Picking up where I left off…
Katou-san and I pulled up to the bus stop, which was deserted. The two of us unloaded my stuff and went into a little McDonald’s nearby. He bought me breakfast because I was basically broke by then, and I was too tired and hungry to argue. There wasn’t time to sit down and eat there, so I took my food to go. I thanked Katou-san as sincerely as I could manage and went back out to load my things under the bus. After another round of thanks, I said goodbye and boarded the bus with my laptop and breakfast. The trip took just under an hour, and I paid the driver my last 1400円 (which I’d set aside the day before). As I hauled one of my big suitcases from under the bus and set it down on the sidewalk at the airport, its weight was enough to finally snap one of the wheels completely off. Dammit.
Centrair was as I remembered it, though maybe less crowded due to the early hour. The guys who check bags before the weighing counter told me I had to remove a lighter from one suitcase — a Hatsune Miku lighter, to be exact, which I’d largely forgotten I had, requiring me to unzip the side partway and fish around for it before stashing it in one of my carry-ons. My broken-wheeled suitcase was overweight, requiring an extra fee. Nothing I could do at that point; I was just glad to finally be at the airport, so I paid. It was a short flight to Narita, and once aboard the plane, I was finally able to relax.
I lugged my heavy bags through Narita to the security checkpoint, and one of the ladies there asked if she could check my duffel bag. “Something looks like a shuriken in there,” she said. I assured her that it was a shuriken; I’d bought it in Kyoto. She told me I couldn’t have that on the plane, and seemed on the verge of confiscating it. Finally, she admitted there was a counter upstairs where it could be checked in, called ahead, and then told me that there really wasn’t much time because my next flight was leaving soon, but I convinced her to at least try, so we were off. It wasn’t all that far, really, and the “checking in” consisted of a lady examining the thing, wrapping it in a piece of paper, taping it to the bottom of a small cardboard box, and sending it ahead as a piece of luggage. My escort ran me back downstairs and got me past the line to my plane.
For both the previous flight and the long flight, I was lucky enough to have an aisle seat. Many people prefer a window seat, but I’ve flown enough times that it’s lost its novelty. An aisle seat affords me a little more leg room, as well as allowing me to get up without having to bother the people beside me. My seat wasn’t too far from the rear of the plane, fairly close to both the bathroom and the kitchen. I hauled my stuff up into the overheads and sat down. My neighbors were a couple from Chicago who freely switched between Spanish and English on the flight, and kept largely to themselves; they didn’t seem interested in chatting. I found that by the time I was settled in, I was starving again, and sheepishly asked one of the staff if I could have a snack or something. She brought me two bags of their excellent rice snack, and I used one to quiet my stomach.
We took off more or less on time, and the captain remarked that we’d be a little delayed due to a “weak tailwind.” Once we were in the air, I tilted my seat back and managed to get about three hours of sleep before our first meal. My choice was seafood curry with a “cheese hamburg” (small ground-beef patty with cheese cooked inside), which also came with a salad and vegetable sticks, as well as a tiny tub of cookies-and-cream Häagen-Dazs. As always, I got a small bottle of white Spanish wine with the cup of Sky Time I usually ask for, and I always accept their offer for hot green tea. (If I drank coffee, I’d accept that offer as well — JAL makes sure to offer plenty of drinks at mealtime.) After they took my empty tray, I somehow managed to get another three or so hours of sleep, effectively killing over half the flight time. While there were several movies I was interested in seeing on the roster, I only watched one: The Bourne Legacy (which was so-so). They brought us a pastry for breakfast at one point, but when our second meal came, I was pleasantly surprised. Air MOS Burger is a summertime thing, but around Christmas, they provide Air KFC (since the Japanese eat fried chicken at Christmas). It featured a tiny drumstick, a small tub of cole slaw, and a ready-to-make sandwich: you put a bit of mayo on a long piece of grilled bread, add some lettuce, and then put a large fried chicken patty on top and fold the bread over. It was delicious, but my joy was dimished a touch when one of the flight staff mentioned that between MOS and KFC, they serve Air Yoshinoya (damn, I want some Air Yoshinoya). I ate everything on my tray, but noticed that the woman beside me seemed to be finished with her meal, yet her slaw was untouched. I asked if she intended to eat it, which she didn’t, so she let me have it (and I finished it in seconds).
