Friday, January 15, 2010

My Flight to Japan with All Nippon Airlines

It all started when I arrived at the San Francisco International Airport. I had a two-and-a-half hour train journey using Amtrak from Sacramento and BART from Richmond to get to the airport, and I was now ready to fly to Japan. My flight was with All Nippon Airlines. I heard a lot of great things about the airline, including its safety record and its excellent service reputation, and I was really looking forward to the flight. I arrived at the airport at about 7:05am, which was nearly four hours before my flight to Japan was scheduled to depart (10:50am). When I got to the ANA ticketing counter, the staff told me that they were not ready yet and that I needed to wait until 7:50 when they opened. Fair enough; arriving to the airport four hours in advance is quite early, after all. I called my parents to let them know that I safely arrived at SFO with no problems at all, and then waited until more passengers started arriving and lining up at the ticketing counter.

At the line (it was 7:35 or so when I lined up), I noticed a few things already about ANA's service. In many ways, ANA's service is a perfect representation of service in Japan; it felt like my journey in Japan started at the ANA ticketing counter at SFO, not at the Narita International Airport. The workers at the ticketing counter were all women, and they were well-dressed. By well-dressed, I mean *well-dressed*. I also noticed how the workers were setting up the ticketing booth area. At most airlines, a ticket booth has a very minimal amount of decorations, minus advertisements about the airline and flight information. I saw the ANA workers place a small pot of flowers by each receptionist. Talk about attention to detail!

Once the ticketing area opened, one of the workers went to the line and gave everybody baggage tags. The baggage tags had blank spaces for us passengers to fill in our identification information on. I had a hard time trying to write the information on the tags and handling my luggage at the same time. A minute later, it was my time to walk up to the ticketing counter. The worker then asked if she can carry my bags to the ticketing counter for me. I initially refused the offer, but she insisted, and she proceeded to carry my bags to the counter. Talk about service! Check-in went smoothly, and I was pleased to learn that my bags did not exceed their free baggage weight allowance! Yes! Saved me a big headache.

The flight itself was very nice. I sat in economy class (I'm living on a shoestring at this point; I couldn't afford their luxurious business class flights), but it felt like a first-class flight based on the amenities and the quality of the service. We were all given blankets and pillows, which made the long flight more comfortable. I enjoyed the in-flight entertainment system, which contained video games, American and Japanese TV shows, movies, and music. I watched a documentary about Michael Jackson's career, saw the movie "Surrogates," and played Gomoku and the hardest version of the game Brickout that I've played in my life thus far. The in-flight entertainment system also had an option where you can see where the airplane is currently at. I watched it occasionally when I was tired of playing a game; whenever I'm on a trip of any sort, I always like knowing my current location. The food was also surprisingly good. I heard a lot of bad things about airplane meals, but ANA's meals were very good. They wouldn't edge out a four- or five-star Japanese restaurant, but they tasted great and did not look like frozen TV dinners. After the end of my first meal, they even served Haägen-Dazs ice cream for dessert! They offered free drinks, including beer and wine (I've never seen free alcohol on a plane before), but I declined the alcohol and went for fruit juices instead. Finally, the cabin attendants were the best ones that I've ever encountered on a plane thus far. They were sweet, kind, patient, and, I have to say (I'm blushing), 美しいですね! Between the food, the entertainment options, and the service, it was almost the perfect flight experience.

Almost perfect, because there was only one flaw with my entire flight. ANA 's economy class seating offers very little legroom; this was the most cramped flight that I've ever been on, although, to be fair, my experience with flying had been relegated to domestic flights in America using domestic airlines; my flight to Japan was my first international flight. The lack of legroom was not a problem during the first half of my flight, but it became uncomfortable for me during the latter half of the flight. It's not an issue for somebody of average weight and height, but for somebody like me who is 6'3" and is a little heavy but not fat, it is a problem. And for somebody who is big, flying ANA economy class may be a serious problem. (Note that this is not a problem for those flying business- and first-class; they have plenty of legroom). At one point halfway, I decided to get up from my seat and walk around to avoid the possibility of developing blood clots, which is a real risk when sitting still for prolonged periods of time and can even be fatal. I also had to carry a few things, including a cup of orange juice and some cards that I had to fill out on the airplane related to immigration and customs declaration. Unfortunately, my cup of orange juice fell on the seat and got onto my cards! Nooooo! I then called one of the cabin attendants over to bring the issue to her attention. She then grabbed an extra blanket and placed it on the orange juice spill to clean it up and to have it dry during the rest of the flight. I apologized, but she told me not to worry about it, without any attitude at all, and even asked me if I'd like a refill of the orange juice that was spilled! Wow, talk about service!

