The flight from Atlanta to Narita airport outside Tokyo is some 13-14 hours. My wife and travel partner, Stacey and I make a pact before boarding to sleep through as much of the flight as possible- a pact made more tangible by the eye masks and neck pillows on our carry-ons. I insist that both she and I refer to the pillows as ‘neckillows’ going forward because it sounds like an endangered animal. Stacey acquiesces. The trip is already off to a great start.
Spotted in the wild.
Waiting in the international terminal in Atlanta, I’m thinking about the last week and how very long it seemed. All my coworkers and friends had asked at least once, “why Japan?” And I gave them all the same explanation I started my pre-trip blog with (plug intentional)- I’m a gamer, and this is where gamers go. Time ticks by slowly while waiting to board, but after a couple walks through the duty free shop and one last facebook update from the DSI, we’re on the plane with tray tables up and in the locked position. As we take off, it hits me- I’m finally going to the place I’d read about since first playing FF VII in middle school, the place of origin for so many internet rumors about what might be next, the home of Nintendo, Sony, and countless of my favorite developers. I’m finally on my way.
This excitement lasts me a good 15-20 minutes. A complimentary beer and recently reconstituted vegetarian meal get me through another 10. I fly across the country all the time, but never overseas, so I wasn’t prepared for how long 14 hours actually felt. Sleep never comes, and the only comfort I can offer myself is the mental image of neckillow herds being lead to slaughter. Good riddance. The flight magazine lists the movies to be shown for all flights to all destinations. Many of these flights get to see Star Trek, I’ll be treated to a couple of romantic comedies and 17 Again. I’d whip out the DS, but the guy sitting to my left fell asleep at around take off, and I’d hate to wake him with my irrational panic over leaking oil.
Forget Mr. Game and Watch, I’ll be handling your entertainment needs.
Resigned to my fate, I watch the garbage movies and, slowly but surely, time does manage to pass. When we finally arrive, clear customs, and get our bags, the culture shock begins to set in. Having been awake for over 20 hours and subjected Zac Efron on a blurry movie screen, Stacey and I need coffee bad. While Stac is booking our bus to the hotel in Shinjuku I try to buy a couple cups and find the only options to be canned and chilled. No big deal, ‘when in Rome’ and all that. I try to buy two only to find that neither this, nor any other café in the vicinity accept plastic. Most of the places I went in Tokyo were the same, low crime means it’s acceptable to carry cash around, so I hit the ATM. This all strikes me as strange- I NEVER carry cash. On the positive side, I’ve discovered that my phrasebook in tandem with a big, dopey, gaijin smile will get me what I need without too much trouble.
Recharged by delicious canned BOSS brand coffee, we board the bus for Shinjuku. Narita airport is located like an hour from Tokyo proper, but the sights I see on the way are enough to re-psych me about how awesome the next week will be. No space is unused, advertising is everywhere, and the word ‘kawaii’ applies to the mascot characters on all the bill boards. The reality of left sided driving sets in, we pass Tokyo Disneyland, a bowling alley on the top level of a shopping mall, dozens of ‘love hotels’; sensory overload – or so I think.
Then we get off the motorway and into Shinjuku proper. The station is huge, every bit as huge as you’d expect the busiest rail station in the world to be. The area around the station is filled with department stores, malls, and buildings so cramped I’m surprised anyone could fit through the doors. I’m beginning to feel like the kid from The World Ends with You only with tamer hair and somewhat less angst. We could wander around just Shinjuku for a week and still not see it all- it’s both expansive and crammed full of neon lights, bars, restaurants, arcades, and much more.
After checking in at our (thankfully) Westerner friendly hotel, the Sunroute Plaza, Stac and I decide that in order to ensure we’d sleep through the night and avoid the jet lag our neckillows were meant to save us from- we’ll go ahead and take a walk around the hotel area and get a bite to eat before bed. As we make our way around, I begin to understand how the layout works. Fast food places have the order counter on the 1st floor and seating is available on the 2nd and 3rd floors. Everything is very vertical, only the convenience stores are on a single level.
Arcades are everywhere, some are smoky, dingy, dive type places and others have the upbeat, clean look of a Chuck E. Cheese I’ve come to know as an American arcade. Before dinner I allow myself one play at a Club Sega arcade, and I select Taiko Drum Master. I don’t mean to toot my own horn but beep beep, man. I kick ass at this game. I was, however, disheartened when I saw that only other Westerners were playing the game when I passed by it in different arcades over the next week. Whatever. The Japanese are just jealous I was able to conquer their cartoon drum game with such ease. They’ll get over it.
The master plies his craft. Not pictured: embarrassed wife.
Stac and I eat at a fast food place called First Convenience Kitchen across the street from the station. Choices are plentiful and all in kanji, but we rely on the pictures on the menu and get some basil noodles, flavor potato (seasoning dusted fries), and a couple of Suntory beers. Flavor potatoes come in 50 different flavors including bacon, barbecue, garlic (which we had), and 47 other presumably delicious varieties that weren’t identified in English on the menu.
Considering we’ve been awake for 26 hours at this point, I think this may count as breakfast.
After food, Team McReynolds is too exhausted to keep exploring. We must have timed it just right, as the stores in the area began to close on our walk back to the hotel. At closing time, instead of playing an announcement to customers or flashing the lights, they all play Auld Lang Syne, so every night feels like New Years Eve. Back at the hotel, sleep now comes very easy in anticipation of my first full day in Tokyo and a visit to Akihabara. Stay tuned for more updates to come.