We arrived at Dulles in no time (owing in part to my naps), but there was a problem: I was already running behind. A couple months before, the airline had changed the last leg of my flight to an earlier time, making what had originally been a five-plus-hour layover into an hour and a half. That was great, only we’d just been delayed, meaning I had about thirty minutes to get through customs, claim my bags, recheck my bags, take the train to the other building, go through security, and get to my gate. Here’s a tip for travelers who are running late in the airport: Almost no one gives a damn if you make your flight. The actual airport staff does, yes, but everyone else — customs, baggage, and especially TSA — do not have “caring about your schedule” in their job descriptions. This means that it’s very hard to find someone who’ll actually give you useful advice. I got a slight bump right at the end of the customs line from a half-surly agent, but I still had to stand at the carousel and wait for my bags to pop up, which can take five minutes or thirty. I got my bags relatively quickly and made it to the re-check area, where the ladies were actually concerned about me getting to my gate on time, but they told me I was probably out of luck. They gave me an express pass anyway, but I still had to take the train to the terminal. They’d told me to look for “a lady with an orange sign,” which turned out to be a lady wearing purple — close enough, I guess. She let me bypass the massive lines for security, but the shorter line was still slow. (I saw some of the people ahead of me carrying express passes, but they didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry.) While waiting, the TSA woman who checked everyone’s passports was trying to explain to a Japanese couple behind me that their little girl didn’t have to take off her shoes for security, but they didn’t understand her. She’d actually started miming shoes to them when I finally cut in and said, “靴は脱がなくてもいいと言いました,” indicating their daughter. The woman thanked me, saying maybe it was a good thing I’d been delayed. (I decided not to tell her that a little girl’s shoe status probably didn’t count as an international crisis.)
When it was my turn at security, I hastily shoved everything through the machine and moved up, because at this point, I was desperate. People ahead of me were taking their time, and one man solidly stepped on my foot without so much as a glance back. There was a loud TSA guy I recognized from half a year ago working in my line. He and one of the other employees started raising a stink about some bag having electronic equipment in it, and of course they meant mine — I hadn’t taken out my Xbox 360. I’d honestly not even considered it; the thing had been packed days before, and neither Chubu nor Narita had said anything about it. What followed was an exercise in frustration: the loud TSA guy searched the bag, which I wasn’t allowed to touch, but when he put everything back through the scanner, I had to go over and get it myself — except the system, which he thrust at me while I went to pick up the rescanned tray. He made sure to bellow the entire time so everyone within earshot would know what was going on, and as I frantically crammed everything back into the duffel, he came up behind with someone else’s tray. “Excuse me,” he muttered, and I told him I was working as fast as I could. This sent him into another fit: “Hey, kid, I’m not trying to rush you, here!” I finally managed to get everything back inside in such a way that it probably wouldn’t be crushed nor broken, and hurried off to find my gate. (At least my belt buckle didn’t set off the walk-through scanner.)
For some reason, return trips from Japan never have the Chicago-to-Pittsburgh gate number printed on the boarding pass, so I had to hunt that down myself, but I was fortunate in that this time, mine was one of the closest gates to security. I lumbered up as fast as I could, eyes wild and frustrated, only to find a handful of people quietly sitting and the boarding door shut. The not-very-helpful woman at the counter informed me (without looking up) that the plane hadn’t even arrived yet, which meant I was technically early for my connection. I wearily slumped into a chair and ate the last bag of rice snack I’d stashed, grateful that I’d caught one last break. The flight was delayed by at least forty-five minutes, but I decided that a long delay was better than if it had left without me. They red-tagged my duffel (since there’s no way it’d fit in a small plane’s overhead) and I took my seat.
One final, short flight later and I was done with airplanes. My mother was already at the baggage carousel with my suitcases, but there was one minor problem: my shuriken wasn’t there. The baggage agent checked and said he didn’t see it on the flight, but had confidence they’d send it along, and he’d see to it that someone delivered it to me. My mother and I made the drive home, stopping briefly at a Wendy’s for a BEEG AMERICAN BURGER (since I was once again famished). I unloaded some laundry at her place, claimed my mail/phone/keys and some food she’d made me, and drove my car home for the first time in four months. As much as I didn’t want to leave Japan, I had to admit it was good to be home.
(As a side note, despite receiving a call that night saying my shuriken would be delivered after 11:00 pm, I finally got it late the following morning. Still, the contents of my luggage got back relatively unscathed, and my Japanese 360 works just fine. Not the smoothest return trip, but nothing some sleep won’t eventually fix.)