This post invokes the spirit of the Navigatrix’ 8 year old cousin who always asks: “what was the best and worst thing about your day?”
We did not really have any bad experiences. No-one got hurt or sick, we did not lose or break anything, nor was there anything we would recommend against. Not even bad weather disrupted us, despite coming within days of a typhoon and a hurricane.
Now onto the good things, of which there are many:
Best flight: Cathay Pacific, Singapore to Bangkok. The A350 is a beautiful airplane with a spacious and comfortable seat. The crew of diverse cultures was exceptional and the food and drinks were amazing. The overall experience was wonderful - the only thing missing was an amenity kit as this was a short haul flight.
Best airport lounge: Still The Pier at Hong Kong International. Cathay Pacific has a massive lounge with great food and a quiet ambiance. The Cathay Lounge in Changi Terminal 4 is an equal, albeit smaller.
Best hotel: A close one but Hotel Telegraaf in Tallinn wins out. It is perfectly located and the rooms are spacious, comfortable and beautifully decorated in a Baroque style. The Elemis toiletries are wonderful. The staff are exceptional - even down to the "welcome back" greeting we received every time we walked in. The lack of a hotel club lounge was not a problem as we found a perfect little café just down the street.
Best destination: Kyoto, without a doubt. We had a whole week there and barely scratched the surface. There are reputably more than 200,000 festivals per annum in Japan, so there is always the chance of something happening in Kyoto no matter when you are there. Twice now we have found something spectacular to do just by looking at a list prepared by the hotel. Kyoto is also centrally located - Hiroshima is just 2 hours away (human impact incident aside), Nagoya is an hour in the opposite direction, Lake Biwa and Osaka are just a short train ride away. One can spend a lot of money to stay in flashy Kyoto hotels, or choose the great value Citadines which is right above the subway, has self contained facilities and a supermarket only two minutes walk away. The only challenge is to identify what food to buy when there are no labels in English.
Best upgrade: Hilton Helsinki Airport. From a normal hotel room to a massive 1 bedroom suite and all on Hilton points so it did not cost us a cent. The only way this could have been better was if we were given a corner suite with its own sauna.
Best moment: This like being asked to choose a favourite child - impossible and also unfair. We can narrow it down to three:
Flying over Mt Everest: Some readers though they were clouds but we can assure you they were not. Flying along the Himalayas was special - confirmed by the Finnair flight attendant who cried tears of joy when we showed her what mesmerised us.
Seeing The Pope: This is something we never thought we would do, even in our wildest dreams. The Navigatrix had that warm and fuzzy feeling associated with seeing a celebrity. One of our readers said: "you created that feeling, not Il Papa," but there is no doubting he has an aura. As our American acquaintances at the bar in Hotel Telegraaf said: "he embodies the best of what we want people and the world to be." Touché.
Japanese Horse Archery: This is not something one could see anywhere in the world except Japan. The skill and dedication of both archer and horse was astonishing. Not only that, the archer had to compete wearing many layers of traditional clothing. This sport is unchanged in rules and execution for over 800 years and is a throwback to ancient times. This was one of those festivals we discovered from the hotel list and we are so glad we spent the JPY500 to stand inside the enclosure right at the edge of the track.
We could go on and on...
That's it! After 46 days, 14 flight legs over more than 31,000 miles and about 7,000 photos it is all over. Thanks to all of our readers who engaged with each post, answered those questions we posed and liked our photos on Instagram and Facebook. Stay tuned for some follow up posts over the next few weeks as we have articles being published on a travel website.
Oh... and why is the seat layout reverse herringbone? Because the window seats face towards the window. So now you know!
Part 1: The Prince Sakura Tower and Shinagawa
Last night, when our tired selves and heavy bags arrived at the hotel the tiny, Japanese female porter insisted on taking our bags to the room.
"I will help you," she insisted.
We would have preferred to help her.
The Sakura Tower is one of three Prince branded hotels which are adjacent to a grand Victorian style building still owned by the Japanese Imperial Family. Prince Takamatsu lived in this house until his death in 1987. The three Prince hotels (hence the name) surround a 20,000m2 garden complete with koi pond, reflection pool, tea house and over 17 varieties of cherry tree. In spring the garden would be spectacular.
Despite the hotel being part of the Prince chain, the Sakura Tower is affiliated with Marriott Hotels in the same way as Hotel Telegraaf in Tallinn. We redeemed Marriott Rewards points for our stay and our 45m2 corner room has a view of the residence and part of the garden. The very beginnings of autumn colour enhance our view of the nearby Tokyo Tower and more distant SkyTree. Hopefully Godzilla is nowhere nearby.
The hotel has an Executive Lounge which is nice but not a patch on the lounge in Osaka. In the basement is also a gym, spa, male and female whirlpool (no bathing costumes allowed) and a relaxation room with mechanical massage chairs. Last night we spent an hour being kneaded and prodded and squeezed - we did the same again this morning.
In the morning we did some shopping in Oshaki. After returning to the hotel we walked through the beautiful garden, which is a tranquil oasis.
The garden also houses a small temple, statues and a temple bell which dated back to the 1500's and would have been relocated here from elsewhere in Japan.
Then we crammed ourselves and our luggage onto the shuttle bus. We felt so guilty we gave the porter and the bus driver some koala keychains, which made their faces lighten up but may not have eased their sore backs. While unloading at Shinagawa Station, The Navigator heard some waiting guests whispering to each other.
"That's four... five... six bags," they muttered. "Oh my - there's more!"
We made it onto the platform with plenty of time to catch the Narita Express for the 80km journey to Narita Airport. It took just over an hour to traverse the Tokyo metropolis and into nearby rural Chiba prefecture. A perfect example of a well organised major airport set outside the city, with fast affordable public transport connections straight to the terminal. Here's hoping Sydney can do as well with the second airport.
Part 2: JL771 NRT - SYD
JAL Sakura Lounge
After checking in, we breezed through security and passport without any waiting. It must have taken less than 10 minutes for both processes. Why are the Japanese so efficient at this compared to in the USA?
The Sakura Lounge is directly opposite the southern immigration zone and adjacent to gate 61, which by pure co-incidence was where our plane would depart. The lounge is spread over two levels as well as a separate area exclusively for First Class passengers. The upper level is for dining and guests are escorted to a table. Food is an extensive buffet of Japanese beef curry, chicken karaage, dim sims, steamed buns and salads and so much more. Soft drinks, spirits, wine and beer are also available.
The downstairs level has wide lounges, leather chairs, tables and plenty of power points for that last minute charge of devices. Both levels have an excellent view of the busy tarmac. When we arrived just after 4pm, both levels of the lounge were busy with people due to take one of the many flights to the West Coast of the USA. Once they departed around 5:30pm the lounge became quieter.
There is also a children's room, enclosed telephone areas and a relaxation room with more massage chairs similar to the hotel. The Navigatrix hurried off to have 30 minutes of kneading before we departed.
Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner
Oneworld. This is the final leg of our oneworld Classic Flight reward.
Business - seat 8H (aisle) and 8K (window)
Flight time of 9 hours and 20 minutes. We depart and arrive on time.
Japan Airlines flies once a day from Narita to Sydney.
The Dreamliner has an older seating configuration in a 2+2+2 layout. The window seat is slightly staggered from its neighbour to provide direct aisle access, so there is no awkward climb over your companion to go to the bathroom. With 77 inches of pitch and 25 inches of width there is plenty of room and the footwell is more open which reduces the chance of tangled feet or knees.
There are plenty of nooks and crannies to stow phones and cables, although they are more conveniently located in the aisle seat than the window seat. There is a universal power plug and also a USB charging port.
The seat is infinitely adjustable and one can easily find a suitable angle to sleep. The Navigator managed five hours of deep sleep, despite the bumpy weather as we flew around the typhoon in the Western Pacific.
The now familiar lumbar massage feature is also present but nothing like the massage chairs in the JAL lounge.
There is a large table which folds out from the centre partition. There is also a retractable privacy screen which rises or descends at the touch of a button. This makes it much easier to converse with your travel companion compared to the herringbone layout where one is more physically separated.
We had to stifle our laughter as an Australian woman muttered to her companion as they boarded: "It just kills me to see these business class seats on the way down to economy."
There is a fixed 23cm screen mounted into the back of the partition of the seat in front. Given this is where our feet are it is too far away to touch. There is an LCD controller at one's fingertips to control the screen and select entertainment.
There are approximately 70 movies in a variety of languages, some with closed caption subtitles and a similar number of videos ranging across television, documentary and animation. For those who want to listen to music or talk there are 125 audio channels. There are also 30 manga titles in Japanese, English and Chinese which are only available on the 787. Finally, there are 12 interactive games.
So there is plenty of entertainment. The screen is one of the largest we have seen on any airplane and the vision is sharp and clear. Noise cancelling headphones complete the package. Wi-Fi is available and access can be purchased in flight at USD$10 for an hour to just over $18 for the full flight.
The Navigatrix watched 'Oceans 8' while having dinner - The Navigator watched her screen through the open privacy screen.
JALs baggage allowance for business class is 3 bags per passenger at 32kgs each. This is more generous than the Finnair allowance which governed the rest of the itinerary.
We have juggled luggage out of our carry on bags but otherwise are still in a total of 4 bags and well under the weight limit.
The staff are all wonderful and speak perfect English for the mostly Australian passengers on this flight. Our cabin steward made sure to check everything we requested to ensure she understood it correctly. She was also careful to serve The Navigator in the window seat from the aisle entry and not hand food or drinks over The Navigatrix who had the aisle seat.
When we said thank you for the service in Japanese ("arigatou gosarimashita") it sparked a series of giggles from our cabin steward. Hopefully we said it correctly.
A blanket, pillow and slippers were waiting for us at the seat. There was also an amenity kit with eye mask, moisturising mask, earplugs, lip balm, tissues and a toothbrush. The Navigatrix was disappointed there was no hand cream.
The cabin steward handed out a jersey cotton yakuta for sleeping in. A thick duvet was also available on request however the cabin was warm enough.
We were completely comfortable for the entire flight. Cabin lights were dimmed after dinner so getting to sleep was easy. The 787 Dreamliner is amazingly quiet - we were seated right next to the engine but were not disturbed by noise.
Our flight departed at 7:30pm and dinner was served about an hour later.
Entrée was sesame flavoured tofu with wasabi as well as a sweet corn mousse with raw ham. Main course was a choice of the Japanese menu with pork loin and deep fried cutlassfish, or the Western menu of either Wagyu sirloin steak or paella with clam and scallops.
Neither of the seafood options were going to work so we both opted for the steak. Despite our reservations, the beef was cooked perfectly. We both chose the Medoc red wine which was ideal for the steak. The Navigator was disappointed to have glossed over the sake on the menu - apparently this is served in a souvenir bottle.
Dessert was Haagden Dazs ice cream.
A curry meal, vegetable salad, Japanese noodles or a selection of cheeses were available at any time. We both managed to sleep for the remainder of the flight so did not sample any.
The Navigator skipped breakfast because he was still asleep and The Navigatrix had fruit.
