Japan Revisited – Ten Years On

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:

  • Three days in Tokyo;
  • one day in the Mount Fuji area; and
  • three days divided between Kyoto and Osaka.

***************

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Japan, 2006
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Scratching the Surface: A Week in South Africa

After a few weeks apart, and for the second time in less than a year, Amy and I flew from opposite sides of the world to reunite in an unknown airport in Africa. This time, far from the chaos of Douala, Cameroon, we met in the decidedly modern and western airport in Johannesburg, South Africa. Amy had spent the better part of June and July gallivanting through the U.S., while I, alone and lonely, slaved away at work back in Singapore 🙂

We were meeting in Johannesburg to visit our friends from South Africa who currently teach alongside Amy in Singapore. They had graciously invited us to spend the week with them on a whirlwind tour through a few of the country’s highlights.

Safari

Our trip may have been short on time but it was certainly not short on things to do. After a jet lagged but enjoyable day with our friends and their family in the suburbs of Johannesburg, we flew off to Kruger National Park for two days of safari. Definitely one of the most memorable parts of the trip – or of any trip for that matter – animal spotting through the vast African wilderness was a real highlight.

Due to poor planning, I was ill equipped to capture the experience on film as I didn’t bring – nor do I own – a proper camera (there are some things an iPhone camera just wasn’t made for). So please bare with the often grainy quality of the pictures below -hopefully some pictures are better than none at all – although many of our best sightings were seen through binoculars, where no photographs were possible.

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We had no problem spotting these elephants, as they walked directly in front of our car
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Zebras munching on some grass
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Hippos soaking in water
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Giraffes

 

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A rare baby white rhino with its mom partly hidden in the brush
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Off in the distance, a full blown stampede of African buffalo
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An angry elephant in a standoff with a car
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Two white rhinos we saw on a night safari tour

In addition to the above, we spotted a whole range of other animals including lions, crocodiles, impalas and whatever this animal was. . .

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Hyena?

Food

For carnivores of the human variety, South Africa is second to none. There is no shortage of savory, well-seasoned meats for all occasions: tasty sausage and bacon for breakfast; biltong (dried cured meat, similar – but admittedly better than – American beef jerky) and droewors  (dried sausage) for snacking; not to mention chicken, beef and a whole lot more sausage for the (almost) daily braai (the all-occasions South African BBQ).

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Typical store in South Africa

Our short time in South Africa was punctuated by one delicious meal after the next – most prepared and cooked by our excellent hosts.

Cape Town

When the weather cooperates, Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. During our three days in the city, we were privy to the full spectrum of Cape Town winter weather: from beautiful blue skies to torrential downpours, and everything in between.

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Our first view of Table Mountain
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Not a cloud in the sky
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Tourists
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View of Cape Town from the boat to Robben Island
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Robben Island

Our tour of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, was partly conducted by a former black political prisoner. His poignant reflections of apartheid South Africa, and his first-person account of life behind bars, were both heartfelt and unsettling.

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Entrance to the former Robben Island prison

The surrounding environs of Cape Town are (justifiably) well known for their great wines. We spent a full day wine tasting about two hours from downtown Cape Town. The following morning, the start of my last full day in South Africa, we woke to rain and thunderstorms – the perfect weather for a beachside drive down the edge of the continent!

Here are some of the pictures from that drive:

A wild penguin hiding on the beach
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At the edge of the Earth
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Not a beach day
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Winding cliffside drive
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Selfie
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Far from everything
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The bottom of the world – Cape of Good Hope

 

 

Flight Review: United Airlines Flight 1 from San Francisco to Singapore

In January, United Airlines announced that it would begin operating non-stop service between San Francisco and Singapore. The flight commenced service on June 1st and is operated by a stretch 787 Dreamliner.

The new service holds several distinctions:

  1. It is the longest route operated by a Dreamliner (just shy of 16 hours); and
  2. It is the only non-stop flight currently operating between Singapore and the U.S.

The second distinction will not last long, as Singapore Airlines recently announced plans to begin operating the same route starting this October. That flight will be operated using a new Airbus A350.

As soon as I read about the new non-stop service between the U.S. and Singapore, I was eager to book my ticket. So when I found a reasonably priced flight that coincided with my trip back home this summer, I booked it.

My itinerary, originating in New York City, was as follows:

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The ticketed travel time was 26 hours and 15 minutes. That is longer than I would normally like, but isn’t yet in the realm of the ridiculous.

Newark To San Francisco

My flight out of Newark was delayed because a maintenance worker was still on the plane when we began taxiing out to the runway (I wish I was making that up). As he apparently had no desire to travel to California with us, we had to go back to the gate so he could get off.

