Month: June 2018

The Three Best Places to Change Money in Hong Kong

Normally, money-changing is about as note-worthy as waiting at the dentist. Occasionally, it’s analogous to the root-canal if you’re bothered to do the math. I recall during my St Andrews days seeing 20 cent spreads on the USD/GBP rate.

 

Hong Kong is a different story. The core neighborhoods are replete with small money changers looking to buy and sell US Dollars, Euros, Yuan, Baht, et cetera. I’ve seldom seen a truly bad deal like you find in the US or Western Europe. As of this writing, one USD buys $7.85, per the Google “spot” rate. The “worst” rate I saw in Tsim Sha Tsui hovered around(1 USD buys) HK$7.50. That’s better than the offer of $1.85 per £1 back (I did not take it) when it was worth $1.70.

 

My go-to is to pay a visit to Chungking Mansions on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. CM is one of my favorite places in the world. I jokingly refer to it as the Mos Eisley of Hong Kong – a warren of tiny hotels/hostels, African restaurants, Indian/Pakistani snack stalls, convenience stores, electronic shops, and money changers. Learn more here.  I am simultaneously amazed and delighted that it hasn’t been gentrified. 

 

Coming here is a game to me. I always have leftover something-or-other in my wallet, so I read the boards and shop the rates. Typically, the shops nearest the street have the worst rates, while the innermost money changers have the best.

 

On my last visit, Singapore Exchange Co (green sign, a minute’s walk in) had the absolute best rate for USD. I have used them before to sell HKD and buy NZD (a much harder currency to get a good rate for). On this auspicious day, they were selling USD for below spot (7.845 versus 7.861 that day, according to xe.com). I hopped on that right quick.

They were kind enough to round up to $180.

I wondered if there was a similarly good deal Island side. Over a bacchanalian dinner-feast at the Chariot Club, I asked this of my friend’s girlfriend. She mentioned Berlin in central. Their rates explain why, and the queue for service can be quite long. I also found another one (favored for Chinese Yuan exchange) called Ngau Kee

 

If you have a lot to change (thousands of USD or more) or are bored, HK changers are also open to bargaining versus the posted rates. Have fun! Never overpay. 

Picture of lounge champagne

Airline Review: Cathay Dragon HKG-HKT

KA264 Hong Kong (HKG) to Phuket (HKT)

9,000 BA Avios + US$164 (Business class redemption)

 

Another great visit to Hong Kong had wrapped up, and it was time to go on to my next destination. I had an award redemption ticket on Cathay Dragon (KA) booked via my British Airways account.

 

After a minute or so handling check-out formalities at the Island Pacific, I took a cab to Hong Kong station to catch the Airport Express.

 

At Hong Kong and Kowloon stations, a facility known as “in-town check-in” exists, wherein you handle your check-in formalities at the station, receive your boarding passes, and hand over checked-baggage.  Many airlines (list here) offer this service. Naturally the home team Cathay Pacific/Cathay Dragon is one of them.

 

By coincidence, the business class check-in line was the busiest versus economy and first. I suppose that’s what you get for checking in on Hong Kong island. My agent advised me that the flight would be delayed by a half hour. Oh quelle horreur, I am going to have an extra half-hour of champagne and dim sum time in the Cathay lounge. 

 

The journey takes less than a half-hour from Central, and with my documents in hand, I head straight over to security and exit immigration (south), which aren’t too busy circa 11:30 AM on a Sunday. The addition of automated gates capable of reading an electronic passport have been very helpful, I guess.

 

My departure gate was 31, today. Cathay lounges are found by gate 1 (The Wing), 65 (the Pier), 16 (the Deck) and 35 (the Bridge). I opted for the Pier, with its tea house, noodle bar, and barista coffee facilities. The full run-down of Cathay lounges in HKG can be found here.

picture of lounge drinks list
The beverage menu at the bar

It was a decent walk, but the reward justified it. After an early start (sans food) for a couple of phone calls to the US, my stomach demanded food. After a pit-stop at the bar for a glass of champagne (GH Mumm), I went to the noodle bar for fresh-steamed pork & vegetable buns, siu mai, and noodles. I quite enjoyed the buns, but the siu mai were decidedly “mass produced” rather than “nice dim sum” in overall flavor and texture. Flyertalk noted that this coincided with the handover of Cathay’s lounge catering to Sodexo. You might recognize the name as your alma mater’s dining operator.

After another round and some (quite nice) dragon fruit for dessert, it was time for the hike back to gate 31. Just as I arrived, the business class queue was being boarded. They must have known that I was coming. 

 

KA (formerly Dragonair) uses a 2-2-2 recliner configuration in business class. The seat is more than roomy enough for the regional routes flown by KA. HKG-HKT is only 3 hours. That said, the frequent flyer community does note that it is a downgrade versus Cathay Pacific’s long-haul 1-2-1 business product.

