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Cherry Blossoms in Japan

Cherry Blossoms in Japan
via Singapore Airlines Suites
April 2014
 

Mrs. SFO777 and I are off this morning for Tokyo and Kyoto and Cherry Blossom season in Japan.   And best of all we're flying Singapore Airlines A380 First Suites from LAX.  And more good news as it looks like we lucked out with timing as blossoms opened this week and are expected to peak next week.

-United First Class Denver-Los Angeles
-Star Alliance First Class Lounge at LAX TBIT
-Singapore Airlines A380 First Class Suites Los Angeles to Tokyo 
-The Peninsula Tokyo
-Tokyo
-Nozomi Bullet Train First Class Tokyo to Kyoto
-Ritz-Carlton Kyoto
-Kyoto
-Nozomi Bullet Train and Narita Express Kyoto to Narita
-Singapore Silver Kris Lounge at NRT
-Singapore Airlines A380 First Class Suites Tokyo to Los Angeles
-American Airlines Admirals Club at LAX
-American Airlines First Class Los Angeles to Denver

But before our Singapore Suites flight, we need to get to LAX.   AA's noon Eagle flight was too late for comfort so we are on United, which offered a reasonable $275 one way First Class (P) fare.  The south PreCheck was empty this morning and we were through in no time.
 

Remarkably for UA, no gate lice at all at Gate B20 this morning.  And a couple minutes after we arrived, boarding started. 

Denver DEN to Los Angeles LAX
United 781
A320
10:05A-11:37A (sked)
10:05A-11:20A (actual)
March 29, 2014
Lunch

I'm not a big United fan, but I have to give them props today.  One time departure, early arrival and one of the best domestic FAs of the year, DEN-based Connie.  She's been doing this for a long time and unlike other bored senior FAs, she seemed to love her job.  Wow, what a refreshing change to the usual domestic crews.  WiFI?  on United?  We'll have to test this out.

Pretty tight seating in this A320 especially in row 1.

And not much storage space underneath the middle area.

PDB and great inflight service.

Time to test out United Wifi.

Uh-huh.

This thing was slower than molasses.  Makes gogo feel like a hypersonic experience.  And UA waited 5 years for this?? 

Lunch today was a choice of... surprise, surprise... shrimp salad or chicken wrap and cream of mushroom soup.   Unlike AA which has great variety and great catering, UA pax are not so lucky.  Even Delta is better which says a lot.   Mrs. SFO passed on lunch deciding to wait for the Star Alliance Lounge at LAX.  I took one for the team and chose the chicken wrap.  Can this presentation be any uglier?? 

Looks a lot better when you dig inside and peel away to wrap.   Heads will roll at catering on Monday when someone discovers they actually had 5 strips of chicken.   Was OK, even better with the chipotle sauce.

After lunch, time to watch grass grow or so it seemed.  7.5 Mbps??  I don't think so.

And no point even trying to upload anything.

To finish, a white chocolate and cranberry cookie.

UA catering? Meh.  Wifi? Meh.  But service today was outstanding.

With nearly four hours before our Singapore flight and a pleasant day in LA, we decided to walk to the new TBIT and check-in.

This may be a new terminal but security is an awful experience.  The good news is that there is a priority lane.  The bad news is that it is virtually useless... the lane goes to an ID checker about half way thru a single queue for all pax.  So we joined a queue of about 75 pax.

The new Star Alliance First Class Lounge is a major improvement over the old one.  But really nothing exciting.

The FCL has a made to order menu which one can eat at your seat on in the dining area.

Limited self serve area which supplements the order menu.

IMO, the Star Alliance Gold/Business Lounge is actually far more inviting.

Especially the outside terrace overlooking the new TBIT shopping mall.

And back inside, a couple of themed sitting areas.

Los Angeles LAX to Tokyo Narita NRT
Singapore SQ 11
A380-800
3:15P-7:15P +1 (sked)
3:15P-7:05P +1 (actual)
March 29, 2014
Departed 5/12
Suites 3CD and 2CD

At around T-40, our SQ representative Tanya came to escort us to the gate.  

Other than the group hug in the elevator with a dozen J pax, it was a pleasant 5 minute walk to Gate 152.   Wow, the new TBIT is a major improvement over the old dump.

