Here is a weird story a friend of mine suggested I write down before the already hazy details got any hazier. I was exhausted and probably a little buzzed/hungover when it occurred so the story might not make sense. Also, a few of the immigration rules and procedures might have changed since then. Anyways, I will try to stay as true to the event as I possibly can.
It was the summer of 2010 and after a year and a half in Taiwan, I made a trip to the US to visit my family. Traveling between the US and Taiwan usually means making a stop at Narita International Airport located near Tokyo, Japan. It was on the return journey to Taiwan that I would make one of my most embarrassing mistakes while traveling. Before I continue, I’d like to thank the staff at Narita for being so patient.
At the time, the rules and restrictions for carrying liquids on planes were still a bit confusing, specifically liquids being carried through connecting airports. Before this trip, I had only made a few international flights and never really paid attention to the rules around Duty Free purchases. I figured just keep the bag sealed till you’re on the plane and there shouldn’t be a problem. I also figured one of the staff would inform me of any future issues with customs. That was my first mistake.
My second mistake was made at an airport in the US, probably Detroit. It was while waiting for the trans Pacific flight back to Asia, I decided to make a quick stop in the Duty Free store. I was perusing the colorful selection of alcohol when I spotted a bunch of Jim Beam labels. Having spent a portion of my adolescent years in the beautiful state of Kentucky, I’ve always had a fondness for bourbon. At the time, I was living in a ‘rural’ city in Taiwan, and there wasn’t much variety when it came to liquor. On a whim, I decided to buy a large bottle of Jim Beam Black. Thinking nervously of my upcoming flight as well as my new distraction, I made no mention of my brief stop in Japan.
After a very long flight and about one third of the bottle, there I was in Narita. Burdened only by my large purse and plastic bag containing the bourbon, I made my way towards the area for connecting international flights. Now this is where it gets hazy. At some point before reaching my gate there was another security screening. During the inspection I was politely told the bottle had to be left with them.
Thinking it was a misunderstanding, I informed them that it was purchased in the airport I had just flown out of.
No. Sorry. That doesn’t matter. The bottle needs to be discarded.
Now a number of thoughts went through my head. Was this a new rule? Was it because it was opened? Should I just get rid of it and continue to the gate for my last flight? How much do I really want this (almost full) bottle?
I must’ve looked devastated because one of the guards then mentioned I could “just check it” and it would be waiting for me at my destination. Well! That sounded like a plan! Now I could bring my precious Jim Beam (Black) with me to my little city of Chiayi and share it with friends. Holding out the bottle, I nodded my agreement. “Yes. OK thanks! Here you go.”
The woman looked confused. “No, YOU need to check it. Go that way.”
Oh… OK. And off I went wandering down a hallway.
My only memory of this long and arduous journey was lots of walking, repeatedly offering the bottle to staff, and somehow obtaining a three month visa stamp in my passport. Who the heck filled out my card? Did I feel ridiculous? Oddly enough, no. Did I look ridiculous? Most likely, yes. So why was I carrying this bottle with me through a maze of hallways and security clearances? Well there’s a bit more to this story…
Two years earlier, I had made the flight home from Bangkok, Thailand and ran into a similar problem. The airport in Bangkok wouldn’t allow me to bring a bottle of liquor on the plane. It had been purchased in the airport and only slightly drunk. I was trying to settle my nerves for the flight from Bangkok to Incheon, South Korea however, I still had the long haul across the Pacific and was trying to conserve it. During a second pre-boarding inspection, they saw the bag and the bottle. They wanted to confiscate it.
As I was still kind of new to the international flying scene I didn’t understand what the problem was. It had been purchased in the airport so what was the issue? They were kind, but firm in their insistence that I leave the bottle with them. Seeing how much this bottle meant to me, a nervous flyer, they told me they would just put it “in storage” and then “give it back” when I disembarked. They took the bottle to write my information, smiling and insisting that it would be returned. I told them not to bother and continued on. I’m still not sure why I cared so much about bringing it on board seeing as how you could order alcoholic drinks on the plane for free. Oh to be twenty-three again…
So back to Narita. As I was stumbling through the hallways and apparently through customs, I kept expecting someone to just step up and take this item. Slowly, it dawned on me that maybe I had misunderstood the phrase “just check it”. It was in the final inspection before entering Japan that I suddenly grew very nervous of what I had done. Maybe it was seeing the outside world in the distance or maybe all that rushing around was waking me up. Suddenly, I wanted to go back.
