This is the tale of how I traveled from my parents’ house in rural New Hampshire to my apartment in rural Japan as I returned from Christmas vacation.
Before I launch into this story I want the reader to understand that this is not a rant or a complaint or a gripe. This is the story of an adventure. I am choosing to type out the specifics for two reasons. 1. I want people to know what I go through to get to America on vacation. I can tell someone I have a 12 hour flight and that the round trip ticket cost $1400, but that is only part of the story. There are still other difficulties, time constraints, and expenses along the way. I choose to visit the United States frequently because relationships are important and leaving Japan helps me keep my sanity, but I make those decisions knowing what the journey often is like, and I want you to see that too. 2. I want to remember how God was faithful to me on this journey, how he never let me down and how he used this opportunity to teach me more about trusting in him and letting him take care of me.
A. Driving to the Airport
The requirement laid out by my bosses was that I be in my apartment by Friday, January 3rd. Because the flight to Japan is 12 hours long and Japan is 14 hours ahead of EST, I had to leave early on the morning of Thursday, January 2nd. I chose a flight at 7 a.m. out of Boston, in part because I would need to be at the airport by 5 a.m. Last year the Boston traffic created a great deal of tension for my mother, as she feared I would miss my flight. An early arrival at the airport would mean she wouldn’t hit traffic on the way into Boston, and so that is the option I chose.
What I could not have foreseen were two aspects that came into play 1. The primary route to the airport closed for three months of construction two days before I left New Hampshire. 2. A major snow storm moved into New England the morning I left. Fortunately, we knew about both of these. That is why we left for the airport at 2:30 a.m.
We pulled out of the driveway as flakes were already beginning to fly. My mother became quite concerned, and I spent the first hour of our journey silently praying. As we grew closer to Boston, questions arose about exactly which detour to take. I kept my mouth shut and kept praying.
By the grace of God we arrived at the airport at 4:45 a.m.
B. Boston Logan
This was an exceedingly smooth part of the journey. I stood in line, checked my bag, rejoiced aloud that my bag was exactly 50 lbs (I am usually that person standing there taking 5 pounds out of my luggage), got through security, used the bathroom, read The Hobbit while I waited for my flight to board, and finally, boarded. Time passed, but otherwise, it was unremarkable.
C. The First Flight
It is rare to find direct flights from Tokyo to Boston or vice versa, so usually I need to make a connection. Last summer I went through D.C. and missed my flight to Tokyo, stranding me for 24 hours. This time I opted to fly through Chicago. While weather in Chicago is bound to be worse than in the south, I have friends in Chicago which would make being stranded there a thing of joy. And, as my mother pointed out, Chicago knows how to handle snow, while a few inches in the south grinds the world to a halt.
The flight from Boston to Chicago was scheduled to arrive at 8:55. My flight to Tokyo left at 10:45. Not a long layover, but enough. Because of the snow, however, the airplane was sprayed down with an orange slime and then made to wait for a break in the weather. Again, I am not complaining. I would rather be late than dead. This is just how the story went.
The flight got in just around 10. I didn’t know if I would have enough time or not. On my journey to my parents’ house O’Hare had required me to go through customs, recheck my luggage, switch terminals, and go through another security screening. This time around I had 45 minutes. If I had to go through security, it wouldn’t be enough. If there was no security, I could make it.
By the grace of God, the terminals I transferred between did not require an extra screening. I made it off of the plane, asked a worker for directions when I got turned around, found my gate, used the bathroom, and boarding had begun. There was no downtime. It was just one straight shot.
D. The Second Flight
That Thursday not only was there wintry weather in New England, but there was a storm in Chicago too. Again, we boarded, the plane was hosed down with orange slime, we made our way out to the runway, and we waited. I passed the time by chatting with my seatmate who was studying the script for Romeo and Juliet. He lives on a military base near Tokyo and is going to be in a community bilingual production of the play. The conversation distracted me enough that I didn’t notice the plane wasn’t taking off until we pulled in at a gate. We had to wait for the storm to pass. The passengers were offered the chance to get off, but I figured as long as there was a chance the plane was still going to take off, I wanted to see how the hand played out. Meanwhile, the wait wasn’t awful. We were served some snacks and I chain watched tv shows on the screen in the seat in front of me. Finally the weather cleared. Again we were drenched in orange slime and then pulled out to wait our turn on the runways.
