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Arriving At Narita Airport

May 6, 2006

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Saturday, May 6, 2006

Day One Continued

Arriving at the airport was quite easy. One of the first things I saw was a beautiful traditional rock garden inside the terminal. The raked gravel, potted plants and Japanese-style decorations were quite pretty, and surprising to see indoors. We filled out a short form at customs and made our way to the counter to pass inspection. The Japanese attendant reviewed our passports and other paperwork and stamped us through in a matter of minutes.

I was instantly aware of how out-of-my-element I was in these new surroundings. It felt like I had lost one of my five senses — like when you close your eyes and try to imagine what it would be like to be sight-impaired. It was like someone had flipped a switch, and suddenly, I couldn’t understand anything around me. We fumbled our way through the airport, dazedly following the gestures of the very friendly people waving us in various directions. Right away, I also began to notice some differences in our surroundings. For example, fire extinguishers sit everywhere in sight, easy to grab if necessary. They’re placed in obvious places, against a wall or near a post, and sit in a little metal tray. They’re not protected behind little glass doors as in the US, so little kids’ hands can find them easily and try to fumble with the nozzle (note the hint of “personal experience” in this statement.) This struck me as unusual and was a little nerve-wracking with my 3-year-old in tow. But, I believe this may be a safety precaution related to the high incidence of earthquakes in the area.

As we entered the baggage claim area, we were able to use luggage carts at no cost. We picked up our 8 pieces of luggage ( minus one with all of my husband’s clothes that happened to be picked up by a Japanese girl. It would be 6 days later that the bag would finally make it to our hotel room) and together with our 9 pieces of carry-on we headed for the nearest bathroom.

Just as we were warned, the airport bathroom did have several stalls with the traditional Japanese toilets. They’re oval holes in the floor that you squat over. This is very common, and we’ve found this sort of toilet at most every location so far. Fortunately, there has always been a Western toilet option for us to use and we always opt for that one. The women’s bathroom stalls are amazingly large compared to ones back home. For a society with such a shortage of space, they sure don’t skimp in the bathrooms. In the stalls that we’ve encountered so far you could easily fit four people in most of them — not at all like the US where sometimes I struggle just to get the door closed while I squeeze in beside the tiny space next to the toilet with my daughter. Also, the bathroom stalls have walls and doors that go all the way to the bottom of the floor and there are no cracks in the sides of the doors for those waiting to peek through. It’s like you’re in a private closet. To indicate that the stalls are occupied, since you don’t have to look under the door for feet, the lock turns red or green depending on whether the stall is occupied or not. I’ve never been to Europe, but I wonder if this design is taken from that part of the world. I like it so much better than US bathrooms.

However, the bathrooms do feel very foreign, and one unusual aspect we’ve encountered is the lack of standardization of flushing apparatuses. Many of the toilets flush differently so there’s no one place to look for a flushing handle. Sometimes it’s an unimpressive button on the adjoining wall, sometimes it’s a button on the floor that you step on, or it’s a tear-drop shaped lever on the side wall, or it’s a rotating knob on the side of the toilet tank. One is never sure exactly where to find the flusher so you have to look.

Above: A Japanese squat toilet
Below: A sign for Japanese Style stall

Below: A sign for Western Style toilet

Another Japanese-style toilet

Buttons for toilet features in Japanese. Huh?

After experiencing the bathrooms and straightening out the missing luggage situation, we headed toward the exit where Husband’s new boss was waiting for us. I was extremely relieved to see the friendly face of someone who was expecting our arrival. He had a great sign with him that had Slade’s signature cartoon depiction of himself from his website. The cartoon “guy” was blown up on a poster that said “Wanted R. Slade Walters and Family. Welcome to Japan.” It was a warm and fun welcome. Slade’s boss took over pushing one of our luggage carts, and I followed after everyone on our way to catch the bus from the airport to Camp Zama. After sitting for so long, in a middle seat without much chance to move my pregnant self around much during the 14 hour flight, waddling was about the extent of my walking abilities. We caught a short shuttle bus, the men unloaded our 16 pieces of baggage from the carts to the bus, and we squeezed in with a bunch of other riders. The shuttle let us off somewhere else, and by this time, I was just following blindly, feeling more exhaustion than I’ve ever felt in my life, as Slade’s boss led us expertly through the masses of people and busses. I can’t tell you how thankful I was that I didn’t have to figure out the navigation of all of this myself.

The guys hopped off the shuttle and began the unloading of our baggage. They found two more luggage carts and reloaded the bags on the cart. Then we pushed everything across a parking lot and down a walkway to the Camp Zama Bus. At this point, I noticed two interesting things.

First, there were vending machines lined up right in the middle of the parking lot in the most unexpected areas. I’ve found this to be a continuing theme every where we go. The Japanese love vending machines and there is never one far away from anywhere you are. The machines offer an array of interesting foreign beverages. Some machines even talk to you as you walk by — though it’s in Japanese so I have no idea what they say. In addition, you can select a red button for HOT coffee and tea, or a blue button for cold coffee, tea and other beverages! I’m even told you can get a hot can of creamed corn if you so desire. I LOVE this!

