Leaving Okinawa, Part 4: A Chaotic Travel Day

What an adventure I had trying to leave Okinawa. I warn you now, this is a bit of a story. It’s not all pleasant. And it starts with me not easily finding a taxi.

After dragging two large, heavy suitcases down 3 flights of stairs (hey, these are all the things I will have for over a month), I started my taxi search. My flight was scheduled to leave at 7:15 am. The Naha airport opened at 6. I wanted to be there at 6 because that gave me just about an hour to get my boarding pass and get through security. I was hoping to have enough time to grab some breakfast.

So I started looking for a taxi at 5:00 am. I started by calling the on-base taxi service. This was after trying to figure out how to make an international call to Japan while in Japan. It only took me 4 tries. And then when I finally got through, I learned that the on-base 24-hour taxi service really isn’t as the call rolled over to a local taxi company. After taking my information, the person that answered the phone advised me there were no taxis. I knew it was a little earlier for taxis in Okinawa but I didn’t think it was that early.

At this point, I realized I should have just scheduled the MCCS (Marine Corps Community Services) airport shuttle. But it costs over twice as much as a taxi and I thought I could get a taxi.

Thirty minutes later, I started to panic. It takes 30 minutes to get to the airport from where I was. And then I saw a taxi pass by. And then I saw two more. It’s not the norm to flag down a taxi in Okinawa. But I figured I had nothing to lose. I headed to the corner and waved down the next taxi I saw.

Luckily, he stopped. I explained I wanted to go to the airport and he agreed to take me. Phew! I thought. Hopefully, this will be the worst that happens today.

As I learned, I had a long day ahead of me and at this early stage, I was overly optimistic.

We got to the airport around 6:15 am. My intinerary showed American Airlines but it was actually Japan Airlines (JAL) because it was a code-share flight.

For those not familiar with code-share flights: code-share flights allow one airline to sell seats on flights operated by other airlines. The benefit is that the flyer can easily combine American airlines with flights operated by other partner airlines to create a single itinerary to multiple destinations. JAL is part of the One World Alliance with American Airlines. Hence my itinerary said American but in reality, my first two flights were operated by JAL.

Why is that important to this story? Because while I am an American Airlines member, I am not a JAL member. This means I was unable to upgrade because I have no standing with JAL. Plus I had an international flight. So I had to stand in line to get my boarding pass instead of checking-in online the night before or via the kiosk.

Now I will say that lines in Japan are orderly and move rather quickly. But I’m in line with mostly other Americans, which means the airline agent has to not only check passports but travel orders. Japan is still mostly locked down. So we all had to show our official orders for traveling and answer a bunch of questions.

Needless to say, I stood in line watching the clock tick slowly towards 7:00. I finally got to the counter at 6:45. Traveling alone has its benefits and the agent checked my bags and gave my boarding pass. And thank goodness, the agent didn’t say anything that one of my bags was quite a bit overweight. She handed me my boarding passes and the checked bag tags. I thought she said I would only have to get my bags when I landed at JFK (for customs purposes). But I couldn’t hear her well and I was anxious to get through security, so I really didn’t completely catch what she said nor did I question her because I was anxious to get through security.

I almost cried when I saw the long line at security, which was full of what seemed like school-aged groups. Again, thankfully lines in Japan are orderly and efficient.

I made it through security and arrived at my gate as they were boarding groups 1 and 2. No breakfast for me. No worries, I figured, Haneda (Tokyo) is an international airport and will have plenty of food options.

Ha! Once again, I was overly optimistic.

We arrived in Tokyo on time. And then I realized I only had an hour to get to my next gate. Haneda has 3 terminals. I flew into the domestic terminal, which meant I had to catch the shuttle bus to get to the international terminal. Luckily, not too long after I got in the shuttle bus line, the bus arrived and 10 minutes we arrived at international terminal.

At this point, I started wondering if I misheard the agent in Naha about my bags. I was pretty sure she had put a tag on it that said “connection.” I prayed that my bags were headed to JFK instead of going around the baggage claim at the Haneda domestic terminal. I convinced myself I heard her correctly as I stood in the security line for the international terminal.

This line did not move as fast. Large airport, international flights, it goes a bit slower even though Japan is limiting their international flights. I had 45 minutes until my flight was scheduled to leave. Once again, I stood in line watching the minutes tick down.

I finally got through with 20 minutes before take-off. And as I looked around, I found nothing. No food. Nothing within a reasonable walk from the gate. Only upscale shops. I could buy a Hermes scarf or Gucci bag, but not one onigiri or crappy airport sandwich. Okay, I told myself, this is why you packed some snacks.

I did have enough time to buy two bottles of water from the vending machine, and then I was boarding my flight to JFK.