Legroom shot of Cathay Dragon business class

If you’re wondering, KA is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cathay Pacific. It is decidedly *not* a low-cost carrier by any means, considering the price to fly, in-flight service, baggage allowance, etc. You will find some smaller blogs out there calling it a low-cost. They are wrong.

 

Back to our originally scheduled programming!

 

I took a copy of the Sunday edition of the South China Morning Post and navigated to 15H, and aisle seat on the right side of the aircraft (an A330-300). The flight attendants made *two* beverage runs before departure, so I helped myself to what tasted like an orange-mango-champagne cocktail. I do believe that the first few sips would have covered my weekly dose of Vitamin S(ugar).

Pre departure beverage on KA264
My tasty tropical cocktail

After a brief update by the Australian pilot and perusing the paper (complete with the customary lamentations about the Hong Kong residential real estate market), we were in the air.

 

As soon as we passed 10,000 ft, the flight attendants distributed menus and took drink orders.  Champagne (Taittinger) and Earl Grey tea for me, please.

 

The selection for lunch included prawns in cream over pasta, sliced lemon chicken, and pork satay with nasi goreng. I opted for the latter, though the FA advised me that it would be spicy. Given that Cathay catering tends to be very restrained in the flavor department, “YAY!”  The starters included a small salad and beef medallions for an appetizer. The FAs also came around with bread (I went for garlic).

First course on KA264

The pork was perfectly tender, and giving the rice a 3-4 out of 10 on the spice scale would be generous.   This was an utterly unnecessary meal, but I needed to have a bite so that I could pass on my findings to you, the reader.

Pork Satay on Cathay Dragon 264

For dessert, various Haagen Dazs (I believe) ice creams came around. I declined, as I am not a big HD fan.

 

Coffee and tea were offered, so I took some more Earl Grey. 

 

During the last hour, I decided to “test” the crew – again for science, for your benefit – by pressing the champagne button (aka the call button) for one last glass. As with Cathay mainline flights, the crew was incredibly prompt. It’s moments like this where one doesn’t miss US carrier service.

View on descent into Phuket with small islands
The views between Krabi and Phuket were stunning.

Our arrival in Phuket was non-descript, and my bags were among the first off the carousel, so everything ended on a strong note. Now I have one month of Thai food to look forward to.

Hotel Review: Island Pacific Hong Kong

Rate: US$109.90/nt (hotwire)

 

22 June – 24 June

 

Hello from the other side (of Hong Kong)!

 

My time at this hotel was originally all that I had allotted myself for seeing HK and my friends here. I booked this room to be relatively close to a friend in Sheung Wan and the others in Central. The only minor nuisance was that this super-secret “we tell you the exact hotel after booking” Hotwire rate was available via ctrip. -_-

 

Nevertheless, great plan: near friends, on a weekend. In a hilarious twist of fate, one friend ended up being out of HK at this time, another didn’t have weekends free, and another’s career here makes the week a much better time to visit.  On the other hand, the visa processing had to wait until I arrive in Phuket on the 24th. A certain document usually only requested for long-term study visas seems to be an unstated required document for my short-term one (or perhaps for US passport holders) as per the limited, terse feedback from a colleague’s recommended agent.

 

C’est la guerre.

 

I arrived at the hotel on Friday at half-past noon. By the standards of a hotel guest checking in on a third party, bottom-dollar rate, this is incorrigible. US hotels, in my experience, are relatively non-accommodating barring elite status. Even with diamond status with Hilton, the verbiage is enough to make me wonder if the room assigned early was worth the sacrifice of the world’s last unicorn.

 

This room is classically Hong Kong Island-sized: small. When put down, my bags turned the narrow path from the door to the bed into a maze.

While the furnishings and fittings are in good condition, the décor is quite dated. It reminds me, pre-renovation, of an apartment property my grandparents bought (for upmarket old people): dimly lit, carpet, vague gold and wood tones, green marble in the bathroom. I can’t remember when I last saw an analog thermostat in a business hotel.

 

The bar is quite popular here, as the enormous television is perfect for the World Cup viewing.

 

The gym is roughly closet sized, with four cardio machines and a multi-use-weight-thing. The presence of the pool somewhat makes up for the sad workout facilities.

pool at the island pacific hotel,hong kong

I did wander down to the Thai Seafood Dinner buffet, which was HK$450, less 30% hotel guest discount, +10% service charge (roughly $350). I quite enjoyed the food, and I got to tick off a “did a hotel buffet” off the list, for considerably less than I am accustomed to seeing. In TST, Causeway Bay, and Central, the rate would be $550-800’ish for dinner.

Shot of dinner at the island pacific thai food buffet

What I am most grateful to the hotel for is a chance to rejuvenate. I had been at my computer quite a bit, out walking/running for 10mi/15km per day in a humid 31C/87F, and partied like a rockstar banker with a friend in Lan Kwai Fong over the week. I needed a long sleep. The comfortable bed did the trick.

 

The Sai Ying Pun MTR stop is quite close by, only a couple minutes’ walk from the hotel front door. The local area contains many small eateries, convenience stores, and a grocer.

