Saturday, November 19, 2005

Navigating the Trains

The flight was the easy part; I've been a transit passenger through Tokyo at least 20 times. Getting through Customs and Immigration was easy. The REAL adventure began once I stepped out of the airport.

The first things I did were to change some more money and to call Emily to let her know that the tail section of the plane didn't fall off and crash on a remote tropical island. I also learned my first of my THINGS TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN.

THINGS TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN #1: Change your money in Japan. The exchange rate in Dallas was 108 plus a $5.50 surcharge; the exchange rate in Tokyo was 116 with no surcharge.

I had been dreading this moment for months. I had to take the train from Narita to Takaoka. The signs for the train pointed towards an escalator off to the left. I did that thing where you hook the luggage pieces together, took a long deep breath, and dragged my 160 lbs of only-god-knows-what off in that direction.

Luckily there wasn't much walking to do because the train station is right underneath the airport. I walked up to the window underneath the huge green JR sign and asked the person sitting there if they spoke English. She did (thank God), so I told her that I needed a ticket to Takaoka station.

She knew exactly where it was. She printed out my train tickets and circled the departure and arrival times of each train. She told me that the first and third train tickets were for reserved seats and that the second was for an unreserved seat. The tickets said that I would arrive in Takaoka at 11:38 PM. She pointed me in the direction of the trains. I had to get moving; My train left in less than ten minutes.

That was the easiest part of my trip and I was about to learn my second THING TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN.

THINGS TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN #2: If you are going to use the train to get to your final destination do not visit while carrying 3 suitcases and a laptop bag. That shit is a pain in the ass.

I managed to get my luggage through the ticket turnstiles and down the escalator to the train platform. I couldn't tell if the train waiting there was my train by the name of the particular train line, the destination, the train number or anything like that. I just noticed that the departure time was the same time as the one on my ticket, so I hoped that it wasn't more than coincidence and hopped onboard.

The first train was an express train to Tokyo station. I had a reserved non-smoking seat. Each of the 10 cars are assigned a number and then each seat within each car is assigned a number and a letter (much like an airplane). Each car on this train had an entrance in the front and in the back with racks for your luggage. I put my luggage in the racks and then hoping that no one stole my stuff, found my seat.

An announcement came over the loud speaker in Japanese and then in English letting everyone know that this was an express train to Tokyo station. So I was right! So far, so good.

The train was great. First of all, it was spotless. Then once the train was moving a girl with a snack cart came around. When she entered the car she bowed and said something that I couldn't understand. Then she walked down the aisle selling snacks, sodas, and other drinks. A ticket-checker-guy also came around. He did the same thing where he bowed and said something that I couldn't understand when he entered the car. He took a look at my ticket, stamped it, wrote down something in a little notebook (probably "notify Department of Homeland Defense about this one"), and went on checking everybody else's tickets.

I was amazed that people were drinking beer. I don't know. I just didn't expect to see people drinking beer in such a public place.

It would take about 60 minutes to get from Narita to Tokyo station. Once I was there I would have about 20 minutes to find my next train. This was the part of my journey where I almost lost it.

Everybody got off the train at Tokyo station. I gathered my luggage and followed everybody up the escalator to the main station. I saw signs for six or seven other lines running and I had no idea which one I needed. I also didn't see any information booths where I could ask for help. Uh oh. Panic started to set in.

I just kept following the signs that pointed in the direction of the other lines. Luckily, they all pointed in the same direction, so I was pretty sure that I was at least heading in the right direction for now.

The long hallway opened up into a bustling train station full of shops, kiosks, and hurried people. It looked like it was about the size of a football field. I'm sure that in future trips it won't seem so big and intimidating, but at the time it was all I could do to not roll up in a ball, suck on my thumb, and start crying. I had absolutely no idea where to go, I was convinced that nobody spoke English and I didn't know who to ask for help.

At the end of the aisle of shops and kiosks I finally saw the ticket windows. Heaven was smiling on me. I went up to a window with a young Japanese girl, thinking that a young Japanese girl would be most likely to speak English and asked, "ee-go ga wakarimasu ka" in my best Japanese accent. She replied with something that I didn't catch, but I took it to mean "a little." I resorted to this universally understood phrase: "Ug, grunt, point."

