There But Not Back Again: Terror in Tokyo, Part 1

If you guessed from the title that this is another horrible flight story, give yourself a treat. You’re correct. This time, however, it’s not about being ill or smuggling tennis rackets across borders. This experience combined everything I stress about with flights (save for crashing and hijacking) into one lovely journey.

As I don’t have any pictures relating to this story, I’ll intersperse ones of Japan, just to break the text up with prettiness.

My apartment: kitchenette, dining room, genkan, and you can see the shower on the right.

It’s May 2014. I’ve been in Japan just shy of one year, and I thought I would surprise my college friends who were a year below me by showing up for their graduation. I book my flights, which go from the capital city of my prefecture to Tokyo (where I changed airports), to Dallas or Chicago (I forget), then to the town near my college.

My flights home were fine. It was after arrival that I encountered some snags. My boyfriend at the time lived near our college, so he was going to pick me up. I arrived around 5 PM, nervous about getting lost in an unfamiliar airport or about keeping him waiting. Soon enough, I found a new reason to be nervous. He was nowhere to be seen, and I had to call him.

On my Japanese phone.

In America.

Unsure how that would play out with my next cell phone bill, I decided I didn’t care, so I called him. Luckily, he answered. Imagine my surprise at his surprise that he was still picking me up! Apparently, he had misunderstood and thought my dad was picking me up–that, for some reason, he would be five hours away from home at the time I was flying in. So my boyfriend was at his friend’s house near the college, about an hour away.

Eventually, he arrived and picked me up, and we headed back to his place. It was 7 PM by then, and I was ready for a few hours of downtime with him before going to bed.  We stopped to get some food, and when we resumed our trip, we realized that nothing was looking familiar. Neither of us knew the area terribly well, and it turns out we had taken a wrong turn. We were about an extra hour out in the opposite direction from his house.

We didn’t get back to his house until close to midnight.

The next day, my friends were delighted to find me waiting outside after their graduation ceremony. After that, I spent the rest of my trip visiting my family. The day before my flight home, I returned to my boyfriend’s house and spent the night so he could take me back the next morning for my 8:30 flight.

My small bedroom/living room. My tiny balcony with my laundry drying.

This is where the story really gets good.

We leave his house somewhere between 4:30 and 5:00 AM. It’s an hour’s drive, and I anticipate some traffic as it’s a larger city. However, by the time I get to the airport, it’s nearing 7:45 or 8:00, and I’m panicked. I manage to get my tickets and get my bag checked in, then I rush towards the security line.

I was never good at bothering people and nudging my way ahead in lines, even if it was pressing. This time, though, I worked up the courage to ask if I could slip ahead. People let me, and when I reached an airport official, he used an iPad randomizer to see if I’d take the shorter line or the longer line. Praise be, I got the shorter line!  So off I went, and I rushed to my gate.

My gate at the very end of the airport. Why is it always at the very end of the airport?

I arrive at 8: …. 32.  The gate has just been closed. I’m sick with worry because I’ve never missed a flight, and now my bags are going on ahead of me and–

My bags.

The woman at the counter asks me for my baggage claim ticket, and I realize I had never picked it up from the check-in desk! While I fret over what this delay will mean, since I have class scheduled the very next day after I arrive home, the airport worker prints off a paper with all my information on it so I can collect my bags later. She says they’ll be waiting for me in Tokyo.

Snow on a neighbor’s roof, seen from inside my apartment.

She puts me on standby for another flight but, if I recall correctly now, also had me booked on another flight just in case. All I can do is wait. And call my boyfriend. I think I also called one of my parents to let them know what was going on.

I make it onto a flight to another U.S. city, then I get the long flight to Tokyo. Inevitably, I arrive around 8:30 PM. No matter what, that always seems to be when I get into Tokyo. Because I have a foreign resident’s card, I can present that along with my visa and take a shorter line to get into the country. Relieved to be back in Japan, I take the shorter line and present my documents to the official.

