Japan 1 Getting There is Half the Fun

Japan 1—“Getting there is half the fun”

The start of my trip was a tribute to Shakespeare’s line in Act 2 of As You Like It, “Sweet are the uses of adversity” or Bobby Burns “Best laid plans of mice and men gang oft agley”. When I travel, I like no surprises, so I carefully examined my flight schedule and planned accordingly. I use the Casper, Wyoming airport, a mere 120 miles from my home in Thermopolis, as the nearest “large” airport.

Since my first flight was scheduled for 6 a.m., to Denver, I decided to go the evening before and stay at one of the hotels that allowed one to leave their vehicle for the duration of the trip, free. On the way to Casper, I stopped at the airport and explained a potential issue—the airport shuttle from the hotel does not start until 5 a.m; would I have enough time to get to the airport in time to check in and go through security? The United rep suggested giving me my boarding passes now, thus saving time the next day. The counter sign indicated that one needed to have checked in at least 45 minutes before the flight time. Some quick calculations revealed that if the shuttle was “on time” leaving the hotel, I would get to the airport by 5:15 a.m., just making the 45 minute requirement; but by having the boarding passes that could be adjusted. So, I went ahead with the plan, then headed to the hotel and scheduled the shuttle for “first thing in the a.m., promptly at 5 a.m.” I explained the need, and the hotel staff wrote in the urgency of being on time, and subsequently I found out that they even called several times during the night to the shuttle provider, to emphasize the situation. I was satisfied that all bases had been covered; I went to bed and was ready to go by 5 a.m.

But I left out one variable—the shuttle driver. I recalled that on a previous occasion when I had used this service, the driver had forgotten to pick up some travelers at one of the hotels and, when he was summoned while we were on the way to the airport, realized that he had to go back as soon as possible to pick them up. Well, by 5:15 the shuttle had not appeared, I was panicky to the extent of expressing my concern with some rather coarse language, to the early morning air as I waited outside in the chill. The desk clerk made some phone calls, and determined that the driver had forgotten, again, and was on the way to the airport with the flight crew, who stay at another hotel. My only option was to grab my car keys from the desk, jump in the car, and head for the airport. I got there at 5:40 and at first, they weren’t going to let me get to my plane. Bu fortunately, the lady with whom I had made the arrangements the night before, was also going on that flight and told the others that I already had the boarding passes, etc. They rushed me through and I got to the plane as the last passenger to board. Later, I received an email from the hotel apologizing and offering me a free night later. I thanked them, but pointed out that I was now saddled with 18 days of parking fees in addition to the hotel bill, thus making all my thoughtful arrangements moot.

The small jet whisked me to Denver in 45 minutes, and allowed me to get on with my trip before the massive snowstorm was to hit later in the day. I have to admit to some major anxiety, which those of you in Wyoming would understand; they announced the names of the flight crew and one of the pilots was named Blankenship. I decided not to explore that, any further.

The flight to Seattle was uneventful, which is what you want when flying. I was a bit disappointed that I had an aisle seat, because I got only brief glimpses over other folks’ shoulders of beautiful scenery in the Cascades, and the many islands of the Washington coast.  During my two hour layover, I indulged in what I’ve discovered is the least expensive food item in airports, a bagel with cream cheese, and then headed to the restrooms to continue my project of rating airport facilities. I’ll have to give the Seattle airport a low score for the number of stalls available; there were people waiting in line (all men, by the way) for access. Compared to the Denver airport, this was at the bottom of the scale. On the other hand, they had something I’ve not seen elsewhere—the doors on the stalls opened OUT, not in; since you have to keep your stuff with you there’s always been the problem of trying to close the stall door around your two pieces of luggage.

The flight to Tokyo left on time, at 1:40 p.m. and,  as we were flying west, the whole 10 hour flight would be during daylight hours. Soon after takeoff, most of the passengers with window seats had drawn down the shutters, and the interior of the plane was like night, which persisted until about a half-hour before landing in Tokyo. It was like getting on an elevator, and when the doors opened again, having a different scene lying before you. We had entered the plane in Seattle, closed the doors, and when we could once again see our surroundings, were 5000 miles away.

Something I would like to understand—why is the service on US airlines less satisfying when compared to similar travel on others? On a number of occasions, I have made the trip from Denver to Frankfurt, Germany; sometimes scheduled on United and at other times on Lufthansa. As the two airlines are part of the Star Alliance system, their fares I assume are the same. The food on  Lufthansa is exceptional when compared to United’s; their attendants come around with hot, moist towels before each meal, they use real silverware, the meal itself not only has an entrée choice, but is supplemented by extras such as camembert cheeses, baguettes, and others; cognac is offered after a meal. And whenever one asks, free beer and wine are available. I thought maybe Lufthansa has government subsidy, but was told that is not the case. Yesterday’s flight reaffirmed my opinion of United’s offerings; they’re very similar to what we get on other U.S. airlines. Foreign airlines I’ve used, such as Turkish Air and Saudi Air, tend more toward the Lufthansa end of the continuum. Yesterday’s meals were sparse, particularly the second one which was primarily some noodles and a cellophane-packaged cookie.

Going through customs and passport control was completed easily; I was met by the Japanese driver from the Zama Army Base, holding up a sign with my name featured. The paparazzi were nowhere in evidence, quite a relief. He does not speak English, nor I Japanese except for a few things like “Hello, yes, no, thanks”. I hope to pick up a few more words during my visit.

The first thing I noticed was that the Japanese drivers are the most courteous I’ve ever seen, particularly in contrast to the ones in Cairo who pictured themselves as NASCAR champions. Most of the 2 ½ hour trip to the base was on a three lane toll road, and I saw absolutely no “close calls”. The speed limit is 60 mph, and they don’t fudge on it. Maybe all this caution is their anxiety from having to drive on the other side of the road, like the British. But what was unusual was that I wasn’t “white knuckled” at any point, either from the measured pace of the traffic, or fatigue from my lack of sleep. As it was night, I didn’t see much except for an unending stream of city lights and buildings, for the 80 miles. There was one spectacular bridge over part of the bay, that I want to see during daylight.

Upon arrival at the base, the principal of the school met me at the gate, and escorted me to the living quarters. I have a nice room with refrigerator and microwave, cable tv, a nice bed and roomy closets and drawers, and internet. The only negative is that it’s right next door to the base’s golf course, today is Saturday, and the temperature is in the high 40’s. And my main work doesn’t begin until tomorrow. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.


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