Monday, August 27, 2012

Salt Lake City

It has been a long day, so I am mainly going to post pictures.  First, the hotel I'm staying at (Hampton Inn and Suites SLC Airport) is very nice for a Hampton Inn and is very comfortable.  It probably doesn't hurt that I booked the corner room.

After settling in at the hotel I did some research online and decided to drive through the Big Cottonwood Canyon.  In the winter this area is a very popular ski resort destination, but the rest of the year it is a great spot to hike and view wildlife.  I set off and got there after about a half hour.  I already knew the Salt Lake area was beautiful from my descent into SLC and the Wasatch-Cache National Forest.

Above the clouds...

The clouds this morning allowed me to get some interesting shots.  The sun rise was beautiful and the Sears Tower was the only part of the Chicago skyline that was poking through the clouds (it's hard to see, but look just off the wing).

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Short Jaunt to Salt Lake City

Looks like I'll be heading to SLC for a night for business.  I contemplated taking a more convoluted routing, but I ended up with the most direct route.  With my elite bonus I'll get a little over 5000 miles and some hotel points too.  I get to fly a new aircraft (for me), the CRJ-700.  These are pretty common regional jets so it is kind of surprising I haven't been on one yet.  There is a first class cabin, but since this is a business trip and a pretty short flight I probably won't try to upgrade.  Here is a map of my route below:

The Inspiration for the Trip (787 in business class)

The last day we got up, got breakfast in the club, and took some last pictures in our room.  We finished packing up and headed downstairs.  After finishing up stuff with the bill (the only things on there were the limo bus and baseball game tickets) we quickly went downstairs (we were cutting it close for the bus).  We arrived in the downstairs lobby where the hotel staff quickly tagged our bags and ushered us out the door to the waiting bus (we were just barely on time).  The ride to Narita was fairly uneventful, but much longer than Haneda.  If you have a choice in where you are flying into, I would tend to choose Haneda, but that is difficult since almost all of the flights from the US go to NRT.

Anyways, we finally reached the airport and were dropped off at our terminal.  Once again it was a little confusing to find the correct security line, but eventually the staff got us there.  NRT seems to be laid out a lot like Milan's airport, Malpensa.  There are many columns of check in desks instead of just 1 long row like at O-Hare and many other airports I have been to.  I think this design saves on building space, but it is a little confusing to the passenger since it isn't possible to look down the terminal and see your carrier's or class's logo/name.  There was about a 10 minute wait before a JAL representative got us out of line and brought us to a different stack of check in desks where we were helped right away.  Again, there seemed to be some discussion over my CPAP machine and they told me that it was okay to use on the flight.  I'm not sure why JAL makes such a big deal out of having a CPAP machine, but I guess it's better that they are safe than sorry.

Security was a little weird to find.  The check in agent made it sound like we needed to go up a level and security would be there, when really the upper level is just an airport shopping mall and observation deck.  Eventually we got it figured out and we were able to quickly go through security.  At Narita there were signs for the liquid rule, but I didn't have to take them out, but I did have to remove my laptop.  Shoes and belt stayed on, so that was a plus.  One thing that surprised me about the security procedures was that there was no ICTS check.  For those of you that are unfamiliar, in recent years when you are taking a flight into the US from abroad (apparently this only means Europe as far as my experience goes) there are a series of questions you are asked that are meant to screen out for terrorists.  They can be kind of intrusive and needlessly long questions to answer, such as what electronics do you have on you and how long have you owned them?  On a business trip that is usually 2 laptops, my cell phone, at least 1 camera, and a couple other devices.  The whole interview takes around 10-15 minutes and is done for every passenger.  In the UK, this procedure is then repeated at the gate to a lesser degree.  After passing the inspection you are given a signed and dated sticker on your passport (I have around 5 or 6 now) and can continue on.  Since there was no such check at NRT I can only assume that terrorists don't fly JAL or don't ever fly from Japan *rolls eyes*.

