Sunday, July 24, 2011

Getting There

Three weeks of seemingly non-stop home improvement work and wrapping up the logistics both of renting my house and moving overseas culminated nicely.  One last night ride on the Greenbelt (I had my ass handed to me), one last San Marino party (Live Oak keg + moonbounce slip 'n slide = Slip Cup), many last meals and visits with friends ending with great hugs and "goodbyes" (or in my case, "Come visit!" instead of goodbye). 

After the mayhem of leaving Austin was over, it was time to tie up loose ends around Grapevine.  Figuring out exactly how much stuff I could take and what exactly I would need (I overpacked, as usual) and finding places to store things I just couldn't get rid of around my parents house (a few bicycles, nostalgic pictures and card/notes from old friends, and other knick knacks such as my collection of indigenous artwork from the various places I've traveled).

One final road ride with old friends in Grapevine, one of whom recently started riding and I had never before ridden with, and then Izabella was packed up and prepped for travel.  I let my friends know how excited I was that they ride now, so that I can share my world with them.  Oh, and we might have shared some whisky.  That was delicious.

And then, it was time to go.  Running on two hours of sleep, I spent nearly an hour at the check-in counter before I went through security.  First, there was not enough time (right around an hour) between connecting flights in Tokyo for them to transfer the bags to my flight to Taipei, and then came the task of figuring out excess/oversized baggage for my 2 checked bags and bike. 

All in all, Maritza was incredibly helpful.  I was her first customer (patron?) of the morning, still sipping on her coffee as she stepped over the conveyor belt to her desk and called me up.  She took the necessary time and steps to ensure that my baggage would arrive with me safely and that I was paying minimal fees to do so.  Lesson learned from this experience: when traveling (moving?) overseas, the one thing you absolutely cannot forget to bring with you is patience.

By the time I made it through security, I had time to go to check in at the gate (still room on first class, score!) and use the restroom before it was time to board.  Sitting down in my leather seat with 3 windows all to myself(!) and a leather ottoman, a female flight attendant came by gave me a menu (wtf?), a pair of Bose noise canceling headphones (uh, yes please!), and a complimentary copy of the New York Times.  By this time, I realized about the only thing this had in common with any of my other limited experiences on flights was that I was on an airplane.  I suppose I should mention that I was able to fly first class because I am fortunate enough to friends who can get me that privilege as a standby passenger for less than the price of a ticket in coach.  Thank you, thank you!

First Class!
At this point, all I could do was sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.  Oh, and the complimentary pre-taxi mimosa didn't hurt either ;-).  Once in the air, I watched as we flew over my parent's house and Grapevine, climbing higher and higher into the clouds.  And then, the meal service began.  Instead of blabbing about that, I'll let the pictures do the talking.  As you can probably tell, this was the first real use I had gotten out of my new camera and I was having fun getting my feet wet.

Noise cancelling headphones, mimosa, and swanky menu?  Yes, please!

Warm mixed nuts and Glenlivet as a pre-lunch snack

A rather spacious place setting

Appetizer: Honey ginger shrimp, smoked salmon, capers, red onions, cream cheese, and toast.

Mixed greens salad with mesquite grilled chicken and creamy wasabi dressing.

Main course: Grilled beef filet served with a bearnaise-style clace de viande, roasted root vegetables and sauteed broccolini.

Really takes the edge off the whole flying thing.  Note: "Neat" != "On the rocks" Argh

Dessert: Mixed fruit with a light Grand mariner syrup. Possibly my favorite part of the meal.


Dessert Wine: Inniskillin Vidal Icewine.

Mid-flight snack: Bento box (flying to Japan) with Inari sushi (which I do not normally like but this was very good), imitation crab roll, and pickled vegetables. Delicious!

Oh, and warm (nap-inducing) Gekkeikan Horin Daiginjo Sake

Chateau Villa Bel-Air wine. Very tasty, and probably well out of my price range!

Made from Cab Sauv, Merlot, and Cab Franc grapes.

*Insert airplane noises*

"Light Meal, offered prior to arrival": Grilled chicken with adobo sauce, accompanied by coconut curry and Peruvian potatoes with a salad, a whole wheat roll, and a Dewar's and soda.

This was far better than the beef for the main meal.  I loved the combination of adobo on the chicken with the yellow Japanese style curry.

Dessert: Fresh fruit, "freshly baked on-board" cookies, and coffee

Some sparkling water with lemon prior to touchdown

Giant 777 jet engine

After about 12 hours of hands down, the most relaxing travel experience I have ever had (the seats fully recline to form a rather comfortable bed, allowing me to spend a solid 4 or 5 hours sleeping in an attempt to reconfigure my sleep schedule and try to beat jetlag) it was time to land in Tokyo.