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Maintenance worker fixing an overhead compartment

Due to “paper work requirements” once we returned to the gate, our ten minute delay turned into a 70 minute wait. I won’t review that flight in detail here, but I will note that it was nice to cross the country in a wide-body 777, as opposed to a single aisle 737 or the equivalent Airbus A320 (which seems to be the norm these days). Not only did the 777 have United’s full range of entertainment options (an onboard TV for each seat), but the double aisle plane also provided far more space to stretch and walk around in. It was also nice to be able to track the flight progress in real time, via the onboard flight map.

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Our flight was nearly 6 hours long, and I used the time to catch up on a few movies:

  1. Sisters – with Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. This was pretty disappointing
  2. The Night Before – with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen. This was okay but didn’t possess the same gut-splitting humor as similar Seth Rogen fare.
  3. Love and Air Sex – I thought this bitter sweet (and fairly raunchy) comedy was the best of the lot. It didn’t receive great reviews, but I would recommend checking it out.

Once we landed in San Francisco, I used my American Express Platinum card to get into the Centurion Lounge where I ate dinner and rested before the 16 hours flight to Singapore.

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Entrance to the American Express Centurion Lounge at SFO
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Free dinner buffet at the Centurion Lounge

San Francisco to Singapore

The non-stop flight from San Francisco to Singapore is United’s flagship route, and has accordingly been designated UA Flight 1.

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Flight 1 to Singapore, departing at 10:55

The flight to Singapore was scheduled to depart at 10:55pm, which was nearly 2:00am on the East Coast, so I was exhausted when it was finally time to board. However, I was reluctant to actually get on the plane until the last minute, as I did not want to spend any more time onboard than was absolutely necessary.

I went down to the gate to snap a few pictures as the boarding process was getting under way.

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Starting to board UA flight 1

Due to the reflection from the boarding area, I wasn’t able to take a decent picture of the plane. The picture below will have to suffice.

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The United 787-9 getting ready to depart

After snapping the above pictures, I headed to a nearby shop to do some last minute (American) shopping – I bought chewing gum – which isn’t sold in Singapore. I waited until I heard a last call announcement for the flight, and then headed back to the gate to board.

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Monitor just before you get on the plane – in case you are in the wrong place?

I was in the back of the plane for this flight. United offers three classes of service on the flight: Business, Premium Economy, and Economy. It would have cost roughly US$200 to upgrade from Economy to Premium Economy, but it didn’t really seem worth the price given the benefits are a bit underwhelming – a few more inches of leg room and your seats are closer to the middle of the plane.

I was also eager to see what United’s 787 Economy seating was like. To my surprise, I found the seats to be comfortable and the leg room to be more than adequate.

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Large entertainment monitor and sufficient leg room

The entertainment monitors were also large and easy to operate.

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They included a USB port which is a big improvement over old economy seats.

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The Economy and Premium Economy sections are in a 3-3-3 seating arrangement. As is my preference, I had pre-selected an aisle seat in the middle section. This is my favorite long-haul economy seat, as it provides for aisle access and, when sleeping, gives the person in the middle seat a second option for getting out to use the bathroom – that way it isn’t a given that you will be woken up if that person needs to get out (and can’t gracefully climb over you).

Once onboard the plane, I fell asleep almost immediately. I woke up when we began our long take-off roll. After reaching cruising altitude, I took a sleeping pill and slept through dinner. In total, I slept for a little over eight hours.

After waking up, I turned on the entertainment monitor to see our real-time flight progress. Unfortunately, this was the only update I received. . .

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I’m not sure if the flight progress was turned off or if it simply wasn’t working. I checked multiple times throughout the trip but with no luck. I would be curious to know if other people on the same flight have had this issue.

One of my biggest pet peeves with the flight was the complete lack of communication from the pilots. By my count, they made exactly zero announcements during the flight (granted I did sleep for about half the trip). Even when we went through a period of pretty bad turbulence, there wasn’t a single word from the cockpit – just an announcement from the chief flight attendant instructing the other attendants to take their jump seats. Maybe I’m speculating here, but could the turned off flight-tracker and pilot silence be related. . .

On a lighter note, I really enjoy the bathrooms on the Dreamliner, especially the contactless sink and toilet handle. These are a huge improvement over traditional airplane bathrooms.

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Contactless sink
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Just wave your hand to flush the toilet

I also enjoy the larger windows on the 787.

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And the higher ceiling

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Lots of overhead room

The food, on the other hand, was not very good (huge understatement). Actually, I had the noodles for breakfast, and they were completely inedible.