At this point, I wasn’t impatient per say, but I was starting to wonder if our flight was going to get canceled. While I wouldn’t mind a day in Chicago, the last time I was scheduled for a flight that canceled because of weather, it was a day and a half before I could get home, and that was with multiple flights between the two cities. Most airlines only have one flight between Chicago and Tokyo each day. With this many passengers, it could be days before we all made it out. As our airplane pulled away from the gate, I said, “God, I’m going to go to sleep now. I ask that when I wake up we will be in the air.” And God answered my prayer. I woke up half an hour later and we were airborne. It was 3 p.m. We were four hours behind schedule.
The rest of the flight wasn’t too bad. By the grace of God I had gotten a window seat for both flights, and by the grace of God I was able to sleep a lot on that second flight. Sure, I was sitting up (I try not to recline) and sure, I would have liked it better if I could switch positions more, but I think I got a good 8 hours of sleep in. And when I’m already expecting a 12 hour flight, sitting in my seat for 16 hours isn’t that much worse. Time becomes inconsequential. In some ways it doesn’t exist. Time becomes a marker of how it affects my life in a few hours, not how it affects my life now.
But what would happen in a few hours was of some concern. The original plan was to arrive by 3 p.m. That would have provided plenty of time to get through customs, pick up my bag, go through security, get on the bullet train, switch to a local train, and be back in my apartment by about 8 or 9. But we were four hours behind. How far could I get that night? I had no idea how to find a hotel in Tokyo, and once the airline had dropped me off, I was no longer their responsibility. I know a couple of people in Tokyo, but I don’t know any of them well, and I didn’t have their information with me. “What do I do, God?” I asked. “This is an adventure,” he replied. “Trust me. Let me figure this out.” I got the sense I should try and get as far as possible that night, and to move as quickly as possible towards the trains.
E. Journey through Tokyo
UA 9678 pulled up to the gate at 7 p.m. I waited my turn to get off the plane, but after that was not shy about passing people whenever possible. Apparently 7 p.m. is not a popular time for flights in Tokyo. Every other time I’ve gone through customs there I’ve had to wait 20-45 minutes. This time, I think we were the only plane, and there was only one guy ahead of me in line. Afterwards I headed to the toilet, as I hadn’t voided my bladder since Chicago. As soon as I came out, I saw my suitcase on the luggage carousel. From there, a second customs checkpoint must be passed through. At random I chose the line on the end. Five people were in front of me. Immediately a new line opened up on the end, and I moved lines. Two people in front of me. No, wait, there was an officer opening yet another line. I moved over and became the first person through that line. This didn’t feel random. It felt like God was urging me to hurry and was clearing the way.
Like in most cities, the Tokyo airport is not actually in Tokyo. It’s substantially outside. The most efficient way to get in and out is by taking a train called the skyline. As I went downstairs to buy a ticket it dawned on me that I had never done this part before. There had always been someone else with me to help me figure it out. This time, it was just me. “Okay, God, which way do I go?” My spacial memory is pretty good, so I knew which corner of the airport to stand in, and which screens to stare at, but what to do from there was beyond me. I waited and managed to get the attention of a airport employee who was helping people choose which tickets to buy. To my great delight he spoke English. He asked me where I was going, and I told him I needed to get into Tokyo, then take the bullet train up to Koriyama. He punched the buttons on the screen, Japanese flying past far too quickly for me to read, and then gestured for me to insert the money: $102. I did so. After collecting my change I realized my ticket was for a train at 7:46. I glanced at my watch. It was 7:45. Several Japanese people were running towards a staircase I vaguely recalled as being the correct one. I joined them, ignoring the escalator and just bump, bump, bumping my suitcase down the flight of stairs. The train pulled up, doors opened. A conductor was standing on the platform. I pointed at my ticket, then the train. “Is this okay?” I asked in Japanese. Yes, he said it was, and I piled on.
Now, one of the delightful things about Japan is that there are several services which, for a fee of about $20, will ship your bag from the airport to your home, next day delivery. I had used this service on the way down, but had already decided not to use it on the way back up. And this was a good thing, for if I had used it, even the ten minutes it would have taken me to walk to that section of the airport, fill out the forms, and walk back would have meant I didn’t make that particular train. I don’t know how that would have affected the rest of the trains I took that evening. Maybe I would have been on exactly the same ones. Or maybe I would have ended up in Tokyo the whole night. I don’t know.
