NH8 NRT-SFO B777-300 seat 27K

 The next day, I pottered around Ueno Park and its sozzled hanami (cherry blossom viewing) celebrations and then, finally, got on the long haul out of Ueno by Keisei. Narita’s never been one of my favorite airports, but the advent of the new South Wing at T1 has certainly pushed it up a few notches in my book. While my favorite “last chance in Japan” sushi restaurant seems to have disappeared, alas, it’s been replaced by a tolerable if somewhat overpriced conveyor belt joint (on 5F) and a whole load of new shops. Check-in for Star Golds was as efficient as always, security was a breeze, immigration had the usual queue and the new ANA huge lounge in slick shades of black and white was a sight to behold. Quirky feature award goes to the free noodle bar, although I won’t be changing my NRT routine until they add in a free sushi bar as well…!

At the gate, the boarding pass reader said “boop” and I was taken aside. My RTW was issued as five physical paper tickets and I’d only shown the first at check-in, so could I show my connecting flight onward from the US? Well, I pointed out, it’s a RTW ticket (see the little “YRWSTAR1” notation there?) and the itinerary is shown in computerese at the bottom: starting in BKK, then TYOSFOPHX, out later via NASYYZYOWYVRCDG and eventually back to BKK. The gate agent was convinced and let me through… but came back a few minutes later: the US immigration authorities, she said, wouldn’t let me in without a return ticket (a valid theoretical point, I’ll admit, although I’ve never been asked), so they’d dug up my baggage from the hold and wanted me to get my ticket. Err, OK — my bag was truly procured, I demonstrated to everyone’s satisfaction that my RTW does, indeed, exit the US at some point, and I was allowed back in, this time with ticket in hand.

I had tried to get a Star Alliance upgrade for this flight, unsuccessfully — I was told that Friday’s a very popular day to fly out, and hence biz was always full. Needless to say, once on board it became clear that at least half the seats in C were actually empty… and I’d already mentally composed half my angry letter blasting KrisFlyer, ANA and Star Alliance for their intolerable incompetence when it dawned on me that, due to the aforementioned Int’l Date Line muddle, I’d been requesting the upgrade for the wrong day. D’oh! (That would also explain why they had some problems finding my booking, although KF never actually confessed that they couldn’t actually find it.)

My consolations were that flight time was just 8 hours (vs a scheduled 9:30) and that there was nobody in the middle seat, allowing me to stretch out a little. This was my first taste of long-haul NH in eco, and I quite liked the on-demand video-and-more system, which had a pretty good selection of J-pop and allowed me to finally watch 2001 from beginning to end (definitely a movie best sampled in the middle of the night at 33,000 feet over a moonlit Pacific).

The Japanese food, though, was surprisingly terrible, especially considering the excellence of NH’s biz fare. For dinner, it was gluey rice with soggy breaded whitefish, and for breakfast, it was a morbidly fatty chunk of bacon coupled with a rice patty topped with salsa (…?). Other flight amenities were nonexistent: no shades, no socks, no earplugs, no toothbrush, not even a shared bottle of moisturizer in the loo. The control box for the AV system, under the middle seat, was huge and prevented me from stretching out from my window seat; I would be chewing my legs off if I had to sit there! Fortunately I was prepared with all the essentials, and thanks to my new laptop’s 8-hr battery capacity killing time on non-sleepy pursuits wasn’t an issue.

In other good news, my threshold for pain seems to have gone higher. Four hours in economy used to be the point at which I started getting antsy, but half a year of commuting between Singapore and Delhi has pushed that up to six. On this flight, though, I experimentally determined that over seven hours is still unpleasant. Fortunately I’ve timed every other flight remaining on this trip to avoid this situation… except the last. Time to pay for an upgrade?

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RTW2007: Tokyo, wherein our cloistered computer nerd tops up his lap in Akihabara and trips all over the International Date Line.

