This is not the first day of the coronavirus meltdown, only the first day I’ve found the energy – mental and physical – to write about life during this global pandemic. It feels like we are in the middle of the middle of the pandemic, but of course that will only be knowable after the crisis has fully subsided.
From here in Tokyo, life continues, if not normally, at least without the same strict quarantine restrictions that have been implemented in much of the developed world. Until last week, Tokyo remained largely open for business (as long as you weren’t flying in from overseas). True, I’ve been working from home for over a month now, and all schools have been closed for several weeks, but restaurants, bars and shopping malls have all remained open and, in many cases, crowded. That is, until this past Tuesday when the Japanese leader Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency that is effective until May 6th. Bizarrely, the emergency declaration only gives local government authorities the ability to ask people to stay at home and avoid non-essential activities, while not actually providing any legal authority to punish people who ignore such requests. Judging by my own daily walks around town, certain businesses have closed down – like Starbucks and our local department store – but many others remain open and, in some cases, crowded with people.
Maybe one of the biggest differences between Japan and other parts of the world is that mask usage here has been nearly universal since the coronavirus outbreak emerged from Wuhan earlier this year. For February and March, I would guess that mask usage in Tokyo was around 70% (that’s a lot of people on the trains and just walking around wearing masks), but now I think that number has risen closer to 90%. People who do not wear masks are definitely the exception. Whether or not masks are effective in preventing the spread of the Coronavirus seems unclear, but if the official Japanese virus numbers can be trusted – and given the very limited testing being done here, there’s little reason to believe that they can – the widespread (and by all accounts proper) use of masks in Japan could be one reason that the virus has spread much more slowly here than in Europe and the US.
As one would expect given their high use, masks have been very hard to come by in Tokyo these last few months. Until the state of emergency, I usually did not wear a mask outside, as I only had a single option available to me, a 15 minute “steaming” mask that I had found abandoned in a store and was clearly not intended for outdoor use given that it looked quite ridiculous, what with its comically protruding center ridge and large ear flaps. However, this past Wednesday I happened to be walking by a pharmacy when I looked in and saw a crowd suddenly forming around a large plastic storage box that had – apparently apropos of nothing – been rolled out into the center of the store. I walked inside to see what the commotion was about and found that the container held individual boxes of face masks, 60 per box. I had arrived only 30 seconds after the container was rolled out, and I barely managed to grab one of the last boxes. I paid for the masks and left the store clutching the box like I fully expected someone to try and wrestle it from my grip at any moment. You would have thought that I had just discovered the last golden ticket, the way I practically ran home to tell my wife the good news. Anyway, we can now wear masks outside, and how fun it has become to pass judgment on anyone, especially another foreigner, who is not wearing a mask. They are jeopardizing our health! I think, with an indignation that feels hard won.
So, from our small but not tiny Tokyo apartment – where my wife and I are trying, with diminishing success, to not drive each other completely crazy – I will sign off on this first Coronavirus entry. Hope everyone is safe out there, wherever you’re weathering the storm.
Amy and I moved to Tokyo one year ago this August. And in light of that anniversary, I thought I’d reflect on a few aspects of our not-so-new lives here.
Challenges –For a foreigner, Japan can sometimes be a difficult place to live. There is of course the big challenge: a formidable language barrier that can add complexity to even the most routine of tasks – like buying a cup of coffee or consulting a subway map. But then there are other, more nuanced cultural challenges. Like the odd and often mystifying bureaucracy of rules and social politenesses that can make little sense to an outsider. For example, there is the unspoken rule that requires near silence on a morning train but condones the violent, almost mosh-pit like aggressiveness of people smashing their way onto the same packed trains.
Good news. Still, in many ways Tokyo is an easy place to live. Many aspects of daily life have been designed to provide maximum benefit at minimum effort. For example, the local convenience store – my closest outlet is just a 90 second walk from my house (or I can go to one 2 minutes away, or another one 3 minutes away or 5 minutes or 7 minutes ad infinitum) – is open 24 hours a day and is stocked with pretty much every conceivable (and not so conceivable) human necessity. From the obvious, like toilet paper and freshly prepared foods – restocked thrice daily – to the not so obvious, like one-use disposable underwear and white, super cheap business dress shirts. You could easily write an entire blog about the ever changing delights of the Japanese convenience store.
Vending machines – But there are other aspects of life in Tokyo that are also designed for maximum ease. Like the ubiquitous, high-tech vending machines that make dehydration in the city a near impossibility. Vending machine locations aren’t limited to just obvious places like an office cafeteria or the train station, but are found almost anywhere in the city – from serene parks to otherwise quiet residential streets. In case I get thirsty and, for whatever reason, can’t manage the 90 second walk to the closest convenience store, no problem – there are two vending machines right around the corner from our apartment.
My favorite local ramen shop requires ordering and payment via a vending machine – a great option for those who – like myself – do not speak Japanese (although written in Kanji, there is a helpful yellow star pasted next to the restaurant’s top recommendation, which I’ve never seen cause to veer from).
My days are filled with confusion and misunderstanding. This is to put things lightly. Despite my fairly serious efforts to learn Japanese – both weekly classes and self-study – I evidently have no aptitude for the thing. I still struggle to understand even the most basic of human interactions and the simple prospect of going to the dry cleaner or to get a haircut can induce stress. Even more routine interactions, like a shop clerk asking if I want a bag, can quickly spiral into confusion and misunderstanding.
Business Attire – In Tokyo, the general rule appears to be this: men wear well-tailored, expensive black suits with pressed white shirts and polished shoes; and women, women wear whatever the hell they want. Parachute pants with 4” wooden sandals – why not? Jeans that look suspiciously like sweat pants up close – no problem. A pillowcase with holes cut out for the head and arms – hey, that’s fashion! Baggy pants are in, and so are black heels with white socks. Business shorts – a real thing – are perfectly acceptable, as are skirt suits paired with white tennis shoes. In Tokyo, when it comes to women’s fashion, anything goes.
