I was bursting at the seams with excitement and exuberance as Justin drove me to O’Hare in Chicago. I was so excited for this trip that was about to unfold before me, but, to be honest, I was very nervous and maybe slightly fearful. My first flight was from Chicago to Tokyo, which was a 13 hour flight. After the layover in Tokyo, I had another 7 hour flight ahead of me from Tokyo to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. Needless to say, I was dreading my immediate future. I am unfortunately a smoker so I checked myself in and then hung out outside of the terminal until about an hour and a half before my scheduled flight (there aren’t any smoking rooms in most U.S. airports). This allowed me time to get through security, get to my gate on time and give me the comfort of being able to smoke before the plane took off. When Justin dropped me off at O’Hare, I really felt alone. Not in a lonely way, but in a holy shit this is happening kind of way. I was alone and getting ready to board my flight to Tokyo, 6,000 miles away. I was so excited. I had been waiting for this day for a long time, and it was actually happening. I got through security and found my gate. O’Hare really is a big airport. There are people everywhere and the airport is like a city unto itself.
After I called my mom and touched base with her, I sat at my gate, waiting for the time to come. An older couple sat next to me and the husband made mention to me that he liked my luggage tag, which was a Star Wars tag. The man was from Munich, but moved to Australia and his wife was an Aussie. The wife didn’t say much but the husband wouldn’t stop. We talked about politics, pop culture, sci-fi and just everyday life. I was amazed by the man’s accent, which was an interesting mixture of German and Australian. In fact, we got so deep in conversation that I had to kindly tell him that I HAD to go because my flight was ready to board. As we said goodbye, and I started to walk away, he started talking again! I finally told him that it was wonderful talking to him but I had to leave now. He smiled and said goodbye. He was a super nice guy, but impossible to get away from. I bet his wife is worn out from all of the chatter.
As I boarded the ANA Airways (based in Japan) flight, I was amazed by how large the plane was. It was decked out with screens on the back of the headrest in front of you. The movie selection was pretty eclectic. They had several new releases, including the new Kong, which I was excited about seeing but it left quite a bit to be desired. The plane left the airport at 5:25pm. The flight was a whopping 13 hours long. I was in for a grueling flight. I lucked out on the flight because I didn’t have anyone next to me so I was able to lie down. I got some sleep, but it is never restful sleep that one gets on a plane. After one bout of sleep, I woke up and all of the lights were out and it was dark outside. We were experiencing quite a bit of turbulence. Between the darkness, turbulence and lack of people on the plane, I was consumed by a very eerie feeling. Most of it could probably be attributed to the fact that I was still half asleep as I looked around the cabin. After the turbulence settled, I was able to get some more shut-eye. After a couple more hours or sleep, I woke up and I new I was up for good. It was time for our meal. ANA serves very good meals, especially for airplane standards. They served salmon and tuna sushi rolls, eel sashimi and a bowl of rice with fruit on the side. The stewardesses were so kind and so very polite. They went out of their way to make sure everyone was taken care of. I looked at the monitor in our cabin and it said that there were still 5 hours left on our flight. Sweet Jesus, 5 more hours?! It had already felt like an eternity. I figured if I watched two two hour movies, I would have the last hour to figure out what I was going to do for my layover in Japan. So that’s what I did. I watched The Fugitive and then I watched Shawshank Redemption, both classics. After the films, I was so ready to be off the plane. I wanted a cigarette more than anything. Damn did I want a cigarette. I was Jonesin’! The monitor said that we had about an hour left on the flight. The map showed us being pretty close to Japan. It was then that I realized how far away from home I was. About twenty minutes out, the captain announced our final approach to Tokyo.
