Podcast #116 — Traveling Thru Japan; Luggage Trends

Lost Without Translation

Lost Without Translation

Back behind the microphone after an extended summer break highlighted by a two-week family vacation in Japan. We talk about traveling in Japan. It was a fantastic time, though we were lost without translation at times. But with the US dollar buying 124 yen, it was the right time to go. We also talk about frustration in using frequent flier miles, trends toward prettier and higher tech luggage, and a connoisseur of scrambled eggs. All this and more at the direct link to the podcast file or listening to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.


Here are the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #116:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago, IL, after a long absence. Let’s call it summer vacation. And there was a nice bit of vacation there — 2 weeks in Japan with the family. People would ask me “Have you been to Japan before?” Never outside of Narita. Which I translated to an answer of “Mostly no” before my trip, and updated to a plain “No” after my trip. But more on that later.
  • Over the years, I’ve gotten into the habit of leaving the country if I want a real vacation. I find the disconnection process works much better I’m more than 5  time zones removed from home. Europe is 6 or 7 hours ahead — pretty good. But the 14 hour difference between Chicago and Tokyo — that’s real separation.
  • You can’t unplug for 2 weeks for free, though. It takes a bit of planning, and in my case, a good bit of travel — both before and after the trip.
  • The 6 business days before my flight to Tokyo had me in Nashville, Detroit, Dallas, and the day before I left, Denver. I flew out Sunday night, flew home Monday night, and then left for Japan Tuesday noon. Coming back, we hit ORD 3:30 Sunday afternoon only to find myself back there 15 hours later for the first flight back out to Denver Monday morning. I was just happy that it was a short week for the 4th of July holiday.
  • Since then, I’ve been keeping up the Denver-Dallas triangulation with the occasional random jump to somewhere like Detroit. I’ll probably keep it up through August since the beginning of September will have me out of the country again — to Edinburgh, helping my daughter settle in at University of St Andrews. After that, I may just sleep until October.
  • Bridge Music — 3 Ghosts I by Nine Inch Nails

Following Up

  • So that was the start of the Stack Exchange Podcast where Joel Spolsky goes pretty much non-linear over his attempt to use frequent flier miles.
  • Any attempt to use frequent flier miles will be a frustrating exercise. My recent attempts to do anythingwith the 300,000 BA Avios miles is own personal exercise in masochism. But, to be honest, I’ve had pretty good luck this year, getting 2 flights down to New Orleans on Southwest, 4 direct flights from and from Tokyo with UA Mileage Plus and 3 flights between ORD and Edinburgh on American. Now, it wasn’t a complete cakewalk — on SW, my wife and daughter took a 6am flight back on Monday, on UA, we had to come home a couple of days earlier than we had originally planned while on AA it’s a day later. But flexibility has always been a requirement to use frequent flyer miles. And those minor shifts are a whole lot better than my exercise with BA which only offered me one day in the entire month of September that I could use Avios miles to get to Edinburgh. I’m not sure there’s a more useless awards program.
  • When I first started looking for Chicago to Edinburgh flights, I went straight to Hipmunk.com. It has been my go-to flight search tool for a while now. It’s easy — it defaults to flight search, unlike Expedia’s push for bundled deals or Orbitz pushing hotels. And graphical display — bars for each flight showing flight duration spread across the day — makes it very easy to focus on the flights you’re most interested in. But when searching for Edinburgh flights, I spotted something new — right under the red Virgin Atlantic bar was a purple one labeled “Mystery”. Kinda like Priceline’s unnamed hotels you bid for. But I’d never seen what the travel industry calls “opaque pricing” on Hipmunk before. Of course, it wasn’t really that opaque. Clicking on the bar revealed the flight details — a 4:40pm departure with an hour connection in Madrid. Hmmm, let’s see. Only Iberia flies from ORD to MAD. Doing a quick search, I found the times did indeed match Iberia flight number 345 — which Hipmunk only slightly masked as Mystery Airline #345. Must’ve been an experiment, because I haven’t seen it since, but I did get a good chuckle out of it.
  • A colleague who I met up with on one of my Detroit trips flew Spirit Airline for the first time and didn’t get much of a chuckle. It was a last-minute meeting. He was flying in from Kansas City and, following the rules by using the mandated American Express Travel website to book his flight, he saw a Spirit flight that was significantly less than other carriers. Being a good corporate citizen, he booked it. He showed up at the ticket counter to get his boarding pass. “You gonna carry that one?” the Spirit agent asked him, pointing to his suitcase. “Of course,” he said. “That’ll cost you $55. And that briefcase doesn’t look like it’ll fit under the seat, so that’s another $55.” Pretty quickly, the price difference that led him to book Spirit disappeared in the smoke of carryon charges. Some might say it’s his fault for not knowing Spirit’s uniquely aggressive add-on fee structure — what Spirit calls “bundling”. But I’d say it’s Amex’s fault — for displaying Spirit’s base fare (without carryon fees) in the same ways as they display Delta’s or Southwest’s. And then marking those higher, but more inclusive, fares as being “out of policy” because they’re higher, and requiring additional steps to justify booking them. More power to Spirit to differentiate themselves with a unique fee structure, but Amex and the like need to do their job and let business travelers know what they’re in for when they book those low fares.
  • Rich Fraser did saw my PreCheck frustration spill over to Twitter.

