Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Railway Museum of Japan and the Tokyo Imperial Palace



SOMETHING DIFFERENT IN TOKYO

Tired of the shops?  Here’s something different...

RAILWAY MUSEUM - For train buffs, there is the Railway Museum which provides an excellent collection of railroad cars and engines used throughout the history of Japan Rail.  There are some very interesting historic engines from the 1800’s, built in Pittsburgh, USA and Leeds, UK, plus some restored, historic train cars that one can actually visit and view, including carriages from the Imperial Train used by the Emperor of Japan.  A highlight is a visit to one of the original Bullet Train engines, which are now 50 years old.  According to its brochure, the museum was created as part of commemorative programs celebrating the 20th anniversary of Japan Rail East.  It provides education, focusing on history of railways in Japan where visitors can experience, feel, and learn about the history and technology of railways.
The museum not only is interesting for adults who like trains, but for kids.  And there is a special train for kids to ride that is a miniaturized mock up of the current Shinkansen.  Also, food is available and special bullet train shaped plates are available for kids.  And for those who bring their own food, there are two actual train sets available for people to sit, relax, and enjoy their meals.
Admission to the Railway Museum costs Y1,000 for adults and Y800 for children.  Getting there can also be part of the fun because you can take a short 30 minute ride on the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Umiya Station where it is a short hop of one station by the New Shuttle train.   Purchase tickets at Tokyo Station’s entrance where there is a ticket office and where the people are helpful and where major credit cards are accepted. Signs in English are plentiful and are easy to read.  And in case you miss the signs, people are very helpful in giving directions and assisting.  More information about the museum, access to it and other useful matters are available at: www.railway-museum.jp
The Railway Museum is really a great place for kids to burn off their energy and enjoy themselves as is evidenced by the number of school kids enjoying an outing to the place.  It is safe and secure and adults do have the opportunity to relax.  It is also fun for adults!
Part of the fun of visiting the Railway Museum is the chance to ride the Shinkansen!

First Class on Japan Rail in the 1920's and 1930's.

Kids enjoying an outing to the Railway Museum and seeing how their forefathers travelled.

Two train sets are designated for those who bring their own food and drink.

Try your hand at starting and stopping the wheels just like an engineer does!

Food service is available and the food is good!

Kids version of the Shinkansen.

Kids version of the Shinkansen - adults can go along for the ride, too.

A steam engine built in 1880 in Pittsburgh, PA, USA that served on Japan's railways.

The latest first class on Japan Rail calle Gran Classe.

The New Shuttle train between Omaya Station and the Railway Museum.

Gran Classe detail - comfortable, indeed!

The original Bullet Train maintained in the Railway Museum.

TOKYO IMPERIAL PALACE – For those wanting to get a glimpse behind the moat and walls of the Palace of the Emperor of Japan, this is the thing to do.  Better still, it is free.
The Imperial Palace is located right in the heart of Tokyo on the grounds of the former palace of the successive Tokugawa Shoguns.  In 1808, Emperor Meiji moved to this location from Kyoto where the imperial residence was located for more than a thousand years.  Since that time, this is where the Emperor has resided.  It is a working palace and it is here where the Emperor carries out his duties and functions.  Free guided, walking tours are offered on most days of the year.  The tours do require advance registration (up to two months prior) via the Imperial Household Agency’s web site at: www.sankan.kunaicho.go.jp   Full details of the tour, its times, and other palaces open for public visits are available at that site.  Authorization for the visit follows registration and it is sent to your email address very promptly.
The tour is expertly guided, albeit in Japanese.  For English speakers, headsets are available on a limited but free basis and during the tour, the guide will advise which channel to select for the appropriate commentary.  The tour takes about 1 ½ hours and one needs to be on time, or be left behind.  No building interiors are visited as this is a place where official functions take place.
The palace grounds are beautifully maintained and a number of historic and interesting locations are seen during the walk.  The walk itself is about 2-3 km, quite easy for most, but walking shoes are recommended.  Assistance, in the event of any urgency, is available throughout and photographs are permitted.  At the beginning of the tour, just after entering via the Kikyomon Gate, visitors are escorted to the Someikan (Visitor’s House) where refreshments, souvenirs, and a brief overview of the tour is given by video (with English subtitles).  The tour proceeds from this point, returning visitors to the Kikyomon Gate.
I found the guides to be friendly and very helpful.
The main trick to enjoying this visit (or visit to any other of the palaces) is to register in advance, be on time, and wear walking shoes.  Some recommendations: take a taxi from your hotel to near the Kikyomon Gate, wear a hat, and bring an umbrella if the sky looks threatening.
Pre-entry checking of authorizations.