Because it was a code-share flight and the flight was nearly full, I was stuck in coach. My seat was a window seat in the second row of coach. And for some reason, JAL planes do not have the individual air conditioner controls. Nope. And if you know me, you know I run hot. Plus I’m by the window, so even less air circulates there. This becomes important later on in the story.

I’ll also say that whoever designed the seats for JAL planes clearly doesn’t understand human anatomy. No lumbar support. So when I put the blanket behind my back to support my lower back, my neck was at an odd angle. I couldn’t really sit up properly. The seats are smaller than American airlines and not comfortable at all.

We took off and after an hour or so, they served a meal. My head had been hurting, like a tight band around my skull, but I figured it was stress and exhaustion, since I hadn’t slept well the night before, and maybe some dehydration, since I had been running through airports. I drank one bottle of water I bought trying to stay hydrated. And I got a second smaller bottle of water with dinner, which I quickly downed. And I also tried to eat a little.

Japanese airline food is like American airline food—not good.

I did eat some but about halfway through the meal, I realized my headache is a migraine. Just what I needed.

Luckily, I did pack my migraine medicine in my carry-on. I quickly took some and prayed that I had taken it quickly enough. Unfortunately, if I don’t take my migraine meds soon enough, I often get nauseated. I also need it dark, quiet, and cool. Well, on a plane, I was lucky to have two out of three.

It was dark because after the meal service, they turned off the lights. It was quiet because most people were either trying to sleep or watching movies. JAL requests people not talk because of covid, so it was quiet. But it was not cool. In fact, I was roasting. And the plane was rocking just enough to add to my misery.

Let’s just say out of all the things I could have been doing at 40,000 feet, being sick in an airplane lavatory is not one I had ever wanted to try.

My two seatmates, a young Japanese pair, were kind enough to let me out (thank goodness they weren’t sleeping!). And then again, about an hour later they allowed me out again. The second time, I sat in an open seat in the first coach row instead of returning to my ridiculous hot window seat. I also was thankful that I packed a washcloth in my carry-on and got a cup of ice from the attendant, so I made a make-shift ice pack.

Four hours later, I was feeling better and grateful that the medicine had time to dissolve before I had had to go to the lavatory. The attendant asked me to return to my seat because they were getting ready to serve the second meal. At this point, we were about 3 hours from JFK. They turned up the lights and happily, the air conditioning. I actually started to feel cool in my window seat. Although the ice had all melted, the washcloth was still damp and cool. So I catnapped with it on my head, over my eyes and declined the second meal just in case.

By the time we landed, I was feeling almost human again. I breezed through immigration (global entry, it’s a must-have for international travel), and headed to baggage claim praying my luggage made it.

I saw one of my suitcases tumble down the chute and almost cried in relief. When my second suitcase tumbled down, I was relieved. I had packed my PJs and one change of clothes in my carry-on, but since I start my new job on Monday, I needed my work clothes, which were in the suitcases. I headed through customs and out into the chaos of JFK.

JFK might be the worst airport I’ve been in and that’s a high bar to reach because both LAX and O’Hare are high on that list.

I rechecked my bags at this weird small counter right outside customs. There was no real organization, no guarantee that my bags would ever get to DC. But I left them there and headed out to find the domestic terminal.

JFK, for those who have not been there, has 6 terminals. And you have to walk outside the terminal, cross the street, and take the train to get to the other terminals. Luckily, I had nearly 4 hours on this layover, and immigration and customs only took me about 20 minutes. I arrived at the correct domestic terminal and found a food court. Hallelujah! I thought. Since I’m in NYC, I’ll get NYC-style pizza.

I don’t know how, but this pizza place that claimed NYC-style pizza made the worst pizza I’ve ever had. Seriously, I think this place was going for the worst airport food award. (If there’s not an award, I will create one and award it to this place.) And it was ridiculously overpriced. But it was food and I was hungry.

I spent the rest of the 3 hours moving from gate to gate as my flight’s gate changed 4 times. And then it was delayed about 30 minutes, as the incoming flight was late. I almost cried again. I was so tired at this point. But we made it on the flight and happy surprise! I had no seatmate! By myself in a seat that was so much more comfortable than the JAL seats, I quickly fell asleep. Despite that the pilot announced they had a flight path change, we arrived in DC with no problems and only 10 minutes late. The flight path change was clearly to our benefit.

I grabbed my suitcases, got a taxi, made it to my hotel, and took a much-needed shower. After a lovely shower and some clean clothes, I headed out for a quick bite to eat. I got back to my room at about 7:00 pm. By 8:00, I was in PJs, collapsed on the bed, and was out like a light.

I slept 16 hours. I was that exhausted.

Overall, I traveled 26 hours, from 5:00 am Japan time Friday (4:00pm EDT Thursday) to 6:00 om EDT Friday. And needless to say, that will be my last time flying coach on an international flight. No more code-share flights for me where I can’t upgrade.

Now on to the next adventure—finding a place to live in the DC area.

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