Despite the cramped conditions and the orange juice incident, my flight was excellent. I would definitely fly with ANA any chance that I get. They score a 4.999 out of 5 in my book; the service makes up for the legroom issue, since I'd rather deal with some cramped conditions than with bad food, bad entertainment, and bad service. They deserve the Michael McThrow Award of Excellence™. And I pray that one day I'll be able to afford a business-class flight (or, even better, first-class flight) on ANA to enjoy the perfect flight experience. A brother can dream....

The flight finally arrived at the Narita International Airport at about 2:45pm Tokyo Time. I gave my thanks to the cabin attendants as I left the plane, and then I proceeded to start my life in Japan.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

My Journey To Japan

My Journey to Japan

Note: Due to current connection difficulties, pictures will be uploaded at a later date. I apologize for this.

It was a very long journey from Sacramento, California to Kawasaki, Japan. I left my house at about 3:45am Pacific Time on Monday, January 11 and arrived at the Musashi-Nakahara station in Kawasaki, Japan on Tuesday, January 12 at about 6:30pm Japan time. To use city planning terminology, my trip was an excellent example of multimodal transportation in action, utilizing a carpool (my dad dropped me off at the Amtrak station in Sacramento), trains, urban rapid transit, and a plane! I think I made seven transfers during my journey (carpool->Amtrak, Amtrak->BART, BART->BART, BART->airplane, airplane->Narita Express, Narita Express->Tohoku Line, and Tohoku Line->Nambu Line). Here was my itinerary:

3:45am (California) -- I finished saying my "see-you-laters" to my siblings and my parents (we don't say "goodbye" in our house); I do not plan to be back in America until August, unless the graduate schools that I'm currently waiting to hear back from invite me to their campuses if they accept me. My dad gave me a ride from my house in South Sacramento to the Amtrak station in Downtown Sacramento. Interstate 5 was pretty empty during this time of the day; there aren't too many people on the road at 3:50am on a Monday. It does get somewhat congested during the morning and afternoon rush hours, but nothing too crazy compared to the Bay Area or Los Angeles (or even Highway 99 in Sacramento, which receives much more traffic than Interstate 5 does).

4:00am -- Arrived at the Amtrak station. My dad accompanied me while I bought my ticket and boarded the train. We exchanged "see-you-laters" and temporarily parted ways.

4:30am -- The Capitol Corridor train left Sacramento, headed toward the Bay Area. I bought a discounted BART ticket at the food court on the train (just $8 for a $10 ticket); this was used for the next leg of my trip.

5:55am -- Train arrived in Richmond; this is the transfer point for Amtrak passengers using BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit; a rail system in the San Francisco Bay Area that goes from San Francisco and vicinity to the suburbs east of the San Francisco Bay) to enter other parts of the Bay Area.

6:00am -- I took a train that headed to my transfer point: the MacArthur station in Oakland. This train was not crowded at all; I was able to sit down with all of my luggage. Mostly uneventful except for the fact that this is the first time I have ever used BART. I like the ease of use of BART, although this usability is rivaled by that of the Tokyo-area trains.

6:23am -- I transferred to the train headed toward the San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Unlike the last train that I was on, this train was very crowded; I believe the reason was because this train originated from Pittsburg and traverses the northeastern suburbs of the outer East Bay, such as Concord and Walnut Creek. I had to stand with my luggage until the train made its first stop; then I was able to get a seat, but the area was still pretty crowded. The train remained crowded until it reached the last station in downtown San Francisco. After leaving San Francisco, there was plenty of room left on the train.

