24 Hours to Tokyo
There's that moment at the office or in public when you hear those three notorious chimes shoot out of someone's iPhone from a call or a mistakenly set alarm. The sheer jolt it delivers to those in the room would be amusing if it didn't cause me to jump as well. Modern day operant conditioning at play, and it stems from mornings like this one.
Having just arrived home from a work trip less than 12 hours earlier and getting to bed at midnight, a 4 a.m. alarm was the last thing I could hope for. The dreaded ringing sounded at 4:15, and I quickly found myself jumping out of bed, regathering chargers, and dragging my pre-packed suitcase and grossly oversized backpack down the stairs. I sat waiting for the Uber, wondering what it was that I repeatedly whispered to myself not to forget prior to falling asleep. I checked for my passport about five times, which aside from my camera, was the only thing I was truly concerned about having with me.
Gum? Top zipper-pocket.
Portable charger? Side sleeve.
EYE MASK! That was it. My stalwart travel companion almost left in the dust. A necessity for me on any long-haul flight, and I just managed to jam it in my backpack at the last minute when the Uber arrived.
I stumbled out the front door, and approached the sedan to load my suitcase in the car. The trunk wouldn't open. I knocked on the back of the car. The driver didn't budge.
"You can sit with your suitcase in the back seat," he yelled out the window. "It will be better for you!"
Twenty-four hours later after finally arriving at the hotel in Tokyo, I still haven't a clue what that means.
The New York area was blessed with yet another downpour, and what better way to celebrate than to ride in a car on the highway with the window cracked. Between a suitcase on my lap, getting sprayed in the face with rain water, and sitting idle to witness this man's version of white knuckled driving (hands glued to the 10 and 2 position while hitting 45 mph), the day was already off to a flying start.
I arrived at Terminal 4 at JFK about 30 minutes later than the initial ride estimate (take a guess why), wiped my face of rain water, and made my way to the security line. If you have flown from T4 at JFK, you know what a disaster the experience can be. Long security lines, jamming your bin on the automatic conveyor belt to beat the bins advancing from behind you, countless bag checks to make sure your bag of Kind Bars haven't been laced with explosives. Today was an improvement on the norm, however, as I escaped the security area within five minutes of entering. Down the broken escalator I went, and began my trek to the Sky Club (Delta's lounge). If you have not been in Terminal 4 but will be visiting in the future, I would advise wearing a pair of comfortable walking shoes, as a trip end-to-end can take you around 20 minutes due to the sheer length.
My gate at JFK was B30, coincidentally the same as my departure gate to San Juan on Monday. The Sky Club sits just beyond B31, and I had half an hour to spare prior to boarding so I decided to pay a quick visit. Your experience at any major international hub is going to be significantly less stressful if you are flying in the morning due to the volume of flights departing and arriving in the early afternoon and evening. I got the taste of the worst end of the spectrum on Monday evening, but this Friday morning was relatively relaxed. I checked in, went up the escalator, and found a seat against the window to have a quick snack and drink. The T4 Sky Club is currently undergoing renovations, meaning there's an enormous section blocked off by walls, adding to the crowding issue in the lounge. Boarding was scheduled at 6:30 a.m. for a 7:10 departure, so I returned to the gate about 10 minutes prior to the scheduled time.
The first leg of the journey was from JFK to Seattle (SEA) on one of Delta's 757s, a narrow-body aircraft that some refer to as the "flying pencil" or the "giraffe" due to the narrow, but long fuselage. This 757 was equipped with the "Delta One" product, Delta's international/transcontinental business class configuration that includes a lay-flat seat and catered meal service. You will usually find Delta One on the 757 on high-market transcon routes (New York to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Seattle) as well as lower-market transatlantic routes (New York to Dublin or Málaga, for example). I have found the 757 seats to be the most comfortable out of any of the Delta One equipped aircraft, but that comfort comes at the cost of privacy, as the configuration is 2-2, so you'll find yourself sitting next to a stranger if you are traveling alone. I sacrificed the ability to take photos from the window to have access to the aisle so I wouldn't find myself attempting a long jump over someone who was trying to sleep.
Today's flight time to Seattle was five and a half hours, but by the time the meal service is finished you have about an hour less than that without the tray table in front of you. I opted for the Cacio e Pepe Baked Eggs with fingerling potatoes, peppers and herbs, and chicken-apple sausage. I found the eggs to be very soft, but I did enjoy the potatoes and sausage. As airplane food goes, it was worthy of a 7.5/10. Irrespective of the rating, I hadn't eaten anything up to this point, so it was gone within three minutes. Following breakfast, the flight and service were pretty normal. While the Delta One cabin does provide you with a lay flat seat and a very nice pillow and blanket by Westin, the footwells are relatively cramped, and definitely not built for someone over six feet tall with larger feet.
