These trip notes are continued from:
–United Island Hopper Trip Notes Part 1: Honolulu
–United Island Hopper Trip Notes Part 2: It’s Time To Hop!
–United Island Hopper Trip Notes Part 3: Koror, Palau
Please read those installments first for background information!
We landed in Guam on Friday morning and went to the United Club to daven. It’s a good thing that United clubs don’t have day rooms with beds like some first class lounges have or else I’m pretty sure we couldn’t have possibly been woken up to take our flight to Tokyo.
We weren’t supposed to be flying to Tokyo on Friday, that was United’s fault for delaying us 25 hours in Guam.
However, this wasn’t the first time I was scheduled to fly into Tokyo on a Friday.
In 2005, just 2 months after I started blogging and while I was still learning the ropes, a friend and I used systemwide American vouchers to fly from Sao Paulo to Tokyo on a Wednesday. Still a rookie, I didn’t even think to ask the phone agent when we were supposed to arrive, but when we got the tickets we realized it was just 2 hours before Shabbos. What happened to us afterwards was nothing short of miraculous, but that’s a story for another trip report that I’ve always meant to write but never got around to. Let’s just say we wound up in Dallas, NYC, Tokyo, Kyoto, Kobe, Osaka, Los Angeles, Miami, and Sao Paulo on a ticket that officially didn’t allow stopovers. It was my first trip to the far east and it only left me wanting more.
I really wanted to be in Tokyo during Cherry Blossom season. Or during a Sumo tournament. Or at least on a day when their famous fish auction takes place. But the timing didn’t work out so those will just have to wait for another time.
Duty-free in Guam was shockingly cheap and I’ll admit to being tempted, especially with the additional discounts they were offering for using various credit cards, but the thought of shlepping booze around Tokyo got me thinking rationally.
Da and Nordy in the Guam United Club:
It’s time to fly!
Guam departures board:
Groggy eyed, we boarded a nearly empty 777 to Tokyo:
The business class seat was comfy, but it was just a recliner chair unfortunately:
Well, except for Da and Nordy:
The bagel and cream cheese made for a surprisingly good breakfast:
Though I passed on the rubberized eggs:
Ultimately, the draw of empty 5 across seating in coach proved too powerful, and both AJK and I downgraded ourselves to ghetto lie-flat seats to get a couple hours of shut-eye:
Ghetto first class upgrade:
AJK and I have pretty different travel styles, which became more evident with each stop we made.
I’m more of a hop off the plane and hit the ground running kind of guy, while AJK is far more leisurely. When traveling with my family I’ve learned to become more leisurely-after all that’s a necessity with little kids. But without kids I’m zipping around when I travel like I have ants in my pants. Ironically enough, I had the same issue with my travel partner to Japan back in 2005!
On the island hopper that meant I’d have my passport stamped by the time AJK was still getting off the plane. To be fair, he wasn’t feeling great that day [AJK: “Wasn’t feeling great?” 102-degree fever is “not great?”], but by the time we were in Palau and Japan he was fine. In Japan I’m quite sure that I was through security and past customs with our remaining POM meals trying to figure out how to get cash for our train tickets, all while AJK was still on the plane 😉
AJK claims the only reason he didn’t lose me was the bright Hawaiian style yarmulka I was wearing on the hopper…
These clips may help illuminate the differences between our travel styles:
OK, I’m exaggerating. We actually were quite the team and we really did have an awesome trip.
I was able to find a Citibank ATM and took out some Yen for the train ride and our needs for the weekend in Tokyo.
The plethora of train and subway systems seem confusing at first, but you can quickly get the hang of it.
In 2005 we had a rail-pass to ride the bullet trains across the country. The rail-pass is something that foreigners can buy before they come to Tokyo and it includes pricey trains like the Narita Express.
Without a rail pass we took the inexpensive Keisei Line to the Sheraton Miyako hotel, where we would spend the Shabbos. It’s a nice Starwood category 4 hotel that is Shabbos-friendly thanks to manual keys and easy to access staircases.
