01 March 2015

Tokyo, by way of Palm Springs

I had tentative plans to go to Tokyo over the MLK Holiday in January.  One reason was that I had entered a lottery for the opportunity to dine at Noma's pop-up restaurant in Tokyo.  Unfortunately, I did not get picked, but I had to leave the option open in case I was picked from the wait list (I never was).  Later, it came up that some friends of mine decided to get married at the start of that holiday weekend in Palm Springs, so I would have to work that into my travel plans.

As it turned out, when I went to actually book the flights, I obtained a lower airfare going through Palm Springs than if I had just booked a round-trip fare between San Francisco and Tokyo.  The hitch was that I would have to return through Palm Springs (or at least book flights that did so.  My routing went as follows:  SFO-PSP(stopover)-SFO-NRT(Tokyo Narita Airport) (stopover)-SFO-PSP-SFO.  Practically, on the return, I could just clear customs at SFO and then go home, ignoring the two remaining segments.

I had a late-afternoon flight to Palm Springs after work.  I had never flown to Palm Springs before.  They only use regional jets, although my flight had the bigger plane with a First Class section and Economy Plus.  I actually met up with another friend going to the wedding, so we took a straightforward cab ride to the hotel.

The Rivera Palm Springs Resort rooms were much nicer than I had expected them to be,  They were modern, good-sized and the bathrooms had both a free-standing tub and large walk-in shower.

I spent two nights in Palm Springs.  The only real touring around I did was on bicycle one morning.  The day after the wedding, I left in the early morning to begin my trek to Tokyo.  My 6 am flight got me to SFO with plenty of time to enjoy breakfast at the American Express Centurion Lounge.  Afterwards, I headed to the United Global First Lounge for more food before boarding my flight to Tokyo.

My flight to Tokyo arrived on time and there was not much of a wait through customs, so I was out of the arrivals area in no time.  Lately, I have been using the Skyliner train and local transit to get into Tokyo because of the slightly lower cost and quicker time to destination.  However, for this trip, I decided to stay at the Shangri-La Tokyo, located right next to Tokyo Station.  Therefore, the most efficient way to go into town would be the JR Narita Express train.  I discovered before arriving in Tokyo that the Narita Express has a new tourist fare offer -- almost half off a one-way ticket from the airport to Tokyo, as long as you are a foreign tourist (The return fare would still be at full-fare).  Given that was my destination anyway, I was sold.  I went up to the ticket desk, showed my passport, and asked for a round-trip ticket with the special fare.  The agent understood perfectly, and I received my reserved-seat tickets for my rides on the train.

My stay in Tokyo was only going to be for two nights, so I did not have much planned.  Given I had been a few times before, I wasn't trying to fill up an agenda with much sightseeing.  My plans revolved around checking out a new hotel, trying a new restaurant or two, and some shopping.  My only pressing event on my arrival day was an 8:30 pm dinner across town.

I arrived at Tokyo Station and proceeded to try and locate which exit to use (the station is huge) to get closest to the Shangri-La.  I generally knew where the hotel was situated relative to the station (east side), so I followed a path that led me to the east side and then headed north.  It turned out that the northernmost east side exit brought me the closest to the hotel building, which, while not attached, was just across the street.

The lobby agent took my name and saw that I was booked to stay on the Horizon Club Level (Executive Lounge Level).  I was led to the elevators and shown to the Lounge.  I was directed to have a seat in the lounge while they pulled up my materials.  It was almost 5pm and tea time was about to end, so I quickly grabbed some snacks while I waited.  They also brought me my drink of choice (fresh orange juice). A lounge agent came back in a few minutes to my seat and provided me with my room key and overview of the facilities at the hotel available to me.  I was then shown my room, which was a standard room located on the Club floor.

View of the Lounge from my seat

The room was spacious, with a nice view looking eastward.  Everything had electronic controls.  There were several plug outlets located throughout the room, making it easy to charge up mobile devices.

The bathroom was located on the other side of a window. The tub/shower section was just to the other side of the window.  The sink and toilet facilities were beyond that. While the general setup is similar to other hotels I've stayed at in Asia, the combination tub/shower sub-room is distinctly Japanese.

The staff at the Lounge were always very friendly and helpful.  The hotel had set up my dinner reservation for that evening at an outside restaurant at my request and provided me with a written letter confirmation.  They also tried to help with additional reservations, once I had decided on some options for the following evening.

The Lounge food was very well done.  Breakfasts included a nice selection of cold continental offerings, as well as the traditional Japanese breakfast dishes.  They also allowed you to order Western-style hot food from a menu (eggs, waffles, etc.), which was a very nice offering.

My restaurant for that first evening was called Edition.  It was located across town in the Mid-town/Roppongi Hills section of Tokyo.  It was only a couple of subway trains away and it took about a half-hour to get there.  I selected the restaurant because of the modernist techniques that seemed to be used for preparing the dishes, as well as the option of selecting preferred ingredients and the chef creating a menu of dishes around those selections.

For the full write-up of my dining experience, click here.

For my second night, I had targeted a tempura restaurant called Fukamachi.  However, the hotel found out that they happened to be closed on that Sunday that I was there.  So, I just settled for lounge food for my second dinner in Tokyo, which was fine.

On my morning of departure, I approached one of the Lounge agents and asked if I could have a later check-out.  It turned out they had already set me up for a later departure based upon the flight information I had given them (3 hours from flight departure time).  As it was, I wanted to check out one hour earlier than they had allotted for me.

Given the proximity of the hotel to the train station, I was on the platform one train early from my scheduled train.  As all seats are reserved, you really can't get on an earlier train unofficially, so I just waited.  I had plenty off time built in so that I could do some duty free shopping, so I was not in any hurry and the trains in Japan are very dependable.

Upon arrival at the airport, I discovered that things were changed around a little bit.  They moved the Global First/Global Services check-in counter to a small room that is used for ANA First Class check-in (Zone Z).  United was given a counter station to use there, and after checking in, there was a separate direct entrance to the First Class security area (which I was already familiar with from a different entrance nearby).  I cleared immigration quickly and had plenty of time to shop and to enjoy the food services of the Global First Lounge.

My flight arrived on time in the late morning into SFO.  My continuing flight to Palm Springs was not scheduled until around 4pm.  After a brief stop in the Arrivals Lounge, I decided that I would head home -- at a minimum, I could drop all my stuff off since I was already outside security after clearing customs.

Once I got home, I could have just stayed there and ended my travels for the long weekend.  However, the weather was nice throughout California, and I really didn't have anything pressing, so I decided to go ahead and ride out the rest of my itinerary for the day.  I headed back to the airport mid-afternoon and stopped back in at the American Express Centurion Lounge for some lunch/dinner.  My flight to Palm Springs left on time.  Upon disembarking the plane, I told the flight attendant up front that I would be riding back with them (as the plane was scheduled to make the return flight to SFO).  However, on the return, I would be sitting towards the back instead of up front, as my upgrade did not clear.

Upon reboarding about 45 minutes later, I said hi and headed back to my seat.  Later, both flight attendants came back and I tried to explain why I was doing what I was doing.  And even though I was not sitting in First Class, they were kind enough to bring back to me one of the snack boxes from First Class, which I greatly appreciated since it was really dinnertime now on the flight.  Our on-time arrival back into SFO finally closed out my long travel day and  holiday weekend.

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