“OH. Oh no. I made a mistake. Sorry!” I exclaimed as I edged back from the guard.
He smiled reassuringly. “Yes. This way. This is the right way.”
“No, no, but I don’t want to enter Japan. I am going to Taiwan.”
A slightly confused frown. “But you must go this way. Cannot go back.”
“Oh but I have a plane to catch. I only wanted to check this,” holding up the bottle, “but I’ve changed my mind. It’s cool. I can leave it here.”
Now an amused smile and gesturing. “Go this way. Only way.”
Worried laughter while holding out the bottle. “Haha, here you can have it! Please. I don’t want it anymore. I can’t go that way. Please can I go back?”
Patient, but now trying to hurry me along. “No. This is the only way. You must go forward.”
Not one for confrontations or scenes, I held back a sigh of frustration and continued on. The next thing I knew, I was in the arrival area of the airport. In Japan. Staring through the revolving doors at a rainy, steel gray sky, I was tempted to go outside and at least enjoy a few moments, but with every passing second the surroundings became grayer and that label glared even greener.
“Almost done.” I thought as I trudged off to find the check-in counter.
Stepping up to the counter, the woman was seemingly nonplussed when I help up only the lone bottle. It took very little explaining and an embarrassingly small box to fix my problem and off I went again. Making my way back into the airport I was confronted by a new problem, exiting Japan.
I’ve dealt with a few tense situations here and there when exiting a foreign country. Forgetting I needed to pay an exit tax in Bali, thinking my Buddha statues were going to be confiscated in Thailand, almost losing my pants when a guard yanked off my belt while passing through a metal detector in Sicily… Japan tops this list.
I guess in the confusion of my entrance I didn’t realize the effort to get me into the country. I also might’ve had the customs agent from hell. All I knew was that he was not having a good day as I watched him shout at travelers and occasionally send them to the back of the line.
“Amateurs.” I thought as I stepped up to his counter and handed him my passport.
He flipped through it. “Where is the departure card?”
OH NO. “The what?” I stammered.
Pointing to the back of the line. “You need to fill out a departure card. So go. NEXT!”
Desperate to the point of insanity I shook my head. “No, but I didn’t GO to Japan. I was just checking something. This is a mistake. I just need to get to my plane.” Big smile.
Hell hath no fury as a Japanese customs agent who, after dealing with thousands of inept travelers everyday, now has some American chick wasting his time.
He stood up. “YOU ARE TELLING ME HOW TO DO MY JOB!? IF YOU ARE ON THAT SIDE OF MY DESK, YOU ARE IN JAPAN! NOW GO!”
I stepped back, tears welling up and walked to the back of the room embarrassed. I found a card and started to write, not even sure what I was writing till a quiet uniformed woman came over to help. Leading me back to the line, she inspected my information, and patting me on the arm assured me it was OK. In quick succession, I was out of customs, at the gate, and on my plane with only minutes to spare.
And did the bottle of Jim Beam Black make it?
It sure did. After an uneventful flight and a quick jaunt through customs, I went to the baggage reclaim to grab my stuff. I looked around and there it was amongst the massive suitcases and duffel bags. The small box looked so funny being carried along on the carousel that I couldn’t help but laugh even after all the trouble it caused me. I took it back to my barely furnished Taiwanese apartment, the kind with a kitchen so small the refrigerator had to be kept in the living room. I put it on top of that fridge and when anyone commented on how I got the rarity in a place like Chiayi, I told them.
Shortly after this event, I checked online and found out Narita Airport has a whole diagram, step-by-step instructions, and explanations for passing through. Nowadays I’m a lot less naive and usually know what the procedure is anyways. I’m a calmer flyer and don’t typically drink to relax anymore, but every now and then if I see one of those colorful Jim Beam labels, I just have to buy it. After inquiring about regulations of course…