Anyway, I had my bags with me. On the airport express there is a section where people can stow their luggage and lock it up to prevent people from taking it. I put my suitcase and my quite heavy carry on into two of the 3 last remaining slots, chose a combination for the lock, then found my seat and penned the combinations onto my hand.. The scurry through the airport had left me flustered, and I double checked to make sure I had everything: my passport, my skyline tickets, my bullet train tickets, my coat, it was all there. But a feeling of dread came over me. I wasn’t sure the combinations I’d put on my hand were the correct ones. Returning to the luggage area, I tried them. Neither worked. I switched them. No. Fairly sure of the first two numbers in the four number combination, I began systematically going through all 100 of the combinations. Nothing. Signs in the area clearly stated that in case of lost combinations, luggage could be claimed at the terminal station. One problem: I wasn’t going to the terminal station. Not even close. And I didn’t have time to go all the way out to wherever that was, then back into Tokyo. I wondered if I could just rip the handle off of my suitcase. By the grace of God, again, a conductor was passing by, checking tickets for the people who had purchased standing room only fare. I don’t know if the conductor noticed me trying every combination or if he was alerted by the man with standing fare who had helped me maneuver the bags into position, but the conductor came over and helped. He kindly asked for my passport, then for proof the suitcase was mine. Fortunately, the claim tag with my last name was still attached to the handle. The conductor used his key to open the locks and my baggage was free. Japan is known for its lack of crime, so I went ahead and left my baggage there unlocked for the remainder of the journey.
The skyliner pulled into Tokyo station at 8:51. Only two more bullet trains were heading to Koriyama that night: 8:56 and 9:44. I knew that the 9:44 would arrive too late for me to catch the local train out to my town. I had to do what I could to catch the 8:56.
There are a lot of maybes that enter the picture here. Maybe if I had known to go left to the staircase instead of right when I went off the train, I could have those 10 seconds back. Maybe if I traveled without a suitcase I could have run. Maybe if I were stronger I could have walked up the escalator, carrying my 80 lbs of luggage instead of just riding it. Whatever the case, the Tokyo station is too spread out, and though I was the second one off of the train and I beelined it to the correct track, I missed the 8:56 bullet train by 45 seconds.
In telling the story later, a friend groaned that I had to wait 50 minutes for the next train. But really, it didn’t seem that long. First, I just rested. My arms were getting rubbery from the weight of my baggage, and my body had warmed with the exercise, so despite the cool night air I peeled off my jacket and sweater. The airport employee had been very kind, but $102 actually struck me as too cheap for the a skyliner train plus a bullet train – I thought it closer to $120 – and I wondered if I had accidentally bought a ticket for a local train. Hurrying to catch the 8:56 this hadn’t bothered me, as I had decided to jump on board and straighten everything out later. But now, I wanted to know. I glanced at my watch. It was 9 p.m. I was in Tokyo, and I wasn’t sure what I was doing. “Okay, God, what now?”
I found a train employee with a pleasant expression and asked if my ticket was for the bullet train. He confirmed it was, but the 9:44 would be on the left of the platform, not the right. The next bullet train on the right side was going to Sendai, which is the correct direction, but would not be making a stop in Koriyama. The train I wanted would be the fourth train on the left side. I thanked him, then pulled out my cell phone and began texting. I had already let two of the team leaders know I was four hours behind schedule and would be hard pressed to make it in that night. I texted them that I wouldn’t make the last train, then asked about the local bus schedule. There are buses that run from Koriyama to my town, but as they are more expensive than the train and take longer than the train, I’ve never bothered to figure out how they work. Rachel got back to me with what I was already pretty sure about, there were no buses running that late.
Koriyama possesses a distinct advantage over Tokyo, and that is that I know the area. Worst case scenario, I could sit up all night at a Denny’s, or a Round One (kind of like Chuck-E-Cheese for grownups), both of which were about a mile from the station. But I also have a friend there. I texted Christine and asked if I could spend the night at her place, and if so, what directions do I give to the taxi? Christine quickly told me I was welcome to stay with her, and insisted I not take a taxi but allow her to pick me up.
While all of this was going on, the kindly train employee popped over every time a train came to make sure I knew, “Not this train,” and then finally, “This is the train.” At last everything was resolved, well, as much as it was going to be, and I got on the 9:44 to Koriyama.
F. What Makes It All Worth It
I boarded the train quickly, sensitive of the fact that I had a rather large suitcase with me. I grabbed a window seat and shoved the bag against the wall. While I was forfeiting leg room, I couldn’t be accused of inconveniencing another passenger. A woman boarded and smiled pleasantly at me. I returned the smile and nodded that she could sit in the aisle seat. A man came and asked if he could sit there, so the woman moved over to the middle seat and gave him the aisle. She kept looking knowingly at me, but with my Japanese skills being weak, and being especially rusty after two weeks away, I was loathe to initiate a conversation. Initiating suggests I could maintain. I can’t.