If cash is king, are coins the devil? A too large part of my day is often concerned with the getting and then getting rid of coins. Despite claims of being a technologically advanced society, Japan is rather antiquated when it comes to the country’s reliance on cash. Because the smallest bill is a thousand yen note (equivalent to approximately $10) and the smallest coin is just one yen, an annoying plastic thing worth less than a penny, there are a lot of opportunities to pay for something with a bill and receive a dozen heavy coins as change. I am constantly thinking of where and how I can get rid of my ever expanding pile of change.
Garbage! For such a large city, the streets of Tokyo are remarkably free of litter. This is despite the fact – or maybe in part due to the fact – that the city has virtually no public trash cans. This can make unloading an empty coffee cup or a candy wrapper a quixotic task (hint: try the convenience store).
However, it’s on the home front that the garbage situation really becomes byzantine. There is a large booklet that details the complicated garbage pick-up schedule and even more complicated garbage disposal rules. Special bags are required on Monday’s and Thursdays; boxes and spare paper has to be tied up neatly with string on Fridays; bottles and cans have to be separated and are picked-up every other Tuesday; plastic bottles need to be stripped of labels and are picked up on the opposite Tuesday; etcetera. The rules are frustratingly complex.
But here’s the thing, with a few exceptions (read: plastic bottles and cans) none of it really matters. No one cares. I often throw everything into the general, bi-weekly garbage pick-up and hitherto, I have neither been confronted by the garbage authorities nor suffered through a sleepless night of guilt.
The Japanese culture is an odd mix of contradictions and curiosities. It is a society that acquiesces to public intoxication and ubiquitous “hostess clubs” but remains remarkably safe and, at least where I live, family oriented.
Hold the door! Not in Tokyo. People will push the door just hard enough so they can squeeze through – and not one bit more. If you hold the door for someone else, they will look upon you with either confused thanks or outright distrust.
Chivalry. If you are injured or old and infirm, good luck getting a seat on the train. People simply do not give up their seats. And after working 16 hour days, I can understand why.
Fruit in Japan is exceptional and, unlike in the US, most grocery stores only stock fresh, seasonal offerings. But really, some of the prices are downright shocking.
One year – So here is to one year in Japan. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s certainly been interesting.
“I did nothing. I did absolutely nothing, and it was everything that I thought it could be.” – Peter Gibbons, Office Space.
Amy and I spent three relaxing nights at the Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa this past March. The nightly rate at the hotel can exceed $1,000 – before accounting for food, drink and transportation costs. To afford what would otherwise be a prohibitively expensive vacation, we used our two free nights from the Hyatt credit card and redeemed a third night using points.
To get to the Maldives we flew non-stop from Singapore to Malé International Airport, a flight that is about 4.5 hours long. We stayed overnight at a small hotel on the same island as the airport and then took a small turbo-prop flight to Kooddoo Domestic Airport in the morning.
Our morning flight on Maldivian Airlines was booked by the hotel and stopped at another island on the way down. We were fortunate to fly during the day so we could marvel at the endless string of coral islands and turquoise blue waters outside the window.
After landing at the Kooddoo airport – really just a runway with a small building attached – we were met by representatives from the hotel. From there we took a short van ride to a waiting speed boat. The boat to the Hyatt property took another 30 minutes.
Needless to say, the Park Hyatt is not an easy place to get to, especially if you’re coming from the US. I took a photo of our location on google maps when we reached the hotel and it looked like this:
The Hyatt property is gorgeous. The whole island only takes a few minutes to walk around and features just 50 guest villas.
There are 36 villas on land – each with it’s own beach access and 14 villas over the ocean. The ocean villas are far more expensive and kind of seemed like a novelty thing. I was perfectly happy – even happier – with our land villa.
The land villas ring the island and each one has its own access to the beach. They are also incredibly private, something that the ocean villas lack.
The villa had two showers – one indoor and one outdoor, and a nice patio to read and contemplate the stars at night from.
There are several restaurants on the property along with a nice pool, gym and spa.
There is also a more public beach area with lounge chairs set up.
So what did we do in the Maldives? Well, not much. We went snorkeling outside our villa – the marine life was incredible – spent a few hours on a boat fishing one day, and mostly sat around reading, eating and talking.
There are lots of activities you can book but they come with a steep price tag. Even with our free hotel nights, the trip was still expensive. The inter-island flight on Maldivian Airlines costs $520 per person (payable to the hotel), and none of the meals at the hotel are included in the stay – even the water at the restaurants wasn’t free, an absurd price gouge in my opinion.
All that being said, the Maldives, and the Hyatt property in particular, are beautiful and well worth a visit. Just look at this sunset.
Unlike a lot of airlines these days, Korean Air offers great business and first class award availability at reasonable redemption rates. Further, the airline’s updated website makes award booking – a process that used to be incredibly arduous – easy. Coming back to Singapore after the holiday’s, I decided to take advantage of the generous award availability on Korean Air and book myself in business class. The trip included a very long flight from Washington DC to Seoul and then a shorter, but still irritatingly long flight from Seoul to Singapore.
Fortunately, the longer flight included Korean Air’s new business class suites product. Unfortunately, the second leg of the trip had Korean Air’s older business class hard product.
I booked my one way business class ticket from Washington DC to Singapore using just 75,000 Miles + $34. I had about 40,000 SkyPass miles in my Korean Air account from prior flights on the airline, and I was able to transfer the remaining 35,000 miles instantly from my Chase Ultimate Rewards account. This is one of the best Chase partners and one of the reasons the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card is so valuable.