They agreed to a 4pm checkout, but wouldn’t budge on anything later than that as “they were sold out.”
We really had our eyes set on staying at the Park Hyatt for Saturday night, so we originally made up for a bellhop to collect our items at 4pm.
After unpacking in the room and seeing on SPG.com that there were still plenty of rooms for sale for the next night, we went back down to speak with a manager about a 7pm checkout. At first they wanted a full night’s rate and then asked for ¥10,000. I offered ¥2,500 and eventually we agreed on ¥5,000, about $40, for the late checkout.
The Sheraton isn’t fancy, but it’s near Chabad and is perfect for a Shabbos stay in Tokyo:
Gotta love the fancy Japanese toilet seats, but more crucial for an Orthodox Jew is to remember to unplug it before Shabbos!
View from the room:
One thing the room did come with: A plethora of toiletries.
After unpacking we went out in search of our first fresh food all week.
King Falafel is run by Rabbi Edery, who runs an unofficial Chabad House in Tokyo (described by another fellow we met while eating a falafel there as “2 scoops of moshiach”). [AJK: I heard this evocative description and laughed so hard I almost choked on my falafel.]
Politics aside, the falafel was spicy and delicious, loaded with salads and sublime falafel balls. Who knew that Tokyo had such good falafel?
Tere’s no indoor place to sit, but the Rabbi’s sons happily setup a table outside for us.
My normal Shabbos attire includes a Kapota, Fedora, white dress shirt, black suit pants, and dress shoes. Not having planned to be away for Shabbos I had none of that.
A DDF member who was one of the lucky few people targeted with an extremely lucrative promotion called AMEX PointsMatch that made mileage running a sport once again, offered to bring my garb to Tokyo for me if it could be overnighted to NYC. After all, in about 2 trips with PointsMatch you could obtain United Global Services status and get back all of the points redeemed-no wonder that promotion is never going to see the light of day again.
So my wife overnighted my hasidic garb to NYC. Alas that person wound up not flying to Tokyo and I was stuck without Shabbos clothes. Now Chabad Houses couldn’t care less what you’re wearing, but I felt I’d be uncomfortable without at least a dress shirt and pants, so we went took a train to Shibuya to see the famous crossing and take a look for some clothes.
During peak times they say Shibuya crossing is the busiest intersection in the world. We weren’t there during a peak time, but it’s still a sight to see:
You can get a better view of the action from the 2nd floor Starbucks at the intersection:
[AJK: It took me a couple tries, but I finally timed it right and was able to take this video of the crossing:]
Alas, if you’re any larger than a US size medium the odds of finding anything that fits you in Japan are slim to none.
At this point we were walking zombies, so we headed back to the hotel to grab some shut-eye before Shabbos. Luckily I set an alarm to wake us up just on time to grab a quick shower before Shabbos, or else it’s entirely possible that we could have slept for 24 hours straight.
There’s no eruv in Tokyo to allow carrying on Shabbos, so I slipped our room key onto my bendel and walked to Rabbi Sudakevich’s official Chabad House in my polo shirt, sneakers, and all.
I felt a bit awkward at first, despite the whole crowd being dressed exactly the same way. I don’t think AJK ever understood it, but it’s a bit odd having never gone to a shul dressed so casually on a Shabbos before in my life. However I don’t think Rabbi Sudakevich could have possibly made me feel any more comfortable and he even had me lead the congregation in a spirited Kabolas Shabbos.
The shul crowd was much smaller than what I’ve experienced at other Chabad Houses across Asia, but it was very warm and intimate. Friday night dinner conversation was fascinating between the stories of the Israeli with kids fluent in Japanese, the California native and Japanese expert who explained why everyone was calling me Mr Ereff from Creverand, to the 5 towns banker doing business in the far east. After a bit, the Sudakevich’s realized that I run DansDeals and then I started hearing about all of my blog readers who have been there for Shabbos while I reminded them of the meal they hosted for us back in January of 2005 when the blog was just over a month old.
