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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Taiwan to Tokyo

Taipei, Taiwan

I woke up at 830AM this morning so that I could start making my way to the airport...I had no idea how I was going to make my way down to the airport so I wanted to try and get an early start. There were various routes to get there but I was striving for the CHEAPEST. I ended up walking to the all too familiar SOGO (I think I went to SOGO almost everyday when I was in Taiwan!) since I had heard that there was a bus stop that could take me direclty to the airport. I was disappointed that the guy told me it was 140NT ($4.50), I thought it was 130NT! I started to wonder if I should have taken the MRT and then a bus from the Taipei Main Station. Oh well, on my way back, I will have to check to see if the second option was a better one.

Got to the airport in good time, just 2 hours before my departure for Beijing.  I had found a ticket on Air China, not to be confused with China Airlines, the national carrier for Taiwan.  Mine instead was the mainland China airlines. A few nights before when I was having dinner with Elroy (Hawaii boy), I was warned that it was a SCARY airlines which had a really bad reputation.  GREAT.  I asked him to clarify...bad service or faulty equipment? I can live with the former but not with the latter! It started to make me think, is it better to be on a brand new airlines with no reputation or an airlines with a bad reputation? I suppose neither. The flight was actually okay though$, nothing special, nothing terrible. The good thing though was that I was able to score China Airlines mileage (the Taiwan airlines)!  In 2008, when I went to India, I traveled on China Airlines. When my boarding pass was issued today, I noticed that it was tagged with a China Airlines tag and my boarding pass bore the same logo. Which is what prompted me to ask if I could get mileage. I am still confused with the relationship because I flew on Air China, but I was able to accrue points on China Airlines.

As a mainland China carrier, naturally, the flight routed through Beijing. I was still not sure if I would need a VISA. My hunch was that I wouldn't need one because I would not be going through customs so, I didn't bother and thought if I did need one, I'd cross that bridge when I got there. My guess was right and I didn't need a visa.  So, if ever you are going on a Chinese carrier and are only going TRANSIT through China, you do NOT need a visa. I think there was conflicting information on this on the web.  I do however intend to pick up a Chinese visa while I'm in Tokyo because I'll have an overnight layover on my way back and I want to exit the airport and have dinner with my friend.

Soon after bypassing customs and getting through the international transfer area, I was annoyed to learn that my flight was 35 minutes delayed; which ended up being almost 45 minutes delayed. I was already getting in at 9:45PM so was not happy about this news.  To make matters worst, I couldn't get connected to the internet there! Not surprising, in order to access the wi-fi in China, you need to register at the business center for a username and password. For the life of me though, I couldn't figure out if the O in my username that was given to me was a O or a 0.  I had two of them! After several attempts and killing my battery down to half, it was almost time to board. So I decided to quickly call my friend Nicole to let her know that I was in Beijing!

Nicole was my co-worker when I first came to work in Beijing in 1999; actually I met her at the same time that I met Dennis. Nicole has always been such a good friend and always so helpful!  A smart one, she turned an unpleasant situation to an amazing opportunity by starting her own practice as a leading attorney specializing in Intellectual Property.  She represents a lot of big name clients (I know Oakley is one of them!). so if you ever need intellectual property consulting or protection in China, you know who to call. I also plan to depend on Nicole a lot when I finally make my move to Beijing later this year.

It's so funny because every time I call Nicole, she ALWAYS knows it's me! Even when I try to disguise my voice in the best WEI? (hello) that I can spit out.  I can never get anything passed her! Or I suppose maybe it means my Chinese still needs some work!  Anyway, one CRUCIAL thing that Nicole told me in our brief conversation today was that China has blocked facebook. Was she serious?! Am I prepared to move and not be connected through facebook? Back when I first lived in China, social networking was in its very early stages. I remember first learning about social networking upon my return from China in April 2003. Everything was so new that we didn't really understand any of it!  But some of our friends were doing it so my friend and I thought we should sign up and see what it was all about.  That was Friendster, 7 years ago.  How my life has changed since all of that!  I don't know if I can live without status updates, 'like', photo posting, tagging, etc. I guess we'll cross that bridge when we get's still making me worried though...

The plane ride from Beijing to Tokyo left at about 6:20PM (original time: 5:35PM).  I was nervous that I would get in too late. I wasn't quite sure where I was staying which is why I was so nervous.  My two aunts who live in Tokyo, whom I usually stay with, sleep very early and have their own challenges so I knew going over past 8:30PM would not sit well with them. I decided not to even propose the idea and instead started looking for alternative options. Put a post on my facebook and had several people kindly extend a hand, offering to call and ask host mothers (one who's host mother was from 12 years ago?!) and a friend with a 2 year old little girl. I didn't want to trouble all these people who had their own busy lives to take care of.  I was hoping that I could just bother a 'young' friend who wouldn't mind me coming in late.  Lucky for me, Owen answered my prayers.

