Transit trauma – Japan university exchange part 1

Transit trauma – Japan university exchange part 1
Japan Airlines plane landing at Kansai International Airport in Osaka

Don’t feel like reading? Listen to me tell the story.

“Oh!” the lady at the check in counter exclaimed after taking some time searching her computer. “Your travel agent should be shot.”

“What is it?” my mother asked.

“There is this tiny sticker on the top corner of the ticket,” she said looking at me.  “I understand why you didn’t see it.  They changed your flight.  Your flight to Sydney left from the domestic terminal an hour ago.  There is no room on this plane and I can’t see any way you can connect with your international flight to Japan today.”

Oh shit. 

It was 1997, I was 19 years old, and supposed to be embarking on a 12 month University (Uni) exchange program to Japan.  I think everyone who applied for a scholarship from the Japanese government that year from Australia was granted one, which included our return flights.

Every other kid in Australia who was going to Kansai Gaidai University was taking a domestic flight to Sydney (if they weren’t already there), then getting on the same plane to Osaka.  The plane would arrive late in the evening, but the University was prepared with buses, and people to meet us and take us on the four hour trip from Osaka Airport to the University dormitories.

There were five other kids from my Uni who were going, but I didn’t know them well.  A couple of them I knew from class, but we didn’t hang out. 

Back in the 1990’s your plane ticket was very important.  Berner’s Lee had only just released the internet, but there was no such thing as e-tickets.  Even if they had you in their system, you had your passport, and they could verify it was you, if you didn’t have your ticket, you couldn’t travel.  There were some magical qualities that rendered it essential.

Ticket to ride…

The ticket they sent me said I was to travel on a Japan Airlines flight from the Brisbane International Airport coming from Osaka and going to Sydney, then disembark and likely take that same plane back from Sydney to Osaka.  I had received an itinerary a bit later which had a different flight to Sydney written on it.  I called my University to query this and they told me to just stick with whatever it said on the ticket.

I didn’t confer with the other four from my Uni, but somehow they all worked it out and were on their way.  I hadn’t thought to check with them as the Uni was pretty clear.  Perhaps I should have checked with the airline…

Anyway, I wasn’t going to Japan that day.  She would make some calls and see what could be done, but in the meantime it was time to drag my years’ worth of luggage back to the car and go home with Mum and Dad.  They were pretty good about it because they knew I made enquiries and even the check in chick saw how it happened.

I got home and went up to my room.  It was a weird feeling.  I wasn’t supposed to be there until next year.  The previous day I agonised over what to pack and tried to pack up my room, but looking at it now, I wasn’t super successful.  Yes, my bags were packed, but my room could use a bit more ‘spring cleaning.’  I set about that as I waited for someone to call me from Japan Airlines or the Japanese Government to let me know my next step.

Did I want the good news, or the bad news? 

When I finally got the call, they had good news, and bad news.  The good news was they could get me on the same flight tomorrow, but I had to take that one if I wanted my ‘free’ fare from the government.  The bad news was I would arrive late Sunday evening and no one else was arriving at that time.  I would have to stay at a hotel near the airport and return to the airport the next day when all of the Europeans were arriving.

If the last minute nature of my packing and missing the plane hadn’t alerted you already, I must confess I hadn’t done a lot of investigating what was supposed to happen on my journey over.  Afterall, I was going with four other kids from my Uni, and although I didn’t know them well, I knew enough to know a couple of them would be all over it.  They could bring me up to speed on the plane, right?  And the Uni people were meeting us, so no problem, right?

I also worked a lot in my part-time sales job right up until it was time to go.  Japan was expensive back then.  REALLY expensive.  So although I had a very generous scholarship, I needed as much money as I could get, and took as many hours as they would give me between two stores, even while I was doing my studies and exams.

Now I was embarking on my first trip outside Australia and New Zealand, was on my own, would have to make my way to a hotel with my crappy Japanese, and then back again the next day before I was back in the bosom of my new institution with my fellow gaijin (foreigners – literally aliens though, because as I would find out, over there we are the same thing).  I had better work out all of the logistics now!

It was an earie feeling having that extra day at home.  I was so rushed with everything, and now it was all quiet.  I spent a few hours re-arranging and packing up my room as well as working out the next day’s logistics.  It was peaceful, and I somehow felt grateful to have a less hectic time with my family before I went.

Second time lucky

The next morning I showed up at the airport with yesterday’s ticket with the special sticker on it, and was mercifully accepted onto the flights.  The flights were blissfully uneventful from memory.  At that time Japan Airlines were a pretty Rolls Royce airline with great food, the latest movies, and pretty decent seats even in economy.

After about eight hours in the air, the darkness of the night was illuminated by the never ending, brightly lit coastline of Osaka.  I had never seen anything like it.  Once the dark sea hit the land, the lights just didn’t stop.  I was coming from a leafy city of 3.5 million people to this one of almost 19 million.  The contrast was clear.

Osaka Airport is on a man-made island just off the coast of Osaka.  It is a funny sight with its runways poking out into the dark ocean from the beaming metropolis. Apparently it is sinking, but this many years later it hasn’t gone under yet, so I suspect some engineering geniuses are working hard to keep it above the water. Given the size of the city, I was surprised the airport wasn’t so busy.  It was late, so perhaps that was it.