I consider 75,000 miles to be an incredible bargain, especially when paid tickets in regular economy on this flight can cost upwards of $1,000. Meanwhile, my exact ticket was selling for over $4,000. This was my itinerary:
Flight 1 of 2 Korean Air KE094
Washington Dulles (IAD) to Seoul Incheon (ICN)
Tuesday, 2 January 2018
Duration: 14 hours 42 minutes
I had selected a window seat near the back right of the business class compartment. If you are flying on a Korean Air 777, you can tell if you have the new or old business class product based on the seat layout. The new business class product is in a 2-2-2 layout, as shown here:
The layout for the old business class product is in a 2-3-2 setup as shown here:
It’s worth noting that the difference between the two business class products is fairly substantial. The new suites feel more spacious and more comfortable then the old ones, and if you book the window seat, far more private.
The flight was delayed about an hour as the incoming flight from Korea was late. Once boarding began, the process was fairly efficient. The business class section was only about a third full. As mentioned above, I had selected window seat 11J.
The new business class product has staggered window and aisle seats. This makes the window seat even more private – it kind of feels like a mini suite. These seats are great for solo travelers. Also, there is a separate walkway to the aisle for each window seat, that way you don’t have to deal with your neighbor when getting up to use the restroom. A remote controlled partition can also be raised after takeoff for additional privacy. You can see how the seats work a bit better from this Korean Air website picture:
For comparison purposes, here are the old business class seats – which were on my second flight from Seoul to Singapore:
An electronic control to the left of the seat made it easy to quickly convert the seat into a bed without having to get up – something I appreciate.
Unfortunately, the bed setting was not nearly as comfortable as the bed setting on my recent Singapore Air flight.
The entertainment monitor was large and placed directly in front of the seat. It was operated by a touch screen remote.
The seat had lots of leg room and a ledge to rest your feet on.
The seat also included lots of storage space and a large arm rest to store glasses on.
The seat also included a multi-purpose outlet and a separate USB port.
Once boarding was complete, the flight attendants stopped by to welcome each business class passenger onboard. Amenity kits were passed out and kids received a separate gift. The amenity kits included some nice items including a good quality eye mask, toothbrush, lip balm and face cream. For what it’s worth, the products were from Davi. There was also a hair brush and a shoe horn. Hooray!
Apparently the 2018 winter olympics will be held in Korea, as the branding was everywhere and each movie / TV show opened with an advertisement for the games. You can see the Olympics branding on the bottom right of the amenity kit bag.
Waiting at the seat upon boarding was a large blanket in plastic wrap, disposable slippers, and an incredibly small pillow. I appreciate the warm blanket but the small pillow made it difficult to sleep. I ended up taking a few pillows from some of the empty business class seats around me.
We pushed back from the gate around 1:00pm, a little over an hour late. We had a long-takeoff roll and then the seat belt sign was turned off only a few minutes later. It was a cloudless day in Virginia and there were some good views of the cold ground below as we ascended.
Shortly after takeoff, an announcement was made in Korean and then an American voice came on the intercom. He said he was the pilot and welcomed us onboard. He informed us of our flight time to Korea at 14 hours and 11 minutes. The second leg of my trip – Seoul to Singapore – included a British pilot as well. I wonder how that works in the cockpit language wise – do they all speak English during the flight, or does everyone speak Korean?
The entertainment options on the flight were the biggest disappointment of the trip. There were about 33 Hollywood “hit” movies and a few “classic” movies. There were a lot of movies I hadn’t heard of before and only a few that seemed worth watching. The classic movies included such timeless fare as Moulin Rouge and Back to the Future. The TV options were even more sparse, a few American sitcoms – Friends and the Big Bang Theory – with only two episodes each.
Even more surprisingly, there were only 3 Korean-language movies.
I ended up watching every TV comedy option available – which only took about an hour and a half. After that I watched a few movies, the best of which was The Big Sick and the worst was the clunker Home Again – a painfully slow movie with no chemistry between the lively Reese Witherspoon and her not-at-all believable love interest.
Great entertainment options can make a long flight pass much faster. Unfortunately, I found the entertainment options on Korean Air to be extremely wanting, especially for business class on a 14-plus hour flight. Is it too much to ask for a few full seasons of popular TV shows à la Netflix? This seems to be standard practice on United long haul flights now, even in economy. It’s never a good thing when United Airlines makes you look bad.
The one other thing that bothered me about the entertainment was the arbitrary censorship of certain movies. For example, the Big Sick was edited for content and all swear words – including the word goddamn – were beeped. Apparently the general public can’t handle that kind of salty language. Who knows what other content was removed from the movie as well.
Shortly after takeoff, a flight attendant came by to take each passenger’s lunch and dinner order. I was informed that dinner would be served 30 minutes before landing in Seoul, which seemed to be cutting it really close – but it actually ended up being 3 hours before landing. I ordered a glass of champagne and Bibimbap for lunch. For dinner I ordered the beef bulgogi. The menus read as follows:
The lunch started with a small seared scallop in sauce.
Then a bit of duck and salad.
After that the main course was served.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the cold Bibimbap but that’s probably more of a personal taste thing.
For dinner I had the beef bulgogi which I normally really like. Unfortunately, I found the bulgogi on this flight to be really chewy, drenched in sauce, and not all that flavorful. The rice was also a bit mushy and oddly unappetizing. I didn’t eat much of either.
I skipped out on the dessert and the cheese tray which was wheeled around on a cart after lunch. I had some of the seasonal fresh fruit which was definitely not in-season or fresh.
Overall the service was good but the food left something to be desired.
For about 13 hours of the 14 hour flight we hit almost no turbulence. I can’t remember ever being on such a smooth flight for that length of time. Unfortunately the last hour was a bit bumpy, but nothing too crazy.
Despite being in a fully flat bed, I did not sleep particularly well on the flight. As is common on larger airplanes, it was not possible to control your surrounding temperature as there were no air vents above the seat. I went from freezing cold to burning hot and then back again during the course of the flight. Although the blanket was large and warm, the pillows were insubstantial and not very comfortable.
The entertainment options also included a standard flight tracker and two outside cameras that could be monitored during the trip. I ended up watching the landing at Incheon via the front camera.
There were also some nice views out the window as we approached Seoul.