When I got into the airport, I was in awe. I had arrived at Haneda, one of Tokyo’s international airports. The airport was in an ultra-modern style that only reinforced my expectations of Tokyo. Ultra-modern, highly westernized and loaded with technology. Before I went out into Tokyo, I had to go through customs. My luggage was checked all the way to Jakarta, so I didn’t have to worry about claiming that after customs. I finished with customs and then I came to an elevator that would lead me down to the “arrivals” section of the airport. I was standing in front of the elevator, waiting to open and people who wanted on the elevator formed a line behind me. Not a mob. Not a cluster of people. A line. Without saying a word to one another, they formed a line behind me. It was then that I realized how orderly and polite Japanese culture is. I went down the elevator and I was dying to get a cigarette. I found the smoking room and pulled the sliding door open. As I opened the door, I heard the sounds of J-Pop and the chatter of 10-15 Japanese businessmen who were in the smoking room, all surrounded by a cloud of smoke. As I looked around at all of the businessmen, I realized that they probably just got back from a long trip and are on their way home, my adventure, was just beginning. I sat there and listened to the businessmen describe their days to their friends or the people next to them, not having the slightest clue what they were saying, and I realized that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. All of their cigarette packs were in Japanese… yeah, I was far away. I withdrew some yen from the ATM. After that, it was time to explore Tokyo. I headed for the exit.
I walked out of the airport and all I could see were a row of taxis waiting for clients. I wanted to use Uber but my international service for data wasn’t quite online yet so I was stuck with a taxi. You always want to use Uber in a foreign country because the app sets the price, and there is no way for the driver to manipulate the fare. However, I was lucky and I got a fair, albeit cantankerous taxi driver. I chose the first taxi in the row and hopped in the back. The taxi smelled like cigarettes and sake, which was a huge departure from the rest of Tokyo which was very clean and refreshed. I told the taxi driver to take me to any sushi bar near the airport that was moderately priced. He had no idea what I was saying so I whipped out GoogleTranslate and got my point across. He laughed, “any sushi bar?” he said. He kept laughing and then told me that I had to pick a destination and he couldn’t just choose one for me. So, I googled sushi bars and I had him take me to a little sushi bar called Ariso Sushi. It was moderately priced and near the airport. Off we were! I was amazed at how clean and orderly Tokyo was. It was almost like it was a movie or a dream. I didn’t see one piece of trash anywhere! I knew that Japanese culture was very clean, but this was obsessive! As we drove around, I noticed that many shops and restaurants were closed. This was disappointing but not surprising. I did arrive in Tokyo fairly late, but hey, I’ll get to experience the nightlife. The taxi driver dropped me off in front of Ariso. There was a hotel next door that had pod rooms and small hotel rooms. I decided I wanted a hub that I could use to freshen up and go back to after walking around Tokyo. So I went inside and booked a room. The hotel attendant was very nice and she spoke a little bit of English so it was easy for me to get through check-in. I decided to leave my book bag in the room and only take my yen and my credit card with me, leaving my debit card in the room. The debit card was the most important thing I had to keep track of other than my passport, so I decided to leave it in the room. The room was very, very small, with a sizable bed in the center and a small path around the bed. It also had a very small bathroom and that’s all there was to it.
I left the hotel and walked to Ariso. I was very hungry and I was so excited to finally get to have real sushi. Ariso was your run of the mill sushi joint. It had a bar that wrapped around the area that they make sushi and there were booths on the other side of that. It was made of mostly polished wood, which gave it a traditional Japanese feel but at the same time it felt very modern as well. The sushi chef gave me a nod and a smile, welcomed me, and asked me what I wanted to eat. I decided on a eel roll, squid roll and flying salmon roe. It was a small sushi bar but it was a full house. He seemed to be the only one working but he kept preparing sushi in an almost robotic fashion. One could tell that this wasn’t his first day making sushi. Despite how busy he was, he stayed focused and cool. As the orders kept piling up, he maintained his stoic look and kept at his work. There was a clean cut man in a suit going around from table to table or customer to customer, making his rounds. I thought it was pretty professional (and good for business) for the owner to make conversation with his guests. He made his way over to me and said “ahhhh, a westerner!”. Everyone turned and looked at me. I’m not shy so I stood up and said “kon’nichiwa” and shook his hand. I complimented him on his fine establishment and he asked what I was doing in Tokyo. I said that I was there only for a layover and that I was on my way to Indonesia. After I told him my plans for my trip, he shook my hand and told me to enjoy my meal, as my sushi was being served by the robotic chef. As I picked up my chopsticks and put the squid roll in my mouth, I was immediately overtaken by how fresh and delicate this squid roll was. The squid roll is a very risky roll to eat in the US not because it is raw, but because most of the time the squid is rubbery. This wasn’t the case with my roll in Tokyo. I had to remind myself that I was indeed eating a squid roll. The eel roll practically melted in my mouth and the salmon roe was wonderful.