We could not fault this flight, starting from the over-the-top politeness of the staff to the excellent food and the perfect seat. Flying the Dreamliner is a step up to start with and JAL business class was another step up from there. We highly recommend this flight and JAL in general - we are yet to have a negative experience with them.
10 out of 10.
Part 1: Walking around Tennoji
This was our final day in Osaka and with perfect weather we decided to stroll through the nearby Tenshiba Park. The park houses Tennoji Zoo as well as the Osaka Art Museum, which has its own formal gardens attached. There were many school groups playing in the park so the space was buzzing. We kept walking through the park which has a large lake surrounding an ancient burial mound. The park is a welcome open space in a hectic, built up city. There were many people enjoying the weather and the outlook.
Further along the park is Isshin-ji Temple, famous for its Buddhas made from the ashes of cremated bodies. There is an annual burial festival where worshipers pay to deposit the ashes of loved ones, which over time the priests combine into a statue by mixing the ashes with clay and resin.
The temple and the original six Buddhas were destroyed in the Pacific War, so the temple has been rebuilt and eight new Buddhas formed since the late 1940s. There are some significant renovations underway so the great hall was surrounded by hoardings and scaffolding. We decided not to go in - regrettably in hindsight. Outside there are eight stone representations of the deity for worshipers.
The main gate to this temple is a handsome structure of steel, glass, granite and concrete. Given all the reconstruction of temples across Japan because of many wars and fires, this is the first time we have seen a modern re-interpretation of a temple building.
We went around the corner to Shitenno-ji Temple with its five storey pagoda. Why do Japanese pagodas have five storeys? This question has piqued The Navigator for some time. Tradition dictates a pagoda must have a odd number of floors, so building technology generally limited the construction to either three or five storeys. There is a pagoda in Nara with thirteen levels but that is the only one in Japan taller than five.
The various ponds around the temple are home to hundreds of small turtles, either sunning themselves on the granite or floating gently in the water. From a distance we watched a memorial service and listened as the bell was rung slowly. In another part of the complex we watched the calligraphers write the wishes of worshipers on thin sheets of bamboo, which were then cleansed in water from a spring and the words were washed away.
We wandered back to the hotel through streets selling traditional Japanese medicine, tatami mats, fresh produce and more bonsai.
Our final tourist attraction was the 60th floor observation level in the hotel building. Marriott Rewards members receive a free voucher to enter the observation floor. During our last stay here we went up at sunset to watch the night lights come on. This time we waited until today on the forecast of good weather to go up during daylight hours.
It seemed a bit incongruous to go from our room on the 53rd floor, down to hotel reception on the 19th floor, then down to the observation level reception on the 16th floor and then go up to the 60th floor. However, once there we were treated to the spectacular 360 degree panorama of the sprawling Osaka metropolis. You can pay extra to don special suits and climb the final few steps to an open ledge right at 300 metres.
We also spent some time on the open terrace on level 58, where one can buy food and drinks and sit by the window. We wondered what they did up here and indeed in the hotel during the typhoon.
Alas it was time to check out. Fortunately the bus to the airport (we were going to Itami - Osaka’s original airport) was just 100 metres down the road from the hotel but even then it took 20 minutes to get down to reception, then down to the basement, push our suitcases through the underground passages and then up to street level and around to the bus stop. The textured markers to guide the blind make it even harder to push the suitcases as the wheels get caught up in the markers. Pushing four suitcases was a bit like steering an aircraft carrier - hard to change direction and impossible to stop quickly when someone in front has a change of mind.
Part 2: JL126 ITM - HND
For clarity, ITM is Itami Airport in Osaka and HND is Haneda airport in Tokyo. Curiously, both of these are the original airports for these cities.
Boeing 777-200. This is the same type of plane we flew from Hawaii to Japan but with extra seats.
Oneworld. Although we are Japan Mileage Bank members (JMB), we chose to send the points to Qantas to avoid stranding them in JMB through lack of use.
Economy - seat 47A (window) and 47B (middle).
We can hear you ask: “Why didn’t you catch the train to Tokyo?” If one resides outside of Japan and has a ticketed seat on an international flight leaving Japan, the JAL Explorer Pass is a super discounted price on flights to over 30 Japanese cities, including as far as Okinawa. The seats are limited to economy only but there is no limit to the number of flights which can be purchased using this pricing. It cost us less than AUD75 per person to fly from Osaka to Tokyo, compared to over $180 per person on the shinkansen (our now expired JR pass was not valid for travel to Tokyo). This is a bargain! This fare can only be bought online but is available from anywhere in the world up to 72 hours before departure.
We were flying economy so did not have access to the JAL Lounge. There is a small paid access lounge on the landside of security but we were unsure if we had a qualifying credit card so did not investigate further.
The JAL Explorer Pass allows each passenger to have 2 bags each at 23kgs. This is a massive benefit compared to the regular domestic baggage allowance of 1 bag at 20kgs.
The Navbour very kindly took some of our baggage home with him earlier in the week. Notwithstanding, we still expected to be overweight. We had to juggle some things between suitcases but despite our Kyoto market purchases were within the limit.
Flying time of 50 minutes, so similar to a Sydney to Melbourne flight. We push back on time and arrive early. Unfortunately our planned arrival gate is still occupied, so we lose all of those gains and then even more time as we wait for an open gate.
This is a standard economy seat with 31 inches of pitch and 17.3 inches of width, which directly compares to Qantas widebody aircraft flying domestic routes. It has 1 extra inch of pitch compared to a Qantas 737 and one really notices that extra inch. There is plenty of legroom and the flight is entirely comfortable.
There are fixed screens above the aisles, on the bulkheads and below the overhead lockers although they only show the flight map. A full suite of entertainment is available via the JAL app, which must be downloaded beforehand (like on American Airlines). The app provides over 70 channels of entertainment for free.
Free content outside of the app includes 2 live TV channels of news and sport. One can also connect to the full internet for free but requires signing up to the Boingo internet service.
The real entertainment is out of the window, with the route taking us over Lake Biwa and then over the top of Nagoya and just to the east of Mt Fuji. Despite low cloud, the mountain still pokes her head out and we were fortunate to be on the correct side of the plane to see her. We wondered what the great Japanese artist Hokusai would have made of the mountain from this viewpoint.
None. Free soft drinks are available.
This was only a short flight but the service was typically polite and charming.
The JAL Explorer Pass is a massive opportunity for international travelers to get around Japan, particularly if one has lots of baggage. Even on a short flight like this the elapsed time is comparable to taking the shinkansen (about 3.5 hours between Osaka and Tokyo). On longer flights to other destinations, this ticket cannot be beaten for value.
10 out of 10.
Part 3: Haneda Airport to Shinagawa
There are a number of public transport options to and from Haneda Airport. We took the Keikyu Airport line to Shinagawa. This is a local metro line and whilst the carriage was empty when we got on, it filled up very quickly. The Navigator made a strategic error and was on the wrong side of the carriage when we arrived at Shinagawa. Thinking everybody would get off, instead he was confronted with a wave of people trying to get on. The Navigatrix worried he would not get out, which he did but not before nearly crushing an elderly man between the door and the suitcases.
Down at ground level, The Navigatrix asked the information desk for directions to our hotel. Instructions in hand, we went out through the ticket gates and started for the hotel which was now in plain sight.
The man behind the information desk had rushed after us.
“If you wait here the hotel has a shuttle bus,” he said. “It will arrive soon.”
What a relief! Even though the hotel was only 500 metres away, the shuttle bus was a far more viable option compared to pushing our suitcases through the crowd and up the hill.
Most Japanese travel very light - a single, medium sized suitcase at the most. The poor bus driver’s eyes widened in horror when he saw our four massive bags. We wondered what our fellow passengers thought as both us and our luggage was squeezed into the tiny 12 seat mini bus.
The rain cleared overnight so today we headed to the centre of Osaka and Umeda. A bit of research overnight revealed a 1 day metro pass costing JPY800 each was better value than using our tap-and-go cards, so with tickets in hand off we went.
The Umeda Sky Tower is a forty storey building designed by the same architect who penned Kyoto Station. Although not in the futurist style, it is a modern complex of buildings in a city characterised by modern skyscrapers. What sets it apart from everything else is the garden on the 40th floor which forms the observation level. The garden bridges the gap between the two towers. There was just one problem - damage from the typhoon meant the garden is closed indefinitely.
Whilst we were disappointed, it was entirely understandable. The garden faces south to get the best view and so would have had no protection from the storm. Given all of the damage we saw elsewhere through the Osaka and Kyoto region, the Sky Garden was the first place we have visited which was closed. Instead we wandered through the beautiful gardens at ground level and saw more hummingbird moths.
In the centre of the city there are many sculptures to serve as focal points in public areas.
With extra time on our hands we moved onto the Namba/Dotonbori district. This is Osaka's main tourist area, filled with extravagant neon signs, a huge variety of bars and restaurants and many rather seedy hotels with names like Goody Goody Hotel, out of place themes such as Bali, or strange ornamentation. Rooms can be hired by the hour for a "rest", a half day for a "relax" or for the full day.
The Glico running man neon sign is a focal point of the district and dates back to 1935. Obviously it would be more spectacular at night.
The ferris wheel (if you could call it that) looks a rather scary and claustrophobic contraption but that did not stop people climbing aboard.
There is also a boat tour of the canal. However if you walk from one end of the waterway to the other like we did, there is no need for the tour. The internet provides any other commentary one might need.
Glitzy restaurants and bars are not our thing but there were plenty of people queuing for lunch. Wagyu beef steak, shabu shabu, fugu (puffer fish), octopus dumplings and crab are local specialties. Instead we headed to a nearby temple tucked away in a narrow alley. Hozenji Temple has three stone Buddhas covered in a thick layer of green moss.
Later we visited Osaka Castle with its original moats. Although there has been a castle on this site for centuries, the current castle was rebuilt in 1935 using steel and concrete. Barely any of the wood and plaster buildings still exist having been ravaged by many wars and fires. There are a number of contemporary buildings inside the main walls which date to the same era and are out of place with the traditional looking castle.
Having climbed to the top of the original castle at Himeji we did not go inside. Instead we viewed the enormous moats - the walls are much taller than at Himeji. A number of stones used to form the walls are massive and some have faces larger than 50m2 - bigger than the floor area of our hotel room! How on earth did they manage to construct it?
We continued our walk through the typhoon damaged grounds where we again witnessed the ferocity of the storm. We found the local dog park, full of owners with miniature poodles madly dashing after balls.
Finally we wandered through stalls selling bonsai, wishing we could bring some home.
Yesterday afternoon we arrived at the Marriott Miyako Hotel. The hotel is located in the top 12 storeys of the tallest mixed use building in Japan - the Haruka 300. At 60 storeys high, this building tops out at 300 meters and is only surpassed by the Tokyo SkyTree at 634 meters. This building is nearly as tall as the Eiffel Tower! Our room is on the 53rd floor and floor to ceiling windows provide a spectacular view of the sprawling metropolis.
Today dawned with drizzly rain, which we watched come across the city in bands. We decided to make this a home day and did not venture beyond the multitude of shopping malls surrounding Tennoji station and the hotel. The shops are independently owned and not filled with the familiar brands common to most cities all over the world. This makes it a joy to wander through.