Our flight route took us almost directly over the North Pole, then down through Russia and China and then around North Korea.
Here is the flight time and path from FlightAware:
As you can see, the flight ended up being just 18 minutes shy of 15 hours.
One last point to note, Incheon Airport is not a good place to transit if you have a short layover before your next flight. The security line – which all transiting passengers are required to go through – is a huge mess with passengers from all incoming flights ushered into one of two lines.
I’ve waited in one of these lines for almost an hour before. The line when I arrived this time was even longer. Fortunately, as my flight to Singapore was supposed to be leaving in only a few minutes, I was permitted, with some pleading, to skip most of the security line. In my experience the airports in Japan and Hong Kong are much better at handling transiting passengers as they have more security checkpoints.
I found my business class seat to be reasonably comfortable with lots of room and privacy, and in my opinion that’s the most important criteria for judging a business class product. Further, for a mere 75,000 miles and $34, this itinerary was a veritable steal.
Jetstar Airways is a Qantas owned low-cost carrier that operates in Australia and New Zealand. The Jetstar Group also includes Jetstar Asia Airways, based in Singapore; Jetstar Pacific Airways, based in Vietnam; and Jetstar Japan. Qantas owns only a minority interest in each of these Asia based carriers.
Jetstar Asia, the Singapore based entity, flies to 22 destinations in North and Southeast Asia with a fleet of 18 Airbus A320 aircraft. Since relocating to Singapore in 2014, I’ve flown on a number of these routes.
At the end of August, we travelled to Vietnam for a long weekend and to get there, we flew Jetstar Asia from Singapore to Da Nang. Below is a review of our flight and some general observations on Jetstar Asia
Jetstar Asia Airways 541 Singapore to Da Nang Airbus A320 Thursday, 31 August 2017 Depart: 17:25 Arrive: 19:05 Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes
Like its US counterparts, Jetstar is a low-cost carrier that charges extra for everything from picking your own seat to checking luggage. Even water and light snacks cost extra. However, I find the rules and fees to be a bit less draconian than those on similar airlines in the US.
For example, Jetstar Asia allows carry-on baggage of 7kg (15 lbs) per passenger for free, without the limiting size restrictions that are all too common on US airlines.
When booking on Jetstar, you can choose from a number of “bundles” that offer increased carry-on weight allowances, checked baggage allowances, and pre-paid meal options. There are also bundles that allow you to earn Qantas loyalty points for your Jetstar flight. The bundle prices below were per flight.
I like to book the cheapest, non-bundle deal and then complain later about the luggage and fare limitations. However, in this case, as we planned to do a bit of shopping in Vietnam, we decided to pro-actively buy 15kgs of checked luggage for both the flight to Da Nang and the return flight back to Singapore. This ended up costing S$21 per flight, but there are a lot of other luggage options if you need to buy more.
As we opted for the non-bundle fare, we would have had to pay extra if we wanted to pre-select our seats. There were three pre-paid seat options for our flight: S$6.00 for a “standard” seat; S$13.00 for an “upfront” seat; or S$30 for an “extra legroom” seat. These were per seat, per flight prices, so if you are travelling with a large group, these fees can really add up.
I hate paying to select my seat, so I didn’t do it on this flight. When I went to check-in online, we were automatically assigned two aisle seats in separate rows. Once on board, I was able to swap my aisle seat with the woman sitting next to Amy.
The booking process is a bit long as Jetstar tries to sell you a million different “extras”. One of those options is to join Club Jetstar.
Club Jetstar is offered for a one-time joining fee of S$50 and then an annual fee of S$49.36 per year, waived for the first year (this “waiver” is a joke since the joining fee is almost for the exact same amount). My guess is that the benefits of this program are minimal and would probably just result in a lot of spam emails from Jetstar. I decided to pass.
The booking process also includes the option to pre-pay for hot meals. Judging by the number of people who received pre-paid meals on our flight, this must provide a big revenue boost for Jetstar (these pre-paid meals were all served first).
There are also a few snack options that can be purchased along with a $10 in-flight voucher which can be had for S$9.50.
I sat in seat 19E, the middle seat on the right-hand side of the plane. The Airbus A320 has 30 rows of economy in a 3-3 configuration.
The seats on the flight were leather and aside from the “extra legroom” option, were all the same. There are no business class seats or premium seats.
Google Flights lists the legroom at 29”, or below average, and I found them to be cramped, especially when the person in front of me reclined his seat. The seats may not be as bad as Spirit – at 28” – but they’re pretty close. If you are especially tall and expect the plane to be full, or if you are booked on a longer flight (Jetstar flies plenty of longer routes using the A320), you may want to splurge on the “extra legroom” option.
On a bit of a side note, I am actually a fan – at least in theory – of pre-reclined seats. Anything that prevents the person in front of you from having control over your own comfort. I just wish the airlines that did offer these – Spirit and Frontier – also offered decent legroom. Jetstar does not offer pre-reclined seats, but I found myself kind of wishing that they did during this flight – especially when the person in front of me fully reclined his seat all flight.
One of my biggest complaints about the seats was how thin they were. I could feel the knees of the person behind me digging into my lower back every time he changed position or bumped into my seat, which seemed to happen a lot. This was despite the fact that I didn’t recline my seat during the flight. If no one is behind you, the seats are just fine, but if you have someone tall behind you, expect to be jostled quite a bit.
The inflight Jetstar menu, like the options at booking, is extensive, but if you didn’t pre-order don’t expect all the options to be available when the flight attendants get to your seat. For example, we tried to order a sleeve of Pringles and a meal option, but they had run out of both by the time the flight attendants made it to our row. There was plenty of alcohol available however, and we ordered two beers for S$8.00 each.
The A320 has individual air vents which helped to keep the plane cool. There were also individual reading lights available above the seats.