Entering via the Kikyomon Gate.

Headsets with pre-recorded information for English speakers.

Fujimi-yagura (Mt. Fuji Keep).

A new ambassador comes to present his credentials to HIM the Emperor.

Kunaicho Chosa (The Imperial Household Agency Building).

North Entrance, reserved exclusively for the Imperial Family.

Kyuden-totei plaza and the Chowaden Hall of the Imperial Palace where the Emperor carries out his work.

Hasuikebori (Lotus Moat) and Defense House in the background.

Overview of the Imperial Palace and its immense grounds.

Japan Air Lines Business Class, Manila/Tokyo (Narita)/Manila



MANILA-TOKYO (Narita)-MANILA
JAPAN AIR LINES (JAL)

To start,  I’d like to say a few words about developments at Manila International Terminal 1.  The evidence of efforts to improve the conditions of the terminal are beginning to show some fruit.  One positive contribution to this has been the move of several major carriers, all flying wide-bodied aircraft, to Terminal 3; thus reducing terminal congestion.  Though repairs are ongoing, it seems as though the air conditioning is working or that something has been done to cool the place.  It is now tolerable temperature-wise.  However, work is still in progress so it will take some time for the changes to become more evident.  But matters are improving.  But downsides still persist.   The terminal has the clumsy system of having to pay for porter fees at a window outside.  This is a nuisance and why the fees cannot be given directly to the porters is anyone’s guess.  But the person who designed this goof up has created an inconvenience, nuisance and risk for the traveller.  Second problem, that annoying Terminal Fee is still being collected; although we were assured publically that it would be ended by 01 October 2014.  Finally, Immigration, which managed to milk foreign residents of more than P2 billion (reported) in obnoxious fees last year against operating expenses of P600 million, still cannot get its passport scanners working, according to immigration officers in the terminal.  On arrival, the immigration officer advised me that all data has to be entered manually.  Sad, when even our poorer neighbours have advanced beyond the manual stage.  Finally, security scanning at the front door is an unholy nuisance, confusing and a grand opportunity for people to lose (or be divested of!) their valuables.  Why Terminal 1 cannot scan baggage after it is checked in, as is done in most international airports, is anyone’s guess.   So, enough on the continuing saga of Terminal 1!
Japan Air Lines is a legacy carrier that has had some difficulties in recent years.  But you would hardly notice that because it has maintained its high level of service as well as its aircraft.  I first flew Japan Air Lines from Tokyo (Haneda) to Hong Kong in 1974, and I remember being impressed by the cleanliness of the aircraft, the helpful and courteous attitude of the crew, and the general quality of the on board service.  Those qualities remain.
Check in at the Japan Airlines desk was smooth and efficient.  As I was flying Business Class, I was accorded use of the lounge.  Unfortunately, JAL’s check in area and lounge in Manlla International look sad.   Perhaps the run-down state is more due to the terminal renovations than anything else.  The lounge provides free WiFi which, like internet in general in the country, is disappointingly slow.  I found my 3G service (LTE was not available in that area, attention Globe!) was actually faster.  This is no reflection on JAL, however.
Boarding was swift and simple and I was assigned an aisle seat in the second row.  The aircraft used for both flights was JAL’s version of the Boeing 767-300 which offered 2-2-2 seating in business class.  Though the 767 is what I call a “wanna-be wide body”, JAL manages to make the seating comfortable.  And although the aircraft used for this particular flight was of JAL’s older aircraft, it was spotless and appeared very well maintained.  Seats are well cushioned, manually adjustable to an infinite number of positions, though they recline more like a lounger and are not flat bed seats.  One annoying feature: the foot rest has a short extension that for anyone over 5’5” proves to be annoying.  That said, the seating in general is very good for regional flights.  Prior to take off, there was a thorough safety briefing and take off was within 10 minutes of boarding.  On reaching cruising level, drinks and snacks were offered along with hot towels (not paper, real hand towels!) and slippers and ear plugs handed out.  The slippers come, cleverly, with a small shoe horn which is very useful when one has to return to his shoes on landing.  At this time, the flight attendants also took meal orders.  JAL offers two western dishes on its flights as well as a Japanese dish.  I had a beef in beer sauce which was tasty, tender,  and nicely presented.
