Sleeping Drugs and Coin Phones: My flight(s) to Japan

After two years of planning, I am finally in Japan! I honestly can’t put my excitement into words, but so far it has been everything I dreamed it would be and more. Another post will be coming soon about everything we do in Tokyo, but for now I want to address something else: our long, crazy, and exciting flight to Japan.

I’ll start out with the obvious: it takes a really, really long time to get to Japan from the U.S. It takes even longer if you are a soon-to-be-broke college student who decided to book the cheapest flight available, which meant a 3 hour flight from Denver to LA, a 3 hour layover, then a 13 hour flight to Seoul, a 1 hour layover, and finally a 2 hour flight to Narita International Airport. And that was just airtime. From the time we left our friend’s house in Denver to finally arriving at our hostel, we had travelled for 29 hours straight. Luckily our hostel was in Narita and not in Tokyo, or we probably would never have made it. but more on that later.

We started our journey by waking up at 5 AM after getting approximately 20 minutes of sleep, due to a mixture of excitement and poor packing skills. We got to the airport and onto our first flight with ease, meaning that we started our trip with a wholly unwarranted amount of confidence in our ability to navigate unfamiliar airports within a limited amount of time. However, we quickly learned just how wrong we were upon arriving in LA 3 hours later.

The day before, I encountered a bit of confusion when trying to check into our flight. We had booked through Korean Air, but our first flight was on American, so after about an hour of trying to check in on Korean Air’s website, I found out that I would need to check in through American. After another hour, I finally had my three boarding passes for each of my flights, courtesy of the American Airlines website. The first one, for the American flight, worked perfectly. The other two, however, would cause us quite the headache in LA.

For some reason, not only did the boarding passes for the Korean Air flights fail to include the terminal, we also found out that the gate was wrong after wandering through the wrong terminal for the better part of an hour. Now I will admit that my knowledge of airports and their organizational methods is limited at best, but LAX seems particularly confusing. To start, when we got off of our flight we immediately looked for one of those boards that lists all the departing flights and their gates, but could not find one that listed the international flights while we were in the domestic flight terminal. The second problem was that the international terminal is not called the international terminal but rather the Tom Bradley terminal, so although we kept seeing signs for that terminal we were convinced that it was not the terminal we were looking for. (Insert Star Wars reference here.) Also, neither of our phones were working for some reason so we could not even google our way to a solution.

Eventually we managed to ask a lady driving one of those moving benches they use to transport herds of senior citizens for directions, and she was kind enough to give us a hair-raising ride most of the way to the terminal, during which we nearly ran over multiple vacation bound families and an old lady who probably should have been riding along with us. We made it to our terminal with about half an hour to spare, which turned into about an hour and a half because our flight was delayed. (kudos to you if you can already see the problem with this, because we did not until later.) Once we were at our gate, we were informed that our boarding passes were not valid, but after a moment of heart-stopping panic they just printed us new ones and we went to wait in line to board.

This is where I ran into my next speed bump: the sleeping pill. Prior to departure, I had come up with a master plan to avoid jet lag, which was to drug myself into a sleeping beauty-esque slumber during the time that I would be asleep were I already in Japan, which happened to be for the first half of our flight to Seoul. So at LAX, I purchased a box of Sominex sleeping pills, my decision based entirely on the fact that there is a song named after them in “Little Shop of Horrors,” so clearly they must work. With that logic, how could I possibly go wrong?

Technically, my plan did work, because I suffered from significantly less jet lag than Emma, but nearly at the cost of my sanity during those first few hours on the plane. As per the instructions, I took two pills just after sitting down, and waited for sleep to come. It never did. What did come was extreme fatigue. It was a feeling similar to the end of a caffeine-fueled all nighter, when you have finished whatever it was that needed to be done and can now allow yourself to be tired, but the caffeine is still in your system and refuses to release you into sleep. That is the exact feeling the Sominex caused in me. Try as I might, I could not sleep for more than a few minutes at a time, but my brain was trying so hard to shut off that I spent about five hours in a foggy twilight zone. When I finally came to, Emma informed me that I looked “confused and miserable.” That sounded about right.

However, my misery had nothing to do with the quality of Korean Air. We were each given a pillow, a blanket, slippers, and a toothbrush with toothpaste. Our personal TVs had more than enough movies and games to keep us occupied for the whole 13 hours, plus they had an option where you could track your flights progress, or lack thereof as it seemed at times. (This may be a common feature of long-haul flights, but my experience is too limited to know.)  There also seemed to be a constant flow of drinks and staff coming around, so much so that I doubt we went more than an hour without some tray or cart coming past. I had 2 glasses of orange juice, 3 glasses of pineapple juice, a glass of guava juice, a meat bun, a banana, and 3 meals which each consisted of a main dish, a salad, and some dessert item. I have no idea why they thought we would need that much fuel to just sit and stare at a screen for 13 hours straight, but I wasn’t going to complain.