The actual flight to Da Nang was uneventful. We taxied in Singapore for about 20 minutes before a short-take off roll and a smooth ride out. The seat belt sign was turned off after about 10 minutes. On both of our flights, the pilots made no welcome announcements, and aside from asking the flight attendants to take their seats during a bit of turbulence on the way to Da Nang, there were no other pilot announcements.
I passed the time on the flight reading and listening to pre-downloaded podcasts. There was no Wi-Fi or in-seat power on the flight.
Unlike most US discount airlines, I’ve never had a problem with Jetstar’s on-time performance. Similarly, our flight touched down in Da Nang, Vietnam right on time. The total trip was just shy of 2 hours and 30 minutes. We deplaned directly onto the runway where a shuttle bus took us to immigration.
Jetstar Asia is a low-cost carrier with great access to Southeast Asia. Although the seats aren’t the most comfortable, the overall flight experience is generally pleasant. For short to mid-range flights, I wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again.
This was our flight path, courtesy of flightaware.
After four weeks of vacation – a week spent in Europe and three weeks in the U.S. – it was time for me to return to Singapore. When booking my return trip, I searched for a conveniently timed itinerary that would get me back to Singapore late Saturday night or early Sunday morning. That way I would have at least one full day to recover – mentally and physically – before I had to return to work on Monday.
In the past, I’ve generally flown from Washington DC to Singapore on United, ANA or Korean Air. These routes involve connections in either Hong Kong, Tokyo or Seoul, or more recently, California. On this trip, I was interested in trying something different, so I also considered flights that flew east through Europe and the Middle East.
After searching for itineraries on Kayak and Google Flights, I decided to book a premium economy seat on Singapore Airlines out of New York City’s JFK. The flight included a short stop in Frankfurt, Germany. It wasn’t the cheapest itinerary, or the most convenient – after all we were staying in Washington DC – but it gave me the chance to test out one of Singapore Airline’s new premium economy seats, and it was a good excuse to spend a day or two in New York City. Also, at “just” 22 hours, it’s one of the shortest itineraries from the East Coast to Singapore. I was also excited to earn 110% mileage accrual in my KrisFlyer account, or 10,487 miles.
This was my itinerary:
The premium economy seat also had one major benefit, it allowed me to upgrade to business class using points, subject to availability. Immediately after booking my seat, I logged into my KrisFlyer account and selected Manage Booking. I was in luck as there were Standard upgrade awards available for 70,000 KrisFlyer miles (the Saver award from the East Coast is 47,000 miles – but there was no availability). I didn’t hesitate in spending the 70,000 miles. The upgrade from economy, even “premium” economy, to business class is a world of difference. It not only means superior service and food, but most importantly, a fully flat bed. That makes a big difference when you’re confined to a plane for 22 hours (or 26 hours, as the case would be for me). Importantly, when upgrading on Singapore Airlines, you still earn the miles for your original itinerary. So even though I upgraded to business class, I still earned the 10,487 miles from my original premium economy ticket (which helped me to requalify for KrisFlyer Elite Silver Status).
Here was my upgrade confirmation:
And my upgraded itinerary:
Getting to the Airport
After spending the day exploring NYC, I headed to the airport from the Lower East Side at around 5:00pm (the flight wasn’t departing until 8:55pm but I didn’t know what traffic would be like). I had a lot of luggage, so I ended up taking a shockingly expensive Uber ride to JFK:
There was bad traffic (of course) but we managed to get to the airport in under an hour – not too terrible for a Friday afternoon. However, the quality of the airport, and the hassle of getting to JFK from Manhattan, will definitely make me think twice before I go out of my way to book a flight from NYC in the future (even if it’s in business class).
Check-In, Swiss Lounge, and Boarding
I arrived at the airport with over three hours to go before departure. Luckily, the check-in counter was open and there was virtually no one in line.
I checked two bags and received my boarding pass in a matter of minutes (just one boarding pass was issued, as the same plane continues on to Singapore from Frankfurt). I was instructed at the check-in counter that I could use the Swiss Lounge on the other side of security. The airline attendant also helpfully pointed out that I could either go through the TSA pre-check security line (I was newly enrolled) or I could use the Business / First class security line, which is subject to the normal security indignities (i.e. shoes off and laptops out).
The Business / First class security line was shorter, so I chose that line. It only took about 10 minutes to get through security, which I consider pretty good for a New York City airport.
After security, I headed to the Swiss Lounge, which I found disappointing. The drink options were okay, but the food selection was limited.
This was the entirety of the hot food selection:
Annoyingly, there were almost no power outlets in the lounge, except in one designated high-top bar area. It seems hard to believe that a modern business class lounge wouldn’t have power outlets at every seat.
After enjoying a gin and tonic and some food at the lounge, I decided to walk around the terminal a bit before boarding. After about thirty minutes, I headed to gate A7 for boarding.
Boarding and Business Class
There are separate lines for Singapore Suites (First Class), Business Class, Premium Economy and Economy.
By the time I reached the gate, boarding was well under way, so I simply approached the Business Class line and, after a quick scan of my ticket, headed onto the plane. There was a separate jet bridge for Business Class passengers that went directly to the second level of the plane.
The Singapore Airlines A380-800 business class takes up the whole second floor of the jumbo jet (the largest passenger plane in the skies). The business class seats are arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, so each seat has direct aisle access. I had selected seat 24K, a window (and aisle) seat on the right side of the plane. A lot of travelers prefer the bulkhead seats on Singapore Airlines business class, as those seats offer a bit more leg room and a full bench for you to rest your feet on during the flight (as opposed to a more narrow foot rest in the standard business class seat). However, when I was selecting my seat, the only available bulkhead seat was in the very back of the plane. As I prefer not to be in the back of the plane, I decided to stick with a normal business class seat closer to the front. I was not disappointed, as I found the foot rest and seat to be more than adequate (even for someone who is slightly over 6 feet tall).
Here is the view of the business class cabin upon boarding.
They had a weird, orange mood light going on as boarding continued.
When I arrived at my seat, there was a large pillow waiting for me, and a pair of noise cancelling headphones. As you can see, the seats are very wide.