About two hours into the flight, I got out of my seat to put my laptop away, and started to hear a low rumbling. Initially I thought it could be turbulence or baggage moving in the overhead bins. As it turned out, it was the gentleman in 4D snoring. I've been told I snore so I do hold some level of understanding, but there was something extremely unsettling about the seismic nature of these vibrations. The volume was borderline impressive. I was able to drown out the noise with some earplugs and got about an hour of sleep prior to a hard touch down on a sunny morning in Seattle.
I only had an hour for my connection, and boarding was scheduled to start in ten minutes. Before I could even ask myself what terminal I was arriving in, I was greeted a few feet off the jet bridge by Pam and Jerrett from Delta. After introducing themselves, they carried my luggage down the metal stairs to the jet bridge and loaded it into the vehicle for the drive over to second plane.
I made mention that I was excited about the upcoming leg, as it would be my first flight on the Delta's new Airbus A350 with the "suite" product. I asked if I could board early to see the cabin. Jerrett completely blew my request out of the water when he offered to give me a tour of the plane. He parked the car under the left wing and the three of us got out as he began showing me the winglets, the nose of the plane with the "sunglasses" over the windshield, and one of the massive Rolls-Royce engines. I gave Jerrett and Pam a quick crash course in using my camera, and they were more than happy to help with what turned out to be some very memorable photo ops.
What I really found special about this experience was the pride with which the two spoke about the new aircraft. I could tell they were enjoying showing off each of the features that made the plane the engineering marvel that it is, just as I was enjoying getting to see them up close. They repeatedly expressed how great it was that their Seattle hub now had a route with one of the A350s, and their excitement was contagious. We eventually made our way up the stairs to the aircraft so I could get a look at the cabin prior to boarding while the cleaning crew was preparing for the upcoming flight. After a few photos inside the plane, Jerrett loaded my suitcase into the overhead compartment and exchanged his number, offering his help if I found myself in Seattle again. With that, Jerrett and Pam were off, and I was onboard for the second leg of the trip.
While this was my first experience on the A350, I had a decent idea of what to expect having read about the plane's performance and features - a cabin pressurized to a lower altitude to feel like a more natural environment, higher humidity, more space and privacy with the suite product, and a quieter ride. I can't say I felt much different because of the changes in humidity and pressurization, but the lack of noise from the engine was too impressive to believe. I had just witnessed the sheer size of the A350's engine, so it was shocking that the air vents above my head were actually concealing the engine noise. I felt no urge to slap on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones like I typically do, and actually spent the majority of the flight without any headphones at all.
The pilot came on the intercom to share that our flight time to Tokyo-Narita would be 9 hours and 56 minutes. Meal service began soon after reaching cruising altitude, which included an appetizer plate with a salad, shrimp with cocktail sauce, and tomato basil soup. I selected the chicken Milanese, which was colder than I would have liked, but it still tasted pretty good. For dessert, I chose the raspberry macaron over the ice cream sundae, which was gone in under a minute. I told myself prior to the trip I would only drink water on today's flights to help soften the blow of the jet lag, but when the flight attendant offered white wine with the chicken, I wasn't going to turn it down. I had the opportunity to chat with the two flight attendants for the Delta One cabin for about 45 minutes mid-flight. Both Denise and Sheila were Delta veterans- over 50 years with the airline between the two of them. They continued to provide refills as we were chatting in the front galley, and what began as a plan to avoid wine on this trip turned into more than a few full glasses. When you fly on a regular basis, watching movies, listening to music, and sleeping get very repetitive. I always enjoy getting to know the flight attendants for this reason, as it always makes for a refreshing flying experience, as you get to meet some very interesting and kind individuals.
While the new seats on the aircraft were comfortable and provided a good amount of space and some privacy with the sliding doors, I didn't end up sleeping at all on the second leg. I opted to go through photos and listen to music with the time remaining. With an hour remaining in the flight, we had one final food offering. I scarfed down the pulled pork with rice and cabbage, and soon after that we began our descent into a cloudy and rainy Narita. We pulled into our gate around 1:30 in the afternoon, I grabbed my luggage from the overhead compartment, and said my goodbyes to Sheila and Denise as I deplaned.