Back in our room, we were fascinated as from nearly 300 meters up in the air we watched people go about their lives from the comfort of our chaise lounge.
We also could see first hand more effects of the recent typhoon as a patchwork of blue tarpaulins covered hundreds of rooftops.
The occasional ambulance siren drifted up from below but otherwise we had an undisturbed day.
We settled in for the evening with our spectacular view and the best Executive Lounge we have experienced anywhere in the world. With triple height ceilings, excellent food and superior service it is a soothing retreat from the bustle of 19 million people in the greater Osaka area.
After dinner, sake and plum wine we returned to our window to watch the night lights.
This morning we had time for one more Kyoto festival before we all left for Osaka or Kansai Airport. We headed three subway stops north to near the Imperial Palace and found a spot in the shade to watch the Jidai Matsuri parade.
The Jidai Matsuri ( "Festival of the Ages") is a traditional Japanese festival ("matsuri") held annually on October 22. By pure fluke we had timed our visit perfectly. The festival traces its roots to the relocation of the Japanese capital from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1868. This involved moving the Emperor of Japan and the Imperial family and the Palace as well as thousands of government officials and subjects to the new city. Fearing for Kyoto's loss of glory and interest from her people, and to commemorate its history, the city government and the Kyoto prefectural government started the festival to celebrate the founding of Kyoto - over 1200 years ago.
Over 2,000 participants take part in the parade and are dressed in accurate costumes from different eras, as well as famous historical figures. There are samurai and archers on horseback, foot soldiers, women dressed highly complex kimonos, oxen pulling large carts and finally actors representing the Emperor and the Imperial family.
It takes two hours to watch the entire procession pass by. Drummers initially keep everyone in time but once they and a flute marching band pass there was little additional sound apart from the clop of horseshoes, the 'swoosh' of sandals and the scrape of metal walking sticks.
The crowds thinned out as the procession passed. Many people were here to see family in the parade - occasionally someone would call out and there would be much waving.
Every now and then the parade would come to a halt (a human traffic jamb). The horses would become impatient, stomp their feet and nudge their handlers as if to say "come on - let's keep moving."
We saw one of the actors break character. He reached into his pouch and answered his mobile phone.
This was a fascinating parade and something clearly held dearly in the hearts of the people of Kyoto.
On our way back to the hotel the subway was packed, so we all decided to catch a taxi to Kyoto Station, rather than struggling to find space including our luggage. We found our train to Kansai Airport with plenty of time. We bade farewell to The Navbour at Tennoji and he continued onto the airport. We went directly upstairs to the Marriot hotel.
The three of us have had a wonderful week in Kyoto, Hiroshima and surrounds. We were all pleased to have not only seen what we wanted to see but also have new experiences, some of which could not have been planned beforehand. There is still so much to see. Yesterday, The Navigatrix spoke to a French woman on the way to Toji markets - she was spending a month in Kyoto. Even then it is not possible to see everything.
There is always next time.
Today is our last full day in Kyoto. We headed off first thing to Toji markets, just on the other side of Kyoto station from our hotel.
Toji Shrine was founded in 796 and has a five storey pagoda, large temple and is set in large grounds. The markets are a regular occurrence on the third Sunday of every month and celebrate the death of Kukai in 835. Kukai was a very important monk who instigated the construction of many of the buildings in the temple, including the five storied pagoda. The pagoda was actually the tallest building in Kyoto until the completion of Kyoto Tower in 1964.
The Navigator has to withdraw his comment about "house of prayer, den of thieves." It has been the practice of temples for many centuries to hold markets as means of bringing the community together and also raising funds to support the temple. Nonetheless, he is still undecided about fat-cat multinationals like Chanel using a temple to support a specific promotion.
The market was in full swing when we arrive and continued to get busier throughout the morning. The entire grounds were covered with colourful canopies selling everything from kimonos to handicrafts to second hand goods to bonsai. There were plenty of food stalls as well and we lost The Navbour when he stopped for a pancake. We accomplished our mission of buying a kimono and some Kokeshi dolls.
We could have easily spent all day at Toji but left before lunch to head to Kamigamo Shrine in the north of the city. The Navbour headed to the Kyoto Railway Museum.
A beauty of Kyoto is there is always a festival occurring somewhere in the city. The Citadines always does a good job of posting the major events of the month in the lift and through this list we discovered the Kasagake festival. We caught the subway to Kitayama Station and then walked for 30 minutes through a beautiful and quite affluent suburb. In front of one house was parked an Alfa, Porsche and what looked like some Italian supercar underneath a tarpaulin.
Kasagake is a form of Japanese mounted archery. Archer and horse charge down a narrow lane and the archer must stand to shoot at three wooden targets of approximately 30cm2 on the left side of the horse without stopping. Then they return in the opposite side to shoot at smaller targets (perhaps 15cm2) on the right and then the left side of the horse. Not only that, the archers are wearing traditional dress of deer skin, thick cloth and helmets tied on with rope.
The skill and the training of both horse and archer is extraordinary. The horses are trained to run in a straight line at a constant speed without the archer holding the reins. The archer must maintain his/her (there were two female archers) balance and manage to shoot at a target whilst moving.
Originally there were ten archers. The first round knocked out five and then the next round knocked out two. The remaining three archers then shoot at ceramic disks with a hole in the middle. The hole contains a square sheet of paper and if the archers can shoot the paper without breaking the ceramic disk then this is worth more points. Not only that, the archer has achieved the goal of shooting out the evil spirit.
It was fascinating and spectacular viewing. Not only that, we were blessed with clear and warm weather to watch the festival.
Afterwards we were looking at the horses and the archers as they packed up and one archer approached us.
"Did you enjoy the festival?" he asked in unaccented English.
"Absolutely," we said, a bit embarrassed we could not reply in conversational Japanese.
We followed up with “thank you” in Japanese (arigatou gozaimasu). We have managed to extend our vocabulary this trip but only just.
We spent some time looking through the grounds of the temple. Like Fushimi Inari, this shrine has a path up into the forested hill which is guarded with vermilion tori. The typhoon has caused significant damage here too. Most of the tori were broken by fallen trees and some trunks were still lying over the path. One tree was snapped in half as if it were a toothpick. The surrounding houses were so lucky the big trees fell away from the buildings.
In the evening we had a great dinner at another of the ticket vending machine restaurants in our street. Great value for money and dinner is presented to you within five minutes with miso soup, tofu and green tea served alongside your main course for under $10 Australian dollars.
After the emotional and physical journey of yesterday, we took the opportunity for a more relaxed pace. We all headed out late in the morning - The Navbour headed to Uji and we went to the northeast of the city to visit the garden of Murin-An.
Murin-an is a typical strolling garden of the Meiji period and was built by Yamagata Aritomo, a Prime Minister of Japan just before the turn of the century. The garden borrows the eastern hills of Kyoto for its viewpoint as an extension of the vista from the garden. It has a shallow stream and pond that is fed by the waters of nearby Lake Biwa, Japan's biggest lake. There are parts of the garden that have been influenced by English landscape design. There is also a very Western style villa on the grounds with dark rooms, painted walls and a panelled ceiling. Arimoto and some of his ministers met in this villa to plan the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.
We are only just a little bit into the hills of Kyoto but there is far more autumn colour.
On our return we stopped by Nishiki Market, a long arcade style mall which runs parallel to the main shopping street in Kyoto. The market sells everything from food to handicrafts and being a major tourist attraction the prices are reflective. In older times this was probably the main market for this part of the city, so the range of foodstuffs was spectacular as well as fascinating.
Back out on the main street we saw a very spoilt Cavalier which reminded us of our dog at home. We showed the owners a photo of our dog and there was much excitement.
In the evening we visited Kodai-ji temple built in 1606 and set in the hills to the east of the city, just a short bus ride away from our hotel. The temple has night illuminations for spring and autumn and there were some wonderful vistas from all parts of the temple and its surrounding gardens.
Around a pond the lights were arranged in a manner to reflect the trees in the water.
The outer buildings of the temple complex were roofed with thick thatch.
Further up the hill in the bamboo grove, individual clumps of bamboo were illuminated in sequence until the whole grove was bathed in light. Darkness showed the sparkling lights of Kyoto below us and then the sequence started again.
There were also some fantastic moving projections onto the buildings.
Afterwards we walked back to the hotel and stopped for dinner at a very aptly named restaurant - The Japanese Charcoal Chicken Restaurant. This was a typical (non vending machine) Japanese restaurant, with approximately 12 seats circling the chef and the food is prepared right in front of us. The food was mostly yakatori style (meat on a stick) using all parts of the chicken - heart, liver, tenders and neck as well as breast and thigh. The Navigatrix also ordered grilled green peppers, which looked like chillies but were sweet green baby capsicums.
One hears stories about how expensive Japan is but this has not been our experience. The three of us have been able to eat for about JPY3,000 in total per night - about AUD38 including beer. The buses in Kyoto are a flat price of 230 yen (less than AUD3.00) to get anywhere in the city. Not as great for a short hop but great value when travelling from one side of the city to the other. The small convenience stores like Family Mart and 7 Eleven serve sandwiches, sushi and yakatori which are less than 250 yen. Of course, the vending machine culture means drinks are available for as little as 100 yen. Entry to temples, museums and even major tourist sites like Kyoto Tower are priced at less than AUD10.00 and mostly far cheaper.
A wonderful dinner capped off another lovely day.
Today was a big day of train travel from Kyoto to Osaka to Hiroshima to Miyajima Island and return. This itinerary was the reason we bought the travel pass discussed yesterday. The retail price of our 800km round trip was over JPY22,000 per person but the 5 day pass cost JPY13,600. Therefore by only day 2 it has been highly cost effective and well worth the 30 minutes of research to buy the ticket and identify which trains to catch.
An early morning start saw us at Kyoto Station at 7:45 for the 30 minute express train to Shin-Osaka. Then straight onto the shinkansen which whisked us to Hiroshima. It only took 90 minutes to cover the 340 kilometre distance. At Hiroshima we transferred straight onto a local train to travel further along the coast to the ferry terminal for Miyajima. How did we know where to go? We followed the crowds who bustled off the train and headed for the ferry.
Miyajima Island is famous for many reasons, including the giant tori at Itsukushima Shrine, which itself is suspended on platforms over the water. The tori is not only spectacular for its size but also because it is set out in the bay. At high tide the tori seems to float on the water. At low tide one can walk out across the sand and stand beside the structure. We heard a young Australian woman say: "That's it - bucket list completed!" Really? There is plenty more to see in the world.
The Navigatrix was approached by a group of school children who had to practice their English with Westerners. So polite - "Excuse me, do you have some time to answer questions?". She patiently answered the questions and signed her own name, presumably as proof the kids completed the assignment and did not make up the answers. A moment later, one of the children brought their friend over to complete the assignment. A minute later the same thing again! The word must have got out The Navigatrix had toy koala key rings to give away. We received beautiful origami cranes as a gift.
Miyajima also has deer which roam the streets much like in Nara, although these deer are not addicted to deer crackers and therefore are far more polite.
