Posted by Erik W on May 20, 2012 7:05 PM
Left Milwaukee for Chicago four hours before my flight. Traffic was great; I breezed down in an hour and a half. Unlike last time I flew out of O'Hare, since it was the middle of the afternoon, I was actually able to find the cheap long term 'F' parking lot, which is considerably cheaper than the others. O'Hare was equally a breeze. Took a bus to the tram, took the tram to my terminal. No checkin line. No security line. Whole process only took a half hour.
Had some time to relax in Chilli's. Not sure why, but everyone there had a really crappy attitude. Do people not normally tip in airport restaurants? Maybe they were on the tail end of their shift?
Got on the Airplane. It was maybe 1/3rd full. And I'm guessing this was why: See, I was going to Japan to visit my friend during Golden Week (ゴールデンウィーク). Otherwise known as "large consecutive holiday", which is exactly what it is. A bunch of national holidays line up the same week, so many people are given the whole week off. It's a popular time for Japanese to go on vacation to place like Europe or the United States, so I imagine the airplanes going the opposite direction were packed, and it was the reason mine was empty.
The flight itself was fine, especially since I had two empty seats next to me. It was a typical international flight where they tried to adjust us to the new time zone. So, despite the fact that I (and I'm sure others) just ate lunch at noon, they decided to serve dinner around 1:30pm CST, and then almost immediately made it "night time" by closing all the shades. I watched "My Week With Marlyn", which was pretty good, read some magazines on my iPad, and headed to bed. Then I was abruptly awaken about half way into the flight, around midnight CST, and served breakfast. This was the start of me realizing I wasn't going to handle the jet lag very well. I ate my breakfast, watched Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (it was alright), was served lunch, and then we touched down in Japan around 3pm JST the next day.
Got off the airplane. Turned on my phone and was greeted by a text from Verizon Wireless welcoming me to Japan and letting me know they were going to proceed to charge me $20/MB for data. I immediately turn off data, and was happy to learn the Narita International Airport (成田国際空港) [Map] had free wireless.
After getting off the plane, we were walked through a "Quarantine Zone", with heat sensitive cameras, presumably to check if any of us were sick. Next at immigration they took my photo and fingerprints, put a QR code in my passport (much cooler than a stamp), then I proceeded to customs. They asked "Is that all your bags?", glanced at me for a second, then let me through.
My friend who I was visiting emailed me to let me know he was going to be a little late, which was fine, because I needed to find some cash. It was surprisingly difficult to find an international ATM at the airport, but I eventually found one and loaded up.
Found my friend, and we headed down to the trains. It was very overwhelming. Rail in Japan is privatized, so there isn't much consistency between all the different lines. There were two companies running trains at the airport: Keisei Electric Railway (京成電鉄株式会社) and JR East (東日本旅客鉄道株式会社), and each had a series of confusing services. From the map, you'd see there was an "Airport Limited Express", "Limited Express", "Access Express", another "Limited Express" (but this was in red!), "Commuter Express", "Rapid", "Express", and "Local". A bit unnecessary, if you ask me.
Paying for trains in Japan is different than the way you pay for most trains in the United States: in the sense that you don't pay to get on, but rather you pay for the specific leg of the trip you are travelling. So you would look at a giant chart of all the stops, see where you are going, and get a ticket for the price labelled under the stop. Then you'd scan the ticket when you get in the station, and when you'd leave. If you were accidentally short, you could pay for the difference in a "Fare Adjustment" machine.
Luckily there was one thing that fixed both the inconsistency problem and the difficulty finding out how much you have to pay: The Suica Card (スイカ). This was a rechargeable RFID card that all the different trains in the Tokyo region accepted, as well as the Tokyo Metro (the subway in the city), and the busses. I would highly suggest if you're visiting the region, you pick one up.
Three trains, two hours, and around $30 later, we made it to the Yonohommachi Station (与野本町駅) in the Saitama Prefecture (埼玉県) [Map], where my friend's apartment was. We passed this cool house on the walk to his place:
On the way we also passed a vending machine on the street which served beer. The drinking age in Japan is 20, but they obviously don't care that much.
I'm pretty hungry at this point, so we head a couple train stops north to Omiya (大宮) [Map]. Here we went to a 270 yen izakaya (270円居酒屋) called "金の蔵Jr" (unsure of English translation). An izakaya kinda like a bar, but also served appetizers. Almost everything was 270 yen, or about $3.50. You ordered off a touch screen on your table, and your food would magically appear moments later. We had edamame (枝豆), which were these soybean like things you ate kinda like raw peas, some cheese fries, and this spicy rice dish, all of which were delicious.
After that, I was pretty tired and jetlagged, so we headed back. On the way back, I noticed something about the train stations: not only are they very English friendly, but also very visually-impaired friendly. Each stop plays a unique tune, and the floors are lined with yellow bumpy strips. If I had to guess, it looks like the line pattern tells the person to keep going, and the dots indicate some obstacle ahead (escalator, ticket window, intersection, etc). The interesting thing was, I didn't see a single blind person all trip. Or, maybe the visually impaired tools work so well they didn't need walking canes and ran through the station like everyone else.
When we got back, we called it a night.