    I don’t know if it’s summer travel amateurs hitting the PreCheck lottery, but I’ve been stunned at the number of people who look amazed when the metal detector alarms when they try to walk through with a slug of metal in their pockets. Mobile phone, big electronic key fobs, two fistfuls of change… I mean, what part of “metal detector” do they not get? It’s doing it’s job! But people will stand there, dumbfounded, they can’t stroll through wearing the quarter-pound of metal and electronics that is an iPhone. I hate to be a snob, but I beginning to think they need to split PreCheck between the veterans who paid for it and the occasional random selectees. To which Rich mentioned that it’s not so occasional for him — he’s gotten Pre on 3 of his last 4 trips. So, he says, why pay for it? Hey, as long as he remembers to take his mobile phone and car keys out of his pocket, I say, more power to him.

  • I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I think one of the absolute best airport restaurants is Rick Bayless’ Torta Frontera in the American, United and International terminals at ORD. The tortas, the Mexican sandwiches, are fantastic — great local ingredients and made-to-order. Being made-to-order is key to the great taste and texture, but it’s 10 minutes from the time you order and at ORD rush hour, you can stand in line for 10 minutes before you get to the counter. Great restaurant — and popular. So I was cautiously excited last week when I saw they had a new ordering app. I was catching an evening flight to DTW and decided to check out the app. I downloaded and set up the app after parking in the deck — created an account and loaded a credit card. Then, while in the PreCheck line, I scrolled through the menu and loaded the shopping cart with a Cubana, my favorite torta. I was going to hit the Order Now button, but the TSA guys were a little too efficient, waving 3 of us forward at once. So, I hit Order a couple of minutes later on the other side of the X-Ray machine. I quickly received an e-mail “Thanks for your order, we’ll let you know when it’s ready”. That’s it. No ETA, no typical wait time. Hmmm… I walk down to the T3 Tortas — longest line I’ve seen. Hmmm…  Just then, I get a second e-mail — 7 minutes after the first — “You order will be ready at 5:43pm” — 10 minutes from now. OK, not bad given this line. I walk to the rest room, browse the bookstore across the hall, and put myself in front of the order pick-up station at 5:43pm. About a minute later, the woman calls out “Anybody order on-line?” Two of us step up. “Mark?” I reach out and take my bag. The pre-order worked well, though next time, I’ll let the TSA guy wait for a minute while I hit the Order button a bit sooner.
  • All the way back in April 2012, I wrote a blog post about free breakfast being the best hotel amenity.  (I had to do a good bit of scrolling on the TravelCommons website to find it — I’ll save you that with a link in the show notes). It’s still true, even though, it’s, as I wrote back then, it’s more about convenience than food quality — especially when you’re grabbing that breakfast in the concierge lounge of a Marriott or Sheraton or Westin. And it kinda turns you into a connoisseur of scrambled eggs. A buddy and I got into this conversation a few weeks back — comparing the quality of scrambled eggs across hotels we’ve stayed at.  We concluded that the most typical consistency was firm, almost quiche like. We liked them with a bit of cheese mixed in to give them a bit of flavor (neither of us are vegan). Every once in a great while, you get great scrambled eggs — soft curds, slightly moist. But you definitely don’t want them runny — there’s nothing more disgusting at 6am than tilting back that warming tray clamshell lid and seeing scrambled eggs sitting in a pool of yellowish liquid. We’ll go for hard dry over swimming in yellow eggs every morning. But hard dry bacon, now that’s just wrong
  • And if you have any thoughts, questions, a story, a comment, a travel tip – the voice of the traveler, send it along. The e-mail address is comments@travelcommons.com — you can use your smartphone to record and send in an audio comment; send a Twitter message to mpeacock, or you can post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page — or you can always go old-school and post your thoughts on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge Music — Ghost Hardware by Burial