I left the sushi bar and turned right. I didn’t know what direction to go in so I just chose right. I was a little disappointed by just how westernized Tokyo was. I imagine I could get a more traditional experience in Kyoto or a smaller city in Japan but Japan wasn’t my destination. I was still in awe by just how clean the streets were. I know I’ve mentioned that already but I can’t express just how nice it was there. It was about 10:30pm, so, at this point, most of the stores closed or were in the process of closing, and I wasn’t going to be THAT guy. There were neon lights and bright electronic signs with advertisements. The streets were still bustling and there were quite a few people still trekking on the sidewalks. The data on my phone still wasn’t working so I decided that it was probably necessary to restart the phone. That fixed it. Great. I had data. I walked for maybe 6 blocks and I came across a DVD/Bluray store that was open 24/7. I went on in.
One thing about Japan that really stands out as far as aesthetics go is everything there is very colorful, there are bright colors that jump out at you with wild designs. From signs, to cars, to architecture, to documents or merchandise, everything has very pretty colors in Tokyo. I was also blown away by how polite everyone was in Tokyo. People smiled if you made eye contact and everyone I interacted with was very pleasant. Never in my life had I been to a place so full of patience and pleasantries. Anyway, the DVD store had row after row of domestic and foreign films and TV shows, mostly domestic. The foreign films included quite a bit of stuff from Hollywood as well as avant-garde European films. There was even a section for Hong Kong action flicks, which are a favorite of mine. There was a plethora of domestic TV shows including Shin Chan, Kaimen Rider and Lupin the 3rd. I didn’t end up buying anything, which I regret now. I left the DVD store and continued my journey.
I still regret not going to Shinjuku. Shinjuku is the gay district of Tokyo. I could have gone but it would have been risky because of the relatively short amount of time I had available to me. I had a 13 hour layover but that didn’t afford me a lengthy exploration of the city. I didn’t really get to do much when I was in Tokyo but I did get to see quite a bit. I did go into a karaoke bar for a drink. I didn’t do any singing, but I did lounge for a while as my ears were violated by amateur singers. Yes, karaoke is bad in Japan too. To be honest, I have no idea what kind of drink I ordered, but it was fruity and stout. It was pretty tasty. I finished my drink and I decided that was enough of the karaoke bar. I continued down the sidewalk. By this time, it was getting late. I had about 6 or 7 hours until my flight to Jakarta. I decided it was time to retire back to the hotel room and relax. I walked about 3 hours and I figured I was pretty far from the hotel. I pulled up google maps and I had walked several kilometers in the opposite direction. I knew it would take me at least that same amount of time to get back so the only option was to Uber back to the hotel. Once back at the hotel, I only allowed myself a couple hours of sleep because I knew I had to stay awake as much as possible so that I could more easily acclimate to the time difference in Indonesia.
I got some sleep and woke up three hours prior to the flight. I got freshened up and headed down to the shuttle that was provided by the hotel. While I was waiting for the shuttle to leave, I peaked around the corner of the hotel and snapped this picture:
This was an alleyway that connects two streets. Their alleyways are similarly laid out to ours in the west. Each alleyway also has stores and restaurants that line the walkway. When I was walking around Tokyo, I took every opportunity to walk down one of these alleyways. There was something not only aesthetically pleasing about the alleyways in this urban jungle but there was also something calming about them. Even walking around the city at night, I never once felt that I was in danger or needing to look over my shoulder. After I snapped the picture I hopped on the shuttle and headed to the airport. On the way to the airport, I snapped this picture:
The airport was monstrous. The shuttle dropped me off at the international terminal of the airport and I made my way through security. I went to the duty-free shop and bought some snacks and water for the flight. After waiting at my gate for a little while, my flight was called and I was off to Jakarta, Indonesia.