We arrived in Narita, Japan after 12 hours and agreed that it felt like a shorter flight than a normal six hour flight across the U.S. - such was the quality of the flight.
The topography of Japan as viewed from the air - or at least, the parts of it that we saw - is very interesting. A suprising amount of land seems to be developed farm land, with parcels maybe an eighth of a mile on a side laid out in a checkerboard pattern as far as the eye can see. Each such field is lined with trees and an occasional road. And we descended, we started to notice that the lay of the land is not quite flat, but instead is slightly rippled and broken up by many tree-lined gullies and little hills and valleys. It looked much more quaint and rural than the industrial landscape we had envisioned.
When you cross the International Date Line somewhere in the Pacific between Hawaii and Japan, you gain a whole day instantaneously, but then as you fly on you start working your way back around the clock. Japan is 14 hours ahead of EST and although the flight takes 12 or so hours of actual time, it only takes 4 hours of clock time. Our 10:30 a.m. flight from S.F. arrived in Japan at 2:30 p.m., which was actually 10:30 p.m. U.S. Pacific time, so it felt a little strange exiting the airport in broad early afternoon daylight. The flight schedule with ANA from S.F. to Beijing includes a 20 hour layover, and ANA provides a free hotel room in Narita for the night. An airport shuttle took us to our hotel room, but we didn't stay there for long - we wanted to get a look at Japan in the few hours that we had available to us.
We thought we would go to Tokyo, but then we found out that it was a two hour train ride away. This would leave us with very little time to do anything before having to get back on the return train, so we settled for a night exploring the town of Narita. There is a bus that goes from the hotel to the center of Narita, and it was this bus that introduced us the amazing punctuality of the Japanese. The bus was scheduled to depart at 5:30 p.m., and a few minutes before 5:30 it arrived. We boarded the bus, the bus driver got off to stretch his legs, and as the clock at the front of the bus rolled over to 5:30 he hopped back on the bus, and we were on our way. Neither of us could remember a time when a bus or subway that we had taken in the U.S. arrived or left quite on time, so it was really a shock to find everything run nearly down to the second. The bus that we eventually took to get back to the hotel arrived exactly on time and left exactly on time, in the same manner, as did the shuttle we took to the airport the next day.
We found Narita to be a nice little city. We hadn't realized that the Japanese drive on the left side of the road (opposite the U.S.) and that took a little getting used to when crossing the streets. We ducked into a Pachinko parlor to take a peek - Pachinko is a kind of Japanese gambling which uses gravity to pull little steel balls through a grid of obstacles. Balls landing in strategic places yield even more balls, which fall through to the bottom of the machine. You then take these balls and put them back in through the top. It's kind of like those little handheld puzzle games everyone has played at least once before - the kind in which you shoot little balls around in an enclosed plastic case - although on a much larger scale. At any rate, we weren't very good at it - or more accurately, very lucky, since there is no skill involved, no paddles, no flippers, you just put the balls in and watch where they go - and the hundred Yen's worth of balls we had bought lasted about 30 seconds. We didn't quite get the point of it all, but the Japanese seem to like it. Some people had entire buckets full of little balls that they just kept feeding constantly into the blinking and beeping machines.
Our hunger soon got the better of us and we walked around the various narrow winding streets looking for a good place to eat. We saw a few places full of foreigners that we recognized from the hotel, and we stayed well clear of those. Eventually we settled upon a little place with a friendly looking old woman who nodded yes when Nancy enquired, "Unagi?", which was all that we needed to know. Japan is very expensive - a Yen is worth a bit more than a penny, and our rather small meal came out to nearly 3,000 Yen, or a bit more than $25. But the food was very good!
Of course we couldn't visit a new foreign country without checking out the supermarket so we walked around the bitterly cold streets of Narita until we found one. We found it to be well stocked with pretty expensive food. The Japanese seem to have an affection for individually wrapping things in colorful, eye-catching packages (which we found out later is eclipsed by the Chinese love of packaging) and the aisles were full of brightly colored packages, most of which we had no idea the contents of. Many packages feature English words which have absolutely no relationship to the product itself, and most of the wording is very funny to read (one particularly funny bit of bad English was found not at the supermarket, but as the name of a bar that we saw from the bus window on the way to Nartita center - a bar named "Pony Washing"!). The only food item that we found to be cheaper than what you would find in an American market was the Japanese food, and Bryan took advantage of this by snagging two packages of Japanese pickles.
We then visited the mall that was attached to the grocery store. By this time (8 p.m. or so) we were really feeling the jetlag, and so we stumbled, fatigued, through the stores, soaking in the Japanese capitalist scene. In general we found that everything was smaller and more expensive than in the U.S. - hardly a surprise. We popped into an eyeglass store to have Bryan's nosepads from his glasses replaced with less slippery versions and had a very hard time communicating with the Japanese gentleman behind the counter exactly what we wanted to have done. But eventually we made our point and were serviced and on our way.
By the time we caught the return bus to our hotel and got into bed it was 10 p.m. and we were thoroughly exhausted, having at this point stayed up until 5 a.m. U.S. Pacific time. Needless to say, we had no trouble falling asleep.
A word of note here regarding jetlag - we found that it was actually very, very easy to make this trip. We experienced very little jetlag. Aside from being pretty tired by the time evening rolled around in Japan, everything was smooth sailing. We were able to fall asleep immeditely in Japan and wake up at 6:30 a.m. the next day, fully rested and nearly completely adjusted to our new schedule. It seems that our unplanned technique of sleeping only four hours on the night before the flight, and then napping liberally on the plane, helped tremendously in easing the transition to the new time zone. The first few days in Beijing, Bryan found it difficult to stay up past 10 p.m. or sleep later than 6 a.m., but by mid-week, he was back on his standard in-bed-at-midnight and up-at-8:00-a.m. schedule. Needless to say, Nancy had no troubles adjusting at all, as she can easily sleep at any time at all.
Of course, we anticipate that going back the other way will be a different matter altogether, as instead of gaining 7 or 8 hours in a day to nap your way into your new schedule, you lose 7 or 8 hours of your day and effectively lose a night's sleep.
Bryan Ischo and Nancy Lau - 02.03.2001
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