Monday, January 25, 2010

JAPAN - November 2009 Travelreport (better late than never!)

Visiting Japan was a truly amazing and educational experience.  Relaxing, it was not, as we do not take relaxing holidays often.  We visited many sites and enjoyed getting to know the intricacies of general existence in the ‘land of the rising sun.’  Traveling from California, we arrived in Japan after a 12 hour flight and then endured 2 hours on a bus to our hotel in Tokyo (from Narita airport).  Amazingly we were tired but jetlag was not a problem.  Basically at a 17 hour time difference (losing time from where we came from) makes the body feel like there really was not much of a change.  Coming back though was a different story.
On our weeklong adventure we spent time in Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and Tokyo.  All these cities had something different to offer and all were worth visiting.  We fell in love right away with the public transportation system which runs smoothly and efficiently.  From the subways to high-speed trains, everything is punctual, regardless of the day of the week.  Now onto the sites; in Osaka (a very modern city with not that much old stuff to see) we went to Osaka Castle, built in 1931 is not exactly like the original built in 1536, but pretty close to it and VERY imposing.  At the top of its seven stories, you get a lovely look out over Osaka and its surroundings.  If you lodge in the city you can explore far and wide, getting to know Western Honshu.  We took daytrips to Kyoto and Nara, both early capitals of Japan.  Kyoto is a magnificent old city and it is worthwhile to check out the Gion, with its traditional wooden architecture.  In addition, checking out Pontocho, Kyoto’s traditional nightlife district (with many yummy restaurants) is a great idea.  Both places give you a sense of what it was like in old Japan.  We also walked up to one of the oldest wooden structures in the world, a UNESCO heritage site, 1,000 years old, Kiyomizu Temple.  The view from up there is spectacular, and visiting in the fall we certainly got a great glimpse of the beautiful red and yellow leaves.  There are quite a few shrines on the way up and various alters, all absolutely worth seeing.  When you visit Japan’s magnificent capital, from the 11th century to 1868, you will no doubt have plenty to do.  We also recommend checking out Nijo Castle, a Shogun residence, with wooden construction which insures that when you walk the floorboards make a chirping sound like that of birds.  This was done so that intruders wishing to endanger its inhabitants, would be heard, an alarm system of the old days I like to think.
In Nara, Japan’s first capital, you will surely enjoy checking-out the Kofuku-ji Temple complex, where sacred deer wander freely.  This place is complete with a pagoda and a giant Buddha statue, the Great Buddha Vairocana.  It is a very cool place to go, but be warned that the deer have no qualms with literally mounting you if they see you with food.  In same general area where the temple resides, you will want to see the Kasuga Shrine with its 3,000 magnificent lanterns.  The temple itself also boasts a whole through a wooden pillar, which if you can slither your way through, assures you will attain nirvana.  The Great Buddha is truly awe-inspiring and honestly was one of the most magnificent things we saw in Japan.  After our half day in Nara, we decided to catch a train to view the Fushimi-Inari  shrine, one of many shrines to Inari the deity of rice and sake.  This one is very interesting by its look, with bright orange gates forming a long tunnel-like structure.  They were donated by the local business people as an offering to Inari, in hopes of attaining a very prosperous business future.