The seats were nice but maybe a bit dated. The entertainment system was definitely on the older side, although perfectly functional. On the left armrest were basic seat controls and a remote for the TV.
Helpfully, the remote control also showed the expected time to the next destination. I used this function several times throughout the flight to check on our flight status.
There were lots of new release movies and popular Hollywood films loaded into the entertainment system. There were also several TV shows that had full seasons available (e.g. Big Little Lies, Friends, and Game of Thrones – just to name a few).
One thing I found interesting about the Singapore Airlines’ business class seat is just how much storage space there is. There are two huge compartments between the seat and the window, and then plenty of storage space under the seat in front, and even a small storage compartment beside the television.
There is also a charging bay to the right of the entertainment monitor.
It’s worth pointing out that there is a slight design flaw in the window business class seat, as a narrow gap exists between the seat and the side storage compartment. This gap is just big enough to lose a phone or magazine in, but not big enough to reach one’s hand into. Also, the seat runs all the way to the ground, so there’s no way to access the gap from under the seat. I realized just how inconvenient this was when I accidentally knocked my phone into the gap. After almost 20 minutes of futilely trying to retrieve it, I finally gave up and asked a flight attendant to help. Losing stuff between the seat and the window must be a common occurrence, because the flight attendant didn’t hesitate, he immediately grabbed a long metal pole (it’s possible it’s kept onboard just for this purpose) and came to my seat to help. After about 5 minutes of fishing between the seat and the window with the metal pole, he was able to retrieve the phone.
About 20 minutes after boarding, we pushed back from the gate. The captain then came on the PA to let us know that there were quite a few planes ahead of us, so we would be delayed by about a half hour.
There was a pre-wrapped blanket waiting in the storage space behind the seat. This was a good quality blanket that kept me warm throughout the flight. Upon boarding, I found the plane to be extremely cold, so I immediately unwrapped my blanket and settled in.
As we taxied, it became apparent that we were going nowhere fast. I made it through almost three-quarters of a movie before the captain came back on to announce that there were “50 to 70 planes ahead of us” and that we had burned through quite a bit of fuel taxing. He said we needed to return to the gate to refuel, but due to congestion on the taxiway, it would take some time to turn around.
Our 8:55pm departure eventually became a 1:05am departure. Luckily, I managed to fall asleep while we were refueling at the gate, and I didn’t wake up until we were in the air over Canada.
I woke up just as the flight attendants were walking through the cabin with dessert. I had missed my pre-ordered shrimp and scallop dinner, and I no longer really felt like eating it. Instead, I had a scoop of Sticky Fig & Honeycomb Ice Cream with Cinnamon Peanuts.
It was a bit too sweet for me, at least in my just-having-waken state. After eating my ice cream, I checked out the bathroom which was stocked with a few amenities (note that Singapore Airlines does not give out amenity kits in business class).
There were also toothbrushes and shaving kits.
The sink was operated with a modern sensor, which I find much nicer than the old push button sink faucets.
I ended up watching a few episodes of Game of Thrones (they had the entire sixth season) and after a small continental breakfast, it was time to prepare for landing.
We touched down smoothly in Frankfurt at 2:46pm (a little over four hours late) and everyone disembarked. Business class passengers continuing on to Singapore were invited to use the Lufthansa business lounge near the gate. I was a bit disoriented when I got off the plane, and in my effort to find the business class lounge, I ended up walking to the complete opposite side of the terminal, before realizing my mistake and turning around.
I ultimately found the lounge, which was spacious but with limited food options. I ended up eating a banana and some soup. As we were in Germany, there were also sausage and beer choices:
After spending a bit of time in the lounge, it was time to re-board for the “long” portion of the flight. After already spending 12 hours on the plane due to the initial delay, I was not really looking forward to another 13 hours of flying, but at least I was in business class. . .
As we boarded the plane, we were given a fancy Singapore Airlines luggage tag and a note apologizing for the delay in New York.
I found the crew on the second leg of the flight to be more attentive than the original crew. As I took my seat on the second leg of the trip, I was immediately offered a welcome drink – something that the New York City crew never offered. I asked for a glass of champagne and a water. The champagne was a Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve, and tasted pretty good to me.
We had a great view of the plane’s reflection as we taxied in Frankfurt.
It also served as a good reminder that there was another floor of passengers below us (something you forget when you’re actually on the flight).
Taxing was fast in Frankfurt, and after a long take-off roll, we were on our way.
After takeoff – the meal service began. I had pre-ordered the suckling pig, which I found okay, although I really enjoyed the green vegetables that came with the meal.
After eating, I made my seat into a bed (a short video plays in business class after boarding – which shows you how to turn the seat into a bed, or you can ask a flight attendant for assistance). The bed is made by pulling down the seat back – similar to the backseat of a station wagon.
The bed includes a built-in mattress that I found quite comfortable. The one bad thing about the Singapore Airlines business class seat is that you can’t easily go from bed mode to seat mode. Doing so requires you to stand up and clear everything from the seat before changing its position. Unlike new business class products, you can’t simply push one button and move from seat mode to bed mode.
The place for your head is not huge, but with the pillows I found it okay.
I ended up spending most of the second flight in bed mode. You can also eat from the bed position, although it’s a bit tricky.
On the second flight, I watched Drive with Ryan Gosling. A movie I’ve seen before but still really enjoy. I then watched several more episodes of Game of Thrones and, in between, got a bit of sleep.
For breakfast, I had pre-ordered a wanton noodle soup. I’m not sure if I was just really hungry or what, but this was one of the best meals I’ve ever had on a plane.
The noodles and wantons were delicious and the broth was piping hot and well flavored. It got me excited to be back in Singapore! Shortly after finishing breakfast, it was time to prepare for landing. We finally touched down in Singapore at 10:46am (about four hours late).