We slept like babies Friday night before walking back to shul Shabbos morning for another great davening and meal.
Japan is famous for its gardens and the Rabbi recommended that we walk to Happo-en, located just a couple minutes’ walk from the Sheraton. It consists of a wedding hall and restaurants but the gardens and koi ponds are beyond serene. Officially the park is just for guests, but nobody stopped us from just walking in and strolling about. No pictures due to Shabbos, so I’ll punt you over to Google Images to get an idea of the scene. I don’t think we could have asked for a more lovely Shabbos afternoon stroll.
The only way it could have been any nicer would be in cherry blossom season, but that occurs in late March/early April, so we were a few weeks too late.
After Shabbos was over we took the Sheraton’s free shuttle to Meguro station and took the JR train to Shinjuku station.
The Park Hyatt has a free shuttle that runs between the hotel and Shinjuku station, but the station is sprawling and despite asking the hotel for the location of the shuttle we were unable to figure out where to go. So we hopped in a taxi for a quick ride to the hotel.
The Park Hyatt didn’t have any point rooms available on Hyatt.com, but a quick call to their rooms manager on Friday and they happily agreed to allow us to book a room on points.
Now I have no idea how they knew, but the Park Hyatt employee who greeted us upon leaving the taxi said, welcome Mr. Ereff.
We were impressed.
That same employee brought us up to the lobby on the 41st floor, gave us a quick tour of the hotel, and brought us directly into our room for checkin.
They offer Diamond members unlimited free drinks at the Peak bar between 5-9pm. We got there just minutes to 9, but we were graciously offered free drinks even after the 9pm cutoff.
The Park Hyatt is an oasis of calm in a frenetic city that doesn’t seem to sleep. Even though our stay was just for 1 night, we very much enjoyed our time there.
Park Hyatt Tokyo Hallway:
Park Hyatt Tokyo Hallway:
Park Queen Room:
Japanese-style Bidet Toilet:
The view from the room is impressive:
After settling in we went for a swim in the stunning pool, with gorgeous views of the city from every angle:
The hotel also has famously wonderful spa facilities, though by now we were quite hungry. Tokyo’s kosher restaurants are closed on Saturday night, but that wasn’t an issue for us thanks to Pomegranate’s travel meals.
We called to ask if they were able to heat up our double-wrapped Fettuccine Alfredo and they said they’d be right up. Not more than 30 seconds later there was a knock on our door.
Even at other luxury hotels I’m used to waiting 15 minutes for a request to be taken care of. Many times it takes a 2nd phone call. But I don’t think I’ve ever had 30 second service before.
[AJK: This really was mind-boggling. When we heard the knock, barely seconds after putting the phone back in its cradle, we looked at each other and said, “it can’t be.” But it was! The only thing I can think is they must have attendants on-call, stationed in the elevators at all time, waiting for requests like this. Or the Japanese have figured out how to teleport. Neither would surprise me.]
The chef called us up a few minutes later to confirm that we really wanted the meal warmed up for an hour, which we confirmed. The longer the frozen Pomegranate meals warm up, the better.
The dairy meals are easily large enough for 2 and the Fettuccine Alfredo was creamy and delicious. Always great to have top-notch kosher food in places like this:
After dinner we took a stroll up to the New York Bar, made famous in Lost In Translation, a 2003 cult favorite that mostly takes place in the Park Hyatt Tokyo.
Live music at the New York Bar:
$535 shot of scotch anyone?
Enjoying the view from the New York Bar:
And finally a look around the lobby floor before retiring for the night:
Sunday morning we woke up early to check out the Skytree, which is technically the tallest tower in the world.
Ideally we would have loved to go to the famous Tsukiji Fish Auction, but it wasn’t operating during our short time in Tokyo.