We climbed to the top of a small hill to see a wonderful red pagoda, wooden temple hall and view a panorama of Hiroshima Bay
Afterwards we walked the touristic Hatsukaichi-shi street and sampled the local food. We can get okonomiyaki (a layered pancake) at our local market, so instead we had a Hiroshima style steamed beef bun, fish cakes on a stick with asparagus and bacon, and momiji-manju. Not quite a biscuit… not quite a cake… but it is a cake type texture shaped like a maple lea and with a sweet filling such as bean curd, custard cream or even chocolate. Fresh and hot from the mould they were eaten before we could take a photo.
One could easily spend a day or two on Miyajima but we had other things to do. From there we took a local light rail system into the centre of Hiroshima. It had started to rain as we left Miyajima and it was still drizzling by the time we got to the Atomic Bomb Dome. After a back up photo (in case the weather turned nasty) we scuttled into the Peace Memorial Museum.
The images and stories of Hiroshima before and after that moment, as well as the aftermath, are confronting to say the least. The purpose of the museum is to lay out the history of atomic bomb development, then track the escalation of weapons build-up during the Cold War and the nuclearisation of Asia from Pakistan to India to China to North Korea. It also shows the real effects on the 140,000 people estimated to have died at Hiroshima after the bomb was dropped. The message is clear: this must never happen again. The nearby Peace Flame will burn until all nuclear weapons have been abolished.
"It will burn forever then," said The Navbour.
Back inside the museum, The Navigatrix could not bear the see the whole display of artefacts donated by survivors. Things like shredded clothing, melted glass bottles and deformed roof tiles. Even The Navigator struggled with some of the stories of citizens.
Like the returned soldier who saw the melted bottles: "It must have been really hot."
Or the diary entry of a school child on 5 August: "Looking forward to learning more tomorrow."
Or the harrowing accounts of people searching for loved ones and never finding them.
The museum was filled with school children on excursions (most important cultural sites seem to have school excursions - Nara, Himeji, Hiroshima, etc.), some children younger than 10 years of age. We wondered how they must feel about the displays and the stories but that is the purpose of the museum - to never forget what happened and to educate people so it never happens again.
Outside the museum we visited the Children’s Peace Monument with its thousands of paper cranes. A young girl who survived the blast contracted leukaemia in the 1950s and while in hospital started making paper cranes. Japanese legend is that if one makes 1,000 paper cranes the gods will grant them a wish. The young girl folded only 644 cranes before she died. The memorial was inspired by this young girl's story and since then over 10 million cranes have been donated to the monument.
By now the weather cleared and so we updated our photos of the A Bomb Dome. The hypocentre of the blast is actually about 160 meters away from the building. Many other buildings in the immediate area survived because at this location the blast went downwards. Some buildings have been demolished and some rebuilt - the A Dome (originally an exhibition hall) was deliberately left in this state and is (yet another) UNESCO World Heritage site.
We returned to Hiroshima station on the light rail/tram which makes Hiroshima feel like Melbourne, especially as the tram crosses over the many rivers in the city. At Hiroshima station we had to sidestep our way through the crowds of people heading to Friday night baseball at nearby Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium. We got straight onto the shinkansen and settled in for the 90 minute ride to Osaka.
Except it was not 90 minutes.
For the first time ever in our many rides on the bullet train (or any other train) In Japan, it stopped in the middle of nowhere. Long announcements in Japanese ensued. The train still did not move. After about 30 minutes we crept forward and eventually arrived at Fukuyama - not a scheduled station. More lengthy announcements in Japanese and then finally one in English.
"The train has stopped driving due to a customer impact at Himeji. I will advise when we will start driving again."
In the end we were stationary for nearly three hours. We were lucky - at least we had seats. Many people got on at Fukuyama and then at Okayama and had to stand. Yet through all of this there were no complaints or muttering, just an acceptance that everyone was stuck. Even the children were well behaved. The Navigatrix made a strategic advance on the food trolley before the train got too crowded. Chocolate, nuts and ice cream staved off a tired-hungry-grumpy moment, although had she known how long the delay was to be she would have bought far more. The message then changed to "human damage" and then on arrival at Shin-Osaka there was a message saying there had been a derailment, which was probably a lost in translation moment as later on we could find nothing on the news about a derailment.
Our train was suspended at Shin-Osaka (we felt sorry for those who were travelling through to Tokyo), so we had to change trains to continue to Kyoto. We have never seen a station as crowded as this, even at New Years Eve. The entire shinkansen system was disrupted from Tokyo through to the island of Kyushu. Platforms were packed with people waiting to board delayed trains, or there were long lines of people waiting to get their money back for trains which had been cancelled.
We were forced to catch the local (all stops) train from Shin-Osaka to Kyoto as the express trains were full of passengers trying to get home. Even getting on the local was a squeeze - The Navigator was almost left behind. Fortunately the carriages cleared quickly.
In the end, what should have been a two hour journey ended up being nearly six hours. Thank goodness the ticket vending restaurant next door to the hotel is open 24 hours. It was after midnight by the time we ate but even at that time of night the restaurant was full.
This morning we all picked up our Japan Rail passes. The national pass covers all JR trains and is only available in 7 or 14 day segments. The local franchises (Kyoto is in JR West) have regional passes which cover a selection of smaller areas and are available for shorter time frames. We (including The Navbour) have bought a five day pass which covers from Kyoto to beyond Hiroshima.
The Navbour headed to Nara for the day. We had been to Nara on our last trip to Japan, so instead headed for the town of Himeji and the mighty castle. Our pass required a change at Shin-Osaka but we travelled the 130km to Himeji on the Shinkansen in about 90 minutes.
Those of you who have seen the James Bond film 'You Only Live Twice' might recognise the castle. This is where Bond goes for ninja training after being surgically altered to look Japanese.
The castle presents itself as soon as one exits the station and is about 15 minutes walk along the main road. After our big day of walking yesterday, the 100 yen bus ride from the station to the castle was a bargain.
The castle is regarded as the finest surviving example of Japanese castle architecture, comprising a network of 83 rooms with advanced defensive systems. The castle is frequently known as White Heron Castle because of its brilliant white exterior and resemblance to a bird taking flight. Himeji Castle dates to 1333 and for the past 400 years has remained intact, even throughout the extensive bombing of Himeji in World War II and natural disasters. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site (the first in Japan) and a Japanese National Treasure.
We climbed to the top of the main keep without our shoes which must be taken off and felt the cool smooth wooden floor. The castle is seven storeys high and 45m above ground level. The steps were steep like attic ladders and fortunately one could rest on each level taking in the magnificent views before taking on the next part of the climb. The warrior stereotype is true - each floor had hiding areas for the ninjas to wait in ambush. Himeji Castle was never attacked, so the ambush holes and the complex system of winding paths designed to confuse intruders was never tested.
It has been a warm autumn in Japan. The typhoon which came through in September stripped many trees of their leaves. The still warm weather in October has confused the cherry blossom trees into thinking it is spring and so the flowers are blooming. Many Japanese visitors pointed at the blossoms. "Sakura! Sakura!" they exclaimed with puzzled looks on their faces.
The inner and central moats of the castle still survive and one can ride a flat bottomed boat around the inner moat. The boat is paddled much like a gondola, except the paddle has a hinged elbow rather than a solid oar as in Venice. We get reed hats to protect us from the sun and the very low bridge over the moat. We chatted to our boatman who in his limited English told us his daughter was in Sydney but could not explain where. His daughter has a new baby, so his wife was in Sydney to visit. Like yesterday, the commentary was all in Japanese but it was no issue as the view was spectacular. To help overcome this, we were given a sheet in English to guide us.
After the boat ride we visited the Koko-en Garden, which is right next door to the castle and entry can be bought on the same ticket. This garden has 13 different walled rooms from bamboo, to flat landscape, to ponds and also a tea house garden.
We have always wanted to participate in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony and whilst this was not the full experience for 500 yen it was well worth it. Wearing a traditional kimono our server brings the tea and sweet and then bows graciously. One must say "thank for you the tea" which prompts a huge smile from the server. The sweet must be eaten first and is a bean curd paste wrapped in Mochi - a soft and sticky rice that is pounded into a paste. Then the tea bowl must be picked up with the left hand and rotated clockwise so the front is turned away. The guest then drinks the bitter green Matcha tea and once finished, rotates the bowl counter clockwise so it faces the front. The whole process is not about drinking tea but is about aesthetics and preparing a bowl of tea from one's heart, whilst enjoying the various different vistas from the tea house of the garden. A time to sit and reflect quietly.
The gardens were spectacular and due to the hot autumn are just starting to show the signs of colour. As we were about to exit we spotted a hummingbird moth flitting between the flowers. We had seen one the previous evening at Fushimi Inari and had mistaken it for a hummingbird. Of course there are no hummingbirds in Japan but these moths act just like a hummingbird, hovering before an open flower and using its proboscis to extract the nectar. The display captivated us for nearly 15 minutes.
On our way back to the station we stopped at a kimono shop The Navigatrix had seen on the way to the castle. She picked up a bright red obi.
"This looks nice," she said.
On closer inspection, the obi was printed with erotic Japanese images.
"Not something we should have in the lounge room then," she mused.
Himeji Castle is an amazing place and well deserving of its National Treasure status. Even The Navigatrix really enjoyed herself, despite the staircase-of-death climb. The other activities and areas of the castle (we did not do it all) easily make this a full day out.
Jetlag had us awake early again, so in the morning we headed to the Rokkaku-dō Temple just two subway stops up the line. We have bought tap-and-go cards to get around on local transport. Outside of Tokyo very few of the local subway or bus networks are owned by Japan Rail (JR) so the tourist rail passes do not work. The tap-and-go cards (called IC cards in Japan) are interoperable across most all local networks regardless of the city, so our cards will also work in Osaka, Hiroshima, Tokyo and other cities.
The Rokkaku-dō Temple is a hexagonal Buddhist temple (Rokkaku literally translates as "six sides") and considered the birthplace of the art of ikebana flower arranging. It is a tiny space, tucked in behind concrete office buildings and the ubiquitous Starbucks outlet. Two delightful swans swim in the pond behind the temple. Chanel was setting up a beauty event for their Matsuri product range as we wandered around. The messenger mascot for this temple is a sparrow-like bird and Chanel had a row of very cute birds set up along a shelf on the temple.
"Do you think they would miss just one?" asked The Navigatrix.
The Navigator wondered about a house of prayer being used as a den for thieves. However it did not seem to bother the crowd of pilgrims who bustled into the space, with their walking canes, white shirts and bandannas.
Later we met up with The Navbour and travelled to the south of the city to the Fushimi district. Apart from the famous temple on Mt Inari, the Fushimi district is also known for sake production. The area is fed by clean water from nearby Lake Biwa and hundreds of wells are scattered throughout the suburb. Fushimi is near the confluence of three rivers, the Uji, Katsura and Kamo and so became an important port for the Kyoto area. A series of canals were built to help move goods around Japan.
We rode the Jikkokubune Canal Cruise on a flat bottomed boat much like those of ancient times, except it had a Yamaha 100hp engine on the back. The staff were very careful to make sure everyone was seated in a way to keep the boat balanced. A spirit level at the front helped them check.
