This post covers September 23rd and 24th of my 2012 trip to Asia. Start with part 1 if you want the whole story.
Flight 5848 from Busan to Tokyo arrived at Narita Airport at 4:30pm JST. Elena got in touch with me through Facebook when I was in South Korea and wanted to meet in Tokyo during my 14 hour return layover. I was happy to oblige. I know Elena from Hojeong’s group of friends that she had when I hosted her in New York City in early 2011. I rented a phone for the day for only 300 yen (about $3.80USD) at the airport. It was a simple phone, but worked well for voice and email. Most importantly, I was no longer burdened with finding a rogue WiFi signal for communicating, which was a nice improvement over the situation in South Korea. I sent Elena my phone number over Facebook.
My connecting flight was from Haneda airport at 6:30AM, so I had the rest of the day and the whole night to explore Tokyo again. My first stop was the Tokyo Sky Tree, which had only recently opened it’s observation deck to the public. At the time of this writing, The Tokyo Sky Tree is the second tallest man-made structure in the world. For this reason, the Sky Tree is on my things I saw on Wikipedia that I want to see in real-life list.
The lobby for the Sky Tree hosts an unnecessarily large number of very polite and friendly ushers guiding people through the whole process. The elevator was massive and fast; it took only 30 seconds to lift our group to the 350 meter high observation deck. I was treated to an expansive night view of the city of Tokyo and surrounding areas. Clearly visible from this high up were the many lighted streets of the city and the endless urbanization that flowed far out into the horizon. I paid a little extra for admission to go the 450M high observation deck. The view was much the same higher up, but at times you could see ghost-like clouds blowing past just a few feet outside the window.
Just as I was about to board the subway towards Tokyo Station, I got a call from Elena. I met her near where she works at Yūrakuchō Station. We were both quite hungry, so Elena led me to a fantastic Okinawan restaurant around the corner. Highlights of the meal were the seared bonito sashimi served as a free appetizer, grape seaweed, and sweet potato ice cream. Elena’s eyes lit up when I told her that I planned to stay up all night and see as much of the city as possible. She said that she could join me for the adventure, so we headed out.
The first stop was the ward of Shibuya, another place on my Wikipedia list for being the inspiration of the cyberpunk aesthetic in Blade Runner. We boarded the last train of the evening, but when we arrived in Shibuya, I was sorely disappointed. None of the lights were on, and nobody was out on the street. It was late on Sunday night after all, but still, this was supposed to be Blade Runner town! Elena explained that after the 2011 earthquake that damaged the city’s nuclear power plant, it saves power by turning off the lights after the trains stop running.
We walked around for a bit and passed by a Karaoke establishment. Just as quick as I could say “Now there’s a crazy Japan vacation thing I could totally do.”, we were in a Karaoke booth and Elena was singing to her Japanese girl group, AKB 48. My prior encounters with Karaoke have been a mix of stage fright and absolute terror, but not this time. In Asia, Karaoke is kept much more private: you and your friends rent a sound proof (and embarrassment-proof) booth that comes equipped with a high-tech touch screen remote to choose the songs to which you will sing. The backdrop to the lyrics is often a music video that accompanies the song; or just some stock video of the streets of a random city around the world. The whole experience is much more like playing a video game with your friends than it is a performance for the entertainment of others. I sang to every classic american pop song in the directory. Elena had never heard any of them, so it didn’t matter if I made up the rhythm or tone of the songs that I didn’t know, and nobody else was there to say anything about it! Elena sang exclusively Japanese songs, I hadn’t heard most of them, but thoroughly enjoyed watching the videos of the AKB48 girls dancing to Elena’s singing. Two and a half hours of Karaoke went by way too quickly.
This was my 24th hour in Japan I still hadn’t had any sushi, so Elena took me to a nearby sushi restaurant. The eel sushi was awesome, as was the miso soup. The correct way to consume miso soup in Japan is to pick the bowl up to your mouth and slurp it. Elena gave me a confused look when I explained that in America, we eat miso soup with Asian soup spoons. The notable item at this place was the abalone sushi. I ordered it because I had never had it before. It was a bit tough; I prefer escargot. One thing I like about Asia, or at least the two countries I visited, is that it’s perfectly acceptable to yell at the waitstaff when you want something. Each time when we wanted to order something, Elena would yell out what we wanted, or she would tell me what to yell and I’d do it. It was great fun; and also a bit of a stress reliever!
We took a taxi to the nearby Meiji Shrine, but were only able to see what was visible from the outside at night because the park was closed. It was also getting close to the time I would have to leave the city, so we headed back to the train station to get my backpack, then took the monorail to Haneida Airport, where I returned my rented phone and boarded the plane. It was tough saying good-bye to Elena; we had such a good time together that I considered staying in Tokyo instead of flying back to the States. Some day soon I will.
I had to check my backpack in before boarding the flight because of the bottle of wine I bought at the gift shop in the DMZ. I left my sleeping pills in my backpack and began to panic when I realized this. There was no way I would be able to sleep packed into economy seating for 14 hours on the flight back to NYC. I was going to be a zombie when I arrived in NYC and would make a terrible first impression at my new job that I was expected to be at 3 hours after landing at JFK. I actually asked the flight staff, in vain, if they could rescue some “important medication” form my luggage. Thankfully for the rest of the passengers, the answer was a firm “no.” Resigned to 14 hours of not sleeping, and making a terrible impression on my first day at Kaplan, I began trying to find the most comfortable position in my economy seat.
The attractive all-female JAL staff for the flight from NYC to Tokyo had been replaced in flight AA 134 by a much more diverse, all-American staff for the flight back. The staff was, however, just as friendly in their own American way. One of the flight attendants noticed me struggling with my tiny airplane pillow, and suggested that if I wanted to sleep during the flight, I could fold the arm rests up in my row and lie down. Economy seating was only about 10% occupied, but I thought this was because passengers were still boarding. It turned out that the flight was severely undersold, and I would have all the space I needed to have a first-class night in Economy! I slept well and arrived at JFK refreshed and ready to start my new Job. The AirTrain JFK, Long Island Railroad, and NYC Subway A train all connected perfectly for my commute from the airport to my apartment. From aircraft to apartment, it took under and hour. I even had about an hour to sleep in my bed before I had to get ready to leave for my first day at Kaplan.
I’d like to finish this series by saying thanks to everyone that I met for the friendship, food, and general exchange of culture. To my couch-hosts especially; Tim, Hye Yoon, and Hojeong, for giving me a glimpse into your lives on the other side of the world. Come stay at my place in NYC whenever you like.
- Asia 2012 – Part 9 – Partying in Pohang and amused in Gyeongju
- Southern Peru 2013 Part 1 – Inca Jungle Trek