Traveling Thru Japan

  • The family and I have done a fair bit of travel in Asia — Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong, China — which left two big holes — Japan and Korea. We filled one of them this summer when we spent two weeks visiting Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. Japan had always been on our list to visit, but its reputation for high prices always gave us an excuse to put it off and go some place where we could stretch our dollars further. But with the dollar buying ¥124 and then scoring 4 direct ORD-NRT tickets on United Mileage Plus awards, this seemed the time.
  • Now as long time listeners know, this won’t be a travelog, a list of things to see in Tokyo or Kyoto — I leave that to friends like Chris Christensen of the Amateur Travelers podcast. Since I always say that this podcast is more about the journey than the destination, let’s talk about travel in Japan.
  • As my family and I tend to do on our trips, our only trips to the airport were coming and going to the US. Everything else was on train. Which in Japan works very well. My wife bought us 2-week Japan Rail (JR) passes before we left. It wasn’t a small number for the 4 of us, but they paid off over our trip — allowing us unlimited use of the high-speed bullet trains, even to reserve seats for a bit more relaxed boarding.
  • We broke the passes in on the Narita Express, the hour ride from the airport to Tokyo Station. I’m not sure they could’ve put Narita any further out. Given the distance, everyone takes the train or a bus. The train was fine, kinda like the Heathrow Express but without the TV screens. It worked with a minimum amount of fuss — which was a good thing after a 12-hour flight.
  • We really hammered the JR passes to train among Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, all less than 3-hour trips. Some of the stations were huge and there were times when we had to lean in to thread through the crowds of commuters. But the signage was pretty good and the trains absolutely met their reputation for timeliness (if only airlines in the US were half as timely…). And while JR would roll a food cart while on the rails, we got a bit more into the Japanese train culture and stocked up at the train station food courts before we left — bento boxes, rice cakes, and of course, train beers — Kirin tall boys usually. And if we didn’t have time to hit the food court, we could always grab something from the vending machines — which were positioned about every 20 feet on the train platform. The vending machine thing in Japan is intense — but convenient.
  • We didn’t just train point-to-point between the major stations. A lot of times it was a smaller train to the main station, then the high-speed train, then connecting to again to a smaller train. The HyperDia smartphone app came highly recommended and the free version was great when planning out these connecting journeys — both inter-city and within Tokyo where a trip across town might span a couple of rail companies, say Tokyo Metro to a JR train. It also displays the fare, which is very handy, avoiding the need to try and decipher the rate table while in front of the fare machine with a queue building behind you. The public transit tab on Google Maps also worked surprisingly well.
  • Being able to use these apps when you really need them requires mobile data for your phone. You don’t want to be trying to search for an open WiFi access point before figuring out which train you’re connecting to. Which, in Japan, like so many things, isn’t exactly straightforward. As a tourist, you can only buy data SIMs; no voice capabilities. One of my go-to websites — the aptly, but somewhat awkwardly named Prepaid Data SIM Card Wiki — came through again. Before we left, I ordered a b-mobile SIM to be delivered to our first hotel — the Marriott Courtyard in the Ginza District — and then I bought another — Japan Travel SIM — from the Tourist Information Center at Tokyo Station. The lack of local voice wasn’t a huge inconvenience for us — we were communicating via e-mail with hotels and apartment rentals — but it still seemed a little weird.
  • The one thing that pulled me up short was the limited amount of signage in the Latin alphabet. I’m OK with the Japanese names when phonetically rendered in Latin characters, but I’m not so hot on reading kanji or kana. We wrestled with this our first morning in Tokyo at the Tsukiji Fish Market. My wife had a list of sushi restaurant recommendations — all of which were Japanese names in Latin script; all the restaurant signs were in kanji. And then at a Kyoto ramen restaurant, where you buy tickets for your food from a machine and then hand them across the counter to the cook, having only kanji on the machine buttons without pictures, made ordering a bit of a challenge. It got me thinking back to my trip last year to Beijing — I didn’t recall having the same level of challenge there.
  • What made this all work is that just about all of the Japanese people we ran into were the nicest, the most welcoming people. I was constantly struck at how many people would strike up a conversation — asking where we’re from, helping us with Ramen machines, shouting “Welcome to Japan” while riding by on a bike, volunteering to walk us across train stations to help us with connections. I’m not sure I’ve experienced that consistent level of engagement from random strangers anywhere else. Of course, some of it could get a slightly embarrassing, like the group of middle school kids who wanted a picture with me. Or my daughter who regularly would get tagged by Japanese girls for pictures. We had that experience often in Beijing, but there, when we were often the lone white people, it was understandable. Having that same thing happen in Japan — more Westernized, more white people wandering around — that surprised us. In Arashiyama, a pretty touristy area on the west side of Kyoto, we were flagged down by 3 middle school teachers who video’d us answering their question about why we chose to visit this town. They told us that they taught English and wanted to show their classes native English speakers. OK, makes sense, but with all videos on YouTube, I wasn’t quite sure why they wanted a video of us.
  • But that being said, except for the signage, Japan was one of the easier countries we’ve traveled in. And maybe, with a couple more revs of Google Translate, even that barrier will get smoothed away.
  • Bridge Music — Lonely Dog Blues by Tobin James

