I collected airline miles, hotel points, and free night certificates for an excursion to East Asia in December of 2015. I redeemed miles for my mother, father, and I to fly Cathay Pacific. The first flight was 16 hours, from Newark to Hong Kong, and the second was a 4-hour flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo Narita. On the return, we flew with Delta, from Narita to Detroit.
We started in Rapid City, South Dakota. We changed planes in Denver, and boarded our flight to Newark. Service was friendly, if rudimentary. In Newark, we passed through security to retrieve our checked bag. We couldn’t check-in until 8:30 pm so we waited patiently. I grabbed a large coffee and smoked two cigarettes. Once check-in opened, we were the first passengers in line. Two businesswomen waited behind us, and one offered to take our photo. After clearing security, we followed the women to the British Airways Galleries Lounge. Our tickets included access to this lounge.
(British Airways Galleries Lounge)
Inside the lounge, we snacked on sandwiches, cheese and crackers, and trail mix. An hour before our flight, we headed downstairs to the gate. Agents directed traffic, helping passengers line up. They were efficient and cheerful. Upon boarding, we entered the business class cabin. An amenity kit by Seventy Eight Percent rested on each seat. Mom and Dad sampled Champagne Deutz, Brut Classic. I opted for orange juice.
After departure, attendants distributed menus and another drink. We reached cruising altitude and reclined our seats. The flight departed at 1:10 am, but the merriment had just begun. We were presented with savory dips and breadsticks to start. I chose Hong Kong style curry chicken, broccoli, and steamed jasmine rice as my main. Seasonal berries and a cheese plate with Brie, Manchego, and Taleggio followed. Dessert consisted of scrumptious pralines. I ordered an Illy coffee to accompany them. Mom and Dad had another drink, and soon after, we reclined our seats to the bed position.
After a solid 8-hour rest, I awoke to find Mom and Dad watching movies and snacking. We had six hours to go. I asked for coffee and an orange juice, and dashed to the galley to find a treat – a chocolate. I ordered two more coffees and watched TV. Two hours before landing, attendants started breakfast service. To begin: orange juice and a blueberry smoothie. I chose the scrambled egg ham roll, sautéed mushrooms, baked beans, and herb tomato. Afterwards – a bread basket with preserves, honey, and butter. I ordered another coffee. Following breakfast, we began our descent into Hong Kong.
On the ground, customs and immigration was a breeze. We completed paperwork, though our passports were not stamped. We picked up our checked bag and found the Cathay Pacific Arrivals Lounge. It’s small, but useful. I snagged two pastries and a coffee. We used the showers as it was 9 am and we couldn’t check-in until afternoon. I drank a Coca-Cola and jumped on the Internet. Shortly after, we headed to the hotel. Dad convinced us to take the train. The train didn’t stop near our hotel so at the closest junction we boarded a free shuttle bus and walked the last five blocks.
I received two IHG free night certificates for completing a promotion. We used them at the Intercontinental Hong Kong, upgrading to a room with a view of Victoria Harbor and Central Hong Kong. We were pleasantly surprised – they let us check-in, though it was just 11 am. An affable, Australian woman ushered us to our room. She showed us how to use the TV, the cell phone for international calls, and the room’s features. She reminded us not to drink tap water, anywhere in Hong Kong.
(Victoria Harbor and Central Hong Kong from our room at the Intercontinental)
Once settled, we walked to get dim sum at Ye Shanghai, a restaurant Dad read about. It was excellent dim sum, and we fumbled with chopsticks to inhale. After eating, we walked to the Jade Market. Our guidebook warned about dealers swindling travelers. Luckily, none of us felt the impulse to purchase jade. Nearby, we stopped at Tin Hau Temple. The pungent smell of incense rolled onto the sidewalk and filled the temple. We visited the Hong Kong Museum of History, a fine repository of regional antiquity. We walked to the hotel to rest. That evening, we ate at an Indian restaurant recommended by our hotel. It was dreadful. We ordered a fish curry, as well as chicken skewers. We returned to the hotel for decaf and slept.
