After making all kinds of preparations, plans, schemes, ideas, fallbacks, etc. to get ready for the trip, finally the big day came: takeoff! My plan was to fly out of Nashville Tennessee, after staying with my brother and his family for a couple of days. I had decided to drive my car down to White House, so that it wouldn’t be sitting in the parking lot of my apartment for a whole month (even old cars can be tempting to thieves!), plus my brother or his kids could use it in a pinch.
The convention was going to start on the 30th of August, which was a Thursday, so my buddy John and I decided to get to Yokohama a few days earlier, in order to get our bearings and locate the important places (food, hotel, convention center, etc.) well in advance. I left Nashville on August 24th on American, John flew ANA, and we got to Narita airport at about the same time on the afternoon of the 25th. Yes, you really do lose a day going over the dateline, but you make it up going back (the Longest Day!).
I had managed to use some frequent flyer miles to get an upgrade to business class, so I was able to sleep a good part of the way (melatonin pills helped) and got to Japan relatively rested. I say relatively because by the time we reached the convention hotel, I was dazed, confused, bewildered, and culture shocked, to the point I couldn’t find the hotel literally steps away from the train station exit!
Before getting to the hotel, though we had to maneuver through Narita Airport, a major Asian hub, divided into two separate terminals (really, their own airports). Through the convention we were able to rent cell phones for the month which would work in Japan, but finding the correct kiosk was tricky. Once we had both managed to get through customs, get our respective baggage, and score our phones, John and I met up in Terminal 2 (ANA and their partners land in Terminal 1 a short train ride away). Since it was very warm, we decided to try to find a place to sit down and have a cool drink. After much wandering we came across a small airport deli and proceeded to toast our successful arrival with a couple of bottles of cold Japanese green tea.
While we were sitting and resting, I noticed that people were leaving their full luggage carts outside the deli, and no one seemed to be worried about someone walking off with one or two! This was my first exposure to the reality of Japan as a fantastically safe country. Crime exists there, of course, but on a much smaller scale number-wise than in the US. Very little theft, few murders, very very few assaults. One of the reasons is probably the Japanese prison system, which is notorious for being harsh. But, there is also a strong belief in “face”, not doing things that would bring shame on you and by extension on those around you. It’s difficult, and can be abused, but it works for them, and it works to make visitors feel comfortable and welcome.
One of the last things John and I did at Narita was to cash in our JR Rail Pass vouchers, so we could take the train to Yokohama without having to worry about paying for a ticket. At the JR office on the first floor, I also came face to (very cute) face with Japanese bureaucracy. In order to actually get the pass, the pleasant and very cute girl at the desk had to check passports, check vouchers, and stamp page after page after page of forms! Japanese people use a personal stamp called a “hanko”, which they can use in lieu of physically signing the way we do in cursive. Each hanko is registered to a specific person, in a central database, so that the stamp is as good as a signature, and used on formal legal documents.
The JR girl was “hanko”-ing right and left, and finally she handed me a small booklet which was the actual pass, with the expiration date prominent inside. She told me how to use it, I was to show it to any gate attendant, and they would wave me through. Of course, I was going to try it out within a few minutes, in order to catch the Narita Express (“N’Ex”) train to Yokohama, First though, John and I had to wander around the platforms trying to distinguish which train of all the different types was the one we wanted! Of course, after almost picking one at random, we figured out that it was wrong, and we barely made it to the correct train far down the platform!
The train ride from Narita to Yokohama Station passed by in a haze for me, as it was getting dark by then and I was starting to fade from exhaustion (14 hours on the plane, 6 hours sleep, and 5 hours walking around after landing, and almost 2 hours on the train, urf!). I had enough presence of mind to find the right train to catch from Yokohama station to Sakuragicho station, where the hotel was. The Washington Sakuragicho Hotel is right on the station, almost literally on top of it, but inside the station itself there weren’t any signs (at least none in English, du-doy) pointing to the hotel entrance, nor any maps mentioning which of the two entrances of the station it was on.
I managed to ask a semi-intelligent question (in Japanese!) of the woman running the station newsstand, exactly where the hotel was. She looked at me somewhat pityingly and said in broken English that it was right out the exit “over there, and go up the escalator”. Well, I thanked her, then John and I walked outside onto the station plaza, looked straight up, and saw the prominent “Washington Hotel” sign some 15 floors up. Embarrassment is not operable after a certain stage of exhaustion, so we just followed the directions to the lobby and checked in. Once we got checked in and got the keycards to the room, we staggered into the room and discovered the lack of light switch. As an experiment I slipped my keycard into a slot on the wall, and viola! Electricity! Light! AIR CONDITIONING!! (I thought I knew hot, living in DC, but Japan in August, whooof!)
Unfortunately neither of us had a functioning brain at that point, and so we just dropped assorted baggage in assorted places and retired to our respective beds (fortunately Western length!) Also unfortunately, we couldn’t figure out where the light switches were, and so we alternately got up to take the keycard out of the power switch to turn the lights out to sleep, and then stagger back to turn the lights and AC back on once it got too hot. The next day I discovered that the switches were all on a control panel on the table between the beds, which was a major relief! Naturally discovering this was embarrassing, but I decided it was just another data point to keep in mind, whenever I went to another Japanese hotel.
The next morning began foggy. The weather was clear, I was foggy! Since the hotel was kind enough to provide it, John and I made our way down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast buffet while they cleaned the room. It was a magnificent spread, including both Western and Japanese style breakfast food, both of which we both piled on. At the time, the breakfast was 1000 yen, which was just under $10, so it was a lot of food, for not much money. This was not exactly what we have all heard about Japan, and I determined to find other ways to live cheap, there in one of the most expensive countries on earth! I had to, if for no other reason than being able to afford to live the whole month there!
While we ate, John and I availed ourselves of the view of Yokohama from the restaurant (which was on the 7th floor, it was quite a view!) to try to get our bearings. Using the maps provided by the hotel we figured out where we were, where some of the neat places to see were in relation to the hotel, and tried to figure out just how far apart things were (we underestimated). We determined to get to the convention center that day, in order to see how long it would take, so as not to be late for any convention activities once they started up.
Fortified with a good breakfast, we wandered back to the cleaned-up room, where we started unpacking and setting up: connecting laptops to the Internet, charging phones, prepping cameras, everything a 21st Century tourist needs to do.
Finally, preparations complete, it was time…
… to take a nap. Did I mention the lack of sleep, before?
Next: Wandering in Yokohama!