Four Days in London: Ticket to Tokyo Part 1

A memoir about trying to find a way to the Olympics, and finding something else instead. This takes place in January 2010. Part 2 can be found here.

The snow was continued to fall as my mother’s Subaru traveled the familiar path down route 125. We were passing through Harold Parker and I was conflicted. I stared out the window, with neither of us really talking. In this moment I wasn’t much for small talk. On the one hand it was 4 AM and on the other a lifelong dream was about to be fulfilled. We were on our way to the airport where I would depart for Japan to train judo at Tsukuba University. It hadn’t fully dawned on me yet but I was leaving the thing that felt most comfortable to me, the New England winter, for an unknown. Meanwhile my mother, a skilled veteran of New England winters, was trying to make sure we didn’t crash during a blizzard. When we got to the airport I gave my mother a final hug goodbye I left for what would be up to that point the longest time I will have spent away from my New England home.

In what will only come as a surprise to someone who has not set foot inside my car, I have never been an organized person in my private life. I think what allows me today to provide the facade of one is the combination of Google drive, Siri, and a phobia of being handed an irreplaceable document in a form not generated by 1s and 0s. Despite months of preparation, this personality trait was on full display upon reaching the airport.

Considering the last time I went to the airport I showed up at the wrong airline and thus the wrong terminal I was thankful there were no issues with the boarding passes. (Despite their patriotic names it is always useful to remember that American Airlines and United Airlines are in fact, different airlines). Having bought my tickets in September I didn’t expect there to be. I could not say the same for my luggage however.

“If you bring these bags we will have to charge you an additional two hundred dollars,” said the woman at the flight desk.

It turns out that two bags full of judo uniforms and a dozen books on the history of Ireland and World War 1 are not exactly light. I began a game of musical chairs with my luggage. As I fiddled around with the contents of my carry on bag to fit more stuff, I began to curse the professors of the two online history classes I was taking that semester. The thought crossed my brain as I attempted to cram “A Secret History of the IRA” into my backpack that I was thankful no one in the TSA would be professionally interested in someone carrying a book about a somewhat defunct Irish terrorist group. As I gave back the backs, now the proper weight so as to avoid the insane baggage fee, I realized I didn’t see a single laptop cord.

“No worries, I’m sure I can buy a cord for an apple laptop in Tokyo if need be.” I thought. I had made sure to verify with my local apple store that there was in fact, an apple store in Tokyo I could use should something come up. When I got to my gate I verified my laptop still had a full charge.

I was there a solid two hours before my flight and went about charging my phone and downloading audio books. My first flight would bring me to JFK, where I would then depart to Narita airport, just outside of Tokyo. As I finished downloading “Blink”, part of a long reading list given to me by a coach, I check the time. It was 45 minutes to take off and didn’t have our plane at the gate. Despite debacles I described earlier, I am a veteran air traveler and knew this wasn’t a great sign.

Another 25 minutes goes by and the plane is nowhere to be found, and suddenly people are getting nervous. It turned out a solid number of us were bound for Japan. A woman next to me confided she had a first class ticket on All Japan Airlines and was freaking out. I had ignorantly bought my ticket on American Airlines, unaware of how amazing international Asian airlines were. The ability to press a button and be presented with a free glass of cognac and a chicken sandwich while still flying coach was a luxury I’d enjoy much later.

Sure enough by the time plane was supposed to leave, there was still no plane at the gate. The snow which had several hours ago represented comfort had turned into a bitter enemy. Here I was, with this trip I had dreamed of even before I started judo, and my plane gets a snow day.

When the plane finally arrived and I’m summoned to the front. “So here is the deal, when this plane lands your next plane will be boarding. When you get off your next plane, you are going to go as quickly as you possibly can to gate 70. You’ll have ten minutes.”

I boarded the plane, and spent the next hour reading, getting ready for the sprint that awaited me on the other side of the next gate.