Even in business class, this was a long and tiring trip. I feel sorry for anyone who had to suffer through in economy – although I’ve been there before. Overall, the food and service were good, the seat (and bed) was comfortable and there were plenty of entertainment options. It was definitely 70,000 KrisFlyer miles well spent.
I left my phone in the backseat of the taxi we took to the airport on the way to Chiang Mai, Thailand. I only realized it was missing after clearing Singapore immigration, and by then, it was too late. I would have to make do without. Without music or a camera or even the internet. No WhatsApp. Ditto twitter. My legion of devoted Instagram followers would have to get their fix elsewhere.
In the blog post that follows, I’ve tried to recall Chiang Mai as best that I can, but without my phone for corroboration, I’m afraid I’ve had to rely on nothing but memory: that fickle, unreliable instrument, always prone to exaggeration and self-aggrandizement. But anyway, here goes.
We arrived in Chiang Mai on a beautiful Friday morning. The Thai New Year’s festival, Songkran, was well underway, and this meant one thing: a massive, city-wide water fight. During Songkran, if you’re dressed in a bathing suit or a formal suit, it makes no difference – if you are out and about, you are going to get wet. Soaked. Drenched. No one is spared and no one may demur. There is no white flag to wave, no way to say, “Actually I’m just passing through. I’m only here to watch.” This will be met with a bucket of icy water to the face. If you are driving, make sure your windows are rolled up. Otherwise people will dump water directly into your car. If you want to stay dry, stay inside.
When we landed in Chiang Mai, I was fit and healthy and strong; but by the end, I was tired and weak, reduced to my baser self. My will was tested and I was asked to rise above. Instead, I am ashamed to admit, I went low.
Old grandmother with a cane, shoot water in her face! Pour icy water down that young child’s back. Hit those tourists with the dirty river water. Wait! I’m one of those tourists.
And on it went. I filled my super soaker – purchased on the fly from a roadside stall – with ice cubes and I took a kind of maniacal joy in watching people squirm when soaked with the freezing cold water. When others did the same to me, I vowed terrible, merciless vengeance; only to forget moments later as water was shot again and again into my face.
From the elderly and infirm to the young and spry; hippy tourists, toothless street vendors, the water discriminated not. The city recast as war zone. Fallujah, if Fallujah were all in good fun, fought with water instead of bullets.
There were seven of us, and we roamed through the streets futilely seeking cover. A moment’s respite from the onslaught. But avoiding faux danger could lead to real danger. The streets, packed with moto-bikes and trucks, were a real and unforgiving hazard. And true enough, I almost died once. Trying to avoid the demonic yelps of a bucket carrying pursuer, I nearly stumbled into oncoming traffic – saved, literally, at the last minute, by a vigilant friend.
In the wake of the hysteria, the uninhibited glee – Water! – I was left with a pair of soaked shoes, a bad cold, and a slightly wounded ego. But otherwise, entirely unharmed.
All things must come to an end. And so to, the great Songkran festivities of 2017 eventually petered down. No longer were we afraid to leave the refuge of our hotel rooms. Instead, free to walk the streets of Chiang Mai unmolested by water guns and ice buckets, we ventured out, hesitant at first, but in time, gaining confidence to roam freely.
So it was that we stumbled upon the Chiang Mai night market. A remarkably large, sprawling market that included cookie-cutter souvenirs but also, surprisingly, a large number of genuinely unique keepsakes and fresh cooked street food. It was a happy confluence of tourists and locals; buyers and sellers.
The market stretched all the way into and around a Buddhist temple, where we sat beneath the stars and watched what appeared to be a traditional Songkran dance-off. You Got Served, Thailand style. Walking back to our hotel, we passed a group of water-gun carrying tourists. They held their weapons, loaded and pointed, like a bunch of half-crazed commandos who had just stumbled in from the jungle, unaware that the Songkran war was over.
Is there anything better? Pineapple fried rice, Pad See Ew, Panang curry. Are these authentic Thai foods? I honestly do not know. But what I do know is that each of these dishes is genuinely delicious. I ate each in its turn in Chiang Mai (some more than once) and I did not have a single unappetising bite. And then of course, there is that that has no equal, the unfailingly delicious Thai dessert: mango sticky rice. Has anyone ever eaten mango sticky rice and said, “Oh no, that’s not for me?” I think not.
Back in Singapore
This is a happy story and so it has a happy ending: my phone was retrieved. Saved by the taxi uncle and returned Monday morning. From the vantage of my phone, I walked zero steps this weekend, travelled nowhere, and spent almost no time staring at a shiny glass screen, but of these, only the last is true.
The votes have been counted and the worst has happened: Donald Trump is set to become the next president of the United States.
I know it seems useless to add my opinion to the black hole of media commentary that, in less than 24 hours, has already written and talked ad nauseam about our broken political system, our divided country, and the utter despair that a Trump administration will no doubt unleash on the American people.
But at the same time, the media (left and right alike) are more than just a bit culpable in Trump’s unlikely ascension to power, where they fed on each other like some terriblely deformed two headed snake. So who cares what they think.
That aside, I’d like to dwell for a moment on a few wisps of silver lining that I believe are still possible under a Trump administration.
Let’s face it, candidate Trump, in his own words, was a complete disaster. This is as unambiguously true as any of our most commonly shared beliefs, like the knowledge that intelligent life exists beyond Earth and country music sucks.
But just because candidate Trump represented the worst manifestations of racism, bigotry and unchecked misogyny, doesn’t mean that President Trump will represent those same values.
After all, once the deportations begin, and we free our country of the rapists and criminals who have plagued our society for so long, America can once again begin working towards our rightful destiny as Numero Uno. Oh shit, sorry, I mean Number One.
In fact, there are many things to look forward to with a President Trump. First and foremost, I look forward to the wall along the Mexican border that will keep our enemies at bay, our children safe and our wives faithful.
