11. Left Behind in Japan 2013
Traveling standby had become routine for me after a few months back in 2013. Pack a bag, head to the airport, wait to be issued boarding pass and off to another destination. During flight another routine; eat, sleep, watch a movie and there we are. This was repeated every other day. On this particular trip, July 2013, our schedule was a 12 day Asia which started in Seattle, Washington. Over the next 12 days, we would fly to Japan, China, Guam and Hawaii. This was going to be my first trip to China without having to obtain a Visa.
China had begun allowing tourists from select countries to enter several Chinese cities without a visa ahead of time if one was staying for less than 72 hours (3 days). This was great news for me as in order to get a visa, one’s passport had to be shipped off to the Chinese embassy along with a ton of paperwork.
When you travel like I do, this is a little uncomfortable and time consuming. It is like leaving home without your bra on and everyone can tell. There is no support and the flopping around intensifies as the minutes tick by. To add to this, the insecurity of not being able to leave the country is like being locked in your room in time out for no reason.
At the beginning of this particular trip, I had been assured that I could use the 72 hour visa pass upon arrival into Beijing. We had just spent the last 6 days enjoying time in Narita, Japan, a few days on the beach in Guam and we were now back in Narita, Japan getting ready to head over to Beijing.
Narita, Japan may not sound exotic but I love that city. In two months, I had already been back to and forth to 6 times.
It is only an hour east of Tokyo with loads of country side and clean air. Local buses, bicycle rides and long walks allowed us to really get to know this little city.
Our day arrived where I would be traveling to Beijing, China for the first time. I had been to Taiwan years ago, but never mainland China.
Our usual process began when we arrived at the airport. The pilots and flight crew head to their special check in area. I head over to the well known passenger area to check in. There, I go to the kiosk, insert my passport, tap on the screen and answer the various questions. A moment later, my standby ticket is ejected from the machine. I then proceed over to the security check area. Passport and boarding pass are inspected by the security guard. Luggage goes on the conveyor belt after liquids and laptops are removed and placed separately on the belt. Passengers pass one by one through the detection walk through, luggage passes through the x-ray machine. On the other side, I gather all my belongings and head downstairs to the passport control area. Most everyone here in Narita seem to go left down the stairs. I found that going right avoided all the crowds and I could get to the passport desk much quicker.
After clearing the passport checkpoint, I am cleared to proceed towards the gate with our flight to Beijing. I check the departure board once again. Gate 84. I had never been to that part of the airport before. Off I went on a fairly long walk to the gate area. At the gate I see the crew were already there making all their preparations for the flight. My pilot husband sees me, walks over to say hello and says "Don't forget to check in with my in the cockpit before you take your seat." This is routine for us. Off he goes with the crew. I walk over to the window and watch as the pilots take their seats in the cockpit and begin their checklist for the flight.
Over the intercom, the gate agent starts calling all the passengers to board the flight. With plenty of seats available for standby passengers, I am the only one on that list. I know my name will be called shortly. As predicted, my name is called.
The gate agent reviews my standby ticket and starts turning the pages of my very thick passport.
"I do not see a China Visa," says the Japanese gate agent in English.
"I don't need one. I am only going to Beijing with my husband who is a pilot for 24 hours. I don't need one with the new 72 hour China Visa rule," I respond with a little nervous quiver in my voice.
"I am afraid I cannot let you on the plane. You need a visa. Please step aside," says the gate agent.
I have to step aside. Paying passengers always need to be allowed to move forward. I wait not know what to do. I quickly get online with my phone and start looking up the requirements for the 72 Chinese Visa. What was it that we overlooked? I quickly find out that as a standby passenger, either I had to have the mandatory visa stamp in my passport or have a return ticket. I ask the agent how much that would be and gasp when she says $2,500.
In the next five minutes, most of the passengers had boarded the plane. Now I was left standing at the gate with the last few passengers who were already checking in at the counter. I rushed over to the window and starting waving frantically at the airplane sitting right there at the gate.
"Look up, look up," I was saying the to deaf ears of the pilots in the cockpit whom I could tell were busy looking down, busy with your flight checklist. No one noticed.
I looked over and I am now the last one in the gate area. The gate agents are printing out their last forms and getting ready to close the gate. It is dark outside as it is 10 PM at night. The airport is quiet. Now what? After several more attempts at trying to get my husbands attention, I walked over to the gate agents desk to regroup. As I approach the desk, from down the jetway I see my husband running towards me.
"Why are you not on the airplane? We are ready to take off," he says with a very concerning look on his face.
"I don't have a visa and the requirements that we overlooked were that I need a return ticket for the 72 hour visa. Ticket will cost $2,500. I've decided to spend the night and head back to Seattle tomorrow," I respond very quickly.
"Where are you going to spend the night and are you going to be ok?"
"Yes, don't worry about me. I'll be fine," I respond.
"Ok, gotta go," he says. He gives me a quick kiss and runs back down the jet way.