Looking out the windows, I first noticed how green it was, with rolling hills and agricultural land everywhere.  The landscape was speckled with houses sporting little blue rooftops, many with architectural stylings I had never before seen in person.  Still, it did not look that different.  But, the cars were driving on the wrong (if it's not right, it's wrong) side of the road!


3 windows, all to myself!  Flying in style!

Standing at "attention" awaiting our arrival

If you couldn't tell, this was all so new to me, I was on borderline sensory overload.  It was all so exciting.  As we de-planed many of the other first class passengers stood around checking their cell phones like drones, obnoxiously chewing gum, completely detached from the situation.   I suppose if you do it enough, it becomes routine and boring, but I never failed to gawk in awe at the size of the Texas capitol, despite the face that I passed by it at least twice a day on average.  I do not ever want to become jaded, I love the youthful enthusiasm and excitement that comes with being fully present in these new experiences, or finding something new in routine experiences.

With my first step off the plane, I was almost instantly enchanted with Japan.  It was strange how quickly and strong it came over me.  The crusader for logic in reasoning in me was suddenly overcome by passion, emotion, and excitement at the newness of it all.  The people were very friendly, polite, and helpful (I found out yesterday that culturally they are almost this way to a fault as they will sometimes oblige any request but do so passive aggressively as it is viewed as rude to say no in Japanese culture.  I cannot guarantee that this information is 100% accurate, as with any generalization). 

The airport itself was very quiet with music noticeably absent.  But after 12 hours of being bombarded by white noise it was soothing to give my ears and head a rest.  I found it curious that one of the walkways was out of service to save energy and there did not seem to be any air conditioning inside the airport.  Perhaps a residual effect of recent events?

No moving walkway???  Walking is such an inconvenience...


Every encounter with an employee at the airport seemed genuinely interested in helping me.  Whether this was feigned interest or genuine did not matter to me as they were incredibly accommodating and helpful, unlike so many experiences I have had in the US where it is obvious that the person has no interest in being helpful even if it is their job.  Outside, I boarded a bus that would take me to another terminal for my flight to Taipei.  The air felt cool and moist, reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest.  I have no doubt this was part of the reason I found it so enchanting.

With just over an hour before my flight departed, I hurried to the ticket counter and presented my passport to check in.  The lady at the desk was very friendly, and several women stepped up to help me with the language, though they all seemed to speak excellent English (incredibly accommodating).  Not only did confirm that I had a window seat, but asked for my baggage claim tags and reconfirmed how many bags I had and what they looked like.  I thanked her and asked where I could find Wi-Fi to let friends and family know I had arrived safely.

As I sat near the Wi-Fi hotspot, the lady from the check in counter came running up to me to ask what my third piece of luggage looked like.  I told her it was a cardboard bicycle box that said "Giant" all over it (referring to my junk of course) and she hurried back to her desk.  They could have easily made an announcement over the PA for me to come back since it was my luggage and not really her problem, but she went out of her way to help me.

After another couple of minutes or two, she came running back and asked if I had any gas cylinders in my luggage.  I was confused, and she told me that they were bringing my luggage to the gate so we could check it as they had detected a gas cylinder of some sort.  As I headed back to the gate, I was more relieve than annoyed as this was reassurance that my luggage would actually be joining me on my flight and I would not arrive in Taipei without it.

A very nice man came up to the gate with my backpack (in its clown pants sack that my mother so wonderfully made for me the night before I left) and led me to a private area so we could search through my luggage.  I was still confused as to what they could have perceived as a gas cylinder, so I was offering different suggestions from my water bottle to my frame pump (this bag contained all my cycling gear) and could not figure it out.

Suddenly, I realized what it must have been.  The man did not speak much English beyond "gas cyrinder" so we managed to communicate through finger pointing and head shaking.  As I opened my saddle bag and pulled out the 2 CO2 canisters that I never use, his eyes lit up.  We both knew we had found what we were looking for.  He explained as best he could that I was not allowed to take those on the plane and he would have to throw them away.  He was curious as to what they were for and I did my best to demonstrate for him.  I think he understood.  He then proceeded to apologize profusely, multiple times as I tried to tell him that they were not expensive and it was not a problem at all.  I thanked him and repacked my luggage, and he apologized again and said thank you, and he was on his way to get the bag on board.

All in all, I got a wonderful impression from my very short stay in the Narita airport and definitely want to visit Japan when I get the chance.  I had to buy a ticket out of Taiwan in order to be granted a visitor visa, so I have a flight to Narita scheduled for the end of August that I do not plan on using, so maybe I can change the date and arrange a visit later in the year.

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