Owen and I actually worked together in Japan from 2000-2002. He had even come to study in Hawaii for a year and stayed at my parents home for about a week.  I hadn't spoken to Owen since he came to stay with me so it had been almost 6 years! I felt bad but he and his girlfriend, also a familiar face (we also worked together) said it would be okay for a night.  When Owen first responded, I wasn't sure if I was more surprised that he was in Tokyo or if it was that he was STILL with Yoko (or rather she with him?). My first question: are you guys married yet? I was happy to find out that they'll be tying the knot later this spring. Yay!

Owen informed me that the last train was at 11:45PM. Yes, in Japan, there are LAST TRAINS, they don't run 24/7; they usually stop around 11:45PM-12:30AM.  Back when I was studying in Tokyo as an exchange student, we either had to catch 終電 shuuden (last train) or we would have to wait for the 初電 hatsuden (first train) the next morning, usually leaving somewhere around 5:00AM. Those were the days when we would pull all-nighters 徹夜 tetsuya and spend the non-train running hours dancing the night awayBut this is why I was so nervous and annoyed about my flight coming in late. It wasn't that I would lose sleep but that I may not be able to sleep at all! I quickly considered and ran all my options through my head, 1) go to Owen's house, 2) find a hotel, 3) find an internet cafe 4) find somewhere to sleep.

Earlier in an email a friend had asked me, how do you travel Japan on a budget? And the real answer is, you really can't. I had already spent about $1,000 for my travel to and within Japan ($450 for air ticket + $525 for 14 day Japan Rail Pass) and so I knew that I really needed to watch my spending.  I won't be able to eat out at every meal and instead would need to try to stretch my money. So with all of this in mind, I really couldn't take any food for granted either (although this is the problem that got me fat to begin with!) and I shouldn't spend money on things that I really don't need.  To this end, I ate most of the airplane food, heck, I paid for it! The girl sitting next to me seemed to think differently and her bread was still sitting on her tray. I debated.  Shamelessly, this is how our conversation went:

Me: Are you going to eat that?
Girl: No
Me: Okay, can I have it then?

And, I snatched it away and tucked into my bag. Ha ha, I had to laugh at myself for being so shameless! But I thought, what the heck, I'm not going to see this girl again! And then, COME TO FIND OUT as I was trying to make conversation with her because I just stole her airplane food, I asked where she was from.

Girl: Indiana
Me: Oh yeah? Oh wow, I went to school there. What part are you from?
Girl: I'm from the south
Me: Oh okay, I went to school in Greencastle
Girl: What? So did I?
Me: WHAT?! Seriously? What year did you grad?
Girl: I just graduated, this past 2009
Me: Oh okay, I'm a 2000 grad

And that's how it went, again in this small world, I connected with someone randomly!  It was incredibly random because actually in my row of 3 seats, the other two passengers left my row to sit in other seats since the plane wasn't completely full so, this girl came to sit in the aisle seat in my row. If I didn't take her bread, I probably wouldn't have found out that we had the same alma mater!  I wanted to take a photo with her but felt bad since I stole her bread...and because I got busy soon after....

Tokyo, Japan

Arrived safely at Haneda airport (in Tokyo, right in the city, vs. Narita, two hours away) at 10:00PM. Thankfully, only 15 minutes later. I was very well aware that I needed to be very efficient with my time because I needed to make shuuden.  Waited for my bag for a few minutes but nothing rather than waiting, decided to run to the restroom quickly.

When I came out, it wasn't what I expected to of the airlines' staff was calling out a name that sort of sounded like mine. I wasn't sure so waited for her to say the name again.  Yup, it was me. OH GOD, I thought, why is she calling me?  If it was before the flight, I would have been excited because it was probably an upgrade but AFTER a flight? In the baggage claim?  Yep, my worst nightmares came true.  My bag was not there.