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Is this supposed to be breakfast?

 

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Up close with the United noodle breakfast dish – do not eat this!

Summary

Although the food was disgusting and the on-board flight tracker did not work, I actually found United’s Economy class on the 787-9 to exceed my expectations. The seats were reasonably comfortable and the leg room was far more than I expected (two factors which I think are more important than the food). In addition, the entertainment options were good, and the monitor was large and easy to operate – plus it included a USB port.

Although this flight may not always make sense for me (given that my family and friends primarily live on the East Coast), United’s Flight 1 offers a great new option for travelers who need to go between the U.S. and South East Asia.

After disembarking, I looked up our flight path via FlightAware. This was the route we took:Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 11.01.55 AM.png

 

 

 

Trip Report: Singapore to Washington DC (Flight 3: Toronto to Washington DC)

Flight 3 – Economy:

  • Toronto Canada to Washington DC (Dulles)
  • Bombardier CRJ-200
  • Operated by Air Canada Express – Air Georgian

Despite sleeping for a considerable portion of the Tokyo to Toronto flight, I was exhausted and not feeling well when we finally disembarked from the 11+ hour flight. I was hoping to get some rest and a quick bite to eat before boarding our last flight to Washington D.C.

However, reaching our final gate proved more difficult than I expected. Passengers connecting through Toronto to the U.S., go through U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Toronto. That meant that as soon as we disembarked in Toronto, we were shepherded into the U.S. Customs line. This had one big advantage, in that we were able to use the downtime between flights to clear immigration – which ultimately saved us time when we reached Washington D.C.

That being said, the process of clearing U.S. Customs in Toronto was slow and painful (especially after 20 hours of travel already). To start, there were three separate screening processes that we had to complete. The first was a general security line which crept along at the usual glacial pace of such lines. After finally clearing security, we were herded into a new room that separated passengers based on some unknown criteria. Certain passengers were allowed to quickly pass through this room, while we were told to queue at an Air Canada counter to discuss our itinerary.

When it was our turn in line, we presented our boarding passes and were informed that we should return to the same line we had just exited. I was baffled by the process but in no mood to question what was going on. After a short wait, we were allowed to use one of the U.S. Customs, self-serve kiosks to submit our declaration forms. I assume these automated machines are designed to expedite the immigration process. But in my experience this has not been the case.

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Automated passport control kiosks at Toronto Pearson International Airport
After scanning our passports and taking the mandatory unflattering picture, we received our “receipt” and were directed into the last and longest line.

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This line was slow!
For much of the time we were in the above line, it was serviced by exactly one Customs officer. There were long stretches of time where the line simply did not move. The middle aged lady who was manning the Customs booth should be commended for her thoroughness – she seemed to be grilling every passenger in minute detail – but it really held up the line.

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Empty U.S. Customs booths
Luckily, after about 30 minutes of waiting, a second official was activated by the powers that be. In contrast to the first, this guy new the score – get through as many passengers as quickly as possible, with little to no fuss. He simply collected the Customs receipts and let everyone pass. He probably let in 20 passengers for every one the original Customs officer let in.

After clearing the line ourselves, we were free to head to our gate. Unfortunately, our flight was delayed by about 45 minutes. After a second delay, we were able to board the small Bombardier aircraft – we were relegated to an old portion of the terminal that let passengers walk directly onto the runway (although we had a covered walkway).

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Our aircraft after landing at Dulles
I usually do not like flying on smaller planes. But this final leg of our trip, at just 1 hour in length, was incredibly smooth. There was little to note about the flight. There was just one flight attendant who was friendly and attentive. As we flew into Dulles, and not DCA, we were not privy to any great views of Washington D.C. There were some nice views of Virginia though.

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Virginia from the sky
After landing in Washington D.C., it was a relief to avoid U.S. Customs and instead go directly to baggage claim. It was a long trip and I was exhausted, but I was also glad to be home.

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Obligatory picture of the White House taken the next morning

Trip Report: Singapore to Washington DC (Flight 2: Tokyo to Toronto)

Flight 2 – Business Class:

  • Tokyo Narita to Toronto Canada
  • Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner
  • Operated by Air Canada

After disembarking from our ANA flight, we went through a short security line at Narita airport and then headed directly to the ANA lounge. After showing our onward boarding passes, we entered the lounge for some rest and food.

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Entrance to the ANA lounge at Tokyo, Narita
The lounge was relatively empty when we entered, but it quickly filled up. There were light food options and a decent choice of alcohol, including Japanese beer on tap. My favorite part of the ANA lounge was the small noodle bar where you could order ready made dishes. I had the Ramen noodles which were pretty good.

