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!

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