Yodobashi Akiba

Just a week before my arrival, the Tokyo Monorail had eliminated my last minor quibble with it by introducing a non-stop express service and, being headed for Ueno, I decided to give it a spin. I’d forgotten how much fun riding this thing is: swooping up and down, around buildings and warehouses, and now without any stops at Cargo Warehousing Center or Off-Center Catering Complex to spoil the fun. And, like so many other things in Japan, the Monorail just works: trains leave every few minutes and zip past each other in a synchronized symphony of scheduling.

Fruitopia for every geek, Akihabara, Tokyo

After a crushed commute on the Yamanote, I dumped my bag at Tsukuba Hotel and headed straight off down the Ginza Line to Akihabara to buy a very specific laptop unobtainable outside Japan. (Panasonic “Let’s Note” CF-R6, thank you for asking, and no, you can’t have one.) Akihabara, until recently a low-rent district of cheapo electronics stores inhabited solely by geeks with taped-up glasses, had changed beyond recognition in a few years — high-rises of glass and steel had sprung up all around the new Tsukuba Express station, more were franctically under construction, and half the shops were now devoted to a phenomenon that had pushed its way out of the margins: anime and manga were now everywhere, with big cartoon eyes, giant cartoon cleavage and squeaky cartoon voices competing for your attention in every shop. Girls in maid uniforms were soliciting customers to be served with tea, coffee or a selection of very, very personal services, and now the great unwashed with taped-up glasses and shaggy hair included a great many foreigners out to get their manga fix.

But I found the shop I was looking for, Yodobashi’s new 9-story Akiba monolith, and walked out 15 minutes later (10 minutes of that spent waiting for credit card clearance) with a spanking new laptop. After a murderously strong espresso, I burrowed back to my hotel room and hacked until morning.

The next day, Friday, I was supposed to head out of Tokyo, but around 2 AM a sneaky suspicion crept up on me. I’d booked my flight to arrive at 10 AM in San Francisco, and it was departing at 6 PM, so I’d naturally assumed it was departing on the previous day and that the International Date Line just meant that the flight time of 10 hours actual would be transformed into 18 hours virtual. I’d written it thus on the itinerary I asked my travel agent to book, and he didn’t say a peep, but closer examination of my ticket revealed that I was booked to leave on 6 PM on Saturday — 8 hours after my flight arrived in SFO. Initially I boggled, but when I factored in the International Date Line it all suddenly made sense: actual flight time 8 hours, timezone displacement 8 hours, IDL -24, so relative arrival time would be -8 hours. I now had an extra day in Tokyo!

I extended my hotel stay by a day and set off on a leisurely tour of landmarks old and new. First to Omote-sando Hills, the painfully hip twin development to Roppongi Hills, which had exactly the same kind of pretentiously fancy shops and restaurants, but did finally succeed in making the area partly worth its overused epithet, “the Champs-Elysees of Tokyo”. Harajuku, next door, had grown up from its pre-teen Hello Kitty and sugary crepes phase into an angsty teenager, all Gothic lace push-up bras, black lipstick and dodgy-looking Nigerian dudes hanging out. LaForet, the place to be back when I lived near Shibuya, was looking distinctly scuffed these days. Has it really been ten years!?

The cherry blossom police, Tokyo Midtown

Up the escalator, Tokyo Midtown

Then to Ebisu and the evergreen Tokyo Photography Museum, where I picked the cheapest exhibition (a strategy that has yet to fail me) and goggled at the winners of this year’s Japan Commercial Photography Awards, an intriguing mix of out-and-out advertisements and personal projects by ad photographers. And then onto Roppongi and its just-opened humongous Midtown development, which took a leaf out of Roppongi Hills’ book with huge steel-and-glass towers and one-upped it by adding some much-needed greenery and natural wood paneling to the mix. The sakura in full blossom in the park outside were gorgeous, and I peeked into Fujifilm’s headquarters for their free show of Japan’s 200 best photographers (how they’d picked ’em wasn’t disclosed though). This time much of it was unbearably corny — snowy mountains! cherry blossoms! — but there were a couple of real gems in there. I rued the lack of a decent photography scene in Singapore: the few shows that make an appearance tend to be either arty to the point of incomprehensibility, or hopelessly amateur, a category I already inhabit and hence visit shows to grow out of. Sigh.