The switch from comfort to desperation can happen fast. Sometimes all it takes is a big snowstorm, a missed connection and a city incapable of removing snow from it’s roads and railways. And you kind of know it’s bad when the Red Cross comes around delivering bottles of water.
Last weekend I spent 43 hours on the floor of the Tokyo airport. When our plane landed in the midst of a huge snowstorm–what turned out to be the biggest in a few decades–I had a bad feeling.
We were headed to Niseko, a ski resort on the island of Hokkaido, the land of hot onsens and nightly dumps and some of the best snow in the world. But Tokyo is much like Seattle–a big city, a gateway to mountains and ocean, where precipitation usually falls as rain.
Not this storm. In some places, 70cm fell in 24 hours. It shut the city down. All roads were closed. The train stopped. The airport was completely shut off from the outside world. No flights, no trains, no buses. The line at the taxi stand was so long it wound into the next day.
My husband is a solver of problems. He took this setback as an opportunity to find a solution. And he went at it like a dog on a bone. There was a flight from Haneda leaving for Sapporo in a few hours. All we needed was to get there. He located the train station and tried to find a ride to the city. But the flights were all full.
Next, he tried to find a train all the way to Hokkaido. But the seats were all full. Again, he booked us a flight out of another city up north. But we couldn’t get there. The buses had stopped running. They’d closed all the roads from the airport. We were definitely trapped.
And yet, thousands of travelers poured in on international flights. Someone at the control tower forgot to tell them they were landing at the Hotel California. You could check in but you couldn’t leave. For a while there, things got a bit desperate. Lines snaked back and forth across the floor of the airport. Travelers fell asleep while standing up, or simply curled around their luggage while keeping their place in line. That’s when volunteers came around with water bottles and cute little sandwiches with the crusts cut off.
I’ve said it before. Adversity is good for you. Besides, this wasn’t that bad. We had water. We had beer. And we had these cute little sandwiches. That’s what I kept telling myself as I headed into the second night in our little bunker we created out of our luggage in a side room at the top of Level 3.
Being the survivors that our group of six truly was, we planned ahead. We bought enough beer that first night to see us through. Even though the restaurants ran out of food, and the famous vending machines hemorrhaged hot coffee and cold tea until sucked dry, we knew we’d be okay. We had two decks of cards and plenty of beer.
So we played hearts, we watched the large board that flashed CANCELED next to every domestic flight heading north, and bided our time.
Then something miraculous happened. We realized we were having fun. We were laughing so hard that other sleep-deprived travelers gave us sideways glances. The card game was becoming cut-throat, the beer was holding firm, even the fermented plum treats out of the vending machine offered a hilarity beyond what would seem possible. How could something that tasted so rotten be so funny? Because when you’re scavenging cardboard boxes to sleep on, anything is possible.
Of all the airports in the world I’d rather be stranded at Narita. At least they sell beer in vending machines. At least Japanese people are nice and don’t steal your stuff. All throughout the airport, cell phones and other electronics were plugged into remote outlets and left for hours. Somber-looking police officers cruised the hallways without much to do.
When we woke the second morning, I wasn’t sure our flight would hold. Still no flights had left the airport. But we stood in the long checkout line anyway. And then it happened. We were each handed a boarding pass–a Willy Wonka golden ticket–and just like that we were ushered through security and onto a bus and out to the plane.
A few hours later we were soaking in the hot water at a Niseko onsen, drinking sake and eating sushi. And just like that we were back in the land of comfort, where snowfall is a good thing and problem solving actually works and anything is possible.
Someday I will probably look back at those 43 hours with gratitude. Actually, on the eve of our last day in Niseko, I’m already doing that. Because if you can still laugh when you’re sleeping on a cardboard box, when the thought of ever taking a shower or sleeping on a bed are only remote possibilities, then you’re doing pretty good.