Literally the Longest Day of Our Lives

The good news: we are finally in Japan! The less-good news: we are all deeply exhausted and jet-lagged after what was surely the longest travel day of our lives. No surprise there, but, man, it’s rough on the kids in particular.

The Travel Stress Begins

After a lovely 10 or so days with Sam in Porto and Lisbon, the kids and I headed off to Japan on Sunday while Sam headed back home to Charleston. Our flight from Lisbon was delayed 35 min when we left, cutting short our 2-hour stopover in Istanbul, ratcheting up my stress levels before take-off. We actually landed on time but then spent at least 30 minutes taxiing in Istanbul. I cannot fathom how far the pilot drove the plane on the ground, but that airport must be ENORMOUS. 

Deplaning was particularly stressful with the time crunch as a bunch of elderly people in a tour group jumped into the aisle. The plane’s loudspeaker system was rather faint, and I think they probably couldn’t hear the announcement that the plane’s back door was open as well, as well as the one in the front. They would not budge, and the kids and I were stuck right in the middle of the folks leaving via the front and the clog in the aisle toward the back. 

I Tried to Be Patient, But…

After a female flight attendant failed to get folks’ attention repeatedly about the back door being open and that they should turn around and leave that way instead of just standing there, I found my Smithie voice. I loudly bellowed something like, “Excuse me, but the back door of the plane is open. You can turn around and exit that way.” Sadly, I think that the man who was the main cork in the whole stoppage a) was wearing (apparently ineffective) hearing aids and b) didn’t understand English. My Portuguese and Turkish are nil, and by that point, the clog in the front had finally been freed, so we exited that way and hopped onto a bus to take us inside, just moments before the doors closed. 

The Travel Gods Are With Us After All

We raced through the terminal, following signs for international transfers, and by an act of God or fortuity or even some planner’s foresight, we did not need to go through passport control or customs in Istanbul, as we stayed in the same terminal, once again flying Turkish Airways. 

We reached our gate (at the farthest end of the terminal, of course) to find that boarding had not yet begun—but queuing started within 10 or so minutes. We jumped into line and then stood around for a bit, the boys on their devices, and Addie asking questions about the Turkish toilet we had just seen in the women’s restroom. 

A short while later, out of the corner of my eye, I could see a group of men wander up and queue to the side of the front of our line, effectively jumping the entire line of people already standing there. “What is this guy, blind or something?!” I asked myself of the de facto leader of the group. And then I looked up to discover that while the guy in charge wasn’t blind, about half of the men standing in the group actually were. They wore a full kit for “IR Iran,” but it wasn’t clear to me which sport they represented. Anyway, I’m just glad my question reverberated only in my head and not out loud. 

Just Kidding; The Universe Hates Us

Eventually, boarding began, and we made our way onto the plane. I had selected seats the night before, picking a window and an aisle seat for Ben and Henry, and the same for Addie and me one row behind them. When we arrived at the first of those two rows, there was already a couple seated there: a Turkish gentleman and his Japanese wife. They had arrived via wheelchair right before boarding, and the man appeared seriously ill, with the gaunt look and gauzy hair of a person undergoing significant medical treatment like chemotherapy, as well as a (feeding?) tube of some sort snaking out from under his shirt. His Japanese wife was holding an infant, and the middle seat, where I had planned for Addie to stretch out and sleep on the flight, was empty, save some baby gear. I double-checked our boarding passes against the seat numbers and politely said, “Excuse me, but I believe these are our seats.” The man barely glanced up at me, and said, “No, they’re ours.” His wife just nodded. 

…And So Do the Flight Attendants

We moved into the row behind them, except now there were four of us trying to fit into three seats. I asked for help from a passing flight attendant, and she basically offered none, despite asking for and receiving our boarding passes. She did not ask the couple for theirs, but just directed Ben to stand in another seat one row behind us—which he did, until someone arrived with a pass for that seat. And before anyone thinks I’m obnoxious for my persistence, a) it was about to be a nearly 12-hour flight from Istanbul to Tokyo and b) I wasn’t trying to force them to move—I just wanted to know where they were supposed to be sitting, so that two of us could move into those seats. 