No waiting at the gate as Tanya escorted on board to the private Suites jetway where we were met by one of the three FAs working the Suites cabin today.  Beautiful and spacious cabin, soothing colors.  No bling or faux gold like Bling Air.  Lower deck and no useless fru-fru makes the suites feel much larger than EK.  As spacious as MH but the doors make this much more private.  And unlike the position of the galley on MH, the SQ galley is well designed and completely hidden and away from the cabin.  I heard no galley noise at all despite our 3CD being directly in front of the galley.

Looking across the aisle at 3A.

Suite 3A

Meanwhile, back at 3CD.

Singapore's IFE is one of the best.  Lots of movie choices from around the world.  I opted to start with Grudge Match.

Very cool subtitle on/off feature. 

Shortly after take-off, our FAs were prepping for today's meal service.  My usual G&T to start.

Let's go to the menu.

Today's wine list.  Other than Dom and Krug, a rather inspiring selection.  Not in the same league at Emirates or even BA's A380 list.  That was my only complaint today and sticking with Dom solved that one.  :cool:

Showtime!

I started with the malossol caviar and a shot of chilled vodka, offered without prompting by our own gorgeous Singapore Girl, Lead Stewardess Stella.

Then the delicious Cream of Prawn soup with porcini, button mushrooms and watercress, and more Dom. :)

Followed by the excellent Meculin salad with marinated tomatoes and shaved parmesan.  I opted for the chili salsa dressing and more Dom. :)

For our main, we pre-ordered the Boston Lobster Thermidor off the Book the Cook menu.

It was positively sensational.  So were two more glasses of Dom. :)

For dessert, we both had the amazing Pouch of caramelized apples with apple jus and vanilla ice cream, and more Dom. :)

After dinner, tried out SQ's wifi service.  About as slow as United but way more expensive.  $14.99 for 15 MB.  Wow, compare that to Emirates where you get 100MB for $25.  Didn't use this too much tonight.  :eek: 

With the F cabin on the lower level, the lavs are not as spacious and elaborate as EK or LH.  Nevertheless, better than the BA A380 lav.

Amenity kit?  Meh.  None of these smell very good IMO, and I didn't bother taking them home.

Some time after dinner, we both decided to retire to our bedroom and double bed.  Pretty cool feature as the center console lowers and a murphy bed folds down from the back wall.  Not really a double bed in that you can't easily roll back and forth.  And as Mrs. SFO predicted, no mile high club tonight. :(

I slept for three hours then moved back to 3C to download and edit pics and watch the rest of a French comedy and then a much better than expected Stallone/Schwarzenegger action movie Escape Plan.

At about T-2, second meal.  Neither of us were particularly hungry, but decided to have something since we'd be hungry later if we didn't eaten.  So many options on the good looking light menu selections.

We both started with the delicious Thai spicy seafood and glass noodles salad, with more Dom naturally. :)

I went with the Stir fried Oriental Style Lobster with leafy greens and egg noodles.  
It was outstanding but way too much.  My new friend joined me for the meal. ;)

Mrs. SFO had some sort of noodle dish which she loved.

I was stuffed and declined dessert.  But I'm a sucker for beautiful women and I couldn't resist Stella who insisted that the L'Orange, soft orange sponge with blood orange cream, apricot compote and crunchy almond crumble, was very small.  It was indeed very good.

\

Shortly after our meal, we started our descent into NRT.

Very strong winds tonight produced a rock and roll approach and landing.  We touched down just before 7PM and were at the gate 5 minutes later.  What can I say?  Simply another sensational and most enjoyable Singapore Airlines flight.

The Peninsula Tokyo
Tokyo

Typically beautiful Peninsula property with an outstanding location across from the Imperial Palace grounds.  
Couple of pics from the Peninsula website...

Main lobby which strangely doubles as a restaurant thru which you have to walk to get to the front desk.   

Our Premium Grand Deluxe Room overlooking the Imperial Palace grounds. Sorry about the messy bed. blush

And our spectacular view...

Huge closet/dressing room that doubled as my early morning office.

Breakfast the next morning before heading out for our 10AM tour.

Tokyo - Day 1

A gorgeous morning in Tokyo, brilliant sunshine and temps heading to +18C/65F today.  We met our guide Hatsue (hat-sway) at 10AM and headed for the Metro and our first stop, the Senso-ji Temple.  

And our first up close look at cherry blossoms.

Mrs. SFO picked out a beautiful artisan fan.

Back to the Metro.