The next morning, Mom and Dad brought me a pastry and coffee. We walked to the Star Ferry Terminal. The ferry dropped us off in Central Hong Kong. We noticed a contrast from Kowloon, where the hotel is located. The structures were more imposing. Nonetheless, in all of Hong Kong, Rolex shops are as common as 7-11’s. We took an elevated walkway from the terminal into Central. A businessman asked if we needed directions. He walked with us for two blocks and showed us where to catch the Peak Tram. We continued walking uphill until finding the terminal. The tram dropped us off at the top of Victoria Peak. The views of Hong Kong and its’ surroundings are stunning. We bought coffees and took photos from the vista. The tram dropped us off at the bottom of the hill.
(Hong Kong from Victoria Peak)
(Hong Kong Park)
Hong Kong Park, one block east, was our next stop. We strolled through the park and snapped photos. I found the aviary portion with nets especially interesting. We walked to Mak’s Noodles, not McDonald’s, as one woman thought I meant. Nomadic Matt recommended Mak’s and it didn’t disappoint. Slurping noodles with braised beef in the diminutive café was a terrific experience. Nature’s Village stands just across the street, and carries Wonder Kombucha. I bought three and we returned to the Star Ferry Terminal.
After crossing to Kowloon, we stopped by the hotel for a short rest. That evening, we walked to Temple Street Night Market, recommended by Anthony Bourdain. The market dampened our mood. Women stood outside doorways, urging patrons in. We did find a café, Temple Spice Crab, that piqued our interest. We ordered a beef and spring vegetable dish, but it was not particularly tasty. We met two young local guys who had just been to Japan. They provided suggestions for Kyoto. We walked toward the hotel, finding an Italian restaurant, The Spaghetti House. The pepperoni pizza tasted delicious. Afterward, we walked to the hotel, capping the evening with decaf and views of Central Hong Kong, blinking in the night, with Christmas lights adding to the essence.
The next day, we awoke early. Mom and Dad returned with a pastry and coffee to get my day started. We taxied to the Flower Market and Bird Garden, where half the stalls were closed. Next, we found Tim Ho Wan, the Dim Sum Specialists, also recommended by Nomadic Matt. We waited in line for it to open. We didn’t relish the dim sum like at Ye Shanghai. We taxied to the hotel and checked out. Our taxi ride to the airport was erratic, but we arrived.
We checked in for our flight, passed through security, and made our way to The Wing, one of five Cathay Pacific lounges in the airport. The massive lounge included a coffee bar, a noodle bar, snacks, and light fare. I had a chocolate croissant and a jelly donut, as well as a pastrami sandwich and a tuna sandwich. I drank a cappuccino and a cream soda. Eventually, we examined another lounge. G16, a DragonAir Lounge, was not up to Cathay standards, but the entrance looked over our gate. Our flight reservation indicated we would not be fed onboard so Dad tested a few dishes.
Upon boarding, no one sat next to me. Our section of the plane had approachable Indian staff. They offered champagne, orange juice, and a menu. Looks like we’ll be eating after all. For starters, pesto-marinated prawns, tomato, French beans, and roasted peppers. And a mixed salad with tomato, cucumber, and sesame soy dressing. And Nameko mushroom flavored soba noodles. For my main, I chose the stir-fried beef fillet, porcini mushroom, broccoli and steamed jasmine rice. Dad ordered the sea bream. To finish – a cheese selection, fresh seasonal fruit, and Haagen Daz ice cream. Illy coffee capped the meal.
(Cheese and Fruit Plates)
Our flight landed at Narita on time. I found an NTT Communications SIM Card machine and bought a 7-day card. I attempted to set it up, but was unsuccessful. We rode the train to Tokyo Station. We arrived at 11 pm and the station was packed, with most people in business attire. We made our way outside and took the third taxi we found. He understood we wanted the Intercontinental Tokyo Bay. The first two drivers didn’t comprehend my pigeon Japanese pronunciation. Japan, it seemed, would be more challenging to communicate in than Hong Kong, a former British colony. At the hotel, we were welcomed and shown to our room. Out the window, Tokyo Bay and the Rainbow Bridge greeted us.