The three of us were the only Westerners amongst the 15 passengers and the commentary was all in Japanese but that did not matter. We spent a very relaxing hour on the canals to the huge lock gates on the River Uji. These gates now primarily operate as flood control but even after the typhoon in early September there is barely any water running in the Uji River. The Navbour commented that none of the apartments took advantage of the beautiful views of the canal.
Next we visited the Gekkiekan sake museum, which is right next to the canal boat dock. Gekkiekan is one of Fushimi's most famous breweries as well as one of the oldest having been founded in 1637. One the way in The Navbour topped up his water bottle with the crystal clear water spilling out from the well. "Excellent," he said. "Now let's try the sake!"
The excellent displays of the museum explained the process of making sake. The 10 steps (ignoring rice milling and bottling) can be completed within six weeks but the brewers had to be careful. They could not eat any fermented food because the bacteria would come out on their sweat and spoil the product. There were also displays of tools, stamps and even marketing material which were fascinating.
But you're all interested in how the sake tasted, yes? At the end of the tour visitors are presented with three samples - one sweet, one dry and a plum wine "popular with the ladies". The plum wine was indeed popular with The Navigatrix, whilst The Navigator preferred the dry sake. All visitors also receive a free 180ml bottle of sake, very cleverly packaged with its own cup. This is well worth the JPY400 price of admission as the same bottle is sold in the shop for JPY650, albeit in a wooden box. We have not tasted our gift yet - we are waiting to share it with friends and family when we get home.
In the late afternoon we headed to the Fushimi Inari Temple, also known as the Red Temple for its 1000 vermillion tori that line the path to the top of Mt Inari. This is the third time we have visited but the first for The Navbour. We fought through the crowds at the bottom and the first level. Unsurprisingly, the crowds thinned as the climb got higher - in some places the path is quite steep.
There is lots of evidence of the typhoon here. Entire tree trunks are snapped, some of the ponds are obscured by fallen trees and even some of the tori have been damaged and even removed. We continued our climb up Mt Inari and watched a magical sun set.
We returned to Kyoto Station for dinner. The station is a strikingly modern building constructed when Kyoto was only just adopting high rise structures. Even with its curves and angles it sits well with the temples and gardens and reflects the balance between the modern and the ancient city. There are lots of quiet spaces to escape to, as well as a panoramic skywalk ten storeys up in the air.
Thanks to reconnaissance by The Navbour earlier in the week, we found a whole food court on the tenth floor, full of stalls selling food from the ticket-based vending machines we saw last night (this time with instructions in English!). Ramen noodles and fried chicken topped off a fantastic day.
Last night we arrived at our hotel , the Citadines Karasuma-Gojo. This hotel is ideally located just one subway station north of the main Kyoto train terminal. We have stayed here before due to the convenient location and amenities. Each of the rooms has self contained cooking facilities and a small supermarket is just two minutes walk away. At 24m2 it is small but perfectly organised.
We also met up with a neighbour (he has already christened himself "Navbour") who will join our travels for the next week. The hotel had already worked out the connection and placed us in adjacent (but thankfully not interconnecting) rooms.
This morning The Navbour went to the Imperial Palace and the nearby Nijo Castle. We visited Higashihongan-ji Temple, which is literally just down the road from the hotel. The temple is vast, covering an entire city block and consisting of three enormous halls. It is one of the largest wooden structures in the world. We took off our shoes and rested inside with the sweet smell of incense. Like many temples in Japan, this was rebuilt after burning down. The massive beams to support the roof were dragged down from the mountains during the winter when the snow made it easier to transport objects like this. Huge ropes were required, many of which were made from human hair donated by devout female followers. Now that is commitment to the cause!
By chance we discovered a garden which was once part of the main complex. It is now divided from the temple complex by the main road and houses. The Shosei-en Garden is a gem, with 13 different views designed to highlight vistas. Unfortunately some of the structures were damaged in the earthquake of July 2018 and then much of the vegetation was impacted by the typhoon in September. This made the garden look a little unkempt but there is a lot of work underway - chainsaws were buzzing away in the foliage as we walked around.
We are struck by how elegantly everyone is dressed - the businessmen and women in their smart suits; the children in their identical school uniforms; the elderly people in their beautifully tailored clothes. Many older women are dressed in kimonos.
We have also forgotten how tiny some of the cars and trucks can be - tiny bodies and tiny wheels. Our hotel is across the road from the fire and ambulance station. Even the fire brigade has a tiny truck to squeeze down the narrow streets.
Many people are on bicycles, including mothers with a childseat over the front wheel and the rear wheel. Many bikes have little electrical motors to assist the pedalling - like a Prius for bicycles.
The Navigator hit the jetlag wall at about 2pm, so we rested before heading out in the evening with the Navbour. We walked to some nearby temples to look at them in the evening light and then along Pontocho Street, which is a charming but touristic street full of restaurants and stand up bars.
We finally settled on a fast food restaurant near the hotel but not fast food as you might think. One orders from a vending machine which dispenses a ticket. Then, hand the ticket to the server and the food arrives within literally a few minutes. Delicious too - fried chicken, stir fried pork and the Navbour had pork ribs in a soy broth rice with egg. All dishes came with unlimited rice, miso soup and cost less for three than one of us would have paid in Pontocho Street.
Alas, after one last swim with the turtles at Paradise Cove we had to leave Hawaii. We also lose a day as we cross the International Date Line on route to Japan.
"We fly all day to land tomorrow," complained The Navigator.
JAL SAKURA LOUNGE, HONOLULU
At last - we are back in the bubble of flying international business class so have full access to a decent airport lounge again.
The JAL lounge is a large area on the third floor of the terminal and above the hubbub of duty free and luxury brand name shops. Although it is a shared lounge with American Airlines, it is primarily run as a JAL lounge and so is a vast step up from the low quality AA lounges.
This is a spacious area. There are plenty of leather easy chairs to sit in, as well as a bench-like workspace with power points for those wanting to use computers. The workspace looks out to a lush green area complete with large Koi pond in the middle of the terminal, or has a limited view of the tarmac.
Food, alcohol and soft drink is provided free of charge and there is a delightful serving of Japanese beef curry, chicken karaage and fresh fruit available. Raman noodles are also available. We felt like we were in Japan already.
As this is also an Admiral's Club lounge, those with Qantas Club membership can gain entry. This might be a viable alternative to the much smaller Qantas lounge on the ground floor, which is sometimes crowded with both the Jetstar and Qantas flights leaving at similar times.
Oneworld. This is the fifth leg of our oneworld Classic Flight itinerary. Notwithstanding we love Japan, this was the only way to get from Hawaii to Australia using a oneworld business class redemption. We have never seen Qantas or Jetstar offer business class redemptions from HNL - SYD.
Business - seats 10D & 10G (the middle seats).
There are two business class cabins, with seven rows ahead of the galley and a further four rows behind. We are in the second section of four rows.
Despite leaving the lounge when the flight was announced, we arrive at the gate 10 minutes after boarding has commenced to find the area empty. We apologise for being late and are told they are still waiting for three more passengers. We were almost those passengers - at least we were not paged!
Flying time of 8.5 hours. Due to the efficient boarding we push back five minutes early and land about 40 minutes ahead of schedule.
JAL flies twice daily between Honolulu and Osaka. There is an additional four flights per day to Narita as well as one flight to Nagoya. There are also two flights a day from Maui to Japan.
No wonder every third voice we heard in Hawaii was Japanese.
The B777's were recently fitted out with the reverse herringbone style layout of 1+2+1. This is a familiar format to us now and we can see the slight differences applied by different airlines.
The seat has two sections which lie flat to a long leg rest underneath the table section of the row in front. There is no leg rest attached to the chair but a footrest is available if one stretches out when in upright mode. There is also a soothing lumbar massage which can be adjusted to suit any position.
There is plenty of elbow room and storage compartments, particularly in comparison to Finnair's herringbone layout. Unfortunately in full recline there is not quite enough room for The Navigator's feet and knees. It is difficult to find a comfortable position to sleep.
A large table folds down from the partition in front, rather than from the table section in the middle. Further, one has to be fully upright to use the table - reclining the seat actually raises the bench which impacts the table.
An 18 inch touch screen is mounted directly ahead and can be tilted down for use when in recline mode. There are over 200 movies in a variety of languages from all Asian languages to English, French and many more. Approximately 100 of these movies are English language.
There are abut 25 TV shows, as well as sports and music videos. There are over 100 audio channels and about 12 interactive games. The games are played using a controller mounted in the partition.
In short (as per usual, at least in international business class), there is plenty of entertainment to cover a wide range of tastes. If you cannot find something to watch then you are not trying hard enough.
The Navigatrix watched 'Tully' starring Charlize Theron, 'LBJ' starring Woody Harrelson and 'The Greatest Showman" with Aussie Hugh. This is a record in movie watching for The Navigatrix. The Navigator watched 'La La Land' and la la loved it.
Get ready for it - JAL allows business class passengers 3 bags each at 32kgs per bag. Not only that, the bag can have a total dimension of 203cms. Compare this to Qantas which only allows a bag as big as 158cms.
This is lucky for us as our outlet mall purchases meant we had run out of space. One of our other purchases in Hawaii was a larger suitcase.
A blanket and pillow is provided, as well as slippers and noise cancelling headphones.
An amenity bag contains a toothbrush, eye mask, ear plugs and a moisturising mask. Whilst not as cute as the Marimmeko printed bags on Finnair, it is larger than normal and entirely useful.
The Navigatrix also receives a button up Yukata sleeping jacket made of soft jersey and had to reluctantly give it back at the end of the flight.
It is not often we feel the need to write about toilets but these were spotless throughout the entire flight. The polished chrome shined brightly. Toothbrushes and mouthwash are also available in the toilets.
The staff are wonderfully polite as are all Japanese people. After lunch the cabin is dimmed, so half the cabin sleeps while the other half watches the screen. The only two Westerners are stitching and writing.
A scented hand towel is handed out before and after the meal service.
The Navigator has a martini before the food service and then we both have a very tasty Spanish Cabernet Sauvignon.
The menu consists of a Japanese Pacific Rim dish of appetisers such as noodles, shrimp ball seared tuna and crabmeat omelette with a main course of grilled pink snapper. Alternately, there is a contemporary Hawaiian dish of pupu style appetisers and then beef tenderloin as the main course.
Despite previous warnings about beef on aeroplanes, we both order the tenderloin but The Navigator is disappointed to discover they have run out. He has the fish. He was doubly disappointed because The Navigatrix said the beef was perfectly cooked. The fish was fine... but seafood is not The Navigator's preferred food.
Dessert was a pear blanc manger which was tasty. Ice cream, cookies, cheese and fresh fruit was available at anytime on request, as well as water and soft drink.
A Chinese BBQ chicken sandwich was served as a snack about two hours prior to landing.
The difference between international and domestic business class is like chalk and cheese. JAL service, food and amenities made us enjoy flying again. As usual, the ability to stretch out made managing jet lag so much better, despite not sleeping. Despite a five hour time difference, we were more refreshed after this flight compared to the two AA flights where the time difference was only three hours.
The direct aisle access for all passengers and over the top politeness of the Japanese staff made this a lovely flight. The luggage allowance is spectacular.