Who then asks me to step to the side, into an office.

I could have cried. What was going on?

Sakuradani (7)
A road not far from where I lived.

Once I was in the office and another official looked over my documents, they asked if I had another passport with me because the one I presented didn’t have my visa in it. What?!

A sick feeling crept through me as I realized what had happened. Back when I first traveled internationally, to study abroad in Japan, I had gotten my first passport ever. As I recall, I also used it when I traveled to Nepal, too. Somewhere between then and moving to Japan to teach, I had lost that passport and received a new one, which had my visa in it.

Apparently, while packing for this trip home, I had found my first passport without realizing it. I don’t know how, but I had gotten into and out of America with it just fine, but now I couldn’t get back into Japan because I was missing my visa. I didn’t even have a photocopy or a digital copy on my phone–which, I realized, was only getting spotty connection for some reason I had no time to worry about, so I couldn’t call my supervisor to get her help or let her know what was going on.

Bonus points was that the bulk of this conversation was in Japanese, and my Japanese was intermediate at best.

View from the upper floor of a school where my friend taught, at the other end of our town.

I can’t imagine what the worker must have thought as I tried to explain what had happened. I know I was on the verge of tears and of being sick with fear. It was nighttime. I had just come off of a long flight after a stressful morning before that. Now my passport was messed up.

The official called the U.S. embassy but had to leave a message. As it was so late at night, they weren’t sure if anything could be done. They said that, if the embassy called back and said they could help me, then the airport official would help me book a hotel for the night, and I would have to go to the embassy and get an emergency passport. If the embassy couldn’t help me, then I would have to take the next flight back to the States and get my passport taken care of there.

There haven’t been many times in my life before or since that I’ve prayed as hard as I did then.

Sakuradani (1)
Looking down at some trees, trying to see the river through them.


Around 10 PM, the embassy contacted the airport worker and told them that, yes, they could help me. I nearly cried in relief! The airport official gave me a temporary visa which would only let me into Japan enough to get to the embassy. The official booked my hotel, too, and gave me directions to the embassy. Then I went to collect my bags. Except for a few workers, I was about the only person in the airport then, close to 10:30 or 11 PM.

Backpack on and carry-on suitcase rolling behind me, I walked up to the luggage counter and produced the printout the lady in the U.S. had given me. In Japanese, I explained to the best of my ability that I had missed my flight but that my bags should be there, and this was my information.

I was extremely over the entire trip, and my frustration and desperation were mounting as I talked with not just one worker but two and three, maybe even four. However, I had learned that, as a whole, the Japanese did things step by step and in the proper way. I even read once that a difference between American and Japanese culture was that the Japanese focused on the correct process to get the result, whereas Americans focused on getting the results, even if it meant skipping a step or doing something differently. So I guess my printout instead of the usual luggage slip threw the Tokyo airport workers for a loop.

It took the three or four men consulting with each other over the printout and asking me the same questions again and again before they finally understood what was going on and, I assume, got the OK from the higher-ups to find my bags for me.

Except that they couldn’t find my two bags. They asked me repeatedly what they looked like. I said one was red and looked like a larger version of the one I had beside me. The other was a large black duffel bag. At that time, I hadn’t had anything that really identified the bags as mine, nor did I even have locks on them. Call me forgetful, too trusting, or whatever else, but I hadn’t done much else but put my name and address around the handles. What did I have to steal from them anyway? Clothes, really. All my important items I kept on my person.

In the end, somewhere around 11 PM, I had to fill out a lost luggage form. They said they would call me if they found the bags and would send them on ahead. Worn out, I took a cab to the nearby hotel, got checked in, and bought a little bit of food, which I couldn’t particularly stomach. I showered and tried to get my phone to connect long enough to send a message to my supervisor. I told her I wouldn’t be able to make my classes at the high school tomorrow, that I was in Tokyo having to deal with the passport issue, and I was deeply, deeply sorry. Once we had communicated the basics to one another, I went to bed around 1 AM.

To be continued!



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