Sunday, June 7, 2009

"Sherry/Sharon's Big Adventure chapter the first.5:" what I found when I got here

Section 1: My first 12 hour plane ride

As aforementioned, I flew out of Salt Lake City, into Narita Airport next to (alas, not in, as I discovered) Tokyo. The plane flew up over Idaho, over Vancouver, over the Aleutian Island, and down over northern Japan (sort of), making a big arc over the north Pacific. I don't know why one would do this, as it would seem that flying in a straight line would go faster; but what do I know? In any case, it was a TWELVE HOUR FLIGHT. This was also on the largest plane I've ever flown on -- 40-odd rows, with a business class *and* and a first class, as well a coach class for the rest of us schmoes. Coach class had eight seats across -- two, aisle, four, aisle, two. Bizarrely enough, since I assumed that such an expensive flight would need to be filled up to the brim, no one was sitting next to me, so I could stretch out (ha! sort of) and take a 2-hour nap. I then proceeded to while away about eight of the twelve hours most unproductively, by listening to music, zoning out, and watching a silly romantic comedy ("New in Town.") They provided us with two meals *and* an ice cream bar, free of charge. (I picked off the chocolate cookies on the outside of my bar and was fine.) I was frankly surprised. The movie was all right, except that it was about Miami executive lady moving from the big city to a small town in Minnesota, so it kind of made me homesick. Things have changed; now they have little "entertainment centers" on the backs of the seats, with games and about ten movies to pick from. I think about four hours got eaten by the tile game.

The plane was kept essentially dark for the whole ride, as most people tried to sleep or watch movies. Every so often I would crack my window, then close it as I was blinded by the onslaught of sun. (Glare results from excess contrast. . . ) As we were coming into Japan, I opened it again to look out, and had the somewhat fateful thought: "Oh, it doesn't look that different from home. . . "

Getting out of the airport went fine; to deal with the swine flu scare, we had to fill out a single-sheet questionnaire asking if we felt ill or not. We then walked through a room labeled "Quarantine" and were handed a yellow sheet saying, "You have been quarantined." The international terminal was weirdly empty; there were only about two other flights coming in at the same time ours was. (Bad economy? Swine flu? who knows.)

I had two enormous bags and a backpack totaling about 70 lbs (guck), so I had no intention of taking the subway. There is instead the "airport limousine bus," located directly outside the exit. I bought my 3000 yen ticket (~$30-$35), they loaded my luggage, and I climbed on board. After noting somewhat anxiously that in Japan one drives on the left side of the road and delightedly identifying rice fields (come on, there are no rice fields in Iowa), I promptly fell asleep. This was somewhat unfortunate, since upon the bus's arrival at Shinjuku station two hours later (Narita International Airport being unexpectedly FORTY MILES away from the center of Tokyo) I was groggy and disoriented.

Section 2: The search for the yellow house

I should probably start by saying that I was TOTALLY OVERWHELMED. The feeling of scrambling around in the area around the Shinjuku train station was approximately the same as how I felt when dumped off by the bus in Times Square last summer -- i.e. PEOPLE PEOPLE LIGHTS COLORS HOLY CRAP. Except it was compounded by the panicked thought of a variety of language usage disaster scenarios -- not being understood in English, using Japanese to someone who understood English perfectly well, misunderstanding a simple phrase in Japanese, using the word for "kitchen" when I meant "subway". . .

However, most nerve-wracking was the fact that I needed to find the central office for my housing agency before 7:30 to get the paperwork I needed filled out, or else I would have to stay in a hotel that night and then find the office the next morning. I had a map to the office with pictures of landmarks, but the map was meant for someone coming off the subway, not for someone coming off the bus. I took three ten minute detours before finally locating the right street but did get there on time. I was given a bundle of papers to sign, a cup of very green, very bitter tea, and some jelly-bean-like candies in a bag that a flavor and texture I had not previously encountered. I was amused that taking off one's shoes "to maintain the flooring" was mentioned in the lease.