I dusted off my very rusty Japanese and prepared to find the Holiday Inn Airport Shuttle.

“Horidei in no shataru basu wa doko desu ka?” I asked one of the airport officials.

I understood the instructions, made my way to the empty airport shuttle bus section, and waited.  The Holiday Inn bus eventually arrived, I hopped on alone, and off we went to the hotel.  I was so proud of myself.  I was all over it!

My first night in an actual hotel

I had never stayed in a proper hotel before.  Sure, we went on holidays regularly when I was growing up, but we always stayed in houses, ‘units,’ or with family or friends.  This was quite novel for me.  The shuttle bus guy motioned for me to go into reception and that he would put my not insignificant sized luggage on a large, golden luggage trolley meant for many more bags than just mine, and bring it in.

There was one disinterested receptionist in the empty lobby when I entered.  I gave him all of my papers and asked if there was somewhere I could eat.  He informed me there was a restaurant I could get something at, but room service was not operating at that time of night.

He gave me my key and motioned to the elevator and the large golden trolley with my lonely bags on it.  I guess no one was helping me with my bags to my room.  I wheeled the trolley into the elevator, selected my floor, and up to the room I went.

I found the door to my room, inserted the key card into the slot, a red light flashed, and I tried to open it.  It didn’t budge.  What was going on?  The card was in the door, this was definitely the right room, why wasn’t it opening?  I clocked the video cameras and thought the security must be having a great old time watching this dumb blond gaijin trying unsuccessfully to get into her hotel room.

Girl vrs door

I tried various combinations of the key card in the door for about five minutes, when finally I cracked the winning combination, and the door opened.  I had no idea what I did to make this magic happen, but I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity to get inside my room.

The door was heavily weighted, and would not cooperate and stay open by itself.  It seemed excessively heavy as I held it with one arm and stretched out the other to grab the big, golden trolley.  I pulled the trolley to the door and it was evident my large suitcase which stuck out either side of the trolley was not fitting in the door square on.  Adjustment was required.  Two arms were needed for this job.

But I wasn’t letting that door close!  I stood on my right leg and put my left leg at a right angle on the door as I bent down to pull the bag off the trolley.  I realised how ridiculous I looked and waved at the cameras again, imagining security laughing away at how funny it was not to send someone to help after already enjoying a good 10 minutes of hallway entertainment.

I finally wrestled my years’ worth of belongings from the trolley, still one leg on the door and one on the floor, and got them into the room.  That trolley was staying there and I was staying in my room.  Even though I was starving, there was NO WAY I was leaving this room to go to that restaurant because I had no guarantee I would get back in.

I surveyed the sterile room with the crisp white bed covers, the incredible view over the endless lights of the Osaka coastline, and resigned myself to an evening of starvation and hopefully sleep.  I needed some mental strength at least to get myself back to the airport and connect with my Uni Reps in the morning.

Ohayo-gozaimasu (good morning) Osaka!

I didn’t have breakfast at the hotel the next morning.  I didn’t know where it was, and even if I did, my options were to risk leaving my bags in my room and likely never get them back, or take the incredibly heavy and bulky bags with me.

When the time came, I loaded myself up with my bags, opened that heavy-arse door, and went down to the lobby to connect with the shuttle bus. 

“Eapooto basu wa itsu ka kimasu ka?  Bukingu wa irimasen ka?” I asked.

“There is one bus here already.  There is one other group, but you should fit okay with them,” the concierge replied, clearly not impressed enough by my Japanese to answer me in his native language.

I found the bus.  It was a smaller one this morning, about a 25 to 30 seater.  It was the type with two seats on either side, a long seat at the back, and once those were all filled, you could pull out the seats in the middle for the last few people.

Pouvez-vous dire chaîne Playboy?

The ‘other group’ was already on the bus and had filled up all of the outside seats.  Who was that group? Of course it was a youth French men’s rugby team.  Perfect…  After loading my bags, the bus driver took me onto the bus and pulled out the seat in the middle, right up the back.  I was literally surrounded by young male French athletes and the only thing I could understand them saying was “Playboy Channel.”  Brilliant…

I arrived at the airport and quickly found the Uni Representatives, or rather they found me.  They said I would need to wait for an hour or so for the first lot to come in.  That meant I had time to finally eat something.  Oh happy days!

Aside from these adventures, it was actually really cool to trek to Uni with the Europeans.  We bonded on that four hour bus trip.  We were then put in dorm rooms together for the first week before we were shipped off to our homestay families.

Because all the Aussies arrived together, they all shared rooms and bonded.  I bridged my Europeans and my Aussies, and we formed a posse we may not have, at least so quickly, if I hadn’t had that different arrival schedule.

We had SO many adventures that year.  Some of them already have blog posts:

Homestay hilarity or horror show? You decide…

Whatever you do, don’t go to the doctor

But if this year in Japan was an iceberg, these stories are not even the tip.  One story important to the Part 2 post involved me and my then boyfriend, Rob getting stuck in Thailand without passports.  This meant by the time I travelled back to Australia (Part 2), I had a 12 month temporary passport issued in Bangkok without the relevant student visa.

To be continued…

Thanks for reading and/or listening.  I hope you enjoyed it.  If you did, please like, comment, and share on social media.  I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin, and my handle is @ClaireRWriter.

If you want to work with me, check out my website and book a meeting.

Until next time!


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