This is the non romantic part of going to work with your pilot husband.
Standing at the gate in Narita, Japan, a rush of thoughts came and went. It was 10 PM at night. I really had no idea how isolated Narita was in the Japanese countryside. My pilot husband was going to take off without me and I was starting to think, now what.
The gate agent approached me after closing the gate door to the jet way. This is a sound I would start to not enjoy. All it says to me is I am not on the flight.
"I will need to take your passport as you now need to exit the airport," she says very calmly.
"My passport? Why do you need to take it?"
"We need to go find your entry ticket so we can let you back out of the airport," she responds. "You will need to wait here."
I am tired and have no desire to ask any more questions. That will just delay the process. I hand over my passport. The silence is deafening. No music, no machines, no humans. I am the only soul around. The humming of the lights overhead are now getting louder. My thoughts are what next? The minutes tick by, slower and slower. 10 minutes, then 15. Nothing. No one is around and I am sitting there with no passport and no information. Dare I walk around? No, my luck they will show up when I am not there. So I wait. 20 minutes, 30, nothing. I get on my phone and continue looking up my choices for the night and how to get home. I find a local Japanese hotel in Narita right at the bus stop area. From the hotel they offer a shuttle service. I am just hoping it is operating this late at night. I dare not make reservations as I still do not have my passport and am not sure what all will happen and when.
More waiting. 40 minutes, 50. Nothing. No sign of anything. The flight back to Seattle is the next day so I book myself on the standby list. An hour has now gone by with only the sound of the lights being heard. At about 65 minutes after my passport was taken away, a Japanese security guard approaches me. He motions for me to follow him. We walk the long walk back to the main terminal. I am taken through the customs and passport control.
"Enjoy your stay," ways the customs officer.
I smile and walk away. Then I start to laugh. He had no idea what had just happened. Now back out at the main terminal, I made my way to the baggage claim area. I sat down and calmly made my reservations for the APA hotel at the Keisei Narita Station on my smartphone. Only $40 a night. I then walked outside to see that the shuttle bus area was bustling with activity. I walked to the assigned shuttle for my hotel and boarded. It was a short 20 minute ride. There is something very relaxing about knowing the area. No wonder they say knowledge is power. I did not have to worry or be concerned about my surroundings. I had been on this route before and to this precise location several times, so being here in the dead of night did not make me uneasy.
I walked over to the APA hotel, checked in and went up to my room. It was before midnight and my flight to Seattle, WA was not till much later the next day. Plenty of time to rest, take a nice morning walk into town the next morning and then head to the airport.
I get to my room, open the door and start to laugh. This is the smallest room I had ever seen. This photo was taken from the entry door to the room. The door to your right is the bathroom door. That is it. Compact and functional. No room to open up my suitcase but on the bed or one of the pull out chairs. It really did not matter now. I was tired but in a safe place. Of course I had play with all the great technology that the Japanese have everywhere. There were controls for everything just above the headboard. The window blinds, TV, radio, lights, heating and cooling. Nothing was forgotten.
The Komono on the bed had to get used. Always fun to try out local traditions. What a great touch. After a great nights rest, I went out for a morning stroll through the quiet streets of Narita old town. Coming out the APA hotel, I took a right then walked up the long flight of stairs to the railway station. At the top of the hill I took another right and headed down the narrow store lined street that curved it's way uphill towards the Temple. The Naritasan Shinshoji Temple sits high up on a hill with acres of beautiful gardens and buildings. On this day I was able to enjoy the pagentry of a ceremony.
The colors, chiming of the bells and the click clack of the wooden shoes on the stone floor was incredible. Even a walk to the temple was an art form. All watching stood silent, listening to these amazing sounds of wood, stone and bells.
As I left the Temple area and started my long descent of stairs back into town, these Japanese Buddhist monks came from around the corner towards me. I quickly took out my camera and captured these two walking towards another part of the Temple area. Only after the fact and while looking over my photos did I even realize that they were carrying modern bags. My eyes at the time had only focused on their attire and more importantly those shoes. I am still impressed by how they moved so gracefully with that type of footwear.
Once down at the bottom of the hill, I headed back to the APA hotel, gathered by belongings, checked out and caught my shuttle bus back to the airport.
Getting back to Seattle was a breeze. Standby again, my name was called at the gate and I received my boarding pass with a seat assignment in first class. Another perk when everything works well. When a first class seat is available, standby passengers get to travel in style. Not all the time, but when it happens, I enjoy every minute of it. Narita to Seattle is a 10 hour flight all during daylight hours. Window blinds are always down to make it dark in flight making it easier to see the TV screen or to fall asleep for a while. During this flight I enjoyed a first class meal, 2 movies and little nap.
I may have been left behind in Japan because I did not read or know all the details to the 72 hour Chinese visa, but I still had a great experience walking up to Naritasan Temple and enjoying another day in Japan.