To beautiful Ueno Park where cherry blossoms were in bloom... an absolutely stunning visual feast.

Lots of people taking pictures including selfies.

And in an annual tradition, thousands are out picnicking under the cherry blossoms.

And a quick stop at the Zoo to see the Giant Panda.

The flute playing giant panda!!

Back to the Metro where Mrs. SFO insisted on trying (in vain) to buy our tickets without touching the English button. 

First to lunch.

And then another Metro ride to a beautiful park near Imperial Palace Grounds where the cherry blossoms were even more spectacular.  

 

Tokyo - Day 2

It's a good thing our body clocks are screwed up because I set our alarm for 2:45AM this morning so we could head out to the Tsukiji Fish Market and auction.   We met our wonderful guide Toru in the lobby at 3:15A, hopped into a taxi and arrived at the Tsukiji Market at 3:25AM.  Despite the early arrival, there were at least 20 people in the queue before we arrived.  

They only admit 120 people each day, first come first served, with 60 admitted into the market at 5:25AM and the second group of 60 admitted at 5:50AM.  So we all sat and waited for nearly two hours. 

At 5:25A, the doors opened and we entered, escorted by our personable and entertaining security guard, who navigated the labyrinth of passageways, stopping and starting so none of us would get run over by the hundreds and trucks and carts that were scurrying about.  

Fortunately, our guide knew the best viewing position for the auction and we got a front row position for a very cool show as buyers inspected the merchandise and got ready to bid. 

Not everyone was as excited as us to be here this morning. laugh

Auction time!

One of the bidders, using sign language to bid.

The auctioneer marking the name of the high bidder.

Hauling away the winnings.

Time to leave and make way for the next group.

Our security guy leading us safely out.

And putting on a great show.

Fresh wasabi.

And to breakfast at 6:30AM at a small 12 seat place near Tsukiji.

He's been here for 40 years.

Marinated boiled eel to start was really delicious.

Mrs. SFO wimped out and asked for just maguro please.

I took one for the team and went for the combo platter.  All was fine until Mrs. SFO pointed out that one of mine was still moving.  Yikes.  I don't think so.   Both our guide Toru and chef laughed at me and noted "very fresh".   Indeed, but not for me.  Toru was very happy when I offered it to him, and the sea urchin, and the roe.  Please another Sapporo.

The most delicious miso soup I've tasted.

What an experience.  Sushi and beer for breakfast.  cool
After breakfast, we stopped at a tea shop. 

And then to a sumo wrestling stable to watch a training session.

Anyone for the Boys of Tokyo? wink

By now it was 8:15AM and nap time back at the hotel.   While Mrs. SFO went to sleep, I couldn't find my iphone.  Looked everywhere and finally figured that I had left in the last taxi.  Thanks to the taxi receipts I kept and icloud, we were able to locate it, and the driver delivered it back to the hotel later than afternoon.

ipad in Denver, iphone in Tokyo.  How cool is that?

And there it is, traveling around Tokyo on the floor of a taxi.  

At around 2:30P we headed out for formal tea ceremony at Happo-en, a beautiful historical Japanese garden in the Shirokanedai district.  

The tea ceremony was private for just The two of us.  The Muan historic teahouse... built by a wealthy silk merchant in the Meiji Era and subsequent moved and reconstructed.

A lovely and elegant tea service in a beautiful, tranquil setting.

Back to the hotel and then a short walk up the street to the Ginza district for the inevitable shopping experience.  Amazingly I escaped unscathed after Mrs. SFO decided she could (or I could) buy most of the same shoes and bags a lot cheaper back home.  

The only bad recommendations from our concierge was Monday night at touristy izakaya Gonbachi... terrible food and whose claim to fame was that it was featured in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill.   So tonight, our last night, we decided to stay in and had a wonderful meal at Peters on the 24th floor.  Great atmosphere and views of the city.

Mrs. SFO went for a salad and grilled salmon.

While I went for Peter's 1st anniversary tasting menu, starting with delicious lobster salad.

Wonderful sea bream.

Followed by the excellent double beef dish, Australian grass fed and Japanese wagyu.

Perfectly prepared.

And a fabulous dessert.

 

While the cherry blossoms were out in Tokyo, so too were the Girls of Tokyo. 

Wednesday was getaway day and we decided to avoid people and eat in the room.  Hard to beat the view anyway. 

At 11:10AM, we checked out at headed for Toyko Station, in style thanks to our wonderful concierge Sanae.