 

Summary: This room is small, but comfortable. There are better values in HK – definitely if you’re willing/able to go to Kowloon side.

Hotel Review: The Bauhinia (TST)

Rate: HK$550/nt

17 June – 22 June

 

As usual, my journey from HK Airport into town was effortless. HK$100 and I was zipping in on a nearly-empty train to Kowloon station. From there, I elected to hire a cab to the Bauhinia hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui (TST).

 

I managed to score a great rate of HK$550/night ($70) for the property, including all-day access to a lounge serving tea, coffee, water, juice, and snacks (fruit, bread, crackers, sweets). This is half the rate I’d expect for a business-class hotel in TST, but there was some significant exterior construction going on, hence the rate reduction. If you need to sleep between 10 – 1700, you’d need some serious earplugs.

 

I found the room (HK) spacious and apparently quite recently renovated, if I had to gauge from the condition of the flooring, furniture, and bathroom. That the room had more than a 30cm/1’ gap between the bed and wall to walk is amazing at that price range. It’s not hard to spend well over one HK “kilo-dollar” on a modern room with space to move. For the sake of comparison, wait and see my report of the room I am currently in, the Island Pacific in Sheung Wan.

The wifi was more than adequate all over the hotel. Once again, I forgot to speedtest.net the wifi. SORRY!

 

After depositing my bags, I went down to the lounge, open from 7:30 – 22:30. One could reasonably note that this is a relatively late start if you need to be on a morning flight.  At breakfast, they put out apples, cupcakes, and bread rolls. Tea, coffee, juice, and water are available all day, as are small Japanese chewy sweets. Copies of the NY Times, South China Morning Post, and a couple of Chinese-language papers/magazines are on the bar seating by the window.

 

The coffee machine produced a surprisingly drinkable brew. I have become accustomed to instant-flavor coffee, but I believe that this one was actually grinding espresso beans.  Of course, it wasn’t up to what I had at Coco Espresso with my expat friend J, but my expectations for a “free” drink differ from a HK$30-40 (US$3.75 – $5) cup.

View of the lounge at the Bauhinia hotel in TST

The air conditioning was extremely effective, which I welcomed in Hong Kong’s swamp-like heat and humidity.

 

I found the beds to be on the hard side. Then again, I am an American accustomed to sleeping on marshmallow-esque mattresses, so take that with a grain of salt.

 

Being that this is TST, I was surrounded by eateries and services. I availed myself of the laundry shop across the street, which overcharged me (charging dry-clean rates to launder some items). Restaurants abounded ranging from Western, to Korean, Indian, Cantonese, etc. I particularly enjoyed a “佳記茶餐廳” (Kai Kee) on Kimberley Rd as well as nearby Yuan Kee for BBQ. 

 

In short: I’d have no problem staying again if I needed/wanted a room in TST.

Co-living Review: Chapter 2 Hostel, Tokyo

31 May – 17 June; Rate: ¥3,100 per night (2 week+ stay)

In a classic case of cart-before-horse planning travel planning that I so love, I let flight prices substantially dictate my destination. I couldn’t refuse a fare I found on Swiss to Tokyo. As you might expect, that led to the consequential issue of where I’d say in Tokyo. There wasn’t much of a question of staying there (versus traveling around). I wanted some locational stability, and my friends are in Tokyo. The latter consideration has grown more important to me in recent years.

 

On the surface, Tokyo isn’t a cheap city for accommodation. Hotels are quite expensive for the space you get. The Airbnb properties I looked at were quite peripheral to anywhere I wanted to be. That worked out, given the booking chaos that came to pass during my visit.

 

At some point, my digital nomad research took me to coliving.com. Naturally, I had a look at the offerings in Tokyo. One option was Roam, which was quite expensive (US$2,600/mo). The other was Chapter Two, which was remarkably inexpensive (US$30-ish/nt). As always, I had a look at their website to check the rate of booking direct. As it turned out, I saved a few yen with a direct booking. Yay!

 

Chapter Two’s vibe is part-guesthouse, part-hostel, part-coworking. The pictures on the website exhibited some ingenious design features to maximize space. I decided to gamble on “pod” life (a less sterile take on capsules, which I was curious about trying if only for their quintessential Japanese-ness). The owners, Hiro and Erika, had just opened Chapter Two in March, so I was eager to try a relatively new business.

 

In a fit of flippancy, I did little research into the immediate area. Chapter Two was right above a train station, fairly central, and near numerous food options. Check, check, check.

 

When I arrived at the front door circa noon on May 31, we handled the essential check-in formalities. I had pre-paid via Paypal, but I had to shorten my booking. I was delighted to get a full refund for those five days, which Erika paid in cash. Hiro also surprised me by knowing all the details of my booking. I am so accustomed to Generic Hotel Front Desk that this personal touch had a disarmingly sentimental quality to it.