Eventually, another flight attendant walked by and kind of looked at me inquisitively, since we were still standing there, four of us cramped into three seats. Again, I was asked to show our boarding passes, which I did. He then told me that I should have one of us move in between the couple seated in OUR SEATS. I asked if he really wanted us to move into the middle of that family, and he kind of balked at the idea that they were all together. They confirmed that they were indeed a family and then produced luggage receipts, but again—no boarding passes. Then another flight attendant came by and looked at our passes—and again, no questions of the people in our seats. I rhetorically asked one of the attendants if it was common to assign multiple people to the same seat, and she just kind of shrugged her shoulders and went off to go not help another passenger.

Finally, a guy seated ahead of us on an aisle volunteered to move and let Ben have his seat, so we could all finally sit down. It was just a rather frustrating situation that was handled poorly by airline staff, and we were all tired (our flight was due to take off at 1:55am). I made it clear that I wasn’t looking to make them move (cancer + baby obviously trumps personal comfort and acknowledgement that I WAS RIGHT), but was just hoping to find a bit of space for the kids… Like the space I had already selected for us. 

Misery = A Middle Seat in Coach for 12 Hours

Ultimately, I was squished in between Henry and Addie for 12 hours and got to nap in Addie’s lap for about 30 minutes. And it was a small hiccup in a long trip, as I had feared that we would miss our flight completely, given how tight our window was in the Istanbul airport. And we didn’t! We were still on our way to Tokyo on time! But an apology from either the couple—or just a small acknowledgement of thanks—would have been just fine. Instead, the woman laid her baby down across the seat next to her (that she acknowledged not having paid for when asked by one of the attendants)—and then reclined that seat into MY lap. Again, her infant was lying across the seat—no one was reclining in the seat—but it just felt unnecessary, given that I was already squished, thanks to her. 

Finding Our Way into Tokyo

Finally, we finally arrived at Narita at 7:45pm on Monday night (we left our Airbnb in Lisbon at noon on Sunday; with the time difference that would have been 9pm in Tokyo), so we’d been traveling for some time. We made our way through customs and passport control, and then I deposited the kids in seats while I went in search of a) cash (Japan is still heavily cash-based, according to what I had read, b) bus tickets into the city—Narita is a full 90 minutes away from central Tokyo, and c) Suica or Pasmo cards (basically like a metro card/transit pass). I found the first two, and we hopped on a bus at 8:30pm, which took us from Narita to Shinjuku station, just before 10pm.

The Journey Continues

We then had to buy the transit cards and actually find the right train line (Japan’s rail system has been privatized, and there are a number of different companies that run lines here, making deciphering the trains and buses a bit more challenging than other cities). Of course, transit cards usually need to be purchased with yen (which I already had, thanks to the 7-11 airport ATM), and I was able to buy mine, but there was no option for kids’ passes. So that required asking a station staffer, who then directed me to press a button at an empty glass window. And miraculously, a man popped out about a minute later and then popped out on the other side of a transit card machine and worked some magic, allowing the child option to appear (worth it, since their fares are half the adult fare), but I had to make three separate purchases for the kids. 

Finally, we entered the transit system and followed signs for the Marunouchi line. We boarded, rode for two stops, and then had to transfer to another train for one stop to make it to Nakano-Shimbashi. There, we were met by Masa, the business partner of the folks who own or manage the property where we are staying in the Nagano neighborhood. He sped-walked to the house, about four blocks away from the station. We arrived just shy of 11pm, which takes our door-to-door travel time to 26 hours, when accounting for the time difference.  

…Still Can’t Go to Bed

The kids were hungry, so despite the hour, we ran out to the 7-11 on the corner (Japanese convenience stores are vastly better supplied than ones in the US with daily deliveries of prepared foods) and picked up a few items for a small dinner before crashing and sleeping until past 11am Tuesday morning. Yawn.

Hey there! I’m Melanie. Originally from Brooklyn, home is now Charleston, SC--or wherever my three kids and husband are. Our family gap year will take us around the world, touching down on six continents over 12 months.
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