’Round the world in 72 days: Japan

by Philip Wagenaar (Part one of a series)

I heaved a sigh of relief. For months I had been preparing a trip ’round the world (RTW) for my wife, Flory, and myself. For each of us, I had amassed the 220,000 frequent-flyer miles which Northwest Airlines required for RTW business-class travel.

I wondered if Northwest would ever let me do it, given the airline’s restrictions on traveling with miles. (Northwest was one of the airlines in the alliance SkyTeam and has, since then, been absorbed by Delta Airlines.)

For months I diligently researched country after country to find the places with suitable weather, which to us meant reasonably warm and dry.

Next, the countries had to be in line for a RTW trip. Backtracking was not allowed, and the total trip mileage could not be more than 32,000. Only nine stops were permitted.

I finally came up with an itinerary that included Australia, Japan, India and Oman in a 2½-month time frame. I figured out the exact number of days we could spend in each country, the exact routing and the sightseeing possibilities. And I knew that, by Northwest’s rules, I could start to make my air reservations only 330 days before the last flight we would take.

Using frequent-flyer miles

Finally, D-day was at hand. I dialed Northwest with trepidation. An agent answered the phone and I stated that I wanted a RTW trip in business class and that Flory and I had enough miles. After mentioning the order of the countries to be visited, there was a long silence. While I waited, there was no music. I had not been put on hold.

After waiting for 10 minutes and holding my breath during some of it, wondering if they would allow my request, I said, “Are you still there?”

“Yes,” she said, “but the way you have it, it won’t work. Instead of Australia, you have to go to Japan first. Are you willing to do that?”

What is a person to say? “Yes,” I answered.

After 10 more minutes of silence, the voice erupted from the speakerphone once more: “Tell me the dates and I will see if I can make it work.”

Another 20 minutes went by, and then I heard, “I think I have it. Look on your computer and see if you like it.”

I could not believe my eyes and my luck. While the dates were not exactly right and the routing would have been better if I had paid for the ticket, who could argue about a free business-class trip around the world?

I was lucky that the lady who did my routing was willing and capable. So often, that is not the case, as I found out two days later when I called Northwest back to change some of the dates. This time, the agent told me, “Your ticket is no good. It is illegal. You have to cross both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans and you are not.”

My face fell. I explained that I was crossing both the Pacific and Atlantic, but she was adamant that the ticket was illegal. I asked for a supervisor.

I will spare you the long discussion I had with the supervisor, but, after changing my ticket to allow an overnight stopover in Honolulu, she declared, “Your ticket is now legal.”

Because, on our 72-day trip, we wanted to take only cabin baggage (to preclude any of our bags’ being lost or misplaced), I carefully checked each airline we would fly for their limitations in the weight and dimensions of carry-ons. A number of airlines allowed only seven kilograms (less than 15½ pounds). We packed carefully!

Would you believe that no airline checked the weight of our carry-ons?

As space constraints make it impossible to detail here our entire journey, Aug. 31-Nov. 11, 2009, I will just present highlights of it in various installments.

JAPAN

We first visited Japan, where we traveled independently. (With a Japanese phrase book, it is very easy to travel in Japan on your own.)

For its proximity to the Narita airport, we stayed in the village of Narita at the Holiday Inn Tobu Narita (320-1 Tokko, Chiba, Narita, Chiba, 286-0106 Japan; phone 81 476 321234, fax 320617), where we had a room in the upscale west wing for ¥10,704 (about $115) per night.

The Tobu Narita is a cosmopolitan resort hotel with large, modern rooms, free Internet access in the rooms and an on-site fitness center with an indoor pool. Many foreign flight crews, in their various uniforms, were staying there as well.

This was our third trip to Japan, and we found the locals to be just as helpful, pleasant and polite to elderly people as they had been in the past. Whenever we tried to do something ourselves, such as move a chair or a suitcase, younger people would literally come running to help us.

While in years past we hiked and bicycled wherever we traveled, nowadays, as Flory has considerable difficulty walking, we do most of our sightseeing by car.

Toilets

We noticed a few changes in the toilets from those on previous visits. There were still both Japanese-style and Western-style toilets, but the latter had a new twist, consisting of a series of buttons: the button with the female symbol operated a bidet; the next one blew warm air at your underside, and the last button said “Stop.”

The Japanese toilets had not changed.

Boso No Mura museum

The day after our arrival in Japan, Sept. 10, we took a trip to the Boso No Mura museum (1028 Ryukakuji, Sakae-machi, Inba-gun, Chiba Prefecture, 270-1506, Japan; phone +81 476 95 3333 or fax 95 3330), which is a large park that has many buildings from ancient times. It is closed Mondays.

To reach the park, we took the free hotel shuttle to JR Narita Station on the JR Narita Line, from where we would ride the Ryukakuji-dai Shako bus to the park.

As we could not, initially, find the bus stop at the JR Narita Station, I asked a taxi driver to help us. He locked his cab and accompanied us to the bus — a 15-minute walk. He even ran ahead and asked the bus driver to wait for us, as we were two minutes late. Only after making sure that we were safely on our way did he leave. Can you imagine?!

After a 20-minute ride through clean, attractive villages, we got off at the “Ryukakuji-dai-2-chome” stop and walked for about eight minutes to the park entrance.

Since it was too hot to visit the museum’s buildings, which were scattered over a large area, we decided to relax in the outside restaurant, where we had a delicious Japanese lunch. We read for a while and after an hour were pleasantly surprised with a complimentary cup of tea brought by a waitress.

To our chagrin, except for one woman in a kimono, everybody in the park was wearing Western clothes. Many visitors were wearing masks to ward off the H1N1 flu.

When it was time to leave, we returned to the bus stop, where we patiently waited in the broiling sun for our transportation to arrive. A young lady had pity on us and offered us a ride in her car… in which her elderly father and mother were already seated. While we normally don’t accept rides, we felt that, since this was Japan and the occupants of the car looked harmless, it was perfectly safe.

Next month I will continue this discussion, covering the Australian part of our RTW trip.

Dr. Wagenaar welcomes questions but may not be able to answer them individually.