 

My pod wouldn’t be available until 4 pm, which is fine by me. I just wanted to unburden myself of my baggage and stretch my legs with a stroll around the neighborhood. The 24 hour itinerary from Miami to Tokyo via Zurich gave me a week’s worth of sitting down.

 

After a wee wander around the Sensoji temple, the surrounding area, and a restorative coffee, it was time to settle in. The pod was very private and more spacious than I expected. With a bit of imagination, I was able to unpack my backpack and small roll-aboard with the clothing and personal effects needed for my time in Tokyo. My large bag was stowed in a garage next to the front door.

 

Hiro and Erika have extensive experience in hospitality via Chapter Two’s predecessor and time spent working at a location of the Khaosan hostel chain (where they first met). I found Chapter Two interesting, as the vibe was extremely sedate. This is not a party place (evidenced by the lack of drunk/hungover Australians usually found at hostels). Noise levels at night were zero (yay for sleep).

 

In a conversation in the living room, Hiro told me that he wanted to build a community. I can believe it.  During dinner hours, Hiro and Erika frequently had guests and friends from all over.  The most memorable during my visit was Masa-san, who was the “founder of the feast” on one glorious night, and then on another plied me with fermented sardines. The taste was interesting, but the smell was horrific. That said, I won’t forget it! Any guest is welcome to join them for chat and (frequently) treats.

Hiro displaying a bottle of Chapter 2 sake
Hiro-san and the Chapter 2 sake

The master at work!

 

Various salient info:

The Pod is difficult to describe, so I hope my video + the pictures on their site do it justice. There was a power outlet + usb outlet & a lock box.

 

The cleanliness throughout was stereotypically Japanese – spotless. You would not find a cleaner bathroom at a Conrad or Waldorf (speaking from experience here). The kitchen and common area was also kept similarly perfect.  I noted to Hiro and Erika that coasters would be a great idea, as cold beverages would leave a ring (which I fastidiously tried to wipe up when I had a drink). In 48 hours, coasters materialized. In my observation, this cleanliness is a collective effort.

 

The travelers coming through are really interesting. Masa-san is heavily involved in Ted-X Japan, a Finnish couple were long term travelers – the guy was a walking info-bank of SE Asia travel tips, a Malay-Australian engineer who helped fill in the gaps concerning my knowledge of the Mahathir-Razak relationship, a Tata employee who furnished a bottle of (delicious) Indian chenin blanc, and a blockchain entrepreneur.

 

Coffee & tea are free; a light breakfast (boiled egg, toast, jam) is available in the morning; other beverages are available for purchase (water for ¥100, soda for ¥200, beer for ¥300)

 

Laundry is available onsite. ¥200 to wash; ¥100 per 10 min of drying

 

Wifi is excellent.

 

Hiro and Erika live onsite, and the care they invest in running the place is what you’d expect for someone’s home. This is reflected in the thoughtfulness and quality – recycling wood from the building’s prior business (a party hostel) into the new hostel’s table, quality of kitchen supplies, furniture comfort, etc. I’ve stayed in enough lodging to know what “cheapest stuff from Home Depot” turns out to be, and they opted for the good stuff.

Picture of the chapter 2 living room
Note the alcoves on the right. There is space to sit and work there.

Runners will appreciate the riverside location, as there is a promenade along the river popular with runners and walkers. I found it a great way to start the day. Say hi to the local cats and shiba inu dogs. 😀

picture of a white cat

Any questions about Tokyo life, including the train system, food, bars, interesting places, culture etc will be answered thoroughly and patiently by Hiro and Erika.

 

Asakusa isn’t a famous Tokyo location in the West, but there is a lot to appreciate. You’re within walking distance to awesome cultural sites, great food, and museums. The train connections are solid.

 

Summary: This exceeded my expectations on all fronts. I would not be shocked if this hostel becomes famous to some degree in a short time. You’re getting ryokan-level care for hostel prices in a great location.

Airline Review: Vanilla Air

JW303 NRT-HKG 17 June 2018

Price: ¥17,000 (incl selected seat, 35kg checked baggage)

 

Welcome to my first trip report (ever) featuring an Asian low-cost carrier (LCC).

 

I needed a ticket from Tokyo to Hong Kong, one of the most trafficked routes in East Asia. During this time of year, the full-service carriers wanted over $400 for the route. So much for Japan Airlines, ANA, and Cathay. However, Vanilla Air (JW) returned a rate of a bit over $100. I didn’t much feel like paying $300 and requiring a change in South Korea or mainland China, so my option (singular) was clear.

 

JW is a relatively new airline (founded 2013) and is a wholly-owned subsidiary of ANA. Interestingly, Vanilla Air is a rebranding of AirAsia Japan after the Malaysian parent company pulled out.

 

I decided to ticket directly with the airline, and I opted for a more inclusive fare with 20kg of baggage and a selected seat bundled in. Fine. I did have to buy another 15kg to accommodate my worldly goods.

