I’m 6 months late, but I finally have the time/ motivation to blog about my week long adventure in Japan! Japan has been on my bucket list since high school. Luckily, during my first year of my first grad program I met my friend, Jane, through swing dancing (of course). She then moved to Japan for work after she graduated and I immediately made plans to someday visit her. Our tentative plans for me to visit became concrete when I realized being unemployed between the 1st and 2nd year of my MA program was the perfect time to travel.
For the sake of keeping my blog posts relatively short, I am going to split my experience into three posts- one about my journey to Japan, one about our adventures in Osaka and Kyoto, and one about Saitama and Tokyo.
Flying + Excitement for Trip= Unexpected Hiccups
I hypothesize that the more excited you are for a trip, the more likely it is that something weird will happen with your flight itinerary. It happened the first time I went to Spain when one of the plane’s engines had trouble and we had to spend 12 hours in St. John’s, Newfoundland . This time an unexpected hiccup happened before my trip to Japan even began!
The night before I was supposed to leave I got re-booked to leave the U.S. a whole day later due to flooding in Dallas. The flight I was supposed to take from Dallas to Tokyo was fine, but my first flight was canceled for whatever reason. I spent the next couple of hours trying to figure out if 1) I could still flight out that next day, and 2) when it turned out I was stuck with a 24 hour delay, Facebook messaging Jane like crazy about how to handle the delay.
You see, Jane had already gotten an unrefundable ticket to a show she wanted to see in Osaka. She would not be able to meet me at the Narita Airport. That meant I had to brave the Japanese train system by myself! Okay, so I had a lot of help from Jane who sent me very clear and detailed information about how to pick-up my JR Pass at the airport and how to get seats on the two trains I needed to take, but it was still a challenge that I wasn’t expecting. However, I traveled quite a bit by train when I was in Italy so I wasn’t too worried about it and I figured it would make a good story later on (and I was right).
Surviving a 13 hour flight
My flight from Chicago to Japan is by far the longest I have ever been on at 13 hours. My previous record was 9 hours from Dallas to Spain.
The first thing I did to prep was buy a Lucear inflatable neck pillow. In the past I have fallen asleep on planes, only to be rudely awoken when my head falls forward. The pillow and my silicone ear plugs seemed to do the trick because I was actually able to sleep on the plane!
Once on the plane, I set my wristwatch to Japan’s time zone and then attempted to sleep until it was 8 or 9am over there even though my body kept telling me it was afternoon back home. Making myself sleep while it was nighttime in Japan actually seemed to help with the jet lag! While in Japan I had minimal jet lag. I even had a full appetite the first full day I was there which usually doesn’t happen when I am jet lagged.
Something else I do to cope with long flights is I always try to get the aisle seat so I can stretch at least one of my legs. I can also get up to use the restroom without having to wake others. At first I was afraid I was going to be stuck in a middle seat because my flight got changed! Fortunately the computer had placed me in between an elderly Japanese couple who asked if I would be willing to trade seats with one of them. Of course I said yes and was able to get my aisle seat after all!
Getting from Narita Airport to Osaka
Once I landed in the Narita airport, my first task was to pick up my rail pass. As a tourist, I was able to purchase voucher for a Japan Rail (JR) Pass before I left the U.S.. While the pass was pricey (~$260), it was worth it because it allowed me to travel between Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto as well as within the cities themselves. Not all train companies or routes are covered by the pass, but it was able to get me where I needed to go.
After grabbing my pass, I made my way down to the platform where I could take the Narita Express to the Shinegawa station in Tokyo (~1 hr trip). I quickly emailed and Facebook messaged Jane to tell her which train I was taking and my approximate arrival time in Osaka. I did not have phone or data access while in Japan, but luckily most stations have free WiFi spots.
Once I reached Shinegawa Station, I had a bit of trouble finding the platform for my train to Osaka. The station was super busy and overwhelming because it was dinner time so the commuters were in the middle of their rush hour. I quickly stepped to the side of the station and tried to use my station map to figure out where I needed to go. I couldn’t have been standing there for more than 30 seconds when a man approached me, asking hopefully “Do you speak English?”
“Yes?” I responded a little uncertainly.
“You looked like someone who would speak English,” he said with relief. He introduced himself as “Mac” from Dubai and explained that we was having trouble finding his next train. We quickly bonded over our mutual confusion. Finding myself responsible for another person, I quickly gained the courage to approach a security guard and ask for directions. Maybe it’s because I’m an oldest child and I like taking care of others, but I’m much more likely to go out of my comfort one and ask someone for help if I’m helping someone else rather than just myself.”Yes?” I responded, a little surprised to be approached by someone who was clearly not Japanese.
I approached the security guard, saying “Sumimasen” which means “excuse me” (and is one of only 3 or 4 words I know in Japanese). I showed him my ticket, asking where to find the Hikari 525. His face brightened a little at my tiny bit of Japanese and he kindly pointed towards the exit to the terminal and then to the right. Unfortunately, Mac did not have a train ticket and the security guard did not seem to understand which city Mac was hoping to travel to. I quickly thanked the guard in Japanese, told Mac it was nice to meet him, and made my way to my next train platform. I felt a little bad leaving Mac to fend for himself, but my connection time was pretty short.
Two more hours on a train and I was finally in Osaka! Unfortunately train stations in Japan are HUGE because they are part shopping center, part transportation center in order to accommodate the vast amounts of commuters who go through them. Jane had told me to meet her at the East Exit. However, after losing track of signs that pointed me towards that exit, I again approached a guard, asking him where to find the East Exit while pointing to it on my map. He was also very friendly and with his help I found the exit where Jane was waiting for me! After ~23 hrs of traveling I had finally made it to my first destination and I could not wait to crawl into bed!