However The Navigator did not get his first choice of food, and the seat is not quite long enough when in lie flat mode.
9 out of 10.
Aloha - we have just finished a blessed week in Hawaii. This was a week occupied by swimming with green seas turtles, swimming in the sheltered lagoon of the fabulous Marriott Vacation Club at Ko Olina, Mai Tais by the pool and relaxing dinners.
Rinse and repeat... and repeat again.
Ko Olina is a magical place to stay, far from madding crowds in Waikiki. It is situated on the West Coast approximately 30 minutes drive from the airport. With only three resorts set between the water, a golf course and a small condo community it is ideal and is well serviced with a marketplace with plenty of dining choices and a small supermarket.
The green sea turtles frequent the nearby lagoon at the aptly named Paradise Cove. This is where the famous luau takes place every night. In the evening the place is packed with hordes of tourists coming off tour buses from Waikiki but during the day the public beach is nearly deserted. If you drive here make sure to arrive before 9:00am as the public car park has space for only 10 vehicles.
We came here most mornings and we able to wade at waist height to watch the turtles. On one day there were four creatures gliding around and the adult turtles are so relaxed they will eat seaweed out of one's hand. On another day there was only one small turtle who was more timid. Only one day were there were no turtles, so we swam in a deeper section of the cove. Apparently a monk seal took up residence in the cove the week before we arrived. After swimming we would shelter under the shade of hibiscus-like tree to keep out of the heat.
The lagoon is also filled with tropical fish of all kinds including parrot fish, zebra fish, yellow angel fish and cornet fish. Sometimes fish are washed over the rocks as the waves break and it is funny to watch them hop and jump out of the water as they scuttle back to the safety of the deep. When the cornet fish are disturbed they too jump out of the water and skip like a tossed stone across the surface as they escape to the other side of the cove. This is a lovely sheltered cove to snorkel in.
The Marriott Ko Olina Beach Club has a range of holiday accommodation ranging from a 35m2 studio to three bedroom fully self contained apartments. We have swapped in using one of our timeshares and are staying in a studio. There is a king size bed, sleeper sofa, dishes, cutlery, fridge and freezer - perfect for our stay. There is a toaster, kettle and microwave but no cooking facilities in the room. There are BBQs available outside for guests to cook, most of which were used well at dinnertime. Laundry rooms on every third floor are available free of charge and detergent is provided in the room.
This is our third time staying here and it is difficult to avoid a direct comparison with the adjacent Disney Aulani resort, where we have also stayed three times. Disney does the pool area better, including food and drink service and child care . However, it is easier to access the beach lagoon from the Marriott and the area is not shared as Disney has to with the Four Seasons. The rooms are on par with each other. There are lots of family activities on offer as well as water slides.
We spent our afternoons snoozing by the reflection pool, either under an umbrella tree or a thatched umbrella to keep off the midday sun, which at some times was quite fierce. We took an occasional dip to cool down.
In the late afternoon we would migrate to the beach and watch the sun go down as we swam in the lagoon. The lagoon is protected from the surf by rocks and a small reef, so it was easy to just float. The tropical waters were warm enough that we never got cold or felt the need to get out.
This was a truly relaxing week.
We did manage to go out on a sunset cruise from Waianae, run by Hawaii Nautical on a massive catamaran with perhaps 40 other guests. Unfortunately there was not enough wind to sail but we motored up and down the west coast of Oahu and viewed a spectacular sunset as well as a moonset with Jupiter, Venus and the Scorpio constellation on full display. We highly recommend the cruise - dinner, alcohol and soft drinks are included in the price so we had a magical night. More Mai Tais and Maui beers were consumed.
Of course we also went shopping. We arrived at 11:00am last Sunday and could not check in until 4:00pm so we spent the time at the outlet mall at Waikele. The first weekend of October is Columbus Day weekend so there was some massive sales underway - for example 75% off in Kate Spade. "I could buy the whole shop," quipped The Navigatrix. The Navigator has done very well and probably does not need to shop for clothes until the next time we come to Hawaii! The Navigatrix did not manage quite as large a haul but was happy with her purchases.
The Waikele outlets are not quite the secret we thought they were. Every second voice we heard was Australian,. Do we really sound and dress as poorly as that? "These shorts are a f...ing awesome deal. I'm gonna buy five!"... "Nah... Those trackies are too baggy."..." Stop playing Pokemon! You're wasting my data!"
Then at the beach: "Xavier! Come back where I can see you! This is a foreign country!" Xavier was particularly bratty - what kid goes to the beach and refuses to swim?
We did smile at the comment from one little (American) girl who saw us walking along the beach and said: "Look - there's a Mommy and Daddy but they don't have a girl."
Driving to dinner one night we were surprised by an alarm on our phone which was so loud and strident we thought there was a problem with the car. The warning was for immediate flash flooding.
"Don't worry," said our greeter. "In Kapolei it does everything the opposite of what happens elsewhere on the island. My Mom lives 10 minutes away and she says it's pouring." The only downside was the musician for the night had been caught up with the storm - so no live music tonight.
The greeter was right. Contrary the warning it did not flood - it barely even sprinkled.
This is the eighth time we have visited Hawaii and we will keep coming back. It helps to have the wonderful accommodation and facilities of Marriott and Disney. Next time we will go to Kauai - this is the last of the major islands we have yet to see.
Hawaii has our heart. The people and the landscape make you feel that you are truly Ohana (family).
We had an overnight stay was at the LAX Hilton. On previous stays at LAX we went to Courtyard by Marriott but this time the lure of the Hilton Executive Lounge overwhelmed us. We should have stuck with the Courtyard.
Although the room was large and the bed was comfortable we had a view of a carpark. The room did not even have a fridge. The Lounge was so noisy from other guests we were unable to hold a conversation. We lost it when The Navigatrix was unable to find tea and the surly and insouciant server would not help.
Frankly, the Homewood Suites in Orlando (a lower category of hotel in the Hilton hierarchy) did a better job. There is plenty of choice for hotels at LAX so we will not return to the Hilton. This is really disappointing because all our previous Hilton experiences this trip have been excellent.
Things only went further downhill at LAX. We checked in without problem but at security The Navigator forgot to take out his wallet which meant being pulled over for a body search and drug/explosive residue test. He only has himself to blame for that.
Then we were refused entry at the AA lounge.
"But we're flying first class," we insisted.
"Only international or between LAX and JFK."
"But that doesn't make sense. How did we get access to the lounge previously?"
"Sir, madam - I can't explain that. Are you Qantas Club members?"
"Yes. But we didn't bring our cards because we're flying business and first and didn't think we would need them. After all, doesn't flying business or first automatically get access to the airline's lounge?"
"Well... usually yes but that is not American's policy."
After making enough of a scene at the doorway they eventually let us in. Just another reason not to fly AA.
Airbus A321S. The 'S' designation is for standard. There is a 'T' version of this plane for transcontinental flights which has true first class and business class seats which lie-flat.
Oneworld. This is the continuation of the fourth leg of our itinerary. In theory this leg is MCO-HNL with a transfer in LAX.
Business - seat 2A (window) and 2C (aisle). Every plane is different and we are the second row as the numbering suggests.
Flying time is 4 hours and 50 minutes. We push back 5 minutes early and pick up time along the way to land about 20 minutes early.
The seat has 21 inches of width, so is just slightly wider than the B737. Strange how that 1 extra inch is noticeable. There is no leg rest or foot rest, although there is a little more padding in the cushion so the seat is definitely more comfortable.
There is an 11 inch touchscreen screen in the back of the seat and a controller mounted into the armrest. There is well over 100 (we lost count) new release and catalogue movies across 20 categories.
There 30 different offerings in the TV section including complete seasons, documentaries and concerts.
In the music section there are 16 different audio channels, as well as 14 different music genres with up to 50 albums in each. There is also a large selection of interactive games.
In short there is plenty of entertainment and is a vast step up from the streaming app (which is not available on this plane).
The Navigator watched 'Incredibles 2' and The Navigatrix watched 'Finding your Feet' and 'The Little Pink House'.
Unfortunately we were unable to have our baggage checked all the way through to Honolulu, as it cannot be left overnight on the airside at LAX . However, this allowed us to properly pack our purchases from the outlet mall. Our 4 bags are now either at, or slightly over, 23kgs but they are all checked without question.
On par with our flight from yesterday. It is a little frustrating to have to go up to the galley for a drink or a snack as the staff do not come through the cabin.
However, we are greeted and welcomed in the Hawaiian language which is nice and puts everyone in a vacation mood. The chief steward also gives a running commentary of sights to see out of the window on approach to landing.
A drink is offered after take-off and then we are straight into brunch which is either banana bread pudding with grilled pineapple or pork enchiladas. We have the enchiladas which are fresh and tasty. Finally some nice food on AA!
Better even from yesterday, despite the terrible experience at the lounge. For (allegedly) the largest airline in the world, it is particularly frustrating there is no consistency across the brand in terms of entertainment, food and service on the land and in the air.
In the continuing race to the bottom for most American and some global airlines, the pursuit of profit means that service is being discarded and loyalty is ignored unless one has status. Next time we will find alternate ways to travel across the USA.
7 out of 10.
This morning we disembarked the ship and drove the Navbro and Navniece to their accommodation at Disney World. We said farewell to one another with great sadness because it was a wonderful week of family time - something which is difficult to achieve when we live on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean.
Then we made our way back to Orlando Airport (via the outlet mall of course) to catch our flight to Los Angeles. We had a quick rest in a very below average Admirals Club lounge which was small and had no food worthy of writing about. Free drink vouchers did little to compensate for a poor service offering.
Oneworld. This is the start of the fourth leg of our oneworld Classic Reward.
Business/First - seat 3A (window) and 3B (aisle). This is the first row of seats.
5 hours and 40 minutes. We push back 10 minutes late and despite bumpy weather for most of the flight we arrive almost on time.
As it turns out we timed our cruise perfectly. The bumpy weather we experience over the Gulf of Mexico is the beginning of Hurricane Michael.
Is as described on our flight from JFK - MCO. Having the first row with the bulkhead in front at least gives a sense of more legroom.
We downloaded the American airlines app before boarding. It has 12 movies, mainly first release but also some from the Disney catalogue. There are approximately 25 TV shows available for streaming as well. This is quite an elegant solution to providing free (albeit somewhat limited) content.
Content is also played on the TV screen which folds down from the overhead lockers. 'I Feel Pretty' with Amy Schumer is played and this is followed by two episodes of the latest series of 'Will & Grace'. Free earbuds are provided.
AA's baggage policy changed on September 21 and although Business/First passengers are still allowed 32kgs per bag it is not clear if the allowance is 1 or 2 bags. When all else fails the Finnair MSC rules still apply to our itinerary.
Despite all our Caribbean souvenirs we are still at 2 bags per passenger of 23kgs each.
This time service was better. The staff asked about The Navigatrix's stitching and also about our holiday itinerary. The bumpy flight made disrupted service. We noticed every time the seat belt sign came on the food trolley was placed across the aisle in order to make it completely clear the toilets were off limits.