After security we made our way to the lounge, which was crowded!  There were hardly any seats together and those that were didn't have power.  We finally found a seat and relaxed a little.  I went to check out the food and drink offerings and found a small selection of food choices on the upper level and some snack mix and cheese on the lower.  The drink offerings were fine as well and included juice, soda, wine, some spirits and those fancy beer machines (I took a video).  About half an hour before boarding the internet went down, so I wasn't able to finish up a post until we got to Boston.  If we had more time to go until our flight it would have been more annoying, but in our case it wasn't a big deal.  We left for the gate around 15 minutes earlier than normal so we could take pictures with our slick new ride!

We both posed for pictures in front of the window with the plane since I figured we wouldn't really have a chance when we got in to Boston.  We went down to the gate and spent our last yen on some sweets and souvenirs before getting in line to board.  Boarding was quick and before long we were taking pictures in the business class seats!  I'll break down the experience of the new plane below.

The Windows

I think the first thing you notice when boarding the 787 is how big the windows are.  They were all dimmed when we came on board, but we had to play with the electronic dimming feature.  From what I have read some people really don't like the new windows, but after a whole flight with them I like them.  They make the cabin plenty dark (but not quite blacked out) and if you need to sleep an eye mask should be plenty to keep out the rest of the light.

The Seats

The seats themselves were similar to JAL's first class seats - comfortable and they had 3 settings - upright, relax, and bed.  I would say that something about these seats was actually more comfortable than the first class ones.  The main difference in the seat itself (besides one being leather and the other was fabric) is that the footrest that flips out on the business class seats.  Sometimes it is good to stretch out all the way, but eventually it is nice to rest your feet on something and give your knees and legs a different position to rest in.  I didn't try to sleep, but M was able to get a good amount of sleep even though the seat was an angled lie flat.  The only complaint I really have with the seats is that they don't have enough storage.  We constantly had to shuffle stuff around in order to place drinks and computers.  There seemed to be plenty of space for magazines, but not enough for gadgets, computers, and clothing.

The Entertainment

The entertainment system on the 787 was JAL's newer MAGIC-V system.  The selection of movies was the same as we had on the way out, so there wasn't much more to watch (I didn't put this in my report about first class, but if you can find a subbed copy of Thermae Romae, it was actually pretty funny for a movie about baths).  There aren't many differences between the 2, the only one I really noticed was that the flight map was a little fancier and the language selection for the movies seemed to be better.  Overall I was pretty happy with it, but more choices would have been better.

The Service

Obviously there will be a different level of service between 8 and 72 people in a class and there was.  Our seatbelts weren't folded when we got up for the bathroom, nor were our blankets, and it took a little longer to get attention from the flight attendants.  Overall however, we were very happy with the service in business class.  I think a lot of the touches in first class are very nice, but ultimately unnecessary.  It is really really fun to be pampered like that, but if all you can get is business class over coach, the extra space and more personal attention is well worth it.  Overall we were very happy with our JAL experience and would be delighted to fly with them again.

The Food

The Japanese course didn't look as appetizing to me this time around, so we both went with the Western main meal.  The food we ate all tasted very good, but there was some stuff (like foie gras) that we don't really eat and left on the plate.  The steak was very good and well cooked.  The dessert (ice cream) was a little disappointing - it tasted good enough, but it was really hard and mine seemed to have some ice crystals on it.

From the ala carte menu we ordered the ramen and udon noodles, and I got chicken curry in addition to that.  The ramen was better than the udon, but both were delicious.  The curry was good, but not nearly as tasty as the vegetarian one in first class or any of the curry we had in Japan.  Before landing we were both really stuffed, but wanted to try the breakfast, so we skipped the omelette and just got the yogurt and fruit, which were good and fresh.

In addition to the ala carte menu there is also a snack bar which customers are free to take from.  There was snack mix, sweets, chocolates, drinks, and other assorted Japanese snacks.  We raided this often (probably too often!) and the flight attendants did a very good job of keeping it well stocked.

