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Aug. 14-15, 2006: San Francisco to Tokyo to Kumagaya City

Our journey began in San Leandro, California, where some friends are babysitting our vehicle and trailer while we’re away. They also gave us a lift to the BART station this morning.

BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit, if you’re unfamiliar with it) has considerably extended its rail lines in the years since we moved away from San Francisco; time was, Daily City was as far south as you could go on the western lines, and then if you needed to get to the airport, you’d have to make the other 10 miles or so by bus, taxi or camel. But nowadays, the BART trains roll right up to the SFO terminal. So some things really do improve over time. There was even a helpful ticket agent on hand to wave me on through the gate after Dennis fumbled for several minutes in a futile effort to locate his missing ticket.

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Then he joined Kimberly and our 15-year-old son Zephyr and we walked up to the check-in counter at 10:45, exactly 3 hours prior to scheduled departure. Which we figured was just about right. The pre-flight frenzy at airports has never been pretty, but in recent times, the process has exceeded all previous standards of ugliness. And because of an alleged terrorist plot foiled a few days ago, the airlines have drawn up a whole new roster of inconveniences to inflict upon hapless passengers. Lipstick and toothpaste are now regarded as deadly weapons, as are bottles of water. The latter is an especially troubling addition to us, because we each carry a bottle of water wherever we go.

After steering our way through the check-in gauntlet, we spent some time browsing through the shops in the hopes (unfulfilled, alas) of locating some gift-wrapping paper. In Japan, it’s the custom for guests to bring small gifts for their hosts, preferably something that expresses the character of whatever place they’re coming from. That task in itself is daunting enough, even for folks who travel as much as we do. Because just when you think you’ve found a rare hand-crafted Native American trinket, you turn it over and see the label that says Made in China.

But while we’d already managed to buy a suitable assortment of presents of an easily portable size, another important aspect of the Japanese tradition is to wrap the items in an aesthetically pleasing fashion. And believe it or not, it’s been impossible for us to snag some suitable paper for the last few days. And believe it or not, there wasn’t a scrap of it to be had in San Francisco International Airport. So we resigned ourselves to offering our gifts naked.

We did at least manage to convert our currency before boarding, which makes one less task to take care of upon touchdown. There was plenty of time, even though Kimberly and Zephyr were beginning to panic at the boarding gate before Dennis returned with a fistful of yen.

There was also plenty of time for him to take some medication to alleviate his own panic before liftoff. It had been 18 years since he’d been on a plane, and he’d vowed never to fly again. And for the first couple of hours aloft, he was thoroughly regretting that he’d broken that vow.

There are those among us who feel implacably jittery about being 7 miles above the earth traveling at 500 miles per hour. But this flight and this airline (Northwest) did pretty much everything possible to smooth the rough edges. The takeoff was quite punctual, and beverages and snacks were plentiful. Numerous options were available for movie watching and music listening. And if you enjoy following the progress of the trip, there’s a monitor with the altitude, speed, arrival time, time of trip and other information displayed – in both Japanese and English – as well as a GPS icon of a plane moving along on a map. (The numbers are displayed in both metric and English systems.)

Perhaps the flight would have been considerably shorter if we’d taken a more direct path, a straight shot across the Pacific. But instead, we headed east a bit out of San Francisco, and then north almost to Vancouver before finally arcing west. And even then we hugged the coastline, passing over the tip of Alaska, then above the Aleutian Islands, and apparently even above or within sight of Russia.

And then the little plane on the screen scooted past that magic line that suddenly transformed today into tomorrow.

Near the end of the flight, we were served breakfast, even though it was about midnight by our reckoning, and we’d been surrounded by broad daylight ever since we left. In booking this journey, we’d hoped to arrange vegetarian meals. But when we checked with Northwest’s website, we found only the stipulation that such amenities were available at a price. So we opted to bring along our own victuals instead. But “last night”, we noticed that complimentary dinners were being issued.

We inquired with a flight attendant, and were told that in fact there would be no additional charge for such meals; but no vegetarian dinners were still available, as only two people had ordered them in advance, and they both showed up, and there were no parachutes available for getting rid of them so we could take their food.

Now, at breakfast, we accepted an omelet (which came with two links of sausage which we hastily tossed aside) and found it to be edible enough. And we resolved to check the website again before the return voyage.

About an hour later, we landed at Narita Airport.

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It was 4:45 p.m. local time (the middle of the night by our internal clocks) and we noticed with relief that the sky was overcast and a drizzle was falling. We’d heard that August is hot and muggy in Japan, and those are not our favorite meteorological conditions.

There was a brief detour through immigration to fill out a form and get our passports stamped. There was nothing complicated about the form, but the process of finding the correct paperwork to fill out and the proper line to stand in was a bit confusing. A gentleman walked through with a form we were to fill out, showing us “front and back, front and back”.

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A few minutes later, we were emerging from the baggage claim area with our luggage intact, and greeting our host family, who’d all turned out in force to welcome us: Kimberly’s “Japanese sister” Yukari, her husband Toshihide, their son Keisuke and their daughter Ayaka. Kimberly has known Yukari since they were teenagers, and Yukari came to stay with her family for a while. Dennis had met her on two occasions when she’d visited the states, and on the second time she brought Ayaka and Keisuke with her. This was our first time to meet the husband.

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So after ten and a half hours on a cramped jet, we were ready to stretch our legs a bit, eh? Not quite. There was still a two hour ride to their home in Kumagaya City. It was rather awkward, of course, to ride in a vehicle with the driver on the right and the vehicle on the left side of the road. Every turn around the corner made it feel as if we were about to ram into oncoming traffic.

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But it was a wide-eyed ride for more reasons than that, a trek through utterly unfamiliar territory.  We passed through Tokyo and its outskirts (and Tokyo is a two-syllable word here, my fellow Americans), which seemed to stretch on forever. We asked Yukari a couple of times, “Where are we now?” and she would reply, “Oh, we’re still in Tokyo”.

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Before reaching our destination, we stopped for dinner at a franchise restaurant that nonetheless employed traditional Japanese seating on cushions. The menu may as well have been in Klingon–it was clear from the photos of the entrees that we were on unknown turf here. Sure, we’d had Japanese food before, but not this Japanese. But with the kind assistance of our escorts, we were able to select a couple of vegetarian items that were quite scrumptious. And Dennis had a chance to struggle with chopsticks, with which he’s never been a virtuoso.

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In restaurants in Japan it appears you call the server by ringing a bell on your table. The waitress takes your order on an electronic tablet. And you do not leave a tip.

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En route, we quickly saw that Japan has many of the same franchise stores that are extremely common in the U.S.

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On to the house, where we were shown to our room. We decided not to stay in the usual guest room, an old-style room with sliding doors, mats on the floor and paper windows. It certainly would have been a more authentic experience, but that, unfortunately, included the absence of air conditioning. So instead we settled into the room that Yukari uses for tutoring English to children; it features state-of-the-art AC operated via remote control. So we had a nice cool place to sleep off our jet lag.

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