 

On the day of travel, I hopped on the Limited Express train connecting Haneda and Narita airports via (among other stops) Asakusa. I loved having a direct, inexpensive (¥1,290) train to the airport.

 

JW uses Terminal 3 at Narita. It’s obvious from the list of carriers (incl Jetstar, Jeju air) that this is the “LCC terminal” of NRT. It’s also a 730m/half mile walk from the NRT Terminal 2/3 train station.

 

After changing my leftover Yen to USD, I walked to terminal 3. In airports, I enjoy the exercise before forced confinement. Terminal 3 lacks a priority pass lounge, and I wouldn’t have had time to enjoy it, at any rate. Check-in was quite old-fashioned – queuing up and waiting. It was slow. The main delay seemed to come from delays in checking in passengers who needed to pay extra fees (e.g. baggage) yet didn’t speak moderate-to-fluent English or Japanese. I wasn’t checked in until 5 minutes after the alleged 50-minute cut-off. 

 

The security experience mirrored the check-in, but I didn’t mind the wait too much as it lacked the uniquely American mixture of incompetence, contempt, and aggression.

 

By the time I walked from security to the gate, the time for boarding had arrived. For what appeared to be a plane of leisure travelers, the boarding was remarkably efficient. My fellow flyers deserve a kudos for being quick to stow their bags and sit. 

 

This plane was a 180 seat in Y Airbus A320 with a knee-crushing 29.5” seat pitch. At 5’10” (or 179 cm, if you prefer) fellow, I was at the limit of space. May your God(dess)(e)(s) of choice have mercy on you if you are taller than I am.

 

vanilla air legroom shot

 

After a 30 minute taxi around Narita, we were in the air by 11:15 AM. In short order, inflight service began. I was quite hungry, so I ordered Seabura Pork Ramen (i.e. cup noodles), a teriyaki chicken burger, and a bottle of water for ¥1,200. I needed to bill ¥1,000 or more to use a credit card, hence the double food items.

 

The ramen was surprisingly good for something out of a Styrofoam cup. For reasons beyond my ken, a cheese sauce was present on the burger (cheese…on chicken teriyaki? WHY?!). Note: I hate all cheese equally. Also, they managed to over-microwave it. 

 

The seats are rock hard. Fortunately, I was so tired from my last night of dining in Ginza and a farewell drink in Roppongi that I cat napped for the last two hours of the flight. My lower back and neck were not happy with me.

 

Vanilla Air cabin interior

 

The flight attendants were excellent and polished.

 

Right on time, we were in Hong Kong for 2:45 in the afternoon. I breezed through immigration, fetched my bags, and was on my way.

 

picture of the view from the wing

fried chicken onigiri

Tokyo for Digital Nomads

My first stop as a digital nomad (aka Expat 2.0) was Tokyo. I was quite interested to survey it from the perspective of a digital nomad. Most feedback I received from other Americans had to be considered in the context of said Americans visiting as 4-5 star premium/luxury tourists.  My other sources were Australians and New Zealanders going on ski holidays in Hokkaido. How would Tokyo be from the perspective of someone not frittering away ¥10,000 notes ($90) on every meal with the time to relax and enjoy the city? 

 

I offer a quick guide based on my observations and experiences of a couple of weeks. I’ve tried to cover certain basics. Your mileage may vary, so to speak.

Location

 

 I based myself at Chapter Two Hostel, located in Asakusa steps from the local train station. I avoided the much more famous districts of Ginza and Rappongi. The former reminds me of Fifth Avenue near Central Park, and the latter of Times Square (i.e. tons of tourists clogging the streets). My accommodation cost ¥3,100 per night. My rate was somewhat reduced as I had booked in excess of two weeks. A light breakfast (boiled egg + toast) was put out in the common area each morning.

Transport Costs

 

Subway/train rides tended to run ¥200-700. The 700-ish ride took me from Tokyo to visit my friend in Yokohama. A number of different companies serve Tokyo, so hopping A-B on Company 1 and taking B-C on Company 2 means that you’re paying fares to both. It’s important to note that there is no maximum daily fare, so a tourist frenetically rushing around Tokyo could run up high charges on their card. (Note: get a SUICA/PASMO card for your stay. It works on all trains and can be used at convenience stores for purchases).

 

The limited express train running between Narita and Haneda costs ¥1,290 to Asakusa. The faster Narita Express runs ¥2600-ish.

 

Taxis tend to be cheap for short rides, but rapidly go up in price if taken at night or for trips over 4km.

 

Accommodation

 

Variable, in a word. In my own searches and chats with other travelers, hostels and other shared accommodation starts at US$25/day. Private hotel rooms start at $60, though at that price, they’re small enough to feel quite cramped if two people are traveling. Airbnb in Japan is in turmoil right now, with many bookings being cancelled and throwing travel plans into chaos.

 

Food

 

This part is the most variable (that word, again), and in my opinion, the area most laden with misconceptions. I would remind my readers here that my perception of cost is colored by my American upbringing. I found ample options at every price range from ¥300 lunches up to many thousands of yen.