7:05am -- I arrived at SFO. The train stops at the international terminal. I boarded the plane at 10:25am and left San Francisco at 10:50am. I will talk about my flight with ANA (All Nippon Airlines) in a separate blog page; to sum it up, it was mostly awesome and I look forward to flying with them again!

2:45pm (Tuesday, Japan) -- After a very long flight, I finally arrived in Japan. After dreaming about traveling to Japan for over ten years, I was finally there! To be honest with you, it did not feel that I was in a foreign country; it felt like I entered a time warp, fell asleep, and woke up in some part of California that I did not know existed. Yes, the signs were in Japanese, and there were lots of Japanese people (well, duh, I'm in Japan), but there was English subtitles on all of the signs, and I was used to going to predominately Asian areas in California throughout my life and being the only black person there, so I wasn't shocked by the homogeneousness of the population and by seeing kanji (Chinese characters) everywhere. In fact, nothing highlighted my feelings more than the first advertisement that I saw after leaving the plane. It was from Coca-Cola, and it said, in English, "Welcome to Japan!" There's nothing that says Japan like Coca-Cola!

Anyway, going through immigration and customs was smooth. I then exchanged my traveler's cheques into Japanese yen (unfortunately they did not exchange my $2 in quarters; at least I will have change when I return to America XD), phoned my coworker at Fujitsu to schedule a meetup at the Musashi-Nakahara station (my final destination), and bought a ticket for the Narita Express train, a fast train that goes from the Narita International Airport to Tokyo, Shinagawa, Yokohama, and other main stations in the greater Tokyo area.

One nice thing is that for foreigners (i.e., people without Japanese passports), the railroad sells the Narita Express ticket and a Suica card for ¥3500, which costs about ¥5000 or more, depending on the destination using the Narita Express. Suica is a card system used in the Tokyo metro area for paying train fare in Japan. All you have to do is to place your card on top of the receptor before entering the boarding area, and then place your card on top of the receptor after departing from the train and going into the terminal; the fare will be deducted from this point. When you purchase a Suica card with this deal, it comes with ¥1500 on the card. The card's value can be added at convenience stores and at train stations throughout the Tokyo metro area.

4:15pm -- I boarded the Narita Express, heading to the Tokyo station. I got to see a glimpse of Japan outside of my train's window. The area around Narita is mostly rural; not all of the Tokyo area is developed. However, when the train entered Chiba, the rural setting disappears and is quickly replaced with a more and more urban setting. This urban setting became more dense as the train got closer and closer to Tokyo. Finally, at about 5:15pm, the train stopped at the Tokyo station.

5:15pm -- I arrived at the Tokyo station, arguably the busiest train station in Tokyo and perhaps Japan. I had a very difficult time trying to find the tracks for the Keihin-Tohoku and the Tokaido lines; both of those trains stop at the Kawasaki station. The directional signs were not very clear about where these train tracks were located; the signs would include all of the lines, but would lead to only a few tracks where only a few of those lines stop. After walking in large circles around the Tokyo station for what seemed to had been ten minutes or two, two young ladies saw my confusion and my poor handling of my luggage (at this point I was very tired from traveling and the plane ride) and asked how they can help me. I told them that I was looking for the Tokaido or the Tohoku lines. They then directed me to where those lines were, and then walked with me. During our walk to those tracks, we chatted about our journeys. They, Mami and Emily, were headed home to Chiba. I introduced myself and told them about my long flight from San Francisco and my stay in Japan. They were impressed with my attempts to speak Japanese (「日本語が上手ですね!」), even though my Japanese is still quite limited at this time XD. I was worried about making a correct transfer to the local trains. The Narita Express train uses its own ticket, while the local trains use the Suica system. However, I did not see a place for Narita Express users to swipe their Suica cards, and I was worried about being fined for fare evasion or something like that. Mami and Emily reassured me that I will be just fine, but I was still worried. When the Tokaido train came (trains run very frequently in Japan, so this wasn't much time), they continued to reassure me. I then stepped on the train, praying in my head for the best. Mami and Emily both waved in a synchronous, almost choreographed, manner as my train left the Tokyo station. I was hoping that they were correct about the Suica card.

