Friday, February 7, 2014

Living in Airports

The flight to San Francisco was peaceful given the sea of clouds that covered the entire route. Only once we began our descent did the South Bay come into focus and I could see the various high tech companies I used to work for or visit during my career. I kept reminding myself I should have joined Apple on Day One, but that was a long time ago. Not sure I could have survived Steve Jobs, however.

I always like walking out to the concourses at SFO since they have a wonderful “museum in glass cases” along the escalator. This time it featured early Japanese toys and wonderful renditions of “Godzilla Eats Tokyo” monsters. We popped into the Red Carpet Club for our $100 cup of tea (we don’t use the membership often enough to justify it) and then went down to the gate for the 11:00 am departure.  As usual the flight was full, so we anxiously watched our little UAL iPhone app that shows seats still available. Then we looked at the list of employee stand-bys (listed by seniority) and did the math. If it looks good it means the computer has screwed up and if it looks bad it is bad. Nothing to do but wait until almost everyone is on board and they are about to close the door when we hear those magic words:  “Conner, party of two.”

We luckily scored two First Class seats (but not together) for the 11-hour flight to Narita. Life is good.  Now that we were on the flight I texted Rina, an old Japanese exchange student of ours, to see if we could get together during our brief stay. She immediately got back to us with the cryptic message “Is snowing here.” Not sure what that means and hoping that a lot got lost in translation.

The flight was wonderful. I’m not a big fan of airline food, but in UAL First Class they always serve a hot fudge sundae for dessert. When the steward asked what I’d like on it I basically said “everything you’ve got.” I watched five movies and three TV shows in a row (remember we haven’t had TV for over two years) and then reclined the seat into a bed for a five-hour nap. Life is good.

Upon approach to Narita I looked out the window and saw snow. So Rina was right. The more I looked the more snow I saw. “Wow, I’ve never seen snow in Tokyo before; I wonder how it’s going to effect things?” I muttered out loud.

Upon departing and clearing customs with our two huge hockey bags of ski equipment we made our way to the hotel reservations desk to get a room in nearby Narita. With a very accommodating smile the lady told us in broken English:  “No rooms.”  Bummer. But that can’t be right so we get our our cell phone and started calling down our list of hotels. In twenty-five different broken English answers we heard “No rooms.” Oh, shit.

No problem, we’re airline employees so we’ll just take the shuttle bus down to the crew hotel and plead our case. After waiting for an hour out in the freezing blizzard, we realized the hotel buses weren’t running, or running on very delayed schedules. So much for that plan. Where there were usually hundreds of taxis queued, there were none tonight. Not a good sign. Life is getting tenuous.
Since we had a flight out at noon the next day to Sapporo we didn’t want to go into Tokyo, we resolved ourselves to the fact that we would have to spend the night at the airport. Boy, never in my life was that an understatement because several thousand other travelers had exactly the same predicament. Being resourceful, I started scoping out various areas of the airport. Someone said you could only stay on the cold bottom level, but others were already making camp in the more spacious upstairs departure level. We found a nice lounge area where we got two rows of three seats (the longest you could go with out an intervening armrest.) We felt kind of selfish doing this so early, but the writing was on the wall.  The heat in the terminal automatically shut off at 10 pm and it was getting seriously cold. Outside the blizzard continued and the snow drifted across the runways.

This is not how Meryl planned to spend the night in Narita.

As I went into and out of sleep laying on the seats, I noticed a lady across from me who had a heavy fur hat, a heavy coat, and heavy boots on. Very smart, I thought. Then she pulled something out of her carry-on that looked like a light weight fluorescent sleeping bag and crawled in. Wow, I thought, this is a woman who is totally prepared for travel. Then I somehow realized they were handing these out somewhere and went off running to where ever that place was. Now you have to remember Narita Airport is one of the largest airports in the world, so this wasn’t an easy task. Plus no one speaks English.

 Eventually I found the line of people, got two sleeping bags, and emergency rations consisting of Ritz crackers and water. I felt like the King of Marvin Gardens. Life is somewhat good. I did bring back some of the cut up cardboard boxes for the Japanese fellow sleeping on the floor next to me to lay on, and switched seats with an American/Japanese woman from Seattle so she could have some time laying down on the seats.

I noticed outside that the snow had turned to blizzard-like conditions, and while some planes were still landing, none were taking off. This meant that every 20 minutes another 256 people show up. Throughout the night more and more people arrived, and since all the highways, trains, taxis, and hotels were essentially shut down, it meant the airport was getting more and more crowded. At one point I realized what a refuge camp must be like, albeit this one had better accommodations.
Imagine seeing this scene as far as your eyes can see in one of the biggest airports in the world.