We woke early and I found a hotel employee able to activate my SIM Card. We took a taxi to Shinagawa Station, where the Shinkansen, or bullet train, awaited. Our journey took us from Tokyo to Kyoto, the former Japanese capital, a city full of rich culture and heritage, where temples abound. It was a two-and-a-half-hour trip, traveling around 200 mph. We glimpsed Mt. Fuji, in dramatic pose, from the window, but were moving too fast to take photos. We ordered a bento box and split it between the three of us.
We located a grocery store downstairs at Kyoto Station. It sold Wonder Kombucha and I grabbed three to go. We taxied to our hotel, the Hyatt Regency. We were shown to our garden-view room. In other words, the basement level, but indeed, it did have a view of a rock garden. Later, we taxied to Kiyomizu-dera, an enchanting neighborhood. We walked through Kiyomizu-market to get to Kiyomizu-dera Temple. The view of Kyoto with sun setting seemed surreal. The temple gleamed a brilliant orange, basking in the sun’s rays.
Eventually, we continued onward through Sannen-zaka and Ninnen-zaka, quaint lanes leading nowhere in particular, but boasting shops and eateries. We passed two geishas in the early evening hours. They looked to be relics from a forgotten age. Finally, we found En, recommended by Time Magazine, where our tea ceremony would take place. Mom and Dad paced the block. I stayed put. An American woman walked by, and I engaged her. She lives in Bhutan, helping to preserve the music of the tiny Himalayan country. I showed her the location of En, and soon after, our ceremony began. Five Australian kids were the other participants. We received a gelatinous sweet, and then matcha, a powdered green tea. Our host provided brewing, pouring, and sipping instructions. Following the ceremony, we walked aimlessly looking for a place to eat. We found a noodle shop, and listened to other diners slurping noodles as we dug in. Afterward, we taxied to the hotel, drank decaf, and slept.
The next morning, we ate breakfast at the hotel. I ordered waffles with fruit compote and whipped cream. We took a taxi to Kyoto Station and then a train to the western edge of the city. We were headed to Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, but we stopped at Tenryu-ji Temple and Zen Garden, a fascinating and incredibly peaceful locale. We found the bamboo forest and strolled through. Thereafter, we hopped a train to Kyoto Station, and taxied to the hotel.
(Zen Garden in Kyoto)
That evening, we hailed a taxi to the Gion District, where geishas entertain clients. We located a restaurant the hotel recommended. It had a cloth over the entryway and a sign solely in Japanese. The street was dimly lit. We were lucky to find it. I ordered a Japanese version of fried chicken, while Dad had a bento box. Mom and Dad drank sake, but didn’t enjoy. We wandered the neighborhood looking for geishas, but failed to spot any. We took a taxi to the hotel, drank decaf, and slept.
The following day, we taxied to Nishiki Market. We ate breakfast at Inoda Coffee, recommended by our guidebook. I dabbled with a shrimp sandwich. Dad had some sort of cake, and Mom, a salad with ham and eggs on it. None of us knew what we were ordering. Afterwards, we walked through Nishiki Market. Few shops were open so we stopped for coffee and a pastry. We sauntered back through the market and most shops were now open. We snapped photos and returned to the hotel. We checked out and taxied to Kyoto Station.
Our trek from Kyoto to Nagano was not as simple or smooth as imagined. From Kyoto, we rode a 30-minute fast train to Nagoya, and then a two-hour local express train to Nagano. That second segment, the train seemed at war with the tracks. Mom felt ill. She took medication, but couldn’t sleep. She relocated to the first car. Dad appreciated the views as we passed through mountains. At Nagano Station, we saw an emblem from the 1998 Winter Olympics. We rested at the Information Center. Next, we took a taxi to Jizokan Matsuya Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn with futons on the floor, and twisting hallways, revealing room after room. We checked in, unwound, and drank green tea. That evening, we walked toward the center of town. Within two blocks, we discovered an Italian restaurant in Fujiya Gohonjin, an Art Deco hotel. Service was superb. They made us feel welcome. The waitress read English off a card. Mom and Dad ordered pasta and I had fish. After dinner, we returned to the ryokan to sleep.