5:30pm -- I was on the Tokaido train, headed to the Kawasaki station. Everything that you've heard about crowded Japanese trains is true. And I thought BART was crowded! This train was standing room only; I had to stand with my luggage during the entire 25-30 minute trip to Kawasaki. Worse, unlike American rush hours, where rush hour traffic seems to thin out as one gets further and further away from the core of a big city, on this train, the amount of people leaving the train was about the same (or a tad lower than) as the amount of people entering the train, which did not help matters. At about 6:00pm or so, the train stopped at the Kawasaki station. Time for my last transfer of the trip!

6:00pm -- I was on the Nambu Line, headed toward the Musashi-Nakahara station, my final destination. This train was also jammed-packed with commuters and was also standing room only, although the congestion was not as bad as the Tokaido line train. Other than that, the trip was mostly uneventful until I arrived at the Musashi-Nakahara station. Right beside the ticketing gates, I saw my coworker, Yoshihiro Tsuchiya (who I'll refer to as Tsuchiya-san throughout my blog), from Fujitsu Labs waiting for me. Remember the Suica card thing? As expected, when I placed my Suica card on the receptor, it beeped and a red light appeared on the machine. Luckily my coworker was there. We then went to a JR Railways worker and spoke about what happened; I explained the situation as my coworker translated it. Luckily it turned out to have not been a problem; the worker charged the card as normal. My coworker and I ended up taking a taxi to my dorm room not too far from the station; my dorm life will be covered in a future blog post.

The rest of the night was mostly an introduction to my neighborhood. After checking into my dormitory and dropping off my luggage in my room, Tsuchiya-san and I walked around the neighborhood. We ended up having dinner at Sukiya, a Japanese fast-food restaurant that is famous for its cheap (at only ¥280 for a nice-sized bowl) and delicious gyudon, amongst other dishes. After being shown around the neighborhood, Tsuchiya-san headed toward his home near the Yokohama area, and I walked back to my room. There was not much I can do from that point; I had no Internet access, and I discovered that my AT&T cell phone from home was not working, even though it was supposed to had worked.

Stay tuned for details about my mostly fabulous experience flying All Nippon Airlines, my first week of work, dorm life, and my difficulties getting around!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


For over ten years, I have dreamed of going to Japan to visit and to learn more about the Japanese language and culture. On Monday, January 11, 2010, this dream will finally be realized. I will be going to Kawasaki, Japan to start a seven-month internship with Fujitsu Labs.

My interest in the Japanese language and culture started in late 1999. Pokémon was very popular at the time, and like most ten-year old boys, I was hooked on Pokémon. My interests in Pokémon grew into an interest in the culture that developed so many of the games and TV shows that I was interested in. I started learning Japanese in December 1999 independently through books and websites. During my last two years of high school, I also attended a Japanese language school named Sakura Gakuen, which offered language courses every Saturday morning. During my undergraduate career at Cal Poly, I became involved with Japanese Cultural Exchange, the university's Japanese club. My passion for the Japanese language and culture, combined with my dedication to the club and its mission to showcase Japanese culture to Cal Poly and to San Luis Obispo, led to becoming vice-president and ultimately president of the club. After a lucky break that I received after meeting two researchers from Fujitsu Labs at a file and storage systems conference and inquiring about internship opportunities, I finally have the opportunity to go and work in Japan.

I am very excited about this internship opportunity for a few reasons. For one, I will have the opportunity to experience Japanese culture first-hand. It's one thing to read about the world's diverse cultures, but it's another thing to actually experience them. I am also very interested in finally being able to use the Japanese that I learned over the past decade and to learn more of the language. Languages are a "use-it-or-lose-it" type of proposition; when I am placed in an environment where not knowing Japanese may mean not eating, my language skills will improve dramatically. Finally, I am very interested in the internship itself. I am very interested in pursuing a career in computer science research, and I am glad that I have the opportunity to work in a research lab in an area that I am very interested in: computer storage systems. My internship affords me the opportunity to see how research is done in industry and how research careers are in Japan.

I am very excited about this internship opportunity! I will be there from January 12 to the beginning of August. I will keep you all posted about my time in Japan!