These people were smart and scored the plush rugs in front of First Class check-in
Since the entire transportation grid of Tokyo was shut down or running a very limited capacity, none of the airport workers could get to work. At the Red Carpet Club they essentially had one agent to rebook several hundred people. The line snaked through the Club with people sitting on small chairs. Apparently it took up to six hours to get a flight re-booked. The people looked like a geriatric conga line sitting there.

Because of a technicality and a two-hour delay at Immigrations, we’d now missed our pre-paid flight to Sapporo and had to call our daughter for help. Thank God we’d switched our cell phone over to T-Mobile’s 20-cents-anywhere minutes and had functional communications. Our daughter was extremely helpful and re-booked the flight, but the only seats open were in TWO DAYS.  Ugh! It was hard to turn to Meryl and tell her we’d be spending another night in the airport (now with even more people and less food).

By now everyone had figured out the situation and our good seats were full of people. We devised plan three of trying to get to our friend Rina’s house outside Tokyo, but when we arrived at the train station in the bottom level of the airport the line was about 600 people long and not moving. We found a short cut down some back stairs and at least got to where we could see the ticket counter, but again, nothing was moving. Given the cold and crowds we reconciled ourselves to another night sleeping on the floor.

Our new home for night two at the airport. That post had one of the few 110v outlets around and there were about 10 iPhone/computers plugged into it.

This time we got some extra sleeping bags as pads, some more crackers and water (I was getting very resourceful at finding stuff by this point) and we set up camp in a corner by the Tully’s. They had run out of food earlier so Meryl set off to find us some dinner. She reported long lines at the stores still open and restaurants were starting to close. She finally found a 7-11 on the basement floor of the terminal and got us some Cup ‘O Noodles for dinner and told me to be very thankful for that. The night was not too bad, although the floor was still cold and hard and the storm continued abashed just outside the huge window we were sleeping next to.

I got up at 3:00 am to see if I could find any of the blow-up air mattress things people seemed to now have. Walking the length of the terminal all I could see were bodies everywhere in fluorescent yellow sleeping bags, all in little groups or encampments. Some of the younger kids were up sitting in circles playing video games. Every electrical outlet had at least 10 iPhone cords plugged via extensions. It was a very surreal scene to say the least.

The next morning, ironically our wedding anniversary, our daughter and son-in-law gave us the greatest gift, a night in the Hyatt Grand Regency in downtown Tokyo. This early in the morning the train lines were not too bad so we took the Kensai line into Shibuya. (I later read on Twitter that the night before it took 8 hours to take a normally 40-minute train ride into Tokyo).

In total there was only about a foot of snow, not enough to get a good Mid-Westerner to even put chains on his car.

All the way in you could see snow blanketing the earth and few cars moving anywhere. Granted, in upstate Minnesota this would have been a non-event but Tokyo is simply not set up for a storm of this magnitude (the biggest snow storm in 40 years). We had the vision to buy a return train ticket when we arrived. Taxis were now running in downtown so we took a cab over to the hotel in the Rappongi area. There wasn’t that much snow on the Tokyo streets but it was still very, very cold.

Our room at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo was like an oasis in the desert.

Outside it was still very, very cold with occasional snow flurries. Not a good day to play tourist in Tokyo.

Seeing that hotel was like seeing Mecca. We went directly to the restaurant and had a wonderful lunch, then checked into a luxury room and took the longest, hottest shower of our lives. We watched a little TV about the storm, read a book, and went down to the spa for swim, onsen, and massage.

This is the control panel for the toilet. God forbid any hackers every get inside the controls.

I have to add a side note about Japanese toilets, because they are phenomenal.  When you enter the toilet room a light comes on and the toilet seat slowly lowers (I don't know how they know whether you are a girl or boy.)  The seat is pre-heated and padded. Once you are finished, you have several options, none of which involve toilet paper. It's a little intimidating at first, but you could learn to love it.

We had a wonderful dinner with Rina Kodama, one of our first Japanese exchange students to live with us in Issaquah.

That night we met Rina, our former Japanese exchange student, down in the Oak Door Restaurant for dinner. The bar is were the movie Lost in Translation was filmed. I had probably one of the best steaks I’ve ever had in my life and a great visit with Rina. Such an extreme change from our last two days at the airport.

Thank you so much Christa and Nash for this incredible gift.

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