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The noodle chef hard at work
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Ramen noodles
The lounge we visited also had a nice viewing area where we could watch planes landing and taking off.

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Bar area to sit and watch the planes
While we were there, we spotted this Star Wars themed plane taxing for take-off.

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About 20 minutes before our Air Canada flight was due to start boarding, we headed to our gate. The Boeing 787-900 Dreamliner we were on had three classes of service: business, premium economy and economy. We boarded and found our seats in the business class compartment.

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Business class
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Air Canada has a modern, reverse herringbone setup on the 787 that allows each passenger direct aisle access. Upon boarding, the seats were pre-stocked with a basic amenity kit, slippers, a warm blanket, a pillow and a bottle of water.After takeoff, the flight attendants passed out noise cancelling headphones which I used throughout the flight.


After I drank a glass of sparkling wine my cold began to get worse and I felt increasingly sick throughout the flight.  As a result, I wasn’t able to fully enjoy the primary benefit of business class: kicking back with your legs up and a cold glass of champagne, while contemplating ones own sense of superiority (a feeling enhanced with the knowledge that the untold masses are suffering in the back of the plane with overcrowded bathrooms, zero leg room, and crying babies). Instead I was just thankful that I had a warm place to spread out and rest during the long flight.

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A drink and warm cashews
My dinner on board the plane was good, but I didn’t eat very much. IMG_5811.jpg

Seafood entree


Similar to the ANA flight, the entertainment options onboard the flight were underwhelming. Although I enjoyed the large, modern touchscreen, I wish Air Canada would invest in a few more movie and TV options. I ended up watching Mrs. Doubtfire (a classic) and How to Be Single (not too bad). The entertainment system came with a cool little mini control / viewing iPad that you could also watch TV and movies on.  I did not really use this during the flight.

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Individual entertainment system
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The flight actually went by fairly quickly, as I was able to sleep for several hours. In almost no time, the flight attendants were coming around with breakfast and we were preparing to land in Toronto.

For the novice long-haul business class traveller, especially one using points, there is always that conflict and tension between getting a good night’s rest and staying awake as long as possible so one can partake, and “maximize”, all that business class has to offer (good alcohol, decent gourmet food, better entertainment systems, one’s own smug sense of superiority (as discussed above), etc.). As I was not feeling well, I was happy to be in business class so I could sleep in relative comfort. I think if I had been sitting in the back of the plane, the trip would have been near unbearable.

In the next blog post I will write about the Toronto airport, U.S. immigration (in Canada) and our return to lowly economy for the last leg of our trip to Washington D.C.

Trip Report: Singapore to Washington DC (Flight 1: SG to Tokyo)

Last week, Amy and I travelled back to the U.S. from Singapore. We used my entire balance of United MileagePlus frequent flyer miles, along with several thousand points transferred from my Chase Sapphire Preferred account, to book our business class flights. This is my trip report.

Flight 1 – Business Class: 

  • Singapore to Tokyo Narita
  • Boeing 777-300ER
  • Operated by ANA All Nippon Airways

The first leg of our trip departed from Singapore at 6:00am. ANA operates out of Terminal 2 at Singapore’s Changi airport. In my opinion, Terminal 2 is the most outdated terminal in Singapore’s otherwise modern and easily accessible airport.

While checking in at the ANA Business class counter, our taxi driver ran in to the airport to find us. We had overpaid by $10 and he was bringing us our change. I took this as a good sign: a favorable start to a long trip.

After checking in, we proceeded through Singapore immigration. Changi airport performs security scanning on an individual gate basis. In my opinion, this is far superior to the normal security process where all passengers are bottlenecked into the same long security line. However, I understand Changi’s New Terminal 4, which is currently under construction, will employ a traditional, airport-wide security process.

After passing through immigration, we proceeded to the KrisFlyer Business Class Lounge. As we were flying business class on a Star Alliance airline (which includes Singapore Airlines), we were entitled to use the Singapore lounge.

Entrance to the KrisFlyer lounges in Terminal 2

The business class lounge and the first class lounge are side by side in Terminal 2. We presented out boarding passes and entered the Business class side.


As it was still early, the lounge was fairly empty. A light buffet was available along with plenty of drink options, both coffees and alcoholic choices.

Business class lounge buffet
Self-serve bar at the lounge
Coffee machine
Plenty of available seating

Just in case, there were computer terminals and even booths to make private phone calls in.