The Wing

This is probably a weird topic, but the 787 has a very unique wing.  Maybe it was just my eyes playing tricks on me, but the wing appeared to bend more in flight (in other words, they appeared higher through the window) and the wing tips were shaped unlike any other plane I have been on.

Finally, the 787 also has the personal air vents which I find very useful in flight.  I was pretty warm in first class and missed them on the 777.  The ones on the 787 were pretty unique in their shape though:

Boston Airport

Immigration took us all of 5 minutes thanks to our Global Entry cards and our luggage took another 5 minutes because it was priority tagged.  We dropped off the checked luggage at the connections counter and were told to catch a shuttle bus to Terminal B.  We followed the signs to Terminal B, but never saw anything about a shuttle bus - it was a really long walk.  We got to the security checkpoint and there was a line, but it wasn't too bad, but didn't really move either.  Eventually a lady got upset that the airline and airport employees cutting in line to go to work - I'm not sure why she was getting upset at this, it's standard procedure for every airport I've been to and people need to get to work!  Eventually the line started moving and we made it through without incident, but I was really surprised at some people.  Besides the upset lady, there was another person with what looked like about 8 liquids bags and another girl that was waiting to go through the metal detector when we got in line and was just collecting her belongings after we finished going through security.

Admiral Club BOS

The lounge in Boston was much less crowded than the one in NRT and it was nice and relaxing.  The drink and snack selection was standard Admiral Club stuff, but the staff was impressive.  The check in lady and bartender were both very friendly and chatty.  It seemed like everyone wanted to know about the 787 and it was fun to talk about it.  After an hour or so we headed to our gate.

First Class BOS-ORD

I have been on AA's 737's plenty of times, but never in first class.  We boarded in the first group and got settled in.  After everyone else had boarded the flight attendant came around and offered a pre-departure beverage.  While we were waiting, we observed some "less than professional" behavior from the ground crew.  I don't think this is the way that the baggage handlers are supposed to get into the hold of the plane:
Anyways, before long we were in the air.  First the flight attendants brought us a ramekin of hot nuts and more drinks.  The flight attendant came around and took meal orders, we both got the chicken cobb salad.  After a few minutes it was served and it was actually pretty good.  During meal service another flight attendant came around and offered us wine.  I got the white wine, but it was too dry for my tastes and hard to drink.  For dessert we were given hot gooey chocolate chip cookies, which were delicious.  Throughout the rest of the flight we were offered more to drink, but I mainly drifted off to sleep as we watched TV.  Before landing one of the flight attendants (maybe the purser) came through and thanked us for our business and flying American.  Overall the flight was very enjoyable and I am looking forward to using my upgrades on a trip with M in the future.

That just about wraps everything up.  Japan was an amazing, fascinating, and delicious place and I can't wait to go back.  Stay tuned for our next adventure and plenty of other travel related posts!  Thanks for reading!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Last day in Tokyo

Our last day in Tokyo was a little more relaxed than the rest of the trip.  We started out by walking to Ginza.  It was raining lightly when we started our, but it cleared before too long.  Instead of taking an underground route throughout the city, this time we took elevated walkways almost the whole way to the Ginza district (about 1 mile from the hotel).  We were able to see the A&F store and stopped in a department store on our quest for some souvenirs.  Before long we were off to the Ueno area, which is near Asakusa.

In Ueno there is a market called Ameyoko which is one of the premier markets in Asia (according to our book).  This market has been around a long time – after WW2 it was the place to buy black market electronics and other goods.  We were once again on the hunt for souvenirs.  The market was crowded and lively and it was a fun place to shop.  After leaving the market we went to Ueno Park, which houses Ueno zoo (the oldest zoo in Japan) and a large lake with thousands of lotuses.  We didn’t know about the lotuses, so they were a big surprise and were very nice to look at.  There is also a temple in the park called Bentendo, which is unique because it is octagonal shaped.  The whole park was very nice.  As we exited the park we saw banners for a King Tut exhibit.  I guess King Tut was in town and people were lining up like crazy!  We were considering buying tickets for the exhibit, but for 2700 yen and what looked like at least an hour long line, we decided to pass.

