17 August 2011

Tokyo, again!

I had booked this trip several months in advance (before the earthquake and tsunami).  I was planning to visit a new dessert restaurant in Tokyo that was supposed to open a few months earlier.  My dessert bar friends from New York are behind this venture.  However, the earthquake caused them to postpone their plans, so they postponed the opening until later in the year.  Unfortunately for me, United ceased offering travel waivers for Japan flights that would extend to my flight plans.  So, I was committed to go regardless.  I was going to make the best of it, even though I had just been to Tokyo.  I planned a return visit to the Molecular Tapas Bar.  I also booked a personal architecture tour thorough Bespoke Tokyo.  I also decided to stay at a different hotel than the one I had been using for every other Tokyo visit, which would put me in a different part of town.

My outbound flight was a little bit of a mess.  There turned out to be a delay of almost two hours (not a huge deal sine I didn't have any specific plans for my arrival day).  However, since I was traveling on a Z fare (acquired through an up-sell online when I bought the original ticket), I asked if I could get upgraded to First for a fee plus miles.  After a great deal of gyration and consultation, they eventually gave me the upgrade.  Unbeknown to me at the time, United had called my office number earlier in the morning to tell me about the delay and to say that they were holding a First Class seat for me on the flight.  I did eventually get my fee and miles back, but I think this just added to the booking confusion about my reservation (so much so, that I was not allowed to check in online on my return flight).  But it all worked out, and I decided I didn't want to try gong through the same hassle and upgrade on the return.

Having learned the Skyliner routine, I decided to use that plus local trains to get to my hotel.  When trying to catch the scheduled Skyliner, I found the platform directions a little confusing -- I assumed I could get to the right platform via escalator.  If I had paid attention to the signs, I would have seen that elevators were what I needed to take to get quickly to the correct platform.  I just made my train (tickets are for a specific seat on a specific train).

It was a little more evident on this trip how much impact the aftereffects of the earthquake and tsunami had on Tokyo.  Many escalators were turned off (I had to haul my luggage up stairs), it was warm (thermostats were turned up), and some doors to buildings were disabled (only on set of automatic doors would work).  It was also dark walking outside on the sidewalks -- many streetlights were turned off.  It's a good thing Tokyo is not a big street-crime haven.  It still felt a little eerie.

Since the Hilton Tokyo is near Shinjuku Station, that is the area my tour centered around, although we did take the subway a few times for a quick dash to some specific points, like Mid-Town.  Here are some of the interesting buildings, which are just interspersed among a variety of average or nondescript-looking structures:


My meal at the Tapas Molecular Bar was even better than my first visit.  Some food highlights:

I also had time to travel to a Japanese Onsen (bathing house) located in central Tokyo.  It has water heated by hot springs below, with pools of varying temperature located inside and outside.  Even though not much English was spoken, they did have English instructions available to help guide you through the various procedures and areas.  It was very relaxing.  I don't have any pictures as it would not have been easy (nor probably allowed) to carry a camera into the baths area.

Even though I didn't get to try out the new dessert bar place, I looked for similar experiences.  I ended up having afternoon tea and a snack at a Mariage Freres location on the other side of Shinjuku Station from my hotel.

Fortunately, my flight home was much less of a hassle than my outbound flight.  Business Class was certainly good enough.  My ticket was a little messed up since I appeared to be double-booked, but the agent was very good and eventually managed to figure it all out.  I'll just have to book a return flight some time in the near future to check out the dessert bar.


I have been to Toronto before, but only in the winter.  So I was looking forward to visiting and being able to walk around comfortably without being all bundled up.  The origin f the trip was that I had seen a reference to a restaurant called Colborne Lane on of the the travel boards I scan.  Turns out the restaurant is on OpenTable.com, so it made it very easy to check reservation availability.  Once I had secured a time slot, I wrapped the rest of the trip around it for a long weekend stay.

I had booked a flight that left for Chicago around 7am with a connecting flight to Toronto leaving about 45 minutes after my arrival.  As the trip approached, I decided that the connection was too tight and I wanted to take the stress out of the connection, particularly when I saw that on some days, my inbound flight to Chicago landed at a different terminal than the outbound flight to Toronto.  There was an earlier flight out of SF about an hour earlier, so I wanted to try for a confirmed seat change on day of departure.  One can do this on United online 3 hours before the departure of the target flight.  So i woke up at 3am and checked online.  Unfortunately, the flight showed all full in both cabins (I forgot to mention that I was giving up a confirmed upgrade seat in first class on my booked flight).  I called Untied just to be sure and they said I could not do a confirmed change.  On to Plan B. . . .

I did something that I usually don't do and that's pack for carry-on only.  This is challenging for me due to the restrictions on liquids and gels and all the stuff I have packed in my toiletry case.  Since it was only a two-night trip, I managed to pare everything down and even collapse my rollaboard to its smaller size.

I arrived at the airport early and checked in for my booked flight.  I then went to the gate of the earlier flight and asked to be put on the waitlist.  I ended up as number 4, and initially that looked good.  But as people checked in, the number of available seats kept decreasing.  Then boarding began and it got all the way to Zone 4 before I was called up.  They had a seat for me in Economy Plus in the middle.  I said I would take it and then she said that I would have to check my bag.  I was clearly unhappy about that, so she said I could try, but they would have a tag ready, just in case.  I was fortunate to find an overhead spot that worked on the 767 plane.  So, the stress was relieved and I was set for the trip.  It is interesting how short the 4-hour trip can feel when you have spent the past week on 4 10-hour flights.  And I was glad I switched (despite sitting in a middle seat) as my flight and the original booked flight were going to land at Terminal C and the Toronto flight was going to depart from Terminal B.  As it was, we arrived a little late, but I had more than enough cushion to make it over to Terminal B and catch my flight to Toronto.

As I wanted to get to my hotel as soon as feasible, I decided to spring for a cab.  Normally I don't take taxis because I just don't like taking them -- I often feel that I am being taken for a ride (in a bad way).  The cab was not cheap because the airport is a little ways from downtown.  But it's a flat fee, so at least it didn't matter what route we took or how much traffic there was.

I had stayed at the Hilton Toronto before.  It's fairly centrally located and has a nice Executive Lounge.  One difference this time was that there was no welcome gift this time (last visit it was jars of chocolate-covered cherries).

This trip was planned around food, but I also wanted to take advantage of the warm weather and explore new sections of Toronto.  Photos below are of the Old City Hall, The Distillery area, and an interesting building.


And some shots from the tasting menu at Colborne Lane.

Nitrogen ice cream, of course!

For my return flight, I chose the non-stop, which leaves early in the morning.  It would have been possible to take the first airport express bus, which picks up near the hotel.  But, I wasn't sure how long it was going to take and I didn't want to cut it close, given I didn't know how long immigration and security would take.  So, I opted to take a taxi to the airport.  I probably would have been okay on  the bus, as while the check-in counters were open, the immigration and customs area was not, so there was a bit of a line.

Getting there early did give me enough time to check out the lounges.  The Maple Leaf Lounge for Air Canada was big, but not quite as nice with the food as I recalled their other lounges were.  With my American Express-supplied Priority Pass, I checked into the pay-to-use lounge (free for me) and, although it was smaller, they had hot breakfast food available.  I knew I was going to get food on the plane, but it was still nice to have a little something beforehand.  I was also the only one using the lounge at the time.

Departure and arrival were on time, so it was a very prompt end to a quick weekend away.