 

Assuming that you aren’t cooking for yourself for whatever reason (lack of desire or access to a full kitchen should cover most possibilities), the cheapest eats come from your nearby convenience store (konbini) – 7/11, Family Mart, and Lawson.   Fresh fruit, hot foods, take-away meals like katsu curry, spaghetti, salad, dumplings, and onigiri (filled rice balls) await your pleasure. Expect to pay ¥100-180 per onigiri, ¥280-300 for a can of Sapporo/Asahi/Kirin beer, ¥400-530 for a sushi, karaage, or curry meal, and ¥105 for a banana.

Tokyo seven eleven storepicture of lawson convenience store

 

At the next level are quick-bite restaurants that serve roughly the same function as a US diner: cheap, fast comfort food. Ramen & gyoza restaurants are by far the most common. Other small noodle and onigiri restaurants fall in this category. A meal will run you ¥400-1000, with ramen tending on the cheaper side. Kaiten (conveyor) sushi and premium quality noodles (yes, there is a perceptible difference between a ¥1100 bowl of “good” soba/tan tan/udon versus ¥450 ramen vs cup noodles) occupy the next level between ¥1000-2000 depending on location, ingredients, and your appetite.

standing sushi

 

Before this drags on, the quick summary: pick a sum between 500 and 50,000 yen, and you’ll find lots of tasty options.

 

Drink

 

 This wasn’t a huge area for me, but I’ll pass on what limited info I picked up. Most of what I drank here was sake. I was in Japan, after all. Sake at a restaurant typically began at ¥650 and went all the way up. A premium sake like Hakkaisan (my favorite) would cost ¥1300 for a 180mL portion. I didn’t do much cost research on bottles to bring home, as I tend not to drink solo at home.

Hakkaisan sake

 Beer at a konbini ran ¥280-300 per can. Out and about, ¥300 for a cheap mug/happy hour is the bottom end, whereas my most expensive turned out to be ¥1000 at a in Roppongi. The overwhelmingly common price was ¥500-700 depending on size. Note: these prices were for Japanese domestic beer. Expect to pay a considerable premium for craft and import.

 

Internet

 

 I found the process of a sim card byzantine and expensive considering phone band compatibility and the ¥3000 for the card. I elected to go with scrounging whatever wifi I could. This turned out to be a reasonably doable option for a short-term visit. I found internet at convenience stores, train stations, restaurants, Starbucks (as always), museums, and around major landmarks. Free. I had one situation in 3 weeks where I was cursing at my ill-luck, which is remarkably excellent in the greater scheme of life (for me). Otherwise, connectivity of some sort is fast, stable, and nearly ubiquitous.

 

Coffee

 

 I am embarrassed to admit that I did not get to assess this part. Caffeine is ubiquitous, but I was turned off of visiting cafes, as ¥500 for a basic beverage was standard at an independent café.  $4.50 for an Americano is a turn-off. 

 

Down Time

 

This is where Tokyo shines. When I wanted to get away from my screen in order to rest my eyeballs and refresh my brain, Tokyo delivered numerous options.  I found the Asakusa area jam-packed with stuff. Sensoji temple merited a wander or two. My favorite option included exploring one of Ueno Park’s attractions on a given day. There’s a shrine/temple for Tokugawa Ieyasu, the zoo, and multiple museums covering modern art, Euro-American/western art, Asian art, Japanese artifacts, natural history. The Tokyo National Museum and Ieyasu’s shrine are personal favorites. 

samurai armor picture

 

Beyond the big stuff, I highly recommend walking around and exploring. I “found” small shrines, parks, and public gardens. It helps to be in an old district of Tokyo, I suppose, but I loved stumbling on a small park or garden. 

Ueno Toshogu shrine to tokugawa ieyasu
Ieyasu’s Shrine
Picture of inari sushi and fresh salad

My Hosts Threw a Dinner Party: ‘Twas Lit

As I was tapping away at my keyboard, my host Hiro-san told me that a friend was coming from his home area – Toyama. This friend was going to bring freshly caught local fish and treat us to a sashimi dinner. I asked Hiro, “what fish is your area famous for?” 

 

“Buri (yellowtail/Hamachi) and aji (horse mackerel).”

 

Well butter my biscuits, err, teriyaki my chicken. Those are my favorite sushi/sashimi fish. Ever.

 

On the day, I realized that showing up empty-handed with an appetite rivalling the Sarlacc would be in poor taste. The Friend, Masa-san, turned up early in the day in time for the fish to arrive from Toyama. A crate of flying fish, aji, and the buri was in front of me – fresh caught the morning before and couriered to Tokyo. They smelled faintly of a sea breeze and looked incredible versus the fish I’d see at a US market.