Back in Tokyo we checked out the Tokyo Metropolitan building for its views.  On a clear day you can not only see all of Tokyo and beyond, but also Mt. Fuji.  Unfortunately, on our late November visit we only saw sprawling Tokyo and a giant cloud over the summit of Mt. Fuji.  We also checked out Tokyo’s low city  (Yanaka) and Ameyoko Market.  Both places were good for some minor souvenir shopping.  Make sure you visit the Senso-ji Temple, popularly known as Asakusa Kannon.  It is Tokyo’s most sacred temple and it truly offers a lot to the visitor.  From the busy, majestic entrance with a spectacular lantern, the amazing murals inside the temple itself, to the shopping and street food in the alley that leads to the main hall.  Other must do’s are Ueno Park (site of a great battle now a commemorative park), Shibuya (department store and crowds galore), East Shinjuku (late night party scene & red-light district Kabukicho) and the Meiji shrine (Tokyo’s revered Shinto shrine).  If you visit the Shinto shrine on a Saturday, you will likely see quite a few traditional dress Japanese weddings and families in traditional dress worshipping and taking photos.
 We also checked out a beautiful park in the northern part of Tokyo: Rikugien Park. The landscaping & fall-colors were breathtaking. It's a real treat, you should enjoy a nice leisurely afternoon walk there. Lastly, make sure that you don’t miss out on Ginza, the heart of Tokyo.  You will find the imperial palace in the general vicinity, the imperial gardens (you can visit these), lots of department stores and a guide to a self-guided tour of this very historical section of the city. If you are looking for one of the world’s busiest intersections, you will find it in Ginza, the Yon-chome crossing. 
Now a few thoughts on food and culture. Japan is a spectacular country with lots of traditions that to the average Western traveler are somewhat confusing.  That is not to say that you will have a hard time figuring things out, and most people are friendly and willing to help.  If you do a little homework before showing up in Japan, you will do just fine.  If you are open to trying new things, food will not be a challenge.  If you are more of a picky eater or a vegetarian, finding suitable cuisine will be more difficult.  Mainstream hotels offer Western type breakfast as part of the room rate and also have a variety of Western-like restaurants.  These can be a bit pricey for lunch or dinner and may not always have vegetarian or vegan food.  We do not have any real dietary restrictions so we tried a variety of things.  Nothing we ate, from sushi to Balinese food, onto fantastic udon and soup was expensive.  The exception was our Kobe beef dinner which still stands as the most expensive dinner for two we have ever had, and we have eaten at some fine restaurants.  And if you do come across soft-serve ice cream in a green tea-vanilla swirl, you must experience it.
One word sums up Japanese transportation: TRAINS.  There is no need to rent a car, although a bike rental may not be a bad idea in some places.  If you don’t mind walking and can make sense of train schedules, then you are good to go.  As mentioned above, Japan really does ruin you for public transportation in most Western countries.  The subways and trains are so efficient, always on time, clean and all around just a pleasure to take. Just remember to be on time to all your train rides – they do leave on time, no exceptions.
The Japanese we encountered were friendly, well-mannered, helpful and always accommodating. We had a great unique trip; we enjoyed the quirks, indulged in the food and soaked up the atmosphere and culture. Now that we explored most of the Honshu main island we look forward to come back to Japan and sample the north (Hokkaido) and southern Japan.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Stupid Bag Fees....