Hopping on train to the Skytree:
I had been up the Tokyo Tower back in 2005, but the Skytree just dwarfs the Tokyo Tower.
While the regular lines were massive and required you to return far later in the day there was a counter inside for foreign passport holders that bypassed the wait, so be sure not to miss that.
Announcements are made in Japanese, but English instructions were handed out as well:
There are 4 elevators which each represent a different season, on the way up we had the spring cheery blossom elevator:
The view from the top is awesome and impossible to convey without being there.
[AJK: Having just come back from Dubai and going to the top of the Burj Khalifa, I can confirm the SkyTree isn’t as high (2,080 feet vs. 2,717 feet), but the topography was certainly more varied in Japan, as can be seen in this picture of Dubai:]
It’s terrifying to look down on the glass bottom floor, but definitely something that is a must-do.
Even Da and Nordy were brave enough to try:
You can learn what you’re looking at thanks to interactive displays like this:
There isn’t enough money in the world to make me do this job:
They’ll take a picture of you with your camera in addition to their overpriced option. Pretty classy!
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is within walking distance of the Park Hyatt, so we hopper back on the subway and went to check that out afterward. The gardens are famous for their Cherry Blossoms in season, but as mentioned earlier we were too late for that.
It’s a nice garden, nothing compared to what you’ll find in Kyoto, but still a very serene setting.
You just might want to use the bathroom beforehand 😉
Leftover Cheery Blossoms:
Finally it was back to the Park Hyatt to checkout, though not before we each got some more of the wonderful Aesop toiletries to bring home. Probably some of the best Park Hyatt toiletries around, and that’s saying something!
Park Hyatt Room Keys:
1 last drink at the Peak Bar for Da and Nordy:
Everywhere you go in Japan you’ll find vending machines. From soda to batteries you can find them even on the most residential looking streets:
After checking out we went for lunch at Chana’s Place in Chabad of Tokyo.
The restaurant is very casual and has no menu. The chef will work with you to make something that you’ll like.
We started off with some hot rolls and dips:
The Chicken Soup was spiced with tarragon and was among the best I’ve ever had (Aside from my wife’s of course!)
An Eggplant based salad was delicious as well:
The entrees were scrumptious pieces of Fried Fish and Shnitzel:
Dessert was leftovers from Shabbos:
The inexpensive Keisei Line is located just around the corner from the Chabad House and we took it right into Narita Airport.
ANA First Class Checkin:
ANA has a lovely first class checkin area at Narita. I was shocked when the agent actually addressed me as Mr Eleff. Clearly she had been practicing her Ls for quite some time.
The check-in agent called and confirmed with the gate that our kosher meals were onboard and that they were Hermolis, so we checked in our last 2 Pomegranate meals in the Polar Bear Cooler.
First class passengers have their own security line and in no-time we were in the first class lounge:
The lounge has great views of the planes:
Having run around all day, we were both in desperate need of a shower, especially considering we weren’t boarding an Emirates or Etihad plane with a shower onboard, where AJK performed the ice bucket challenge last year…
When a shower opened up minutes prior to boarding they asked if we wouldn’t mind sharing the shower room.
Um, didn’t think I gave off that impression, but regardless, we quickly corrected them…
And they did find us each our own private shower rooms.
[AJK: Frankly, it was harder to secure a shower than I thought it would be. Perhaps it’s just me, but I expected that passengers flying First should have priority over those flying Business, but apparently it’s first come, first serve, regardless of class. That said, being assertive worked and I was finally given shower room. Mid-shampoo, when I heard final boarding call for our ANA flight back to New York, I jumped out of the shower and high-tailed it to the gate, which fortunately was only a couple minutes away.]
After a very refreshing shower it was time to board. We would leave at 4:40pm and arrive in JFK before we left.
AJK noticed that the in-flight magazine advised against opening too many cards. That’s great, how else would we have half the first class cabin to ourselves?