And arrived 10 minutes later.

And finally found our way to the right track and waited for our train to arrive.

Tokyo Station to Kyoto Station
Nozomi 227
12:00PM-2:17PM
April 2, 2014
"First Class"
Car 8, Seats 11CD

 

Our cabin crew waiting to board.

And the cleaning crew waiting to prep the train once it arrives.

Our sleek train pulling into the station. 

The doors opened for pax at T-5 minutes.

Comfortable 2x2 seating.

We depart on time at exactly 12:00PM.

And after a couple of suburban stops, were on our way at 200mph to Kyoto.

Service?  Meh, what service?  Guess I was expecting a Eurostar kind of deal.  Beverages and limited snacks for sale from a cart.  Most pax brought meals onboard. Seriously? This is First Class.  I guess you pay for the seat and that's it.  WiFi was supposedly availability and indeed was announced but I couldn't find a network and there was no information whatsoever.  We arrived at Kyoto Station on time and were met by a Ritz Carlton driver at our car, despite having told the very challenged Ritz concierge staff that we would just take a taxi.

Ritz Carlton Kyoto
Kyoto

A spectacular new addition to Kyoto's hotel scene opened only two months.  Wonderful location overlooking the Kamogawa River which runs thru the heart of Kyoto.  Outstanding Japanese design, and apparently no expense spared.  And with the hotel only recently opened, service was at times a little spotty.  But an excellent staff and attitude.  Give them another a six months and they should be great.

Reception.

And a Pierre Hermé Paris haute patisserie in the lobby.

4th floor.

Our room.

With great views of the Komagawa River and Higashiyama Mountains.

After a quick lunch in the lobby restaurant...

...back to the room to relax and nap, before heading back downstairs for a drink and late dinner at Lo Locanda, a beautiful Italian restaurant designed after and on the site of a traditional Meiji house and courtyard.

\

 

Kyoto - Day 1

The best weather day of the trip so far with temps approaching +22C/72F and  glorious sunshine.  But first, a little breakfast and with a great view from our room, why go downstairs? Delicious breakfast and great service.  Farm fresh orange eggs.  Yum.

Our wonderful guide Michiko met us in the hotel lobby just before 10AM for the first of two days of touring Kyoto.  First stop this morning is the Heian Jingu Shrine, beautiful Shinto shrine built in 1895 to commemorate the 1,100th anniversary of Kyoto.   

Make sure the pay the 600 yen to tour the glorious park which surrounds the shrine.

And back outside where our excellent driver was waiting for us.

To the Kinkaku-ji Temple (The Golden Temple) constructed in the 14th century.

Our guide and driver dropped us off downtown near the Kyoto Shinkyogoku Shopping Arcade, the second oldest arcade in Japan.

Then a walk back to our hotel to rest us for tonight's special private teppanyaki dinner at the Ritz-Carlton's Japanese restaurant, Mizuki.  Teppanyaki is served in a beautiful private room within Mizuki.

Chef.

A glass of delicious sparkling sake.

Fresh Vegetables with salt, dip sauce.

The first of many OMI beef tastings tonight.

 

Fresh wasabi.  Yum.

Next up, abalone.  Very alive at the moment.

Seriously??

nd finally, dessert from Pierre Hermé Paris.

Wow, what an enjoyable and decadent three hour treat.  smiley

Kyoto - Day 2

What a difference a day makes, from the best day weather of the trip to the worst.  Overcast and a little rain.  Temps only +14C/57F with a healthy breeze.  First stop is the Gion district and the beautiful Tatsumi Bashi, the bridge featured in Memoirs of a Geisha.

Busy this morning with couple having their wedding pics taken.

Next, we're going off the grid.  Mrs. SFO loved Japanese strawberries so much that she wanted to visit a strawberry farm.  Our guide and driver found a farm that is open to the public to pick and eat all you can for only 900 yen.

Next, we headed to a park overlooking the city. 

Before heading back down to the city.

And the Chion-In Temple, featured in The Last Samurai.

And finally, Nijo Castle, originally built in 1603 as the official Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyusa.

Then back to the hotel for a late lunch in La Locanda, which oddly has the same menu for both dinner and lunch. 

On our final night, we went to a touristy maiko dinner at Gion Hatanaka.

Where I was the only one to "beat" the maiko at the drinking game. 

Next up: The long 22 hour trek home.