やった! Sarah and I made it to Japan last night. Also it seems that my Japanese skills are almost good enough to be useful. phew

After boarding our plane in Portland, we were stuck on the ground for about two hours because a seat broke. (Sarah says it was one of the flight attendants’ chairs.) A Chinese fellow by the name of Tom Chen chatted with us quite a bit while we all waited; I gather he lives in the Portland area but was on a trip to visit China. Eventually the FAA paperwork went through to allow the plane to “fly in its current configuration” (that is, the “broken” configuration) and we were on our way.

Ten hours later… (In the meantime I drained one battery on my Neo Freerunner reading the first part of a sci-fi book I downloaded before leaving; watched a fun and humorous Japanese action movie with social commentary undertones called “K-20: Legend of the Mask”; explored the in-flight entertainment system that provided that movie and a fair selection of others as well as other stuff like real-time flight maps and info; discovered that said entertainment system was Linux-based when it rebooted in the middle of my movie and showed the single-CPU framebuffer Tux logo; ate a tolerable airline dinner around 5pm PST, an airline-provided ice cream bar a few hours later, and the airline’s “breakfast” around 6pm JST… oh and chatted with Sarah sometimes when she wasn’t sleeping.)

Once we landed at the Narita airport there was a further delay. People in Japan are pretty concerned about the swine flu right now, so nobody was allowed off the plane until government health inspectors had come through with what I’m betting were infrared video cameras, though they called them “thermographs”. I hope Sarah’s pictures of this bit come out well because it’s quite dramatic to have your plane overrun by a half-dozen people in taped-shut blue hospital gowns, face masks, and eye protection. We were underwhelmed by their disorganized approach, though; I believe they counted the passengers on the plane at least four times, for instance.

Once off the plane we were into the land of signs we mostly can’t read, so the most noticeable ones are, for instance, stylized depictions of butts identifying the presence of bidets in the bathrooms. Again I’ll have to defer to Sarah’s pictures for this.

I had to ask directions quite a few times but aside from going to the wrong Four Seasons hotel first (there are two, on opposite sides of Tokyo, but the first is on the way to the second when coming from the airport, so no loss there) we had no outright mishaps getting to the hotel last night. I tried to mostly ask questions in Japanese, and people usually understood my questions! Sometimes I even understood their answers…

I’ve often heard that Japanese people are very friendly and helpful. I’m relieved to report that this seems to be true. :-) Random strangers on the subway answered questions for me and helped us make sure we got off at the right stops, which was important as we had to transfer twice between the Narita airport and our hotel. The subway stations we passed through were rather large, even sprawling, too, so it was good that there the signs were pretty well-labeled in English. (I did have to notice that one sign labeled only in Kanji matched the characters I’d seen for the Chuo line though, and I had to ask for help to buy our train tickets from the vending machines.)

On finally reaching our hotel, one of the staff asked if we were the Sharps, because they’d been waiting for us. I said “おまたせいたしました” (idiomatically, a humble “sorry we kept you waiting”) which I think surprised him. I don’t know if the surprise was because I used Japanese at all or because a guest wouldn’t be expected to apologize for that, and I was too sleepy to find out.

Sleep was nice.

This morning Sarah went down to her conference, which is in the hotel we’re staying at, so she hopefully can’t get lost someplace without me to translate for her. :-) She’ll be busy with that until about 9pm this evening, so I’m on my own for exploring Tokyo.

I asked (in English, oops) at the concierge desk where I might walk to for breakfast, and the woman at the desk gave me a map and recommended “the bakery shops”. I guess she got a little mixed up about English plural conjugation because she directed me to Sekiguchi-pan, a lone French bakery that I bet I will be taking Sarah to later. It didn’t look like what I wanted for breakfast though so I kept walking, after studying the map carefully.

I think the map is wrong.

Still, I had no trouble keeping track of where I’d come from. I think I would have been hosed if I tried to explore at night, but in full daylight my sense of direction was fine. Spoiler: I’m writing this from the hotel, which I got back to without incident.

I passed a number of restaurants that I could probably have gotten breakfast at, and probably a number of restaurants that I didn’t notice at all because so many things are marked differently than I expect here. I settled on what turned out to be a ramen shop, and more importantly at the time turned out to be a ramen shop that hadn’t opened yet. So I kept exploring for another half-hour.

There are bicyclists everywhere in Tokyo, at least here in the Mejiro and Sekiguchi areas. Quite a few of them whizzed past me on the sidewalk, at distances a bit closer than I was entirely comfortable with. At street corners, the sidewalks are labeled with a spot for pedestrians to stop, and another spot for the bicyclists. I saw a number of mothers biking with a child in an extra seat on the back, which was neat. There are bikes leaning against walls and handrails everywhere, and very few of them seem to be locked or anything. I’m looking forward to renting a bike when we’re away from Tokyo’s busy streets.

I am happy to note that Tokyo’s streets and sidewalks are not super-humanly spotless. They’re merely really really clean. I walked past a shop-keeper spraying some spots on the sidewalk with something that smelled like a cleaner of some kind, and I saw someone near the hotel using a street-sweeper the size of a riding lawnmower. The effect is quite pleasant. The city air smells fine to me too, in contrast with what I’ve heard of the larger Chinese cities, or American ones for that matter.

I’ve probably forgotten to include important details, but I want to get back out exploring the city now, instead of writing about it. More later, given reasonable Internet access. じゃ、ね!

Edit: Just because it doesn’t look like a bike lock I recognize, doesn’t mean it isn’t locked. On closer inspection it seems pretty common to lock one of the bike’s wheels with a small ring permanently mounted at an edge of the wheel. Although there are some bikes around that I still can’t see any lock on.