Luggage Trends

  • I think it was when I was grabbing our luggage off the carousel in ORD, returning from Spain with our luggage full of wine and olive oil. I picked up my wife’s red bag and was struck at how tatty the fabric had become. I set it down in front of her and said “That’s become embarrassing. I’m not sure I can travel with that bag again”
  • Now it’s not that I have a styling bag. It’s stock Swiss Army black roller still bearing Vietnamese customs stickers from 2008. I had retired it in favor of a grey Samsonite bag, but had to pull it back out when the Samsonite’s wheels got wonky — the rubber wore off and the wheels splayed out after 2.5 years of pulling it across New Orleans sidewalks.
  • I’m seeing more hardshell rollers in non-black colors — burgundy, yellow, floral prints, Disney characters…. They look nice; but that just may be because they look different — they catch my eye because of what they’re not — not a black ballistic nylon roller bag. My recently deceased Samsonite was non-black — grey rather than floral, but still non-black. And after 3-4 months of my travel schedule, it started to look less non-black. Smudges from grease on overhead bin hinges, muck from taxi trunks, muddy water from New Orleans gutters, spilled coffee… That’s why I can’t have nice luggage.
  • We’ve talked about the impending trend of “smart luggage” in past episodes. Bluesmart has been the poster child for this. They crushed their Indiegogo campaign last year, and 2 weeks ago announced they’re in volume production, targeting initial deliveries in late September. “Control your suitcase from the app” is one of their tag lines. Digital lock, digital scale, battery charger, location tracking, proximity alerts. It spoke to my inner travel propeller head, so I did the Indiegogo thing. When it shows up, I’ll be sure to tell you all about it.
  • Bluesmart is at the top of the Google searches for “smart luggage”, but there are a growing list of followers with similar feature lists. Location tracking is an interesting one. I can count the number of times my luggage has been lost on one hand and have change left over, but when it happens, it can be catastrophic. I remember BA lost a bag on my way over to a 2-week “city-a-day” trip — today London, tomorrow Stockholm, Friday in Zurich. My bag was always one stop behind me. So I get the importance of location tracking. At the high end, Bluesmart and others are equipping their bags with GPS and cellular modems to enable “global tracking”. At a much simpler level, travelers like long-time TC listener Mika Pyyhkala are using Bluetooth key fobs like the Pally Smartfinder to check if their bag made it onto their plane.
  • I can see it being useful at the other end. Look at the app — bag’s not off the plane yet. I have time to stop off at the restroom — or better yet, the bar.

Closing

  • Closing music — iTunes link to iconPictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #116
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
  • If you have a story, thought, comment, gripe – the voice of the traveler — send ‘em along, text or audio file, to comments@travelcommons.com or to @mpeacock on Twitter, or post them on our website at travelcommons.com. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to send in e-mails, Tweets and post comments on the website
  • Bridge music from IODA Promonet
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