We can now confirm that food is only provided on transcontinental flights (including to Hawaii). Drinks were offered before take-off and then another round with warm nuts was delivered after the seat belt sign was switched off. A hot towel was delivered just before the food service.
If we had known, we could have ordered our lunch online before the flight. Despite being in the first row we are the last to be asked about food and only grilled chicken and vegetables is left.
Perhaps this is a case of some food being better than no food but it is hard to tell. The chicken was dry and overcooked and the bread rolls were stale. The green salad with oil and red wine vinaigrette was better. However they did redeem themselves with ice cream served with a choice of toppings including whipped cream, butterscotch, chocolate fudge or raspberries.
Snacks such as potato chips, popcorn or pretzels were handed out about 90 minutes before landing.
Alcoholic or soft drinks as well as tea or coffee were available any time upon request.
Better... but nothing approaching their catchphrase of "great is what we're going for".
6 out of 10.
Our overnight accommodation in Orlando was the Homewood Suites, which is part of the Hilton family of brands. We needed something inexpensive, comfortable and close to the airport given our long day and late hour of arrival (nearly 1am). The Homewood Suites provide self contained accommodation and also a free breakfast each morning.
Jet lag had us awake early, so we were quickly on the road to Port Canaveral. Even checking in at 11:00am there were long queues to get on board but we managed to secure an upgrade to a balcony cabin and also week long passes to the spa - mission accomplished!
DAY 1: DEPART PORT CANAVERAL
The Navigator's brother and 9 year old niece joined us for this cruise so it was a wonderful opportunity for quality family time.
A dance party is held at sail away which is tremendous fun. However, our attention was on the waterslide. Many cruise ships these days have waterslides but only Disney has a slide which travels for 765 feet, manages to go up and down like a rollercoaster not once but twice, and slides through a clear perspex tube giving spectacular views from both sides of the ship. Countless rides were taken.
Before dinner we took advantage of the spa. There are three different steam rooms, including a hammam style room where we use a body scrub of salt, sugar, oil and aromatics. The Navigator takes tangerine and The Navigatrix has chocolate but their is also vanilla-orange and a wonderfully soothing lavender. There are also aromatherapy showers, heated day beds and two jacuzzies with a view of the ocean. We go into the spa as first sitting of dinner is served, so have the space almost to ourselves. Afterwards there are oversize showers with great water pressure, Elemis soap and shampoo - so much better than the shower in the cabin which The Navigator can barely stand up in. As there are only 45 passes a cruise, the spa becomes a haven of tranquillity - multiple times a day.
We have second sitting dinner and a table just for four. Our fabulous servers are Sercan from Turkey and Cesar from Peru.
DAY 2: SEA DAY
Our route took us past the Florida Keys and only three miles off Havana, Cuba. We were so close to Cuba the mobile phone signal kept picking up the Cuban network. The Navigator's brother (let us call him Navbro for convenience) was a bit worried about making a telephone call in case he ended up on some FBI list.
The weather was fine and warm so mini golf, more sliding and the pool was the order of the day.
In the evening we slipped into the spa again to take our scrub and lie on the heavenly warm beds.
DAY 3: COZUMEL, MEXICO
We go to the Mayan ruins at Tulum on the mainland, while the Navbro and Navniece head for some jet boat fun near Cozumel.
Our trip involves a 35 minute ferry boat ride from Cozumel to Playa del Carmen on the mainland and then an hour bus ride to Tulum. Along the way our incredible guide Uc teaches us about the Mayan culture. Did you know the word 'chocolate' is Mayan?
The countryside is thick jungle - "the second biggest set of lungs after the Amazon rainforest," says Uc. Along the side of the road, barbed wire and security posts keep unwanted visitors out of the resorts and vacation villas.
The ruins at Tulum are apparently the second most visited site in Mexico. They were built around 560AD And were continuously developed. The Mayan calendar works on a 52 year cycle based on alignment of a solar and lunar calendar, so every 52 years there would be a new level of construction as a celebration.
When the Spanish arrived in 1518, although they recognised the Mayans as a civilised race, this did not stop them destroying the culture. The buildings at Tulum were abandoned and became completely overgrown before being rediscovered in the late 19th century.
Uc gave us a wonderful tour of the ruins but made a very timely departure just as an enormous thunderstorm hit the area. We had wisely brought umbrellas but despite this we had no choice but to shelter as one is not supposed to do in a thunderstorm - under a tree and standing in pools of water. We helped an Argentinian woman shelter her baby granddaughter - the parents had disappeared in the blanket of heavy rain.
"When I find them," muttered the Argentinian woman. "I kill them."
The rain cleared after 20 minutes so we made our way down to the beach and swam in the warm waters.
Back at the shops we bought souvenirs and USD1.00 Corona beers.
"Please spend money with us," called out a Mexican. "We have to pay for a wall... to keep Trump out!"
On our way back to the ferry in Playa del Carmen we saw these strange creatures. We are yet to find out what they are.
DAY 4: GEORGETOWN, GRAND CAYMAN
The Navbro and Navniece went to swim with dolphins and stingrays. We instead rented a car and drove to the opposite side of the island to visit Starfish Point.
Grand Cayman is a low lying limestone based island - a true cay. The tax free status means it is quite a wealthy island with well maintained buildings and roads. The locals all have that sing-song Caribbean accent.
At Starfish Point we marvelled at the dinner plate sized starfish in the clear, warm water. We waded around and picked up creatures of all different colours and sizes. Huge iguanas scrambled amongst the foliage and in the trees. The area was almost deserted except for a charter yacht.
We had lunch at the nearby Kaibo Yacht Club (pronounced "Cay-bo") where The Navigatrix had what she proclaimed as "the best fish and chips ever."
"Where is everyone?" we asked the staff.
"It's rainy season," they replied. "And it's usually much hotter than this."
Our server at the restaurant was from Slovakia.
"How did you end up here?" we asked.
"I wanted to live where English is the main language and where it was warm."
"But Grand Cayman?"
"I applied to live here and they accepted. Why not?"
Why not indeed.
The staff at the rental car company advised us to allow plenty of time to get back to town. Lucky, as we were caught up by the school buses taking children home. As with the American and Canadian systems, the bus can stop anywhere and traffic going in both directions must stop to allow the kids to safely cross the road.
Cruise ships have to moor off the island and tender passengers to the wharf. We had a late morning arrival and picking up then dropping off the car meant we did not have time to visit the Queen Elizabeth Botanic Gardens as planned.
We thoroughly enjoyed our short time in the Caymans and would gladly come back again.
"Fly next time," said the lady at the rental car company. "Then you can spend longer here."
DAY 5: FALMOUTH, JAMAICA
The Navbro and Navniece did ziplines and river tubing. Once again, we could not find an interesting excursion so chose to wander through town.
The contrast between sedate and orderly Grand Cayman and Jamaica could not be more stark. Falmouth was noisy and chaotic, with car horns beeping, music of all kinds blaring from loudspeakers and hawkers yelling. "Yar, mon"... "No problems, mon"... "Hey, mon. Da bus is leavin' now. Now now!".
Falmouth is tiny - one could walk from side to side within ten minutes. We found a local supermarket to buy Ting (a sparkling grapefruit juice and a Caribbean staple). It is delicious and goes even better with rum.
Plenty of cruise passengers were offered "herbs" as they walked around town. A group in front of us were offered... a group behind us were offered... but not us. The Navigatrix was mildly annoyed - "It's the principle," she complained.
We walked to the Anglican church on the edge of town and rested in the cool interior. The inscriptions on the memorials tell the tales of so many men who died in their 20's, 30's and 40's. Jamaica must have been a harsh place in the 18th and 19th century. The rest of town has the remnants of the Georgian English settlement.
We so wanted to love Jamaica but came away disappointed. Falmouth is chaotic, much like St Johns in Antigua and St Georges in Grenada. It is a strange destination, as one must travel 45 minutes to an hour away from town to do anything - even to go to the beach.
The souvenirs are very average - either "I've been to Jamaica" T-shirts, Bob Marley T-shirts or Rastafarian hats. We were pleased to find some clear vanilla extract and also cinnamon extract, both grown locally.
A lot of money has been spent at the cruise terminal to provide an environment which is less chaotic for those visitors who are easily put off. Here the thousands of passengers which disgorge from the Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Disney behemoths can do their souvenir shopping, buy tanzanite and drink in Starbucks or Jimmy Buffets Margaritaville. All the familiar comforts of travelling... but in Jamaica... and behind gates to keep all the scary Rastas out.
DAY 6: SEA DAY
We headed north again between Cuba and Haiti on our way to the Bahamas. After three days of go-go-go we took the opportunity for a sleep in. More food, swimming, sliding and the refuge of the spa for as many moments as we could.
DAY 7: CASTAWAY CAY, BAHAMAS
Like most of the other cruise lines, Disney has a private island in the Bahamas where the ship docks and the facilities are exclusively for the ship's passengers. Everything is provided for you from the towels, daybeds, hammocks, soft drinks, a BBQ lunch and soft serve ice-cream.
In the morning we parasailed. The Navigator has done it before but this was the first time for The Navigatrix. After a microsecond of trepidation we soared high into the air and she enjoyed every moment. We rode in tandem and considered this must be like flying, with no noise and just the breeze in one's face. We saw a large grouper swimming below us. Other flyers saw turtles.
Alas it was over too soon but not before the driver dunked our legs in the water as he pulled us in.
Back on dry land we found some chairs, the shade of an umbrella and just sat. Eventually we found the Navbro and the Navniece who had gone on the banana boat ride and then snorkelling to the delight of the Navniece as she swam along with a turtle. The rest of the afternoon was spent swimming in the calm deep water of the sheltered lagoon.
It was a perfect day and The Navigator and Navigatrix were amongst the last 100 people to return to ship.
In the evening we managed a spa, a Broadway quality show in the theatre, dinner and then one final spa. We certainly made the most of our week long pass - on most days we managed at least two visits. Tonight they closed the doors behind us as we were literally the last to leave.
This is our seventh Disney cruise and the first for the Navbro and Navniece. As repeat cruisers we obviously love it and cannot fault the crew from the room attendant, to the servers in the restaurant, the spa staff and all the other crew who come to recognise your face (amongst 3,500 others) and ask about your day. The Navbro and Navniece loved it too. Disney Cruise Line has all ages on board, from extended family groups to honeymooners and is a perfect family holiday.
10 out of 10. Is it possible to rate it an 11?
Hello everyone. We are back after being extremely busy and out of regular internet service.
We are taking you back to where we left off.
Part 1: Hopping around Helsinki
When we checked in to the Hilton Helsinki Airport last night, we were upgraded (the count is now 7) to a massive 1 bedroom suite, complete with separate sitting room. Thank you Hilton Honors gold status! This meant we could spread out and completely re-pack in advance of our flight. The Navigatrix is considering restoring this airport hotel as her favourite.
We have also learned to take the complimentary breakfast (for gold members) in the main restaurant, rather than the Executive Lounge. There is table service, more comfortable seating and the food selection is much larger, including a separate gluten free section away from any cross-contamination.