She understood.

She wrote "20" on my ticket and told me "numbaa twenty." I understood that to mean platform 20. Great! Platform 20! One problem: Where the hell is platform 20? I asked her "doko de?" and she pointed in the direction off to my left.

So I went left.

There was a sign for platform 20 right around the corner. I put my second ticket through the turnstile and walked towards the entrance. One problem: There was no escalator. I was looking up a staircase that had to be at least two or three stories high. I had no other choice but to take my luggage in each hand and to drag it up the stairs a la World's Strongest Man Competition. Please refer to THINGS TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN #2 to see what this experience taught me.

Once again I was unable to tell if the train currently sitting at Platform 20 was the train that I needed to take. I reasoned from the departure time displayed on the board that it was. They weren't allowing people to board the train yet and people were queing up inside painted colored boxes on the ground. They were marked with kanji. I can't read Kanji, so I don't know what they said.

I tried looking around to see if I could figure the whole thing out, but exhaustion was making me more thick skulled than usual. They started boarding while I was still trying to understand this whole train thing. I just boarded the closest car, stuck my luggage in a space behind one of the seats, and sat down.

Turns out the car I chose was one of the reserve cars. Big mistake. I was about to learn my third THING TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN.

THINGS TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN #3: Just because YOU do not have a reserve ticket does not mean that the whole train is not reserved. Other people have reserved seats, just not YOU.

When the ticket-checker-guy came around he informed me that I would have to move to the NON-reserved car, four cars back. What was I to do? I had to move, but I wasn't about to drag my luggage through moving train cars. I decided to just leave my luggage where I had stored it. After all, if I wasn't willing to move it and I OWNED IT, it was highly unlikely that somebody would try to steal it.

The plan worked fine. Thirty minutes later, a few minutes before the train stopped at my next stop, I walked back up towards the reserve car and got my luggage.

I have no idea where I was when I stopped at this station. Maybe I'll figure it out once I orient myself, but as for now I really don't know. It could have been anywhere between Takaoka and Tokyo.

When I got off the train I asked one of the uniformed station men where my next train would be using the phrase I used at the last station ("Ug, grunt, point"). He told me that I needed to find "pratform one."

I dragged my luggage towards the exit and guess what? That's right, no escalator. I dragged my luggage down the stairs this time, which was only slightly easier than dragging it up the stairs.

Platform 1 was easy to find. I just put my third and final ticket through the turnstile and was on my way. The train was already sitting at the platform when I got down there (this time there was an escalator.)

I noticed it was snowing. All of my anxiety, nervousness, and fear just melted dreamily away. I had done it. I no longer had anything to worry about. I wasn't going to get lost on the Japan train system after all. Once I got on this train that would be it. No more changes. No more chances to get on the wrong train. Did I mention it was snowing?

This train trip took the longest; it took two hours. I was able to find the map of this area of Japan in my guidebook and I was able to follow along as we stopped at each train station. The anxiety that I was feeling earlier in the day (and week, month, and year) was finally being replaced by excitement. I was finally here! I just had to make sure that I didn't miss my stop.

I got off when the train stopped at Takaoka. I dragged my luggage up the stairs (once again) and then down the stairs (once again) and walked out of the South exit to Takaoka station. I also had one more THING TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN to learn.

THINGS TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN #4: Do not throw your train tickets away! They are collected at the end of your journey by the person at the gate. If you don't have your tickets you have to pay an extra fee.

I called Emily from a payphone outside of the station and three minutes later I was getting hugged by the girl that I crossed the globe to be with.

Let the party begin.


Rudro said...

great blog
noted down the "THINGS TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN" just in case I have to go there someday :-)

Saipan Chamoale said...

How cool is it that I'm an American in Japan with a blog that gets comments from a student in India?

tetricus said...

haha great picture. I'm so relieved that you made it without any major issues. I'm going to miss you terribly even though we will probably talk about the same amount. I bet Emily is so happy. Did she just squeal for the first 15 minutes? Take Care.