Next we headed to Shinjuku, home to the world's busiest train station.  Each day (on average) 2 million people pass through this station.  When we arrived, it certainly was busy.  We headed out from the station in search of a place for lunch.  We ended up at a place called Kirin City, which I think was run by the Kirin brewing company.  We had beef medallions, fried chicken, and potatoes with bacon and cheese for lunch; everything was delicious.  What made this lunch more noteworthy was the beer I ordered.  It was called some sort of a frozen beer - basically it was regular beer and then the head was shaped like a soft serve cone and was frozen.  The head didn't taste any different, it just gave a different sensation and it was really neat.

After lunch we headed to Shinjuku's skyscraper district, which includes the Park Hyatt Tokyo (from Lost in Translation fame) and the Tokyo Metropolitan Building, which includes a free observatory.  We made our way the the south tower of the Tokyo Metropolitan Building and had a great view of the whole city.  Most of the weather and haze from the morning was gone, so this was the perfect time to be up high.  We were able to see Tokyo Tower, the Tokyo Sky Tree, and another thing that had (mostly) eluded us up to this point - Mt. Fuji.  It is barely visible in the pictures and it was barely visible from the observatory, but its there.  After heading down the elevator we saw many banners for Tokyo's 2020 Olympics bid, it would be cool if they were able to host it!

After Shinjuku we headed back to the Conrad to prepare for dinner.  When I booked this trip I was determined to have sushi in Japan and up until this point it had eluded me for one reason or another (mainly the tonkatsu was amazing), but tonight I was determined to have raw fish!  So we asked the concierge for a recommendation and he pointed us to a restaurant named Robataya, which served sashimi (not the type of sushi I normally eat, which is maki) and other grilled vegetables and meats (not teppanyaki style, if that's what you're thinking).  The place was in the Roppongi district, which was an area we hadn't visited up until that point.  We took the subway there and proceeded to get lost trying to find the place.  Eventually I was able to reconcile the GPS map on my phone with the map provided by the hotel and we made it inside.  The restaurant is a long counter on 3 sides with 2 chefs sitting above you with 2 open grills where they cook the food.  In front of them is the selection of vegetables and meats, along with an aquarium like tank housing live seafood.  We ordered drinks and then selected our vegetables and meats and I ordered a sashimi plate.  We got a shashimi style appetizer which was really good and then I received my shashimi plate with flounder, 2 types of tuna, and salmon.  It was excellent and extremely fresh (as I was about to find out).  When people ordered stuff or asked for something or went to the bathroom, they chefs and waiters (who rotated jobs with each other) would yell out (in Japanese) the order or what was happening.  It was all very entertaining.  The drinks and foods were given to you by the chef on a long wooden paddle and he could reach his entire side of the counter with it.  At one point, someone on the other side of the table ordered prawns - the chef on the far side crawled over his grill and reached into the tank to grab 3 prawns!  As he reached in there he disturbed what looked like a flounder to me - that's very fresh fish!  It made me a little squeamish to see him skewer the prawns while they were still moving and then cut into them, but there is something to say how high quality and fresh the food was.  Towards the end of the meal we were sitting around (mainly because we didn't know we had to tell them we were done) and they brought out a photo book - many many many celebrities had dined here before us.  Some of them were: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Christina Augulera, Britney Spears, Daniel Craig, Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, and Martin Scorcese.  I was afraid of the bill (I forgot to ask how much beforehand), but it ended up being a pretty reasonable 16000 yen.  It was an amazing end to an amazing trip and an unforgettable dining experience.  When we go back to Japan, we will definitely stop here again.

