Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Departure for Japan

We'll go back in time a bit to when I left America and first arrived in Japan.

(One note with these posts for the immediate future - I'm typing them on a Japanese laptop which has the keys in all different places, so please bear with me if you find mistakes)

Friday - July 23rd
I was running late getting to LA for my pre-departure orientation. My sister, Lynda, and my niece, Brittany, helped me with last minute packing, since my three bags were bulging with all the stuff I thought I needed to take. My limit was 70 lbs per bag I was going to check in - which was way better than the 20 kg the British JETs were limited to.

I got to orientation in LA at the LAX Weston late by about 2 hours but it didn't seem to matter that much. Just last minute Q&A and some elementary Japanese lessons before they fed us Mexican food and we had a traditional Japanese kanpai, or Japanese toast. It's important that you don't drink anything before they say kanpai.

Then I headed off to my friend Chris's house to crash before having to get up and be at LAX by 9:30am for our 1pm nonstop flight to Narita airport near Tokyo.

Saturday, July 24th - Sunday, July 25th
Long lines at the airport and many worries about my bags being too heavy, but I finally made it on the plane, where about 150 JETs from Southern California and Arizona took up the whole back section of the ANA 747. I found out at orientation that American JETs are the 2nd biggest population of Americans in Japan, 2nd only to the US Armed Forces stationed in Okinawa. There are about 6000 JETs in Japan this year from 41 countries, but the majority come from the U.S. followed by the the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

The plane trip was uneventful, and after a delay we took off at 2pm and arrived in Tokyo ten hours later at midnight. Japan is 16 hours ahead of California and 8 hours ahead of the UK, so it was midnight Calif time but it was already 4pm on Sunday in Japan when we landed. Then there were lines for customs, getting our bags and then the first wave of HEAT hit as we stepped outside to get on the buses waiting to take us to our hotel in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Side note - I dashed into a toilet at Narita airport just before getting on the bus and it was a Japanese style squatter - the first sign I wasn't in Kansas anymore.

So 3 hours after we touched down in Tokyo we arrived at our hotel in Shinjuku, which is a bustling section of Tokyo with tons of shops, restaurants and bars. It was now 3am to me, but we had to stand in more lines and get checked in, etc before going up to our rooms. By this point I was determined to just stay up until about 11pm local time in order to start to get on track sleep wise and reduce the effects of jet-lag.

No airconditioning in the main lobby or in the elevators, etc made it really hot except in your room, where my roommate, Brian, and I had it set at 20C. (68F) all the time.

Going out Sunday night in search of food was my first experience with the language barrier as I attempted to cash a traveler's cheque without success. With no Japanese currency, my whole group of 6 guys was forced to go back to the hotel and wait in the line to get cash (Yen - ¥) before heading out again. It was about 95 degrees even this late and I was fast becoming a big ball of sweat. We found a cool little Donburri place where you pay money at a machine, hand the ticket to the cook/waiter and you get your hot food moments later with a beer or cola. I had tasty strips of beef over steamed rice for about $5 or 500¥. My chopsticks skills leave a lot to be desired, but when you're hungry and they're the only option you start to learn fast.
Satisfied, we headed back to the hotel, and 24 hours after I set out for LAX on Saturday morning I went to bed in Japan on Sunday night.

Monday, July 26th & Tuesday, July 27th
I won't go into the details of the JET orientation - let's just say it was a whirlwind of seminars and speeches and information all thrown at us weary travelers within about 36 hours. The line to use the free irons or the free internet access was ridiculous at all hours of the day.
Monday night I wandered about Shinjuku by myself for a while before heading into Wendy's to grab a burger. With my broken Japanese and picture menus, I was able to get what I wanted, but it took a while and some hand gestures and pointing for me to figure out that the clerk was asking me if I wanted my meal medium size. (This would be the last fast food I would have for the foreseeable future, as no such places exist anywhere near where I live now in Taisha)

Free food was provided most of the time, but Tuesday night, the American JETs like myself were left to fend for ourselves as all the other nationalities had embassy parties, but since there are so many Americans the American embassy can't have a party for us all. So my prefecture group, all headed to the same region in Japan (Shimane), got together and went out for Mexican food, of all things, in another part of Tokyo. I got to experience the JR rail system, which is very punctual and clean and relatively cheap, and I got to wander thru a section of Tokyo populated with many kids & shops geared toward young people. Dinner was a set meal of 5 courses for about 4000¥ ($40), and each Coke I had was $6 so it was just over $50 for my meal, but you don't leave a tip in Japan, so that was it.

I went home and crashed, as I had to be up early, dress in my suit, check out, get on a bus, and head for the local airport for a domestic flight to my new Hometown and to meet my new employers.

I didn't really get to see much of Tokyo, and it will be a while before I make it back, but there are plenty of other parts of Japan I want to visit as well.

Did I mention it's HOT here?? :)

Next time: First Impressions and Udon

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