I apologize in advance if this post is too wordy. Emily is going to use it as a “how-to” guide for getting to Saipan.
I think that I’m starting to figure this whole train thing out. The more I learn, the more I realize how convenient they are (and what a moron I am).
I had to take the same route to Narita Airport that I took to Takaoka two weeks ago; I just had to make the trip backwards and during daylight hours. Needless to say, it was a lot easier this time around.
I was able to buy my tickets the same day I left and I was given the option of leaving in 10 minutes or 60 minutes. I decided to leave in 60 minutes so that I could have coffee with Emily at the train station café.
The train I took leaving Takaoka was on the hakutaka line, train #9. It seems that every single train is given a number, similar to the way a flight is given a number. I don’t know about the other lines, but for the hakutaka line, all of the trains going in one direction have an even number and all of the trains going in the opposite direction have an odd number. The first train of the day has the lowest number and the last train of the day has the highest number.
The car I sat in was a non-reserved no smoking car. My understanding of the Japanese rail system has increased so much in the last two weeks that I was actually able to plan for that before the train even arrived at the station. You see, there is a sign inside of the train station that lists the times of all of the trains (It is next to the sign with all of the pictures of trains on it). In addition to the departure times, it lists the names, numbers, and destinations of all the trains at the station.
All you have to do is look at your departure time and next to it will be some characters telling you which train line and train number you need. After you figure out your train number, just look at the diagram of the train cars next to it. It is relatively simple to figure out because it is written in English and Japanese. The sign has a representation of the train you are taking. It will tell you exactly how many train cars are on your train and it is color-coded to let you know which trains are reserved, non-reserved, smoking, and/or non-smoking. Reserved cars are colored green and non-reserved cars are yellow.
Once you figure out which car you want, you have to figure out where to line up on the platform. At Takaoka station, the way to figure this out is to look for the colored signs with numbers on them that are above your head, running along the length of the platform. Each small sign has a large number and the name of the corresponding rail line written in hiragana. I needed car #7 on the hakutaka line, so I found the yellow sign with the big 7 and hakutaka written in hiragana across the top.
When the train arrived, I had approximately 2 minutes to board and store my belongings before we were moving again. The train wasn’t very full, so I was able to grab a seat next to the exit and to store my luggage in the overhead compartments without too much trouble.
I was a real treat being able to travel through the Japanese countryside during daylight hours. There were times when I was no more than 100 meters from the Sea of Japan AND the foothills of the Japanese Alps. Then when we turned inland, and started heading up into the mountains, it got really, really snowy.
I had to change trains at Echigo Yuzama station, where there was about a foot of snow covering the ground. I had about 8 minutes to change trains. After exiting the first train I headed up an escalator, which took me to the main station. Then I followed the signs for Shinkansen Line, which were in green and pointed towards platforms 11-14. It was easy to figure out where to go. There is a large electronic sign that displays the next two trains’ times and platform numbers. Even if you can’t figure out the name of the train line or the destination, it is a safe bet to board a train based on the departure time. The platform numbers on the sign are highlighted in a yellow box. They make it easy to figure out. Just figure out which platform you need and make a beeline for it.
When you get to the turnstiles feed all of your tickets into the machine at the same time, not one by one. This is a good THING TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN.
THINGS TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN #6: When you are using the trains and you have to take multiple trains, you will be given several tickets. One ticket is the base price for your fair and each other ticket corresponds to any increased cost for each individual train. The extra fair can cost more depending on if you have a reserved or non-reserved ticket, if it is a limited express train, or if it is a super express train. If your tickets have a black back, when you go through the turnstile you have to insert ALL of your tickets into the slot. The machine will spit out the tickets that you still need when you walk through to the other side. You can insert up to 4 tickets at one time.
The train that I took from Echigo Yuzama station was a double decker super express train. I was pretty excited. The train looked like it was about to leave when I got to the platform, so I had to hurriedly find the closest non-reserve car. I got lucky and jumped on a non-smoking car.
After only 10 minutes of traveling through a very long tunnel, the train emerged into a wide open valley where it was still Autumn. The change was stunning. Echigo Yuzama was a winter wonderland, but here the leaves were just beginning to change.
The train pulled into Tokyo station about 75 minutes later. It was still as big, busy, and intimidating as it was two weeks ago, but navigating through it this time was no problem.
When the super ultra mega fast double decker bullet train stopped at the station, I got out with just about everyone else on the train, carried my bags down the same flight of stairs that I had carried them up only two weeks ago, entered my tickets through the turnstile, and found myself in the main station again.
The signs for the Narita Express train were well marked and highly visible. All I had to do was to follow the trail of blue signs for the Yokosuka Soba line. I was going to head straight down towards my platform when I realized that I had 25 minutes to kill. No way! Am I really that good?
I decided to get a snack, so I bought a sandwich from one the station vendors. After that, all I had to do was to follow the signs again, go down 3 flights of stairs, find out where I needed to line up (this time the car numbers were on the ground), and then wait for my train to arrive.
I’m a pro at this now. Getting back to Takaoka from Tokyo is going to be a walk in the park.
I needed to get off at the Narita Airport Terminal 2; so naturally, I got off at the Narita Airport Terminal 1, stood in the wrong line at the wrong check-in counter at the wrong terminal, was told that I was in the wrong place, and then had to take the airport shuttle over to the right terminal. No worries though, when I finally arrived at the correct check-in counter they told me that I had to wait two hours to check my luggage.
There isn’t much to do at Terminal 2 except to look at the few airport stores and to eat at the several different restaurants. I opted for the Japanese restaurant and had some shrimp tempura, cold soba noodles, and a big Asahi. It was one of my loneliest dinners ever.
When two hours had past, I checked in and went straight into the terminal, where I found Alex looking dreary eyed in front of our gate. I bought him a beer and gave him a few Japanese snacks that I had picked up for him.
The flight to Guam was really short and I didn’t sleep a wink. When we arrived in Guam we had to go through immigration, but not customs and then walk through a door marked AUTHORIZED PERSONELL ONLY to go through security and to get back into the terminal.
When you walk into the terminal, instead of a sign displaying all of the gate assignments, there are duty free shops. We had to ask one of the security people which gate we needed.
Our flight left an hour later. It was a two propeller plane and there were only about 15 people on the flight. It was 2:00 AM; I’m surprised that there were that many people flying at that hour.
When we finally arrived in Saipan we had to go through immigration, pick up our luggage, and then go through customs. Maybe they are stricter in the daytime, but at 3 AM they only glanced at our papers and waived us through.
My favorite thing about first arriving in Saipan is the smell. I can’t describe it. I don’t know if it is from all of the vegetation or if it comes about from being so close to the ocean, but there is a very distinct smell that you only sense when you first arrive. By the second day you can’t smell it anymore, but when you first arrive, it really reminds you that you are home.