(Zenko-ji Temple in Nagano)
The next morning, we walked two blocks to Zenko-ji Temple. We circled the temple and received a blessing from a monk as we knelt on the ground. We returned to the ryokan and checked out. The owner gave us a gigantic, delicious Fuji apple. At Nagano Station, we stowed our luggage in lockers. We bought pastries and coffee at a bakery and took them on the bus, a 45-minute ride to a stop near Jigokudani Monkey Park. We followed others to the park, uphill. We expected snow on the ground, but thankfully none greeted us. We walked 30 – 40 minutes before reaching the monkeys. They were everywhere, traversing steep hillsides, bathing in hot springs, circumnavigating tourists. There were also tourists everywhere. I knew to expect it, but Mom and Dad were surprised. The three of us snapped hundreds of photos and spent two hours with the monkeys. On the way back to the bus stop, we stopped at a café and split a bowl of noodles with chicken. At the bus stop, we waited 20 minutes and boarded a bus to Nagano Station. We bypassed a number of Olympic venues on the way.
At the station, we purchased tickets, retrieved our bags, bought dried fruit and pastries, and hopped a Shinkansen for an easy, two-hour ride to Tokyo Station. Upon arrival, we taxied to the Conrad Tokyo. At the door, we recognized this would be an extraordinary experience. We rode the elevator to the 27th floor, where the lobby is located. We received access to the lounge and were upgraded from city to water view, with a view of Tokyo Bay. We entered the room with our Nepalese host, and my parents’ faces lit up. The room was modern, with gorgeous views, and closeable shades from the bathroom into the living room. The bathroom had two glass walls and a freestanding tub. It contained his and hers sinks. Aromatherapy toiletries, razors, toothbrushes, and complimentary slippers were provided. Though we missed afternoon tea and snacks, we headed to the lounge for cocktail hour and hor d’ouerves. We started with appetizers, and then indulged in the buffet, with cured meats and cheeses. We had desserts and decaf, and returned to the room for an early night.
(Our room at the Conrad Tokyo)
(Breakfast at the Conrad Tokyo)
The next morning, we headed to the bay view restaurant for breakfast. I ordered French Toast with fruit and whipped cream. After breakfast, we set off for Roppingi. We located Mori Art Museum, on the 53rd floor of the Roppingi Hills Mori Tower. The exhibition was from Takashi Murakami, and provided a window into his colorful imagination. Next, we walked to the National Art Gallery. We cruised through a free exhibit, decided we had our fill of art, and took a train to Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo’s Times Square. Mom and Dad photographed countless umbrellas crossing the streets and sidewalks. We had coffee at L’Occitane, and rode the train back to the Conrad. That afternoon, we sampled tea and snacks in the lounge. We rested and headed to cocktail hour and hor d’ouerves. We slept early again.
(From Takashi Murakami’s 500 Arhats)
Our second morning at the Conrad, we tried breakfast at the city view restaurant. I ordered blueberry pancakes, and proceeded to the buffet for cheeses, olives, smoked salmon, and pastries. After breakfast, we walked to Tsukiji Fish Market. Fish are shipped or flown in from around the globe. We wandered through a zone filled with vans and turrets wheeling by at high speeds. In time, we pinpointed the fish market. Travelers are often in the way. Turrets, chefs, vendors – all congregate in the market amongst narrow lanes. Fish blood spills from buckets. Several vendors have one fish for sale – a giant tuna. We walked through the outer market, with vendors and eateries. Mom ordered a scallop on a stick, cooked with a propane torch in front of us. After exiting the market, we walked to Turret Coffee Shop, recommended by our guidebook. It’s tiny, but churns out tasty coffees. We returned to the hotel and gathered our bags. Dad bought Verdun Fragrance air aroma, used in the lobby, from the hotel.