We discovered another Marimekko outlet! This one is in Tammisto, a suburb close to the hotel and near the Iittala outlet we visited a week ago. We caught the local bus again - the whole suburb seems to be an outlet area ranging from carpets to clothing to kitchens to sporting goods. Why did we know not about this before? "This shop has only been open for about a year," said the manager. More fabric and crockery were purchased - lucky we have plenty of baggage allowance.
Alas, we had to leave but it is only a short walk to the terminal. We checked in and breezed through priority security (we were almost the only people going through) but then wandered around trying to find the tax refund desk. Having walked past it once, we returned to find it closed and we did not have the correct documentation to get the refund anyway.
The Navigatrix opted to return through passport control in order to get the receipts stamped.
"I love Finland so much I decided I couldn't leave," she quipped to the passport officer.
Back in Finland, the Customs officer wanted to see the goods. A moment of panic ensued.
"But they're back on the other side of passport control with my husband," said The Navigatrix.
"Don't worry," said the Custom's officer. "This happens all the time. It's a silly system."
The Navigatrix returned to the same passport officer who originally cleared us.
"Are you collecting passport stamps?" he asked.
"Tax refund," she replied.
The passport officer nodded knowingly.
By the time The Navigatrix returned, the tax refund desk was almost due to open. The operator apologised for being three minutes late. Rightfully so - all of this was eating into our time in the Finnair lounge!
Indeed, we only managed about 15 minutes in the lounge, which is delightfully Scandinavian in design, décor and dining. Unfortunately there was not enough time to try the reindeer salad!
Having been yelled at in Denmark for taking photos in the lounge, this time The Navigator asked permission. There is even a sauna in the Finnair lounge, although we're not sure if that is something we want to partake in just before a flight. The Finns do - The Navigator poked his head in to discover naked people. He decided they probably did not wish that photo be taken.
Onto the flight. Every long distance travel itinerary has one bad leg in terms of flight time and layovers. This was ours.
Part 2: AY005 HEL-JFK
Airbus A330-300. We thought it curious that Finnair employs this older plane on what we considered a high profile flight. Our stewardess explained that Finnair's focus is on Asia so all the A350s are deployed on those routes. The A350 will not be deployed to USA routes until 2024.
Qantas Frequent Flyer (oneworld). This is the continuation of our oneworld Classic Flight Reward and is the third leg of the itinerary.
Business - seat 3A (window) and 3C (aisle).
8.5 hours. We push back on time and due to long periods of turbulence over the Atlantic Ocean we arrive about 15 minutes late.
On the A330, Finnair uses a curious 2+2+1 then an alternate row of 1+2+1. In this alternate row the window seat on the left is like a throne, with first class like expanses of tables and storage. Our stewardess told us Finnair will soon refit the A330 to have the reverse herringbone layout like the A350.
The seats can lie flat, with one's feet extending underneath the table area of the row in front. There was plenty of room for The Navigator's 182 cm frame. A soothing massage feature is available and the position can be adjusted to suit one's need.
We are in the 2+2+1 row, which means there is no direct aisle access for the passenger in the window seat. There is not as much room as on Qantas to step over the aisle seat - The Navigator is working on his flexibility!
An 11" touchscreen is mounted into the partition of the seat in front and can only be tilted up or down to suit sitting or reclining modes. We counted them this time: 104 new release and library movies in English, Scandinavian and Asian languages. There is a similar number of TV series, as well as plenty of music and games.
One hour's free internet is available for business class passengers. Longer access periods are available for purchase.
Our allowance is 3 bags per passenger at 23kgs each. We are currently at 2 bags each. On the A330 there are overhead lockers above all seats for carry on luggage.
Finnair provides a blanket and pillow decked out in Marimekko prints. There is also an amenity bag full of Lumene cosmetics.
Finnair service is wonderful, with just the right mix of politeness and chattiness. There was much discussion about our Marimekko and Iittala purchases and that next time we should buy Arabia crockery.
Service was disrupted by the long periods of turbulence but the staff did their best to keep us fed.
Champagne was served before take-off. Yum.
Then The Navigator had Napue gin and tonic, served with a sprig of rosemary. Napue gin is distilled with Finnish botanicals such as birch leaves, seabuckthorn, cranberries and meadowsweet. Double yum.
Unfortunately lunch was not quite as good as the food on our previous Finnair flight from Bangkok. We both chose the roasted pork belly with autumn vegetables. It was nice... but not wow.
However, dessert was Finnish organic ice-cream which was delicious - light and creamy but without the sugar-sweet taste.
"Have you tried the blackcurrant flavour?" asked the stewardess.
"Later," replied The Navigatrix.
"Why not now?"
"Indeed - why not?"
A snack of Scandinavian tapas or shrimp toast is offered about 90 minutes before landing. We both choose the tapas which has reindeer tartar, rabbit pate and roast beef.
We love Finnair and will fly with them any time. They provide plenty of route options for us to use frequent flyer points to Europe and beyond without the expense and long flight times of flying through London.
The lack of direct aisle access will be solved when the A330 is refitted with the herringbone layout. The only let down on this flight was the not-quite-perfect meal but we are now being really picky.
9.5 out of 10
Part 3: AA1240 JFK-MCO (Orlando)
Every landing into the USA requires one to cross Immigration and collect luggage, even if transiting to a final stop. For us this meant having to clear security to go back to the airside of the airport. We anticipated this could be problematic but we cleared Customs, collected and rechecked our bags and were through security within an hour.
The American Airlines lounge in the satellite terminal is nothing to write about so we will not.
One sees many things when travelling. We have twice witnessed firearms being checked in. It is quite unnerving to see guns in an airport but it is better them being checked in than not. In JFK we saw someone carrying a kettle in their hand luggage and plenty of people having water and other liquids confiscated. We also saw a little Shih Tzu carried onto our plane in a soft carry case.
"Does he fly well?" asked The Navigator.
"He doesn't have wings, so no," replied the passenger. "I have to drug him."
The dog and his owner sat two rows behind us and indeed the dog did fly well. He let out a whimper as the plane revved for take-off and then there were a few little yelps as the plane came into land.
Boeing 737-800. This is the same plane Qantas uses for short haul domestic flights.
Qantas (oneworld). The HEL-JFK-MCO leg is the third part of our itinerary.
Business - seat 4A (window) and 4B (aisle).
2.5 hours. We push back on time and arrive about 15 minutes early. The rising harvest moon is on display as we take-off.
The difference between international business class and domestic first/business is stark. This is a very unspectacular seat.
Each of the eight rows in business are arranged in a 2+2 configuration. The seat is leather lined but the padding is quite thin and hard. There is 20 inches of width and 40 inches of pitch, so plenty of knee room.
The seat only reclines approximately 30 cms and does not have a legrest or footrest. This made it difficult to get completely comfortable given our increasingly desperate need for sleep.
The familiar screen fold downs from underneath the overhead lockers. 'Finding Dory" is played but one has to bring their own headphones.
Otherwise, plenty of movies and TV shows available on the AA mobile app. The app must be downloaded before boarding but once on your device all content is free.
AA's allowance for business class is 2 bags per passenger at 32kgs each. We are still operating to Finnair's allowance.
Not much because we had found the end of the tether and broken it. The overhead cabins are smaller so there is only enough room for one carry on bag. However the other carry on luggage easily fitted underneath the seat in front.
A drink is offered before take-off but once airborne we put on eyeshades so the cabin staff left us alone. The staff then decided to camp out in the forward cabin and talk very loudly. They continued to do so after The Navigatrix asked them to lower their voices. Frankly this is what we have come to expect from AA staff.
Nuts were offered but declined. Through semi-sleep The Navigator heard cookies being offered but that was it.
In the lounge we heard an announcement for a flight "with service" so we assume it is only the trans continental flights that have food.
We managed both managed a little more than an hour's sleep so things were not too bad. It was good to be in business class so as not to fight for overhead locker space or be crammed in 3+3 in economy. However beyond that there is little premium attached to business/first.
3 out of 10.
We woke to sunshine and despite a howling wind, we had a lovely day wandering the streets of the Old Town.
We went to the Upper Town, or as The Navigator called it the "even older town". The official name is Toompea (Dome Hill) and this is where the original town was built in the 13th century. It is now the centre of government and includes the Parliament, President's offices and many consulates.
We took refuge from the wind in the Aleksander Nevski Catherdal, a Russian Orthodox church with its onion dome towers. The Eastern Orthodox churches are spectacularly decorated, with bright and vivid paintings across the templon (a wall which separates the nave from the sanctuary) and silver icons on the walls. A service was in progress, spoken in (we assume) Russian and we watched as mostly older ladies lined up with shawls covering their heads to kiss a flower adorned icon. Some worshippers also kissed the floor.
The Lower Town has the businesses, restaurants, the more touristic shops and homes. We overheard one tour guide say: "It is like a house. The apartments are upstairs and the businesses are downstairs." The guide also said that nearly 5,000 people inhabit the Lower Town.
Just by the grand President's Office is a viewpoint with a spectacular panorama of the Old Town. We bumped into Australians who were on the NCL cruise boat still docked in town. They were diverted from Berlin due to yesterday's bad weather and had their St Petersburg stopover rescheduled. "At least we're still going," they said.
We stopped at Reval Cafe for lunch and sat in our window seat eating pancakes. Oh my goodness - so delicious. This café was a highlight unto itself. We were able to have three courses of food for the same price as single course in other restaurants. The atmosphere up in our bay window was delightful. "Come back at Christmas time," said our waitress. "We have lights up over the street and markets." That sounds like a fantastic idea.
After lunch we went to look for the walk along the city walls but could not find the entrance. Instead we ended up in a ceramic workshop housed in one of the towers, complete with wheels and tables for students. We are coming home with work by Tiziana from Malta. The working potter encouraged us to go up the five levels through the conical medevial tower and we spent ages exploring the workshop which was wonderful. The Navigator dropped his wallet. Thank goodness we saw it before we left.
The Hotel Telegraaf very kindly gave us a late check out at 3:00pm. It helps we have Marriott gold status (thanks to our American Express Platinum Card). This allowed us to come back to the hotel and refresh before we boarded the ferry. The Navigatrix rates Hotel Telegraaf as one of the best hotels ever. It is perfectly located and the rooms are spacious, comfortably and beautifully decorated in a Baroque style. The staff are wonderful - even down to the "welcome back" greeting we received every time we walked in.
There were significantly more people on the ferry compared to when we came across from Helsinki. Today's tip is to turn right as soon as you board and go past the duty free store to the forward lift, which not many people know about. Then go up to the ninth floor and the Sunset Bar, which has comfortable lounges.
The strong winds meant the first hour of sailing was a bit rough but things settled down as we got closer to Finland.
We had a lovely time in Tallinn. The Old Town is beautiful and can be easily explored on foot and without a guide over a couple of days. The view from the taxi suggests there is lots to see in the newer part of town as well. When we spoke to the hotel Concierge about the German lady who went bird and bear watching, he got very excited and wrote some suggestions for us. He also highly recommended Lithuania and Latvia. Next time then.
Apart from the occasional Soviet style experience of customer service (i.e. none... without a smile, either) the Estonians are very friendly. Our taxi driver is Helsinki had told us to watch out for pickpockets but we did not feel unsafe for one moment even on darkened streets.
Tallinn and Estonia should be high on your list as a place to visit.