper map as the only reference, I turned this way and that, and walked up a few alleys, almost got nailed by a bicycle, had to stop in a pharmacy (or what I think was a pharmacy) to ask for directions. I remember seeing a big Ferris wheel and hearing the universal excited screams of people at a carnival (this distinct noise I would become familiar with as I would hear it day and night for weeks to come outside of my hostel window) and finally made it to the hostel, that was nestled in an alleyway. The receptionists seeemed amused at the sight of me and ran to get me a water, the first act of kind Japanese hospitality that made a distinct impression.
I am beyond relieved to arrive there, but so disheveled.
Imagine if you will....just to recap.
9 weeks at sea...in Alaska. No day off. The sun never truly setting. 16 hour days. A flight to Seattle. To LAX. An almost missed connection. Customs at LAX. A 14 hour flight on which I didn't sleep. Two train rides in about a hundred degree weather. And walking about ten blocks...in winter clothes and a 50lb bag.
I checked in and I knew this would be one crazy adventure.
Part II? Click here