Wednesday, March 16, 2011

It's 6:20am and I pick myself up off the marble floor. It's going to be crazy downstairs and I want to get there ahead of the lines.

International departures is packed. How did they get here so fast? I check my flight number and look it up on the flight status board. JL 3083 is not on the board. In fact, there are no flights to Seoul departing at 9:30am. There are flights leaving at 9:20am and 9:50am but they have different flight numbers. Everything is hazy - I'm so tired I can't think straight. Since my flight is operated by Japan Airlines (JAL) I decide to stand in the JAL line, which stretches more than half the width of the terminal, and wait for a staff member to walk by.

There are so many people, there's no way I'll make it for my 9:30am flight. I munch on a banana I packed the night before. I'm not fasting today. I probably shouldn't have been fasting before. A staff member walks by. He's swarmed by confused passengers and I wait till they're gone before I grab his attention. "I'm looking for flight JL 3083 to Seoul at 9:30am" "At 9:30am?" "Yes, through Nagoya." "Ah. That's domestic. Downstairs."

Domestic! It's 7:20am and I pray it's not as crazy as this. To my horror, there's a massive group of passengers assembling in front of the check-in counter. As I get closer, I find they're only assembling - they're not in line. There are only five people in front of me.

7:35am and I have over an hour before boarding time. I text some friends and tell them what I'm seeing. "I'm at domestic departures and it's super quiet compared to the madness upstairs. If you decide to go, or know others interested in leaving, I recommend you fly your first leg domestic. Definitely don't fly JAL." I return to the international terminal to snap some photos. The number of passengers is overwhelming. Most of the languages I'm hearing are Chinese and Korean.

Terminal 2 Domestic Departures at 7:40am, Narita Airport

Terminal 2 International Departures at 7:50am, Narita Airport

I board the first leg to Nagoya and sit down beside a German banker whose firm is sending her home. I ask about the situation in Tokyo and she says it's really strange. The streets of Roppongi are deserted - all the foreigners have been sent home and the Japanese aren't leaving their houses. The plane approaches takeoff, and I excuse myself from the conversation. I'm not feeling so well. I'm asleep before we're in the air.

The sound of the seat belt chime wakes me. We've landed in Nagoya. I walk with my new friend to pick up our luggage. My next flight leaves in less than an hour and there's no line at check-in - I'm the last passenger on a fully booked flight to Seoul. I'm asleep before we taxi for takeoff and wake up on the other side. I wasn't awake long enough to fill out my landing card.

12:15pm. Seoul Incheon International Airport is stunning. The jet bridge connecting the plane to the terminal is made entirely of glass. I fill out my customs declaration form as the customs line grows longer and longer. I'm in no rush. The customs officer asks me for the address where I'm staying. "I don't know." "Why?" "I'm coming from Tokyo..." He returns my passport and call the next passenger. That seems to do the trick. I'm in Seoul, and although I wish it was under different circumstances, it's really exciting to be here.

Incheon International Airport, Seoul

Airport Train Terminal, Seoul Incheon International Airport

I exchange some yen for won, and make my way to the airport train. The only directions I have to my friend's apartment are "Hongdae Station" and "the Magellan building across from the exit." Things were so hectic on Tuesday we didn't have time to exchange more information. I scan the city transit map twice - there's no Hongdae Station. I ask around and everyone's telling me I want Hongik. I suppose I'll give it a try.

I step off the train at Hongik Station and am confronted with 9 different exits. That's interesting. I wonder which exit the Magellan building sits across from. I check a couple and find nothing. I ask a police officer, but he doesn't know. I run into another two down the street and they walk me to the door. Yes! The apartment has a gorgeous view. I plug in my laptop and send my family an email letting them know I've landed safely and Facebook the friend whose place I'm staying at. He writes back. He's just sent his wife and their guest to Kyushu in southern Japan.

5pm and a hot shower's never felt so good. I change into some fresh clothes and start looking into getting a visa to China. Looks like I can't get one at the Chinese Embassy in Seoul without a Korean Alien Registration Card (ARC). Apparently, you can only get a visa at the Chinese Embassy in your country of residence. I keep on searching and find a message on a forum saying I can get a visa in Busan without an ARC. A quick google reveals Seoul to Busan is two and a half hours by bullet train. That could be fun. I Skype with my brother and we talk about my decision to leave Chiba. As difficult as it was, I think it was the right thing to do. The region is really unstable right now, and no one really knows what's going on.

Hongdae Distric, Seoul

I do some research on the area I'm staying in. Turns out Hongdae is the place to be - the entertainment and clubbing district of Seoul and home to the most famous school of Fine Arts and Design in the country. It's 7pm before I leave the apartment in search of food. I walk around the university district. I haven't really eaten since dinner on Tuesday, about 24 hours earlier, and I'd love some good Korean food. I look for a place popular with the university students and find one that looks promising. I sit down and order a "fire chicken with cheese - 100% natural cheese." It's soft chicken on a plate of melted cheese, and by far the spiciest dish I've had in a while. I watch the news as I eat. Back-to-back earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear reactors in Japan.

I get home and go to bed around midnight.

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