 

 Knowing that Hiro-san would furnish the sake and Masa-san the fish, I opted to wander through the nearby Matsuya Department Store’s food halls in search of a dessert. The cream cakes seemed intensely heavy given the amount of sake and seafood we’d be having. A suitably sized lemon “Baumkuchen” (Forest Cake in German – basically a ring cake) presented itself. Marvelous. That would be a light treat to finish off what was promising to be a heavily-laden dinner table.

 

Our night began with a beer toast (when in Rome Tokyo!) and a kampei to Masa-san who’d be preparing the fish. The other guests furnished fruit, onirigi (rice balls), Scotch eggs (!!!), salad, BBQ chicken, and teriyaki bacon over the course of the night.

Masa-san joining us for a bit

 

Sparkling wine appeared, and Masa-san got down to work on the flying fish, doing a preparation of curing the sashimi in seaweed and putting it in the fridge. It would be ready when we forgot about it, he said. In the meantime, there was bubbly to attend to.

The master at work!

 

Hiro-san’s wife Erica had prepared inari-zushi – sushi rice packed in a bean curd pocket. Her variant used a special recipe of her mother’s that incorporated shrimp, green onion, and a little more mirin for a slightly sweet touch. They made for a delicious appetizer.

 

At this point, the sake came out. It was a balanced (between floral and dry) daiginjo (top quality) that had been specially bottled as a gift for when Hiro and Erica had opened Chapter Two back in March. Erica also started taking a collection of ¥1000 (US$9.12) per person to help cover Masa-san’s costs. Given what I saw in that box, I gladly chipped in.

 

Hiro displaying a bottle of Chapter 2 sake
Hiro-san and the Chapter 2 sake

And now it was aji-time! Aji is rather uncommon stateside, but it’s a sushi bar standard here in Japan. It tends to be inexpensive (¥150-200 per order at a normal-ish place). My guess is that it’s a nutritional goldmine considering its protein and fat content, while the small size of the fish means that it would be very low mercury (relative to a tuna). Yes, this is what I ponder during a party. 

Picture of inari sushi and fresh salad

For our next course in our Japanese dinner party adventure, Masa-san grilled a couple of the aji.  As great as the sashimi was, the cold-water richness of the aji really came through when pan fried with a wee bit of salt.  

 

The texture and taste were sublime – melt-in-the-mouth goodness with a freshness that you don’t find at Samurai Sushi & Steakhouse in Strip Mall, America. It emerged later in the night that when all was said and done, the aji was the crowd favorite.

 

At around 8:30 p.m., Nishi-san arrives bearing the Scotch eggs and teriyaki bacon. Total bro. Immediately, I like this guy. After a number of drinks, he complimented myself and another American Kevin on our wisdom in not rushing to get married. Oh, how I restrained myself, my reader. I didn’t feel like interrupting Masa-san (who lived in the Bay Area) to help with the idiomatic translation of “In the gay world, why buy the pig when it’s practically begging you indulge yourself for free?”

 

TERIYAKI BACON
TERIYKAI BACON

 

Having narrowly avoided traumatizing Nishi-san and Kevin, the buri was ready. Ah, buri. We go way back. I’ve been responsible for the demise of many of this fish’s kin over the years. Again, it’s a textural marvel.  Notably, this buri is wild-caught. In the US, yellowtail/hamachi is farmed. I found the wild caught buri of tonight to be of a firmer, meatier texture as opposed to the more buttery imported, farmed hamachi. 

Nishi-san giving Kevin (both left) and me the facts of life.

 

Oh the happy plateau. Masa-san took a quick break to enjoy some food, and Erica produced a bottle of nigori (unfiltered) sake after hearing that I wanted to try it. I had mentioned this to Masa-san when he was questioning me on my experience with Japanese food much earlier in the day. I was in full bashful mode at the thoughtfulness.   It speaks volumes of Hiro and Erica’s thoughtfulness. 

 

So, I sipped the nigori and was regaled with tales from Hiro and Erica’s guests – including two volunteer teachers who taught in Gabon, pre-war Syria, and Djibouti. I rapidly concluded that Hiro and Erica have interesting friends.

 

The fun soon continued when Masa took some leftover buri and produced a full-grilled version as well as aburi (seared) sashimi. Had I managed to go to heaven without the messy dying bit! I thought so.

 

To go with it, the final item was a bowl of fish soup (the soup having a heavy pour of sake in it) passed around the table, each of us taking a draught as if it were the Holy Grail. 

 

Three fish soup at the end of the night
Finale Soup

 

Finally, it was dessert time. My cake and Kevin’s cherries disappeared right quick. This wasn’t surprising, as both were delicious. Seeing that the mass of plates, glasses, and chopsticks in quantities more commonly seen in a military mess hall, I decided that Erica and one of the other ladies who attended could use some extra manpower in the cleanup, which they appreciated. 

 

By 12:45, I was a dead man, not even walking. I had been up since 5 AM, so I bid everyone goodnight (oyasumi) and marveled at my awesome, unplanned night.

