First Day in Japan: Planes, Trains, and Apartment Keys

I am studying abroad for one semester in Tokyo, Japan. I had initially booked my flight to arrive on Monday, August 29, but upon hearing the news of Typhoon Lionrock, I changed it to Wednesday. Given that the place where I was to pick up my apartment key was closed on Wednesdays, I reserved a hotel, knowing this would mean I’d have to carry my luggage with me all the next day during college orientation. However, an hour before my flight to my layover in O’Hare, I received an email saying that the key store WOULD actually be open. Miracle of miracles, I would have a place to settle down and not have to drag my luggage through campus. However, I couldn’t figure out a way to get from Narita (my plane was scheduled to arrive at 4:45 PM) to the key store in time (which closed at 7 PM). “Unless,” I joked to my mom, “the plane lands early.” Like that would ever happen, I thought.


Photo from Passenger Terminal Today.

My plane landed an hour and a half ahead of schedule. I was so early, I decided to go straight to the key store, not wanting to chance it. I remembered to get cash, but decided not to pick up portable wi-fi rental for the months I was in Japan, as I didn’t know where to buy it and figured I shouldn’t waste time. I didn’t want to use data, except for texts, because it was so expensive. This will come back to bite me. Wait for it.

The JR Narita Express from the airport to Shinjuku was a breeze. I was happy and not yet jetlagged. All I had to do was transfer lines when I got to Shinjuku and go to my stop, and I was a winner.

Cue the mistakes.


Photo from Tepper School of Business Unofficial Japanese Website.

First of all, I had only bought a ticket to go to Shinjuku, not all the way to my final stop. Inside Shinjuku Station, I suddenly forgot how to buy a ticket at a station, despite having used the Japanese train system the year before. Cue me wandering around for 20 minutes trying to find a ticket dispenser and being stubborn enough to only ask one person for help, and then not ask again despite my deep confusion. Eventually I realized I had to exit the main area of the station, buy a new ticket, and then re-enter. However, before doing so I made sure of which train I’d have to hop on and what escalators I had take to get to it.

Once I had my ticket, I headed to the stop. As I stood in line with other folks waiting for the train, I realized something. Not all the train stops were listed on the signs down here. The place I wanted to go to wasn’t on the sign. Was it possible I went down the wrong escalator? The train came, but I ran back upstairs. I looked around at the signage.

No, this was the right one, all right. I went back down and waited. But wait, I realized. What if I forgot the name of the district I was going to? I must have mixed them up! This must be the wrong train!

I went back upstairs. I searched out the complete list of all the lines and all their stops running out of Shinjuku Station. I couldn’t find my stop. I searched and searched, desperate, stubbornly wanting to use the train ticket I had purchased and too embarrassed to ask for help. I had no choice. I had to get a taxi.


Photo from Them Travels. Pictured: Ikebukuro Station. 

I stuck my unused ticket in the exit gate and…ERROR. It wouldn’t let me out. Since the ticket was one I had bought here, the gate would not read it as used. Still too stubborn to ask someone for help, and knowing how much cheaper the train would be than a taxi and how I had already bought a ticket, I went back inside the station.

Searching through my phone, I eventually found my notes on train lines and realized that that the train I’d been trying to go on DID go to the stop I was searching for. I hurried back down the escalator, wondering if people were wondering why this girl suitcase-hauling kept going up and down the escalators to the same train lines. I decided, emboldened with the knowledge that this train was indeed correct, to run. My bag twisted and I slammed on the concrete, taking all the weight in my knees. The last thing I wanted was to draw attention to myself, so I hurried back up and smushed into the next crowded train available. Rush hour. Overall, I had wasted almost an hour trying to find the right train.

On the train, I began praying monotonously in my head, my eyes in a blank stare. “God, please let me get there in time to pick up my key. God, please let me get there in time to pick up my key.” I accidentally caught a businessman in my deathglare and when I realized we made eye contact, I quickly looked down. I repeated my prayer to the train floor.

I got to the station. I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t find the correct exit. As I was spinning in circles, a girl who spoke English came up to me, helped me find my way out and maneuver my luggage. Grateful to be helped by a stranger, once outside the gates, I thought, this is it. I have twenty minutes to spare, I have my map from the apartment people, and I can figure out where this place is.

There are three things marked on the map as landmarks. One is a drugstore directly across from the station exit.

I look. I see no drugstore.

Panickingly looking for the other landmarks and trying to use Google Maps or NAVITIME with the painfully slow city wi-fi (remember what I said earlier about not buying pocket wi-fi? Yeah, it would have come in handy around now), I decide to bite the bullet: I decide to use data.

I am not supposed to use data in Japan because it costs big bucks. But with fifteen minutes left before the key store closes, I’m desperate. Desperate enough to reach out for help. Desperate enough to forget that I have hardly spoken Japanese in the past year.

I call the number on the sheet for the key store.

A woman answers. She is very kind and helpful and I understand all of what she says at first and then almost none of it when she tries to give me directions. I am lost at the names of buildings (kanji? More like kan-not-ji! Ha ha ha. Ha). She says something about a phone call and I say okay and hang up, thinking she will call me back. Apparently, that’s not what she said.

In a vain attempt to make sure the phone call was not in vain, I try to scour the map for some kind of street I can follow. I scan the signs on every building I can see, and then, desperate, I once again use data: Google Maps.

According to the app, looks like I can get to the building in a 9 minute walk, but at this point, it’s only 5 minutes until the store closes. I call the woman again, more apologetic and explaining my situation, asking if it’s okay if I get there in 10 minutes and giving her my name. She is very gracious and says that is fine, and offers to give me directions, but after I think about it I say I will use the smartphone (because it’s hard for me to understand directions and I don’t want to take up too much more of her time). I say thank you and hang up without hanging up ON her this time. I feel assured. I will do it, I think. I will make it.

I don’t. Where Google Maps says there’s the key store building, there’s only a shoe store. There’s nothing. My mom is texting me, asking how my apartment is. I try to find the key store, one more time, so that this all won’t have been for nothing. I can’t.


Photo from Pictured: an Osaka shopping arcade, much like the one where I was trying to find the key store.

I text my mom back, and the last thing I do is go up to a building advertising apartments. The offices are on the second floor, just like my sheet of paper said. It’s closed. The phone number I called now doesn’t ring; a voice just says, “We’re sorry. Please check the number and dial again.” Someone else has called me but I don’t recognize the number. I take a couple pictures of the offices to send to the apartment people and ask if this is the correct office – because I will have to do this all again tomorrow if I actually want my key.

I am texting my mom. She says I could go to the hotel. I still have a reservation. I finally give in and sit on the curb at the side of the road.

I know my hotel is only 1 train stop away and barely a walk outside the next station, so I buy a train ticket, carefully looking through and double checking the kanji for my stop, and I get on the train.

Correction. I get on the wrong train.

However, I realize that if I get off the first stop and run across to the other train waiting to be boarded, I can get off at its next stop and be where I want to be, like a boss. Problem solved.

At this station, hoping to find relief, instead I find a new degree of misery when I realize that even every angle of Google Maps I had looked showed this station as having only had 1 exit (the one near my hotel), it actually has many.

However, as I wander in confusion I am once again greeted by a kind stranger, this time someone who worked at the station. Thankfully, I knew which stores were by the exit I wanted to go to, and after I named them, he directed me to them.

I exited and turned the corner, reciting my notes in my head. “Turn left and walk past the bakery. You should see a –”

And there it was, shining in the night. My hotel. What a glorious thing it is to find what you have been looking for.

First Day in Japan: Planes, Trains, and Apartment Keys

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