Our flight monitor capturing the moment we passed over our final destination so we could save money by traveling even further. Oh, the irony.

At long last, we began our descent into Seoul. The last 2 hours of the flight had actually been relatively exciting, as we flew over Japan and I had a bonding moment with the Korean grandmother in front of me as we gawked over the view in front of us and took an obscene number of photos. Despite our trouble in LAX, I was also beginning to look forward to spending an hour in Seoul. That is, until I looked at our ETA on the flight tracker, and realized that our one hour layover had been neutralized by our one hour delay at LAX, and we were now set to arrive at the same exact time our next flight was set to start boarding. Then my excitement quickly turned to panic. It had taken us about two hours to find our gate in LAX, and there all the signs were in English. Now we would need to sprint our way through an airport where neither of us spoke the language in about 15 minutes, and hope that this time our boarding passes worked.

By the time the flight landed about an hour after this realization, both Emma and I had worked ourselves into a veritable panic. Even if we somehow managed to catch our flight, there seemed to be no way that our bags would do the same. We had just finished resigning ourselves to wearing one outfit for the entirety of our trip when we finally disembarked, and just as we were breaking into a mad sprint, we noticed the man standing at our gate holding a sign with our flight number on it. He gave us detailed directions on how to get to our next gate, and even had friends positioned at every corner to ensure that we never lost our way. They then loaded us onto a bus and took us straight to where our plane was waiting on the tarmac to take off, which we did not 10 minutes later. I have honestly never been more impressed, and I spent the entire time thinking that had we been in America, we would have had no chance of making our connection. Even better, upon arriving in Narita, we discovered our bags riding along on the carousel with everyone else’s, and we nearly cried in relief. Hats off to the team at Incheon International Airport, they clearly know what they are doing and are putting the rest of us to shame.

Thought this sign meant victory? So did we, but we were wrong.

So, we had now arrived safely at Narita International Airport, which meant that the danger had passed us by, right? Wrong. We breezed through customs, managed to collect bags we thought we would surely never see again, and all that was left was to exchange our money, pick up my pocket wifi which I cleverly had waiting for me in the airport, and call our hostel to come pick us up. We exchanged our money with ease, and then went to call our hostel. Unfortunately, Emma’s phone could not make the call which is what we were counting on. This meant that we would need to use one of the coin powered phones by the exchange counter. The only problem was that neither of us had ever even touched a coin phone, and now we had to figure it out when all the instructions were in Japanese, the phone number seemed too long, and we hadn’t really slept in almost two days.

We spent a good hour and a half putting coin after coin into that machine only to have it spit out moments later as we failed again. I know, I know, we millennials can’t do anything when separated from our precious technology. I’m sure my Grandfather will absolutely love hearing how I was so soundly defeated by his type of phone as he is by the Iphone. Even though it was not yet even 10:00 PM, the terminal was all but abandoned save for a few tired looking kiosk workers, who after much arm-waving finally managed to coach us through making a call, and we were at last connected with the hostel owner Yama-san, who would be there in 20 minutes and would pick us up “on top of the bridge in the pick up lane.” (tears of joy were nearly shed at this news.)

After getting past this hurdle, we went to pick up my pocket wifi. Except my pocket wifi would not be arriving at the airport for another month, because I in my infinite wisdom had booked it for August instead of July. I was so unbelievably tired at this point that all I did was laugh and walk outside to find Yama, who was supposed to be parked on top of a bridge that we had just been informed by the same helpful kiosk worker did not exist. Yeah. It was that kind of night.

At that point we were just about ready to get in a car with anyone who said they had a spare bed, but luckily for us we found Yama within seconds of walking outside. (He was parked under a covered bride, not on top of it.) We hopped in his car, experienced another terrifying ride, this time because we were driving on what felt like the wrong side of the road and it seemed like we were about to hit every oncoming car, but we made it to the hostel in one piece.

And that is how I finally made it to Japan for the first time! I don’t know if everyone’s travel experiences are that exciting or if we just got extremely lucky, but at least it gave me plenty to write about. Stay tuned for the rest of my trip, because I will be posting about each city we go, starting with our first three days in Tokyo!


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