Categories: Digital Nomad Dining Food

Airline Review: Miami to Tokyo on Swiss

This was one of the stranger tickets that I’ve bought. Starting in mid-March, I had been searching for passage to Asia from various major Florida airports as well as Atlanta. The prices returned didn’t particularly excite me – $1,300 for a one-way economy ticket. Pfft. That’s a fair sum to hand over to a mediocre American carrier for trans-Pacific torture.

 

I began playing with Google Flights on various ex-Miami itineraries. What about routing through Europe? Swiss returned tickets at $580 to Bangkok and $662 to Tokyo. Bangkok could wait, but Tokyo was new to me. Total travel time via Switzerland was about 2-3 hours longer than via the US West Coast, yet was half the price. How could I resist? Well, I couldn’t. After booking, I called up my contact with Lufthansa (Swiss’ owner) – my personal Q in the airline world. The fare confused me – an ultra-discounted K fare for high summer travel. (Note my earlier explanation of fare buckets)

 

It was something of a mystery for him, too. Q and a trusted colleague wondered if it was an error fare or some sort of super-incentive (“steering”) to get people on the Tokyo flight. Oh well. Q suspected that I had the cheapest ticket on the planes. You have no idea how bloody pleased I was (and am) with myself. Much teasing has followed in the vein of “Sorry about the lack of a Christmas bonus this year Q, but you know…”

 

Check-in, Security, and Boarding

 

Check-in at Miami went without much to comment on. I turned up absurdly early (by 5 hours) out of a desire to drop off my rental car before Miami rush hour.

 

Security was tediously slow. Only one scanner was in use, and the TSA staff seemed to be ground-down into the apotheosis of apathy.

 

After quitting the lounge to head towards the gate, I was put-off by the enormous queue. 

Boarding queue at Miami airport for my swiss airlines flight

 

Onboard: A330 to Zurich

 

Amazingly, boarding wasn’t nearly as chaotic or tedious as I imagined. Even better, overhead room seemed readily available when I at last got onto the plane (row 31). I’ve become accustomed to watching economy passengers gate-checking bags because the overhead lockers & under-seat spaces are packed to capacity. 

 

My legroom was acceptable, and I miraculously had no one in the seat next to mine on an otherwise-packed flight. Their mishap or misconnect was my good luck.Picture showing legroom on board my flight

 

I declined dinner (chicken & rice or penne with marinara and veggies) and stuck to water. My time was split between cat-napping and watching a Hong Kong film Chasing the Dragon that dealt with endemic corruption in the colony during the late 60s-to-70s. It fascinated this HK-phile to see the Kowloon Walled City in action (it was demolished in 1993, as it made Mos Eisley look respectable).

 

Before landing, we humble passengers were treated to a bar of Swiss chocolate. I ate that with gusto.

 

Transiting in Zurich was a pleasure. I walked off my plane at gate E 36 and was immediately in the terminal. Certain “clean” destinations (such as Miami, apparently), do not need to go through a second screening in Zurich. As I wasn’t entering Switzerland or going to another Schengen country, there was no passport check, either. I immediately hurried to the lounge for a shower and a snack.

 

Onboard: A340 to Tokyo

 

Boarding LX 160 for Tokyo proved even more efficient than the Miami boarding. On this 11 hr 20 minute leg, I was quite fortunate to snag an exit row seat during online check-in. Normally, those seats cost $100 to reserve in advance, but are free of charge at check-in if still available.

 

When I realized that my seatmate + our counterparts on the opposite end of the plane were all very much in the “Social Security” years, I realized that it would be up to me to do the heavy lifting in an emergency.

 

Fortunately, that never occurred. My main “problem” was the tendency for my neighbour’s water to end up on my knee when receiving it from the flight attendant. On this sector, I took lunch – soy & ginger beef with Japanese rice or Swiss macaroni gratin. I opted for the beef. 

 

Upon receiving my meal, I noticed that my utensil baggie was unusually heavy – it contained metal silverware. Good Lord, I did not know that any carrier did that in Steerage these days!

 

After dinner, I engaged in more catnapping in addition to watching Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura. That was a cool story and will appeal to fans of Spirited Away.

 

By the time we landed, my first international economy flight since 2011 hadn’t made me its bitch quite as much as I expected, but I was ready for it to end.  Blessedly, there was more chocolate. Holding a bar of swiss chocolate

As is the case for a developed country that isn’t the USA, immigration was swift and pleasant. Shockingly, our bags were already appearing on the reclaim carousel. I remembered coming home from university and enduring JFK’s arrival procedures – why can’t we (Americans) have nice things?

 

After a brief chat with a curious but polite customs officer, I was on my way.

 

Overall, well done, Swiss. The price:value relationship here was excellent. The A330 I flew ex-MIA with newer seats/in-flight entertainment was an excellent aircraft. The A340 from Zurich did the job, but my heavens, do they show their age. They rattle like a particularly abused used car from the 1990s. On both aircraft, I loved that 2-4-2 seating – more choices for aisle seats.