Stuck in Japan

Well we are off. Finally!*
*note* this post is being posted about 1.5 weeks after it was written!

Why do I say finally? In the past, it has always been with heavy heart that I return from a trip abroad! I LOVE traveling! …Let me just start by saying…  It’s been such an insane time trying to get back.

On this trip, everything was very tentatively planned…and our plans for coming home from Japan somehow all went out the window. A few days ago, I wasn’t really sure if we were going to get back to the States at all for Father’s Day. Stuck we were, in Japan. But praise The Lord, we shall make it back for Father’s Day! At least if nothing else comes up. We are on our final leg of the flying part. State bound, with a 30 minute tram ride, a 3.5 hour bus ride, and a 15 minute car ride left to go. There are no tickets home after our 2 pm bus ride so in this instance, like many instances throughout the trip, if we don’t make it to that 2pm bus…we have no backup plan. So I pray we make it.

Why am I so concerned about a backup plan? Who needs a backup plan? Backup plans are important, turns out… Especially when flying space A… Especially when traveling during peak tourist season… In one such a case, if you can make a backup plan-do it! What happened? Why were we stuck in Japan? So, during our grand post-first-year-of-med-school  vacation to Seattle/Portland sometime amid family and friend visit time, we were lucky enough to nab a set of seats (and they were next the each other!) for $17.50 a pop over to Japan from the Seattle airport! Yay!!! Space A! Time to visit friends in Japan!

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And…  then … after our seven days of pleasant touring around the city of Tokyo, we tried to go home to the States the same way we had gotten to Japan: through Space Available. But then suddenly we found we couldn’t get back … uh oh. And guess what? We didn’t have a back up plan!

The first day we tried to go home, there were 3 flights with Space Available to the States; they all had lots and lots of open tentative seats.  It looked like our odds of getting home were so good we weren’t even worried about it. We woke up the morning of our wishful departure and packed our bags only to check the website right before leaving for the airport on base and find that all three flights had disappeared from the schedule over night. So we stayed at our friend’s house one night more to wait for our next chance. It came the next day: there were over 70 people trying to get on one plane to California with only five open seats. Needless to say we didn’t get on that one. The next two days drifted by as we waited at our hotel on base for our next chance at a practically free flight back to the states, but it never came. Flights appeared and disappeared from the projected schedule so often during that time, that we cycled continuously through the emotional roller coaster of hope and no hope in just the right sequence of events that we never did give in and buy the $1,000+/pc commercial airline tickets… until yesterday.

We are not at all sure what caused the incredibly consistent rescheduling and canceling of flights going back to the States, though we heard rumors of some plane maintenance issue being the root problem. James had been watching the flights for weeks previous to our trip and there had been so many consistent flights back from Japan that we didn’t even consider worrying about getting a flight home. I guess you could call it a false sense of security!

Yesterday morning, we woke hoping to sign up for the flight to going to Hawaii (not continental US, but close enough!). We slept in till 8, with the comfort of knowing the flight was on the schedule the night before only to wake up to find… the flight was cancelled. From there, everything was a frenzy. We fumbled about trying to decide… what to do? Give up on space A and buy a ticket and go? Now?

We tried to look at tickets for that day to Seattle and discovered it was too late to reserve tickets online! We tried the hotel phone to call a Japanese number with no luck. We both took quick showers, shoved everything in our bags and raced over to the lodge to check out and ask for a phone. The helpful lady there said we couldn’t use the hotel phones to call a 1-800 number from the base, it was too expensive; instead she suggested we use something like talkatone, a free app, to call the help line. Unfortunately, our accounts were both expired and it ate up yet more time for James to create a new account and finally make the call to the airport to ask about buying tickets.

It was more expensive to buy them so last minute – about $300 dollars more. (We probably should have just slowed down right about here and booked tickets for the next day.) But we so desperately wanted to get back home!  I told James to book it: a 2:30 flight; it last one out that day! We were nuts. It was already 10:15. I remember thinking to myself,

My phone estimates our train travel time is 2 hours and 15 minutes, and we have to be there 2 hours early. Ready. Set. Go!