Then. . . began the search for my house. I was a little worried when two of the housing employees warned me that the place is hard to find, and the one laughed kind of nervously and said he still gets lost sometimes after two or three visits. The subway station closest to where I am living is ~7 stops away from Shinjuku. I will tell you that wending your way through dense crowds of trendy and/or weirdly dressed Japanese youth hauling three heavy bags is not an experience to be envied. I don't think anyone actually noticed me, but I kept expecting laughter to start at any minute.

With some help from passersby, I managed to get to Shibuya by myself, the stop my subway line branches out from on the circular Yamanote line that goes around central Tokyo. At this point another passerby, an older Japanese man who spoke fluent English, helped me change to the correct subway line and get to the correct stop. At this point it was totally dark outside, and I still had at least a ten minute walk to my house through a truly labyrinthine residential neighborhood consisting primarily of two-story houses with only tiny gardens and one-car streets in between. A few more detours later I found my house on a street that isn't even wide enough for one car.

I brought my stuff in and flipped on the air conditioner (yay! I have one!) Because I wasn't sure if I would be able to get into my house last night or not, I had told my employer I would be coming in one Tuesday, so I knew I didn't have to wake up early. I set up my internet connection (which is lovely and fast!), talked to my parents for 30 minutes on Skype, then fell asleep without unpacking anything.

Section 3: My safety hidey hole

This morning I woke up of my own accord at 7 AM after about 9 hours of sleep. Unpacking took about an hour. My room is certainly not enormous, but it is comfortably sized, about 8' x 8', not including the closet space on one side of the room. I have been in smaller singles at MIT. I also have a big window, nearly as wide as my bed is long, that looks out into the neighbor's garden. A desk, chair, bookcase, chest of drawers, hangers, bedding, cup, plate, dish, fork, knife, and spoon are provided (one word: score!) Everything I brought fits easily in the storage space provided. There is a communal bathroom and kitchen with a two-burner stove, a microwave, two refrigerators, a toaster oven, and a tiny coin-operated washer and dryer. Doing one small load of laundry costs over $4 (400 yen). Holy crappola!

I was a little unenthusiastic about going out again after how spectacularly busy it had seemed the night before, but I hadn't eaten since 4:00 PM the previous afternoon and was getting a little hungry (but not a lot, thank you large and fortuitously timed airplane meal.)

Tokyo has a lot of vending machines just standing out in the middle of nowhere, or, in my case, in the middle of a residential neighborhood. From one of these about a block away I was able to acquire a bottle of "Power H20" for 150 yen as I searched for a 7/11. 7/11 is apparently everywhere in Tokyo, which is fortunate for me, because they have cheap food and international ATMs. I passed a number of small beautiful garden, including one with an orange tree :), before I got out to the main street that goes past the subway station. I passed four or five restaurants selling noodles and sukiyaki, but I didn't quite feel up to more interactions that would show off what a tourist dunderhead I am. I also passed a "Family Mart" that I will be returning to fairly shortly in search of shampoo and toothpaste, as well as a greengrocer's selling fruit and veggies. The 7/11 was about a 20-minute jaunt, but I was rewarded with a small sandwich, a rice patty flavored with a little soy sauce, and a package of noodles -- breakfast and lunch for 330 yen, or about $4. The sandwich turned out to be the weirdest thing I picked up, so I threw out the fried patty in the center of it of unidentified animal origin. Then I headed back toward home, with a guilty stop by another vending machine to get a diet Coke. (Comfort drink.)

I think shortly I will go looking for my office and a place to buy toiletries, but right now I'm feeling a nap coming on. Adventure is tiring. :/


  1. Hi, Sherry. Just checking in to let you know we are reading your updates with great delight. I still have the sympathy gag-thing going over your mystery meat-tofu-whatever patty. Your adventurous food-tasting spirit can only go so far. Keep those blogs coming! Love, Mom & Dad

  2. P.S. - Sherry, I don't know why the comments list our signature as mom& dad. That is very weird. I am assuming that I pressed some mystery button. You know how good I am at doing that. Well, I guess you can figure out who it is from...

  3. P.S.S. - Now I am really perplexed. When I typed "Mom &dad" it deleted the amp out to just mom&dad (in my previous comment). Well, just remember that whenever mom&dad comment comes up it really means from Mom & Dad. How special.