With the wall in place, and would be terrorists placed on notice, we can finally return to the 1950s salad days that we all pine for. Days where we could smoke in the office, drink martinis at lunch, and where the threat of nuclear war was forever imminent. With Trump at the switch – literally – those fond days of yesteryear can return at last.
And once Trump and his henchmen – Giuliani, Gingrich and Christie – take their rightful place in the halls of power, we can finally begin to mend as a nation (or run like hell).
Now that the first shocking post-election hours have passed, there are many things to be thankful for. For one, the world has not ended. And the expected sell-off in stocks has not come to fruition. Yet.
The markets have, to a large extent, priced in the prospect of higher inflation in the years to come. This will no doubt arise from Trump’s plan to spend government money he doesn’t have and cut taxes we can’t afford to cut. But after all, Bush did it, and that ended up fine, didn’t it?
And anyway, these policies will really only hurt the poor and marginalized. It is the people who can’t afford essential goods who will suffer when prices start to rise uncontrollably. But what about the wealthy? Don’t worry, with their massive and disproportionate tax cuts, Trump and his cronies should be just fine. In fact, some of their spending may even trickle down to the poor. More silver linings!
Finally, it was becoming a bit tiresome with Obama in the White House. With his intelligence and annoying little habits (who eats only seven almonds!?) and Michelle Obama’s exasperating need to “help” people. Ugh.
With Trump, we get a real, red blooded American. A man not afraid to push the envelope and get things done. A man who knows when it’s time to make a change – he’s been married three times – and who knows when it’s time to double down. A man who believes in his ideals, whatever they may be on that particular day. Finally, a man who, through sheer force of personality, was able to con 60 million Americans into voting for him.
And if Trump was able to lie and swindle and cheat the American people into electing him, then maybe, just maybe, there’s hope that he will have the same luck with the rest of the World. Who knows. I guess we have four years to find out.
In Japanese, “tok” means city, and “yo” (pronounced Yu-a) means food. Put it together, and you get “Tokyo” – city of food.
Actually I just made that up, but it might as well be true because Tokyo genuinely has some of the best food in the world. Sushi, ramen, soba, udon, Kobe beef, Tokatsu – fried pork, chicken on a stick, squid on a stick, stingray on a stick. . . and the list goes on. And on.
We flew into Tokyo’s Haneda airport on Saturday night and left by bus on Tuesday afternoon. It was just enough time to wish we had a lot more time.
While in the city, we took an all-day bicycle tour – an unconventional way of seeing Tokyo but something I would highly recommend – joined a night food tour and explored as much of the city – by foot and by subway – that we could. To sum it up: we walked a lot, we ate a lot.
Food wise, In those three days we managed to sample a bit of everything. From the indulgent – Kobe beef and lobster …
to the simple: ramen served at convenient, cubicle-style desks where patrons are free from distractions (like other people) to concentrate on the flavors of the meal.
Plus, the ordering is all done through an easy to use vending machine – so no reason to bother with those annoying people who always try to talk to you at restaurants – I think they’re called waiters.
Our first meal in the city was in the Tokyo subway – that city beneath a city. We ate tempura at this small restaurant in the Shinjuku station.
On our food tour, we ate Yakitori – chicken and pork skewers cooked over an open flame.
A plate full of fresh sashimi and a fish that was hand picked from a tank and filleted, still flopping helplessly about, in front of us.
And of course we had more ramen.
Tokyo is second to none when it comes to people watching.
On the subway and on the streets – Tokyo fashion runs the gamut from 1980’s esque puffy colored pants and all denim outfits – big accessories included – to slim cut black suits worn by the endless masses of sleek but tired looking Japanese business men.
In Akihabara, an electronics (and sex) district – women dress in French maid outfits to promote fetishized cafes. And in Shibuya -at the famous cross walk – one could spend all day watching the never-ending stream of busy looking pedestrians hustling off in all directions.
Finally (but not really – not by a long shot) on Takeshita Street, locals and tourists push together in a giant mass of slow moving, consumer-happy humanity.
If I were more adventurous – and had more money and spoke Japanese – I would move to Tokyo in a heartbeat. An endless melding of concrete, bright lights and over-the-top eccentricity – Tokyo is a city that defies characterization. Urban sprawl writ large, Tokyo can neither be fathomed nor explained – but it should, without doubt, be experienced.
I first visited Japan ten years ago as part of a study abroad program at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan. I went with a good friend from school and, after five weeks of pseudo-study, we booked tickets on the Japan rail pass and explored the country from Tokyo to Nagasaki.
In those pre-iPhone days and before TripAdvisor had fully caught on, our itinerary was based less on concrete travel plans and must-do activities, and more on WWII nuclear destruction: which is to say we visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki because, well, they are Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and because we didn’t quite know where else to go.
In Hiroshima, we explored the peace memorial, walked the city’s hallowed grounds – watching the eternal Flame of Peace burn – and then, unsure of what to do next, boarded the Shinkansen and headed south to Nagasaki – where we did largely the same things.
After Nagasaki, we travelled north to Tokyo. That massive, thriving and urgently vibrant megatropolis that is the heart of Japan. There, we wandered the city’s chaotic streets, got lost in its incomprehensible subway, ate whale meat and other non-traditional “food”, and toured the famous fish market – watching the tuna auction at 4:00am.
I loved everything about Japan. I loved how there were multiple vending machines on every corner and back alley in the country – offering everything from beer to umbrellas. In Nagoya, I loved how the streets and subways were immaculately clean – even though it was virtually impossible to find an actual garbage can. I loved, of course, how good the food was – even 7 Eleven had excellent Onigiri; and I loved watching the nonsensical Japanese television, which seemed like a strange, non-english cross between Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and a Snuggie infomercial.
That trip, now a decade on, seems at times like it happened ages ago, and at times like it could have ended just the other day.
I was 21.
All that is to say, it had been a long time since I was in Japan, and I was ready to go back. This time, despite my protests, there would be no atomic site visits, instead, as detailed in the coming posts, our week-long itinerary (this time with my wife) was split out as follows: