26 Hours at Narita
To my knowledge, only one person was arrested. There was nearly a riot. I’m still surprised it wasn’t worse. Some people were trapped for days.
My day, however, began with a hangover.
It was my fifth time visiting Japan, all, sadly, for work. A final day of light sightseeing had transitioned to a night of heavy eating and heavier drinking.
My travelling companions were New Yorkers, and were flying home on United through SFO. I had a direct flight home to LAX on Northwest. The bus dropped them off at one end of the terminal, and I proceeded alone to the other end.
Now, I’ve flown out of Narita four times before this, most of those times on Northwest. Every other time I’ve found the Northwest ticketing area, the North Wing of Terminal 1, to be a ghost town. They were, to my recollection, the only airline in this section of the airport. I’d never waited more than a few seconds to check in, and never had seen more than a handful of other passengers in the enormous space.
As soon as the doors opened to the terminal, I knew something was horribly, horribly wrong.
People. Wall to wall to wall to wall people. Packed in, shoulder-to-shoulder, like the Tokyo subway at rush hour.
Worse, it seemed like anarchy. The Japanese are incredibly efficient and organized. Their love of queueing is second only to the British. Yet there seemed to be no lines, no cohesive direction or even end to what I had to assume was a line. A line of several thousand people.
After a few minutes, I panicked, and made my way towards the United terminal, in hopes of finding my compatriots. By chance, they were headed my way, jovial, and incredulous to my claims of “thousands of people” at the other end of the terminal. They had already checked in, and had their tickets.
Their faces dropped when they saw my plight. We had one working cell phone, and called our local travel agency. It was Saturday, and the only person there spoke no English.
After an hour trying to find any Northwest representative, or even the end of the line, I finally admitted defeat and told my companions to head to their flight. There was no point in their being trapped too.
All we’d succeeded in doing was finding the end of the line, which wrapped multiple times around the entire ticket hall like some kind of maze.
I stood in line for nine and a half hours. We received no food or water (nor had any ability to get either) until 9pm. There was nearly a riot. One person was arrested for punching out a ticket agent.
By the time I reached the counter, it was nearing midnight. The agent, weary himself, was visibly relieved to be able to book me on the next day’s flight. He even took my luggage. At this point, he said this: “The subway is shut down. The taxis have all gone home. The hotels are full. Have a good night.”
There’s something you need to understand about Narita. It’s in the middle of nowhere. Even by car it’s over an hour to get into Tokyo. I had resolved myself hours earlier that I’d probably be sleeping at the airport. That wasn’t my concern. My concern was in 3 hours my friend was picking me up from LAX. Or at least, he thought he was picking me up. I had no cell phone (that was nearing SFO by now, with my travelling companions). I had no cash. I found a pay phone, but it didn’t take cards.
My one hope was to walk to the nearest hotel (not exactly close) and beg them to use their phone. So I did.
Though creepy unlit industrial areas, I made my way to the only hotel I could see, what I presumed was where the flight crews stayed. I must have been quite a sight, walking in there as I did.
“Do you have any rooms?”
“I need to call the US. Do you have a phone I can use?”
“Hai!” he said, pointing around the corner.
“Do they take credit cards?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. I slumped, dejected and broken.
“Look, I really need to call the US. I’ve been stuck at the airport all day. Can you please help me.”
He nodded, walked around from behind the desk, and gave me his personal phone card. This is one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. I was able to call my friend, leave a message for him to pick me up the next day. I thanked the hotel night manager profusely.
With my one job done, I made my way back through the industrial park and to the airport.
Now, you have two choices when choosing where to sleep at an airport: 1) Sleep where everyone else is, and risk getting your crap stolen, or 2) Sleep where no one else is, and risk getting your crap stolen. I chose the latter.
On an otherwise empty landing between escalators, I found an area with seating between the North and South Wings, set off with artificial trees. I set up camp.
In the morning, the airport awoke. Shockingly, there were people already starting to camp out in line.
I was finally allowed to get through security and I made my way to the Northwest business class lounge. At the counter was a petit, young, sweet Japanese woman.
I was not awesome.
The stress and impotence of the previous 18 hours came out in a torrent of creative profanity. As the emotional part of my weary brain proceeded in its epic tirade, the analytical part of my brain watched with detached sadness as this poor woman visibly shrunk away from me. She apologized repeatedly as she ran for cover/went into the back room.
In the silence that followed, I immediately regretted what I had done. This poor woman hadn’t caused the delays. I’ve worked in enough jobs that dealt with the public to usually be as gracious and polite as possible. When she emerged, I apologized as much as I could. She apologized again, and handed me:
1) A Cup O’Noodles
2) A $10 Gift Certificate for the McDonalds downstairs, but only if I spent more than $10.
3) A 50 mile bonus for my Northwest account. 50. Five. Zero.
To this day I can’t decide if this was a sweet gesture, comprising everything she had in the back room to give me. Hell, it could have been her lunch! Or, this was a fantastically passive/aggressive way of shutting up the screaming bald gaijin. I’m gonna go with the former.
The rest of my day was fine. Free WiFi in the lounge. I found a shower to wipe of the grime. I even bought a new shirt (I was pretty rank at this point).
At 2pm I made my way down to get on my plane. I was shocked to see hundreds of people trying to get on the flight, far more than I knew would make it on.
From what I understand, there had been a typhoon in the South China Sea, diverting multiple planes to Narita that weren’t supposed to be there. Northwest, apparently, didn’t have any codeshare agreements with any other airlines there, so they were stuck with too many people and not enough seats… and no way to do anything about it. From what I understand, some of the people I saw had been there for 2 days already, and still didn’t have a flight out.
For me, it was easy, and it would have been easier still if we’d called or looked up the flight info ahead of time. Had we been able to contact the travel agent, they could have booked me on the SFO flight with my compatriots. At least then I’d be in SFO, and there are flights to LA every hour. Oh well.
I had the front seat on the right side in business class. Nothing in front of me in the 747 but a closet, the Pacific, and home. As the big aircraft rumbled down the tarmac, I closed my eyes, ready for sleep to come.
As we started to lift into the air, something burst in the ceiling above me, drenching me in cold water. I sighed, reached up, and pressed the button.