ANA Squares suite is a great product for solo travelers. There’s very good privacy and the seat and bed are both extremely comfortable.
Unfortunately if you’re traveling as a couple it would be hard to communicate with each other without leaning far forward or standing up.
[AJK: In fact, in my experience, ANA First Class is probably the worst product in terms of couple travel and being able to communicate with one another. But it makes up for it in other ways. As you’ll see.]
AJK and I had the window seats in row 2, while Da and Nordy took the middle seats:
Seeing us take pictures, the flight attendant came over and offered to take a pictures of us as well:
The suite had lots of nice thoughtful touches.
A cell phone holder big enough to fit my Galaxy Note Edge:
The electronic controls were very intuitive:
Well designed spaces to charge devices:
An amenity kit, slipper, pajamas, and sweater are handed out:
Hermolis kosher meals from London are pretty much all you can ask for in the air:
Sakes and Whiskeys:
Don’t mind if we do…
I don’t think we could have asked for better flight attendants, they proactively offered everything we needed.
After a lovely dinner service they made the bed with a wonderful memory foam mattress that made sleeping a dream.
After one of the best sleeps I’ve ever had on a plane, they served breakfast. I had the smoothie, but didn’t touch much else:
The bathrooms were kept very clean throughout the flight. That’s one of the great pleasures of first class travel, not having to stand in a puddle of urine at the end of the flight.
Which is a good thing as I was changing back from the pajamas into my clothes.
When the flight attendant saw me packing up the pajamas she insisted on getting a fresh pair and a new amenity kit.
As long as she offered, I asked if it might be possible to get an extra set for my wife and she giggled and happily packed a bag full of goodies:
[AJK: Make that times 2.]
My biggest gripe was the prohibitively high cost of the internet. At $12 per 10 megabytes it’s easy to eat up the whole allotment in no time. Since then ANA has lowered the cost to $19.95 for 100MB, which is a far more rational charge.
After a wonderful flight, it was time for landing:
Thanks to Global Entry we were through customs and immigration in no time. I had a connecting flight departing from Newark later that night, so we topped off the trip with a DansDeals DO at Reserve Cut where we met up with a number of other DDF members.
The ambiance is undoubtedly second-to-none. It’s truly a stunning place.
Their porcini mushroom soup ($17, 9.5/10) is heaven in a bowl:
Short-rib tacos are spicy and flavorful (9.5/10, $26), definitely one of their signature dishes.
Their Wagyu Ribeye though was unimpressive and not worth the money at all ($94, 6/10).
There are better steaks to be had elsewhere for much, much less. At the same price level I feel that Chicago’s Shallot’s performs far better. It’s the 2nd steak I’ve had here that I felt wasn’t worth the money, and I doubt I’ll repeat that.
A far better option at Reserve Cut is the much cheaper and heavenly steak sandwich that they serve during lunch hours only.
The Raspberry Creme Brulee is a fine dish, nothing particularly exciting though ($14, 7/10).
Despite having separate bills for everyone from the beginning, it took a very long time for them to run our credit cards. I got to Newark airport just 20 minutes before my flight and pre-check was closed. Usually I’m very good at timing these things, but for the first time in many years I was afraid I might actually miss the flight. Most of the people in line though were going to Tel Aviv and had no problem letting me go ahead of them.
I made it to my flight back home to Cleveland at final boarding, sat down in first class, and actually had a fascinating conversation with a Cleveland based Luxottica executive.
It felt like I had been gone for weeks, it was hard to imagine that the adventure had just began the Sunday beforehand. But it was a trip that I’ll never forget. From the stunning islands in the Pacific to the incredible waters of Palau, this was nothing short of incredible. Even more so that I was able to do it on miles and points. It’s a time intensive and crazy hobby, but it sure beats stamp collecting 😀
All in a week’s work:
[AJK: What a trip! Call me crazy, but I’m itching to do it all over again… though this time I’d probably stop in Chuuk for some diving… Anyone up for it??]