Lots of papework later, I find out that my bag never got on the flight and so it wasn't on the plane with me.  Upon finding my bag left behind, Tokyo was contacted and I was relayed the bad news. I guess it was good that they let me know rather than have me wait for all the bags to come out to see that mine wasn't among them.  I really wasn't sure if it was a blessing in disgues; if I should be happy because I wouldn't have to carry my bag on the close to an hour commute to Owen's house or if I should be annoyed that I didn't have my toiletries, clothes, etc.  I guess in hindsight, it was easier not to lug my bag around especially since I wasn't entirely sure where I was going and at any given moment, may need to make a mad dash to catch the trains.  It took a while for them to document everything. Held me back about another 40 minutes. Please note, I was very disappointed that the airlines didn't even provide me a toiletry kit when I asked for one...I thought that was standard? Chinese airlines?! Is it because its a Chinese airlines or because we're in a recession? I'm thinking the answer is the former...

Got out of the airport and quickly tried to find a SIM card for my phone.  On my last couple of visits to Japan, I have always rented a SIM card at Narita airport.  This time though, I was at Haneda so I wasn't sure if they had SIM cards for rent; I assumed they did.  I was wrong. AHHH, that meant I couldn't call Owen on the go and I would have to stop every so often to call him.  I didn't have time!  So with the only Japanese money I had on me Y1,000 (about $8.10) saved from a previous trip, I bought a phone card. What sucked too was that because I mistakenly bought a card with international calling features, I have to punch in a bunch of numbers (vs. the domestic cards you only need to dial out) and then wait as they review how many minutes I have remaining, etc.  It literally takes me about 3 minutes to connect!  Anyway, I made my first call to Owen at 10:50PM.  The first good news in a while, he said that the last train from Akihabara station (on the main line) to his house would leave at 12:18AM.  So I had some time. It would still take about 40 minutes to Akihabara station though. I still needed to take a shuttle from the international terminal to domestics terminal then I still needed to take the monorail to the main Yamanote line and from there, I would ride the Yamanote line to Akihabara where I needed to be there before 12:18AM to catch the train to Owen's house.

But, first I needed money!  How can you travel in Japan on a budget when $1 will only get you Y80 some odd yen, which won't buy you anything!  The rate was Y86 to the $1.  Man, I don't ever remember it being THIS bad. The last time I remember it being bad was back in 1995 or so when it was about Y95 to the $1. When I remember bread (toast) cost me Y500 for one slice ($5.26); now that same bread would cost me $5.81, not taking inflation into consideration!  And it's only ONE, albeit thick, slice!  I was really bothered, that I only got about Y17,000 for my $200. At least they gave a slightly better rate with traveler's checks; up until now, traveler's checks had cost me more to exchange so I saved it.  The guy at the exchange counter told me that the rate went up again for the yen.  Will it stop?  It needs to come back down!  Well, the good side to that though is that I actually still have about Y50,000 yen in an old bank account here which I plan to get out on this visit; this will help alleviate the costs and spending here!  Money that I haven't had access to for more than 6 years!

It was now 11:10PM and I wasn't sure if I could make it to Akihabara by the last train.  Consulted with the train attendant and he gave me suggestions on possible places with possibly reasonably priced hotels.  I debated. Maybe it would be easier to just get a place closer than have to go out to where Owen is and impose on them...but, what if I couldn't find anything? Haneda wasn't giving me any wi-fi signals so I couldn't look anything up?!  I was barely going to make it but decided I should just go to Owen's and if I don't make it then figure something out from there.

I guess maybe because I didn't have my bag, I was able to make it to Akihabara on the second to the last train which is what Owen advised me to ride (I think the last train which is an express would pass Owen's stop and I'd need to take a cab).  Boarded my train at 12:09AM and made it to Owen's house.  At the train station, I was greeted by a familiar face!  Aww, Owen came down to fetch me. It was really nice to see him after all these years and to hear that he is doing well. So hospitable, he set me up in one of their extra rooms (which is almost unheard of in Japan; most people are known to live in shoeboxes), gave me towels, extra clothes (since I don't have any!), and showed me his kitchen in case I wanted something to eat; way more than what I needed!  Thanks Owen!  I even have a computer to write this post and an toasting under this kotatsu (small table with a thick blanket and a heated lamp attached)!  And, I'm watching HD TV on this monster screen in this room.

Well, it's getting late so (3:20AM) so I should end here...My dad arrives on January 29.  I have a day and a half without any warm clothes and any clothes for that matter!  I need to sort out my luggage later today and I need to also try and figure out how to withdraw my money since I don't have my bankcard and heard it takes a few weeks to process.  Hope I don't have any problems!  I'll be here in Japan for a month; it's the first time in a LONG TIME, that I'm here for more than a few days.  I'll get to see everyone and go everywhere only problem is I am unemployed! Oh well, I'm hoping to teach English here ($30/hour) if I can. Really excited about the snow festival though I am not sure if I have enough warm clothes, even with the clothes my dad is bringing me! We'll see....

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