But, to my surprise, she began the conversation. This is pretty rare among Japanese people, unless they’ve been drinking. She was holding an open can of beer, so clearly she had. We started with the usual questions: how long have I been here, what do I do, how old am I, etc. She decided she liked me and invited me to come see her sometime in Utsunomiya. We exchanged contact information, though I wondered if she would remember any of this in the morning. Then she asked why I had come to Japan. I did my best to explain in Japanese: “I am a Christian. God has hope. Japanese people were sad because of the tsunami and earthquake.” That’s about where started stumbling. I don’t know the verb, “to give” so I said something like, “God Japanese people hope has. A lot of hope. A lot of love. Everyone.” Then I asked if she understood. She said she did, and began petting my shoulder affectionately, which is also a sign of her being tipsy. On the other hand, I wondered how tipsy a person could get from beer. My teammates and I have been known to wonder if some Japanese people don’t pretend to be drunk so they can act with the freedom and affection they want to. As long as this was kind of working, I decided to keep going with it. “Do you go to church?” I tried to ask, but I couldn’t quite remember the syllables for “church.” I knew I was close, but the woman frowned in confusion. “Excuse me,” the man in the aisle seat politely interrupted, “I think the word she is looking for is ‘church.'” “Yes, that’s the word,” I heartily agreed. And he joined the conversation.
To find a Japanese person willing to discuss religion is rare. For someone who hasn’t been drinking to do it is exceedingly rare. This was a moment when my language fail actually became a language win, because it was his point of entry into the conversation. The man told us that he went to church last month because he is exploring religion. He knows about Buddhism and Shintoism, but he doesn’t know about Christianity and he wants to know. In my heart, I wish I could explain the whole gospel in Japanese the way I’ve been trained to do in English. But I can’t. I don’t know the words yet. Not just the Christian words, but even the basic verbs of everyday language. Moments like these are what keep me going, for I sat there both wishing I knew more and grateful I understood what was being said.
And strange as it may sound, moments like these are what keep me going not only in language learning but in Japan. These are the moments I live for. These are the moments that make every other inconvenience experienced this day completely and totally worth it.
G. A Night in Koriyama
The train pulled in as promised just after 11. Christine said she would come pick me up at Mister Doughnut at midnight, after she had finished karaoke, so I made my way across the street. But Mister Doughnut was closed. I sat down and studied Japanese cards for 15 minutes until I just got cold. Then I called Christine, and she asked if there was someplace else I could wait. Well, the station might still be open. So back I went. The station was closed. I stood there and listened to part of a lecture on The Vikings and tried to stay warm.
Now, in fairness to the world, if I had REALLY wanted to get to my apartment that night, there were plenty of taxis lined up in front of the station. But, taking one back would have been about $100. I had $100 with me, but I didn’t feel like spending it on a taxi.
Christine has a tendency to run late. I know this about her, and usually I don’t mind. But that night I was cold. A few minutes after midnight I silently prayed, “God, please help Christine to come soon!” At that moment my phone rang. It was Christine. She was in one of the cars that had just pulled up in front of the station. Her sister Sarah came and helped me carry my bags and we loaded them into the car.
Back to the church/house we went, and Christine showed me the room where she had laid out a futon for me. What with being in a different time zone and having slept so much on the plane, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to sleep at all, but to my surprise, after some fitful dozing the first hour, I slept soundly until 7 when I was awoken by voices in the kitchen. As it was two or more men speaking, I stayed put, as only one adult male lives in the household. At 7:30 the voices left and Christine texted me that she would be down soon with breakfast. I ate with her and her two children, telling her about the adventures of the day before. She told me that she and Sarah and their kids were going sledding that day and they could drop me off at the train station. They would leave by nine.
H. The End
And so we did. The car left at nine, I was at the station by 9:20, and I took a train back soon after.
As strange as it sounds, the half mile walk from the train station to my apartment was one of the worst parts. My neck muscles ached from the strain the day before, and my arms that had held up so well were tantruming the whole way. Multiple times I had to stop and shift my load, but at that point there was no comfortable position. It was hard to believe that my suitcase hadn’t gained weight the past 40 hours. At the beginning it had felt so light. Now it was a burden to roll it along. At one point while packing my mother offered me a certain item and I declined it. “Mom,” I said, “it’s not that I don’t want that, it’s that during my travel I will already hate myself for every ounce I packed. At this point, I can’t take anything more; there is already too much.” It happens every time. I am incredibly grateful I took back that powdered milk, quick oats, dried fruit, and American candy, for these are hard to come by here. But the ounces weigh upon me: sliding them into the overhead compartment, hauling them through a train station in Tokyo, and dragging them down the street to their final destination.
And so I arrived. It was 10:30 a.m. in Japan on Saturday, and 8:30 p.m. on Friday back in New Hampshire. The journey had taken me 42 hours.