Oh come on - raising fees again?? this...

Does anyone else remember the primary reason for increasing fees to begin with? Oil prices were at almost $100 a barrel and the airlines were complaining that it's too expensive to operate their fleet. Well almost all airlines because some of them like Southwest were actually smart and had "future" contracts for kerosene so they locked in on the previously low price when everybody else had to adjust to the every increasing prices....

So, fine, everybody understood that reasoning - even though it would have been nicer to just include it in the price of the ticket overall...then again, that wouldn't have been fair to the people traveling without any bags. But now - oil prices are down again so why don't the fees disappear or at least get adjusted down...Yeah, I know..."in a perfect world"....apparently there aren't only "sticky prices" for groceries but also for airline fees.

Anyway, the fees pretty much change every week now - first one major Airline raises them by $5 then all the others jump on the cookie jar as well... Soon even international baggage fees are going to be implemented. Some Airlines are already charging for international baggage....what a rip-off. To stay current with this insanity I bookmarked this PAGE that nicely puts it all together and updates all the fees involved with flying any particular airline.

Remember when you actually got a meal on a plane, drinks, nuts, silverware, wine, magazines, newspapers, pillows, blankets,......I'm getting sentimental... :)

More hotels coming our way in New York!

I just read an interesting article on the New York Times website.

The lodging markets in New York and Houston were particularly ripe several years ago for hotel growth. In New York, occupancy levels were 85 percent from 2004 through 2008, and the average daily room rate rose 86 percent in those years, said Bjorn Hanson, a clinical associate professor at the Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University. Developers, he said, believed that these conditions “created a safe, secure investment environment.”
As a result, this year’s hotel expansion is the largest in New York, in terms of new hotel openings and the addition of rooms, Mr. Hanson said. The new hotels represent most of the major chains, according to Smith Travel Research.
Marriott, for instance, will open five hotels in the city under the Courtyard and Fairfield Inn brands, it said. InterContinental will open four hotels, including a 592-room InterContinental in Times Square, and others under the Holiday Inn Express and Staybridge Suites brands; and Hyatt will open four hotels, two under the Andaz brand and two under the Hyatt Place brand, Smith Travel Research said.
Starwood says it is opening six hotels under the Sheraton, Four Points by Sheraton, Aloft, W and Element brands. InterContinental declined to comment on its expansion plans, and Hyatt would not confirm the opening of the two Hyatt Place hotels.
Great, that sounds like we are going to have many more options and a lot more rooms available. However, knowing the New York Tourism market - this is just going to be a temporary relief, especially during this recession - after it's over it's gonna be tough to find a reasonably priced room in Manhattan again.

3000 US Airways Miles on Avis Rentals of 3 Days or More

You have to enter coupon MUAA044 and provide your Dividend Miles number with the reservation. Valid through March 31, 2011.

This is technically only for US Airways Elite members but Avis doesn't know your status so - no problem! :)

Double United Miles for Dining in February and March

Registration is required to earn double miles (6 for online-registered members, and 10 for VIP dining members) on spending at participating restaurants between February 1 and March 31.

Over the years I have found dining to be the best mileage accruel option. Especially once you hit the VIP dining member status. 10miles per dinner - $40 lunch - 400 miles....$90 dinner - 900 you can see, it adds up quickly....if, you're a VIP.

The fastest way to get VIP status - just search for a cheap eatery near your work or home, go there 12 times for desert, sandwich, drink..something small ( I went to Baja Fresh 10 different times for 1 Churro! :))...then, enjoy the extra miles...

Free Radisson Goldpoints Plus Silver Status

The offer requires that you
contact the Member Service Centre at or call +44 207 949 0379 and mention the promotional code indicated in your XING promotion (Code: OPBCSL09).
Now, Silver status doesn’t get you much.

But it does get you “Our World, Your Lounge” benefits in Europe, Middle East, and Africa: elite members are welcome any time in any hotel for a free coffee, tea or hot chocolate for two people and to use free wireless internet.

Judging from the Flyertalk discussion - a simple email to goldpointsplus (after you registered for goldpointsplus seperately here) will do the trick.

UPDATE - did the online registration - no need for email!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

If you are flying to JFK this spring - BEWARE

So the Port Authority apparently realized that it's time to do some work on one of the JFK runways; Thus, 1 runway, the longest one at JFK is going to be closed starting in March and will open again, presumably in July. I think it will be later than that.....

Here's the link to the story: LINK

What's it to you? If you have plans to go to New York in April or May, like us, DON'T fly into JFK. There's already crazy delays with all 3 runways - now they only have 2. No way we'll fly into JFK. You might get luckly and fly to JFK when there are no delays, but knowing New York airspace...that's hardly happening these days.

So EWR or La Guardia it is for us. EWR is probably a better choice anyway - the train connection to downtown Manhattan is way faster and customer friendly.

If you're too stubborn and still go for the discount ticket to JFK - BEWARE! Don't say we didn't warn ya!

Monday, January 4, 2010

250 Priority Club Points for Paperless

Here is a quick and easy 250 points for switching your Priority Club account to paperless.