We hiked out towards the train station, I was doing a half-jog, luggity-luggage behind me and all, James a few yards behind me, but I knew he would catch up (and he did). I checked my watch,

…already 15 minutes have passed and we haven’t even started our 2 hours and 15 minutes of train rides!

But as we exited the base gate there was hope-a fellow American Air Force family-a couple with two sweet kidlets driving a minivan offered us a ride! We gladly excepted, had a very lovely conversation, and thanked them profusely for their generosity. It saved us a lot of sweat under the hot Japan sun, however, the travel time ended up being the same or maybe just a bit faster than walking, as the traffic is so terrible in Japan!

The next problem we encountered was a big one: when we finally found an ATM to procure the critical yen we needed to buy our train tickets-our cards wouldn’t work. We concluded that our bank must have froze them because we had told them we were to have left Japan by yesterday!

Thinking wishfully, James and I stood, lost, in front of the self-service train ticket kiosk, flipping through all the touch screen options and staring awkwardly over at other customers – trying to see if there was anyway we could use a charge card to procure our train tickets. It seems futile. Another American-looking couple was heading our way. In desperation, I approached them,

“Excuse me, do you know if we can use credit cards on these ticket machines?”

The man looked as uncomfortable as I felt, or maybe it was just me. He said no, the kiosks only take yen, then offered to give us some yen in exchange for dollars. I told him in dismay that we didn’t have enough American dollars for what we needed … but I did have a checkbook! He looked soooo uncomfortable, “Sorry I don’t take checks from strangers.”

Biting back tears, I remember nodding to him, trying so hard to appear composed and understanding as they walked away, but the moment he turned around, I just totally lost it.

I feel so hopeless. We will miss the plane, the last one out today, AND we will have to pay for it on top of a new one for tomorrow! (It turns out, I was wrong about that last thought, but how was I to know? And all I knew was that we definitely didn’t have enough money in our account for that! But I was right about the first thought: securing yen without further delay to get on our train was our last hope for making it to the airport in time for our plane out that day!) I sobbed and James hugged me tightly. As he mopped up some tears falling from my cheek, he stayed calm. He asked, “What is your greatest fear right now?”

My answer: not getting home.

“We will get home,” he replied without hesitation. Despite my clouded perspective at the time, I knew he was right-why does faith shatter so easily?!? But I was so disheartened…

The couple I had approached had evidently stuck around long enough to overhear my nuclear meltdown; before James could wipe another tear from my eye, they were miraculously back! “Hey, we can give you some yen, you can just write us a check, how much do you need?” I was so happy I could have hugged him! At the same time I was in disbelief-how was this happening?

My hands were shaking as I wrote out the check. We thanked them over and over, James bought the train tickets, and we were on our way!

Hope renewed! However, on the trains, we encountered our next barrier: since the special rapid Chou line only runs at certain times, our second connection ended up being a plain old rapid Chou train… it took us about an hour instead of the estimated 36 minutes for that line.

We were running so late, but still held on to a smidgen of hope that we would at least arrive before the plane took off…that is until we reached the end of the city trains and arrived at the booth to buy our tickets for the final leg of our journey to the airport: as I had suspected-the train we wanted was a high speed train that only runs at certain times. The next one… was in 35 minutes…. Which meant it would arrive at the airport exactly 5 minutes before our plane took off. It was now officially hopeless.

James and I sat waiting for our train, about 35 bucks worth of yen left in our pockets. At least we were going to get to the airport and be one step closer to figuring out our way home. I didn’t care if we had to spend the night at the airport, we were going to get a ticket with a definite departure date, and that meant we were going to somehow make it to Portland for at least part of Father’s Day. Pulling out snacks from our stock of goods we had procured from the commissary, we made a lunch and reflected on the day’s chaos.