Rows of Vending Machines along the roadside

More Vending Machines

Second, I began to notice what would turn out to be a quite amusing trend in the area. Japanese love cartoon characters. For a culture that seems to outsiders to be so set in solemn tradition and strict rules of behavior, Japanese add humor to even their most serious and important signage. For instance, as we walked through the parking lot, there was a construction zone with men working. A sign nearby that was obviously warning of the danger (it was in Japanese so I can’t be sure exactly what it said) had a little cartoon man resembling Super Mario holding up his hand as if to say, “Stop and beware of danger.” Cute construction signs are just not something you would see in the US. But, it was very cute.
Here’s another one I saw in the military base. I love how the worker is bowing so politely. More about signs in another post.

So, we located the Camp Zama bus and loaded our baggage aboard. The bus service from the airport was very comfortable — a welcome relief after so many hours of grueling travel. It was like a roomy charted bus, and since there were only a handful of passengers with us, it was possible for the girls to spread out and relax. Camp Zama has a dedicated bus service they provide for free to be used for military families, civilians, visiting friends and families. Otherwise, the cost of a simple cab from the airport to Camp Zama will run you around $300.00. The bus is quite a luxury when you consider that fact. I was really grateful for this service. Slade’s boss had ridden the bus over to the airport to meet us and now rode back with us telling us some helpful info about our next few days.

There was a lot to look at from the windows, and it was entirely awesome that we weren’t having to figure out how to drive ourselves. Everything went by in a blur, but we noticed the numerous apartment towers with clothes lines on each back porch, futon mattresses hung out to air on the railings, and fantastic street signs. We passed right by Tokyo DisneyLand and that was an exciting view. Also, we passed a giant ferris wheel. Very cool. In the distance I also spotted a Costco store. That was a shock, as I’d not expected to see something like that here. For what little I knew about Japan before I came, I wasn’t even sure if they had restaurants. I hadn’t been acquainted with the amazing retail side of Japan and my only glimpse of Japan had come by means of what I saw on the old Blind Swordsman movies. I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to be more clueless than I was about life in Japan.

Half way to Camp Zama we stopped at a local convenience store to go to the bathroom and get drinks. This bathroom also had a choice of Western or Japanese toilets. A lighted sign at the entrance gave a floor plan of the bathroom and a red light indicated the stall was in use while a green light let you know the stall was available. We found an empty Western-style toilet, but could not figure out how to flush it. Honestly, we looked all around the toilet and even on the floor. There was no handle to be found. My 8-year old, Chesney, and I went to the light-up board and found the number of our stall and began pushing the lights on the board thinking perhaps it was a remote operation flushing mechanism. No luck. We must have been quite a sight trying to push the little pictures on the light-up board. We took one more look inside the stall and I noticed a small button on the side wall. It had a box around it and I had thought is was a locker for you to put your stuff in while using the potty. I figured I would look inside the locker so I pushed the button thinking the little door would open, but the toilet flushed instead. Ahhhh.

My 3-year-old especially likes the bathrooms here because almost all of the regular adult-sized sinks are so low that she can reach them easily without a stool or assistance. It’s a great help for Mom, too. No more awkward lifting and dangling of little bodies over the sink faucet. But Dad, at over 6 feet tall, REALLY has to lean over to use most of them. (See pictures below: Sinks for Japanese adults are perfectly sized for my kids!)

After our potty break we went into the convenience store and bought a drink. I selected a green tea, the kids got a bottle of Grape Fanta (Coke was also available) and Slade picked a bottle of water. Teagan also caught sight of a Hello Kitty dangly-charm-thing that she was not going to part with easily, so we succumbed to buying it without putting up much of a fight. The price was listed in Yen, and I had no idea of the cost, but thought it couldn’t be more than a couple of bucks ( discovered later that it was about $7.00, Yikes!) We were too in awe of everything, and probably also too exhausted, to argue. We checked out and I handed the clerk some unknown quantity of Yen and have no idea what I paid for everything. I didn’t understand a thing! It was so awkward to have absolutely no clue what was being said.

And to top it off, there is a very structured protocol to exchanging money in Japan. You place your money on a tray, they speak out loud what you’ve given them, count it in a few different ways, and count your change back to you. You would never check your change in front of them as this would be highly offensive. They would not dream of short-changing you so to count your change would be a great insult. Fortunately, Slade’s boss told us this in advance so I knew not to do that. Otherwise, it was a pretty overwhelming experience because I really understood for the first time, how much I DID NOT understand. I’ll admit, I don’t like this feeling of being ignorant one little bit.

By the way, speaking as a Southern girl who loves sweet tea, the green tea drink was quite unpleasant as it was not sweetened at all and tasted very grass-like, but I have found that the green tea flavor is extremely popular here. There’s green tea ice cream, green tea candies and anything else you can think of. So far we’ve tasted them all and haven’t, as yet, been able to develop a liking for the flavor. It’s very bitter even when, as in ice cream, you think it should be sweet. [Update: It took almost two years to finally enjoy green tea. Now I can’t eat sushi without the mandatory cup of steaming hot green tea. Yum. And I love buying hot green tea from the vending machines.]

Here’s a collection of drinks we tried when we got to our hotel room:
Melon Cream Cider, Green Tea, Lemon Vitamin C, and Green Tea.

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