Yesterday there was the biggest snowstorm in the last twenty years in Kanto, and I was caught right in the middle of it. This is a short report of my 36 hour adventure.
My father and his son were visiting me for two weeks, and supposed to leave on the Saturday. It dawned a snowy morning, and maybe much of this would have been averted if I had checked the weather forecast beforehand, but that is spilled milk.
We had a nice lunch in Tsukuba, and got on the bus to the airport. It was snowing quite a bit. During the ride, my dad’s wife called, warning that the flight had been canceled. Since we were already midway to the airport, I decided not to worry about it until we got there.
At the airport, the company changed my dad’s flight to another leaving at the same time. I thought it was settled. We waited a bit, said our goodbyes at the security gate, and I headed to the return train.
That was when the troubles started piling up.
At the Keisei platform, the express train was cancelled, and I had to move to the regular train. It was quite packed. As the train departed, it was moving very slowly, backing up some times, and stopping a lot. At the same time, I started to receive calls and messages from both my dad and his wife (in Brazil), with questions and requests: the flight was late, the flight was canceled, what was their flight number, etc. At this point I think the snowstorm had grounded all the flights in Narita. My cellphone’s battery was also almost giving up the ghost – I had to be very parsimonious with the text messages, which was difficult given the circumstances.
The train gave up one station before Funabashi. We stood there for a long while, and then I decided to look for a net cafe. My battery was all but dead and my family was still flooding me with questions and status updates.
It was snowing pretty heavily outside. There was a net cafe nearby, with a sizeable line in front of it. I managed to get online with my tablet on the local wireless, but there wasn’t much I could do. After a short wait, I secured a cubicle in the net cafe and got myself seated.
There was no chance for me to recharge my cellphone, as there was a huge line for the charger. I ordered a simple curry, and started talking people on the internet and getting a real sense of the shit we were in. All train lines stopped – to the point that the information sites decided to just list those few lines still working. No busses running, and of course no planes leaving.
My family was calling me often now, but there wasn’t much I could do for them. Their plane assignment was changed a few more times, and delays were piled on delays. They had trouble communicating with the airport crew, who I imagine were already full of troubles of their own.
For myself, it was becoming clear that I was going to have to spend the night on the cyber cafe. The curry rice I ordered took three hours to be served, and there were people resting or sleeping all over: on the corridors, stairs, etc. I realized how lucky I was to get a cubicle. I slept on my chair, to youtube and reddit posts.
In the morning, my dad called, saying he really needed me in the airport, because he was having trouble communicating with the staff. I checked the news, but there was no hope of any train or bus moving anytime soon. I decided to go to the nearest big station (Funabashi), where I could take two different lines to the airport, and try my luck there.
The walk to Funabashi was actually pleasant. I went through the back alleys, where people were plowing snow away from their shops and houses. The weather was nice. I stopped by a convenience store and got myself a charger for my phone and some extra batteries. Without the trains and cars, early in the morning, I felt a bit like if I were in a zombie apocalypse, minus the zombies. My GF was updating me via text messages on the train situation.
Arriving in Funabashi, chaos reigned. The bus stops had signs stating no busses would run today. The JR line had four staff in front of the gate giving orientations on which lines where running – trains inbound to Tokyo were starting to run, but not much else. The Keisei line was completely closed off. There was a huge line for taxis, which were coming one every 20 minutes. And anywhere, everywhere, people with large luggage, looking lost.
As for my family, they were sending me messages that they were in a huge line in the airport, trying to get a seat on an airplane which would actually leave Narita. They asked me to try calling the reservation centre in Japan, but it wouldn’t answer. At that time, I decided to try the long line for the taxi, since everything else showed no signs of moving.
I got on the taxi line around 11:00. The line was huge, but people there were doing what they could to keep in high spirits – exchanging stories and forming taxi sharing groups to go to different destinations. This was not only because of the small number of cabs running, but also because the huge taxi fare in Japan. On a normal day, a cab from Tokyo to Narita goes upwards of 20.000 yenes – now with the traffic and road conditions, no one could guess what the final fare would be.
I made a group with three old gentlemen who had already missed their flights, but were hoping to reschedule them at the airport. It was a long wait, as we kept up with news on the transportation system. We got near the front of the line by 14:40. And then I got news that the trains to the airport were going to start moving soon. We talked a bit, and I decided to try the trains – after passing the news to other people in the taxi line.
There was a big line in the platform, and the train already came packed, but I managed to board. I’ve never been in such a packed train in Japan. People were collaborating as possible, piling each other’s luggage, calming children and opening windows. Everyone was, literally, on the same boat in that one.
The train left late from Funabashi, passed one station, then stopped in Chiba – a tree had fallen in the tracks and had to be taken out. We waited for about 30 minutes, on that packed train. It was hot, despite the snow outside, but people were taking it stoically. For me, it was the second worst part of the adventure.
But the train started moving again, slowly. At each station, the train driver repeated his apologies, and saying that there was no way to tell how long it would take to reach Narita. At each station, people with luggage would light up their faces when they saw the train approaching, and then be disappointed when they realized that it was impossible to board the train. Only once we had some trouble with people insisting on trying to get on the train in that impossible situation. Finally, at 5:30, we arrived at the airport, the first train to do so that day. There was even a TV crew waiting for us.
Since I had no bags, I managed to gert to the boarding area quickly. It was relatively empty, but as the trains arrived it soon became a sea of people. I tried to contact my father, to no success, until his wife sent me a message saying that they managed to get a place in the next plane out, and were waiting at the boarding gate. I decided to wait until their flight departed, to make sure that no further problems would happen. I watched on the information board as the majority of flights were being delayed or outright cancelled, and wondered the number of people going through the same problem that day.
Eventually their flight departed, and I started the trip back home. There were thousands of people lining for the trains, after being stuck on the airport for two days. But the trains were reactivated now, if slow, and soon that crowd was drained out of the airport. There were separate lines for the JR and Keisei lines, and for some reason the JR line was much longer. Also most people in the Keisei line were trying to refund their express tickets, so I managed to get into the train fairly quickly. The return trip was otherwise problem-free.
Arriving home, I dined in a local bar with a huge pile of plowed snow in front, where everyone was chatting about the snowstorm, had a bath, and slept early. Total batteries spent: 8.
- Pay closer attention to the weather forecast.
- When taking someone at the airport, dont leave until the flight departs.
- Carry an usb charger at all times.
- Buy a new cellphone asap – my current one was a battery hog, and couldn’t keep up with my family on skype asking me for info, and my GF on line sending me transit updates, crashing all the time.