Cart and Forklift Dodging

On Saturday we woke up really early to go to the world famous Tsukiji fish market.  In recent months the amount of visitors allowed into the market each day has been limited to just 120.  In order to secure a spot you have to show up really early or else you won’t be able to go through the market.  The market is in walking distance from the Conrad which is really good since the trains aren’t running when you have to show up to get a spot on the tour.  On the way to the market we ran into a guy who was also going to the market.  He was originally from New York and was visiting from Korea, where he now lives and works.  We ended up making it to the market just in time to be the part of the first tour group into the market.  Unfortunately we had almost an hour to wait before being admitted.  The time went pretty quick and before we knew it we were entering the bustling market.  Along the way to the auction site we had to dodge carts and forklifts.  After a couple of minutes we made it to the auction room.  For a while, nothing was really happening – the buyers were just inspecting the fish and we were just standing around.  Suddenly a bell started to ring, this must be the auction!  Sure enough, a minute or so later a guy started yelling quickly and gesticulating wildly.  After a minute or so, the auction was over.  We saw a few of these happen before we were ushered out of the auction area.  We were walked through a little bit more of the market before being left to peruse the outer markets.  Traditionally if you visit the market you go for a sushi breakfast afterwards.  Unfortunately the 2 best sushi places in the market are very popular and by the time our tour was over the line to get in was very long (probably over an hour wait).  We strolled through the market a little bit longer and then headed on back to the hotel.

M went back to bed for a little bit and I worked on blog posts.  Eventually M got up, we ate breakfast, and headed off to Akihabara, or “electric town”.  It has been a dream of mine to visit Akihabara ever since I became very into video games in high school.  This district is the center of gaming culture in Tokyo.  Almost anything video game related can be found here, even games for really old systems like NES.  We walked around quite a bit and went into a few arcades.  The arcades weren’t quite what I thought they would be – the lower floors were dedicated to crane type machines and there were many people smoking, which made the atmosphere a lot less enjoyable.  It was fun to look in some of the shops and I even found a game I had been interested in for a while, but overall I was a little disappointed in Akihabara.  Maybe I had just built it up too much, but it wasn’t as cool and fun as I thought it would be.

After Akihabara we headed back to Harajuku for a more in-depth visit.  I expected there to be a bunch of teens dressed up since it was the weekend, but there were only a few that we saw.  This area was the central point for the 1964 Olympics and a few of the buildings from those games still remain.  There is also a very large 100 yen store in the district (5 floors worth of stuff!) so we visited that and bought a few snacks.  As we maneuvered our way through the main street, we saw a few crepe stands.  These crepes were rolled up with fillings placed in the middle, kind of like a really big, soft ice cream cone.  They had all sorts of topping options, from ice cream and fruit to tuna and other seafood.  We ordered one with cheesecake, caramel, and ice cream – it was delicious!  After a little more shopping and walking around we looked for a place for lunch.  I had just downloaded an app that had all sorts of dining reviews and restaurant locations and didn’t need data so I tried that out.  We ended up finding an okonomiyaki place called Sakuratei that was located in some sort of an art gallery kind of place.  Unlike Tanto in Kyoto we had to cook these ourselves.  I eventually got the hang of mine (at least it tasted good) and M got some sort of soba noodles that she cooked on the griddle.  The place was definitely a local’s place, but as a whole it was a fun experience.

After walking around Harajuku a little more we headed back to the hotel so we could catch the fireworks show that night.  The show was scheduled to last about an hour and a half and take place almost right outside our hotel.  Unfortunately, all of the dinner spots with a view in the hotel were booked.  We tried viewing the fireworks from street level, but the view wasn’t great and smoke kept obscuring the show, so we moved back up to the lobby.  Even though we still couldn’t see everything, the fireworks were amazing.  There were so many different types of fireworks shot off and many that we had never seen before.  It was truly the most amazing fireworks display I have ever seen and I am very happy we lucked into being in Tokyo at the same time as the fireworks show.