We had received so much wonderful help from others but it wasn’t quite enough to get us there on time! As we flew eastward on that high speed train, the cityscape transitioned to a more rural scene; the land opened up and rice patties rolled by, water beneath them sparkling in the sunshine.  I kept replaying the scene at the train station: where I broke down and James held me tight, what a comfort and a blessing! I knew we both felt like God was putting us through some kind of painful test, yet, I knew we were still so blessed and though we were not getting exactly what we wanted in our return trip to the States, He had continuously provided us with just enough to keep us going.

When we arrived at the airport it took a bit of walking but we found our way to the Korean Air airline departure check in. Perspectives adjusted, things were starting to look better already. Our credit card worked to buy new plane tickets for the next day, there was no fee for missing the plane we had reserved earlier that day (apparently because we never actually paid for the tickets), and we were able to secure a hotel not far from the airport at a reasonable price – airport shuttle service included! In regards to the ATM-rejected debit cards: we called our bank and found that the cards had never even been locked up-so I guess something must have been wrong with that ATM!

At this point, I was exhausted and had a throbbing migraine, I popped a Relpax and hustled off with James to take the shuttle to our hotel. It was a wacky little countryside Japanese hotel. We immediately noted the funny smells and the stiff little beds.

This pic makes it look larger than it is!

This pic makes it look larger than it is!

Thankfully, the window was able to be opened up nice and wide, our room had high speed internet AND, (I was especially excited to find) it was located a short walking distance from a convenience store. (Japanese convenience stores are the best!)

After what was AT LAST our FINAL Japanese dinner in Japan, acquired at about $10 from our hotel, we set out for a sunset stroll and for an adventure to investigate this convenience store in hopes to find ice cream.

Last Supper

Last Supper

Ghetto hotel!

Ghetto hotel!



BETTER than ice cream, we found the long sought Haagen Dazs mango ice cream sandwich, a delicacy which is cruelly pictured in larger-than-life advertisements posted across Tokyo regional trains far and wide.

crispy mango sandwich

In addition, we procured a delicious cream role – another Japanese delicacy which is sold all over in Japanese bakeries. Throughout the trip I kept wanting to try one! However, the correct situation to do so never arose – until that night at the convenience store. And so, we jokingly concluded, this must have been why we had to stay one more night in Japan!

Walking back to our hotel in almost complete darkness, James added a few new mosquito bites to his repertoire of itchy welts, but the end of the sunset sky was so beautiful and the night air so refreshing!

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Making the best of our evening, we sat up in bed watching Mulan, which we found to be semi-culturally related to our encounters on this trip. 🙂

That morning we slept in, ate our delicious cream role (tasted kinda like a fancy Twinkie), and made it to the airport with time to spare. To our pleasant surprise, we were able to credit our flight to our Delta Skymiles accounts at check-in. 🙂 When we got passed security, we looked for ways to spend the last of our yen. We found a few fun “iconic” Japanese things to purchase: CC Lemon, a Japanese soft drink a friend had told James about,…

c_c__lemon …a variety of Kit Kat bars to take home (the Japanese and Kit Kats are kind of like the Germans and Ritter Sport – there are a zillion flavors!), …

We bought matcha, strawberry, and dark chocolate flavors! We think...

We bought matcha, strawberry, and dark chocolate flavors! We think…

…tuna and salmon sushi triangles to eat for lunch (this convenience store version of sushi could be found in stores all over – super good and easy to eat on-the-go, and I have no idea what they are really called ha ha), and a small piece of orange cake! triangle sushi Now we are finally headed home! Today shall be the longest day I will have ever experienced in my short almost 25 years of life: 40 hours long!

When I started, I said it’s been an insane time trying to get home; do you think that was a good evaluation?

Next stop: Seattle. So excited! Blessed! And not stuck in Japan anymore! 🙂