(Tsukiji Fish Market)
After two nights at the Conrad, we moved to the Park Hyatt, in Shinjuku. Dad redeemed two free night certificates. We taxied there, enduring a traffic jam in a tunnel. Nonetheless, we made it to the hotel, where Lost in Translation was filmed. Also, in an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, he waxes poetic at the New York Bar in this hotel. After getting settled, we walked to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, only to discover it’s closed on Mondays. Instead, we marched to Isetan, a department store with a brightly lit basement food hall, featuring sweet and savory goodies. We bought California rolls and devoured them in the basement. We walked to the Park Hyatt to rest. Seeking respite from the city, we ate dinner at Girandole, a French restaurant in the hotel. I loved my main, a salad with seared tuna.
(Sunset from our room at the Park Hyatt Tokyo)
(Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden)
The following morning, Mom and Dad brought back Starbucks coffee and pastries. We returned to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, a 144-acre park. After browsing and photographing for an hour or two, we walked to Isetan. For lunch, we found a sushi restaurant recommended by our hotel. We removed our shoes and sat around a low table, cross-legged. It was fantastic – the finest meal I had on our trip. It was also economical – less than $30 total. Dad ordered the large sampler and I selected the small one. I saved the tuna and salmon for last. Photos on the menu ensured we knew what we were eating. The meal included miso soup. Afterward, we returned to the hotel. That evening, the hotel recommended a pizzeria. We taxied there, and ordered two salads and a pizza. We enjoyed watching the open kitchen at work as we sat up to the bar. An office party behind us entertained themselves. We ordered a second pizza, and then taxied to the hotel for decaf and sleep.
Mom and Dad brought Starbucks coffee and pastries to the room again the next day. We walked to a different department store, where Dad looked for a watch. We bought candy for my niece and Mom’s friends. We returned to the hotel, checked out, and hopped a limo-bus to Narita, a two-hour voyage. Yet, it was a beautiful drive, first crossing Tokyo Bay, and later passing small farms. After checking in for our flight, we cleared security and found our gate. We met an American woman whose son lives in Singapore with his family. She visits once a year to see her grandkids. She flies from Detroit to Narita to Singapore – a 12.5-hour flight followed by a 7-hour flight. Mom and Dad convinced me to eat burgers from McDonald’s. I hadn’t eaten McDonald’s in ten years, but my friend, Jess, said not to miss the Japanese McDonald’s experience.
We paid to upgrade to economy comfort. We chose our seats in August and selected bulkhead. Service was sub-par. My headphones continually fell out of the jack, but a complaint netted 5,000 Delta miles. We labored through nearly inedible meals. I slept two hours and woke to watch a movie. The snack they served was equally disgusting – a dry, packaged ham and cheese sandwich. For breakfast, they offered eggs or noodles. In Detroit, we had a 4-hour layover. I located kombucha at Plum Market, and was impressed by the airport.
Our flight from Detroit to Minneapolis left 45 minutes late. We had a 1-hour layover in Minneapolis so we were certain we would miss our next flight. Our plane landed ahead of schedule and we ran/jogged/walked to our gate. No one was there, except two agents. They were sympathetic. “You have plenty of time,” she said. “My parents are right behind me,” I answered. There were six seats per row and the plane was virtually empty. After reaching cruising altitude, I moved to a row without passengers. I reclined and drank a Coca-Cola before landing in Rapid City. Snow, ice, and an accident had closed the Interstate so we stayed the night at my sister’s house. We slept soundly. Melatonin aided in maintaining our sleep schedule. Overall – a remarkable Far East expedition. I shall return.
(Mom and Dad at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden – Tokyo)
5 hours of research, analysis, and trip planning for $129
Visit http://www.matthewriterstravelagency.com. I’ll help you acquire and maximize airline miles, hotel points, and transferrable currencies. We’ll discuss destinations, airline routes and rules, hotel loyalty programs, credit cards, and vacation packages.