As I reached the end of the first corridor, I was surprised to see a small, Japanese woman holding a sign with my name on it. I didn't ask any questions, however, and followed her down a series of escalators to immigration. She had a gentleman open a new line, and after a few moments I was quickly ushered through. The next order of business was figuring out the trains. Narita International Airport is about 60 minutes outside of Tokyo by train or by car. I had pre-ordered a week-long JR Rail Pass that would include the train ride from the airport into Tokyo, but I had to exchange the voucher that I received in the mail for the actual ticket. It goes without saying that I would have been utterly lost without this woman leading me through the airport. While it made sense for her to provide assistance through immigration, I found it amazing that she was helping me navigate the train station and ticketing areas. She brought me to the correct line, assisted with translation between myself and the ticketing employees, and within a few minutes I received my train pass. I said goodbye, began my walk towards the Narita Express from Terminal 1.
I was the first person to board my assigned car, and by the time the train departed for Tokyo, there were no more than 3 other passengers inside. The combination of the warm temperature inside the car and the complete lack of sleep meant it was a near certainty that my eyes would be shutting for some portion of the ride. The seat was comfortable as well, but at that point I could have slept on the floor for a few hours. I set a timer for 45 minutes to avoid a total disaster of missing my stop, and after a lengthy collection of head bobs, I was awake again as the recording on the train announced that Tokyo Station would be next.
There was still a metro component remaining for my journey to the hotel, which was the last thing I was in the mood for. Mind you, the D.C. metro is pretty much the only underground system I have figured out how to use. Six colors- you really could not have it any easier. New York's subway map might as well be in Japanese for me, so I already knew how an experience in Japan itself would go. I went to a counter to ask one of the workers how to get to the station name listed on Google Maps. He shook his head no, started rattling off more words/sounds than my ears could process, and then he pointed to his left. I raised my phone to show him the map once more, and again he jerked his arm to the left and raised his voice in an attempt to explain to me whatever it was he was indicating. I said "OK" as if I understood any part of what he just told me and walked to his left. Around the corner, I found a line of ticket booths. The screaming made sense now. The kiosks are essentially the same as in the NYC subway, and fortunately, there is an English button, which served as my saving grace. I used the yen I ordered before departing home, and the machine spit out a minuscule piece of paper that served as my ticket. I had to ask another worker for assistance regarding where my track would be, but this time I followed his gesture without hesitation.
From my final metro stop, I had a 15 minute walk with my luggage to the hotel. I was greeted at the main entrance by 4 employees, one of which accompanied me up to the front desk on the 45th floor of the building. I finally checked-in around 4:30, making my door-to-door travel time pretty much 24 hours on the dot. I received the two trademark light blue keys, dropped my luggage in the room, and quickly prepared my camera backpack to try and take advantage of the sunlight that the weather report stated would be rare this coming week. I had prepared a list of locations I wanted to visit during my time in Tokyo, and one of the spots at the top of my list was Tokyo City View and Sky Deck at Roppongi Hills. It was a quick 15 minute walk from the hotel, although it did take some time to find the entrance for the observatory. The entrance fee was 1500 yen (around $13 USD), which I paid prior to a quick elevator ride to the top. The area was crowded, primarily for people who wanted to see the Pixar exhibition that was going on within the observatory. As much as I like Woody and Buzz, I was really there for the views.
I was initially disappointed when I found out the observatory was all indoors, but I discovered there was an additional add-on for 500 yen that allowed you to visit the outdoor Sky Deck. The deck opened at 6:00, and I was one of three waiting in line to go up. The sun was just about to set, and with no glass creating reflections in front of the lens, the lighting was ideal for photos on top of the building. The cold winds were gusting across the roof of the building, but I was too tired and too amazed at where I was standing to even notice. Tokyo Tower was gleaming red to the East, the tip of Mount Fuji peeking above a collection of clouds to the west, theTokyo Skytree off in the distance to the northeast. The notion that you can watch the sun rise in New York City and then set (albeit the following day) halfway across the globe was almost beyond comprehension.
Standing seven thousand miles from home, nine hundred feet above the streets, running on less than two hours of sleep in more than a day, I was mindful of the fact that the highlights of my travels did not stem from being able to put my legs up during the flights, or the meal services provided. Each interaction that I had along the way was what made the journey truly memorable. Talking to Jarrett and Pam about their favorite vacation destinations, discussing travel mishaps with Sheila and Denise, hearing how excited the Narita Airport agent was to be visiting New York for the first time next month, and yes, even receiving instructions from the Tokyo metro worker who was doing his best to get me to where I needed to go.
To most, 24 hours of travel is a source of misery. To me, days like this are some of the best of the year.