Computer terminals
Phone booths

The food in the lounge was good but nothing amazing. We waited in the relative quiet of the lounge until about 30 minutes before our flight was due to depart. After quickly going through the gate’s security line (there was almost no one in line by the time we got there), we boarded the large 777 and found our seats.

I did not explore the back of the plane, but the business class section was almost completely empty.

lots of empty business class seats

The ANA 777 we were on offers a staggered 1-2-1 business class arrangement with direct aisle access for all seats.

For the aisle seats, every other seat is flush with the window, in my opinion these seats offer the most privacy as they are blocked from the aisle by the storage and tray table area.

business class seat flush with the window

The business class seats were adjustable into fully flat beds. When extended, I found the beds to offer more than enough space for sleeping comfortably.

After boarding I took my seat, 5F, and settled in. We were offered newspapers in Japanese and English and a welcome drink of orange juice, water or sparkling wine. The pre-flight drinks were served in plastic cups.

welcome drink in a plastic cup

We left the gate shortly after the doors closed and taxied for only a few minutes.

After a smooth takeoff, the seat belt sign was turned off and I explored the forward business class cabin.

Business class seat at boarding
View of the flight plan halfway through the trip

The individual screens for each passenger were large and easy to operate. However, I was a bit underwhelmed  by the entertainment options. Although there were approximately 32 “new releases” available, many of these were actually duplications of the same movie in different languages.

I like to watch breezy comedies on long flights, so I opted for the Robert De Niro and Zac Efron movie, Dirty Grandpa. Unfortunately, the movie was neither breezy nor funny. It was unquestionably the worst movie I’ve seen in a long time. In addition, there appeared to be issues of continuity regarding the feeble and predictable plot. I think this was due to ANA censoring certain aspects of the movie (i.e. sex and drugs), but it is also possible the movie was just poorly edited. Either way, I have no plans to re-watch it and find out.

 

Dinner onboard the flight

The flight attendants in business class were attentive and friendly. The food was okay but not exceptional – but I guess that is to be expected given that we were on a plane. The fruit was my favorite part of the meal above.

Japan from the air as we approached Narita

It was a beautiful day as we made our approach to Tokyo’s Narita.  Overall, the flight was relaxing and comfortable. It was especially enjoyable given how quiet business class was (I’m pretty sure I had a bathroom all to myself).  We were first off the plane (we passed a small first class compartment with a single passenger) and after clearing a short security line, we headed for the ANA lounge.

Trip Report: Singapore to Washington DC (Introduction)

A few months ago, Amy and I began to plan our trip home this summer. At the time, I was beginning to worry that future airline mile devaluations could further erode my Chase Ultimate Rewards point balance. Rather than continue to stockpile points (a depreciating and unpredictable asset), I thought it would be a good time to use some of our points to fly back home in (relative) comfort.

Through the Chase Sapphire web portal, it is possible to transfer miles to a large number of frequent flyer programs that operate from Singapore including United, Korean Air and Singapore Airlines.

In general, Singapore and Korean offer superior products. However, the United website is far easier to use and provides availability through several Star Alliance partner airlines. After searching all three websites I found a good flight on the United website with two business class seats available. Our one way itinerary was the following:

Flight 1 – Business Class:

  • Singapore to Tokyo Narita
  • Boeing 777-300ER
  • Operated by the Japanese carrier All Nippon Airways (ANA)

Flight 2 – Business Class:

  • Tokyo Narita to Toronto Canada
  • Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner
  • Operated by Air Canada

Flight 3 – Economy:

  • Toronto Canada to Washington DC (Dulles)
  • Bombardier CRJ-200
  • Operated by Air Canada Express – Air Georgian

We were able to book the above itinerary using a combination of existing United Miles and transferring Chase Ultimate Reward points to my United account. In all, the above itinerary cost 80,000 points for each ticket and approximately US$55.00.

If we had purchased the tickets instead of using miles, they would have cost anywhere from US$8,000 to US$10,000 for the pair.

Occasionally, there are some inconveniences with booking partner awards on the United website. In this case, we were able to pick our seats on the first leg of the itinerary (i.e., the flight operated by ANA) but not on the second and third legs (the Air Canada flights). Rather annoyingly, Air Canada does not allow travelers who purchase their tickets on partner airlines to pick their Air Canada seats until they check in for the flight.

I will write more about the flights in future posts, but I’ve included a few preliminary photos below. Unfortunately, I left Singapore just as I was coming down with a bit of a cold. So although the business class seats were fantastic, and far superior to the equivalent in Coach, I wasn’t able to fully enjoy the business class experience.

Our ANA 777 after landing in Tokyo

Our Air Canada 787-9 Dreamliner