Following the meal, I switched on JAL’s  Magic III in flight entertainment system.  The system offers a very reasonable selection of movies in English, Japanese, Russian, and Chinese.  The system functions to a “T” and I settled into a movie for the remainder of the 4 hour flight.  I cannot say enough about having a good IFE on board a flight of more than 2 hours.  It makes the miles fly and is something I seek when selecting a carrier.  Just prior to arrival in Tokyo, Japan Air Lines provides a video clearly outlining the Immigration and Customs procedures (as they do for every airport they serve).  This is useful very useful.
Arrival at Tokyo was on time and disembarkation into Narita’s Terminal 2 was accomplished promptly thereafter.
Tokyo Narita is a very modern airport.  It is, like so many things in Japan, super efficient, uncluttered, clean, and well planned with the passenger in mind.  The disembarkation procedure is simplified because there is no host of 5-7 people standing immediately outside the door of the aircraft cluttering the way (attention Manila International!).   The walk from plane side to Immigration takes about 5 minutes and along the way, one undergoes health screening due to the current Ebola problems.  Immigration is easy and interestingly, the Japanese have people posted prior to Immigration to insure that the landing form is completed properly,  thus saving time during the Immigration inspection.  The passport check itself is swift and one is electronically fingerprinted and a picture is taken.  Following Immigration, one proceeds downstairs to Baggage Claim and out through the green lane at customs.
A note on using Narita: taxis are horribly expensive from Narita to downtown Tokyo.  There are two services that I recommend:
a)      Airport Limousine Bus, which provides direct service to numerous hotels in Tokyo or to Haneda Airport for a fee of about $19.00.  Their desks are directly outside the Customs Hall.
b)      Japan Rail (JR) has an Airport Express train nonstop to Tokyo Station at a competitive price.
Both services have web sites which are worth exploring.
On return to Manila, I used the Airport Limousine Bus direct from my Hotel to Narita Airport Terminal 2, where JAL flights depart.  If you are staying at a hotel served by the Airport Limousine Bus, you can book your seat on the bus and pay at your hotel prior to departure.  A rule of thumb for flights from Narita is to allow 4 hours from time of departure from your hotel for the airport.  Check-in at JAL in Narita is a very simple matter but please note: if you are travelling to the Philippines, you need either a onward/return ticket or a visa to enter as a resident/diplomat.   With check-in complete, one proceeds to Security, which is efficient and easy (but thorough!).  Following that, one clears immigration and one is good to go.
Narita has excellent facilities for departing passengers – including free WiFi that is fast!  There is a wide selection of shops offering a host of items at tax free prices.  As the Japanese Yen has softened, prices in the duty free areas of Japan’s airports are quite reasonable.  I also like the fact that the duty free area has some actual shops (Hermes, Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci, as well as electronics stores along with the usual run of the mill duty free tobacco and liquor outlets).
The JAL Sakura lounge at Tokyo is excellent and a good place to sit and have a cool drink while waiting for one’s flight.  It also offers very fast WiFi, free of charge and affords a view of the ramp for plane spotters.
Boarding of the flight was prompt and efficient and the aircraft used identical to the one on the outbound flight.  Again, I selected a western dish similar to what I had on the outbound flight and for dessert, enjoyed some Haagen Daas.  The flight was exceptionally smooth and arrival into Manila was on time.
But at Manila, there was the usual gaggle of people waiting just outside the aircraft door on the jetway, doing I don’t know what.  (Really, Manila International needs to unclutter and reduce the number of people who seem to simply seem to hang around.)The new immigration desks in the arrivals hall are a welcome sight and the terminal is mercifully less congested than in the past, making the atmosphere on arrival more pleasant.  Immigration still is lacking working scanners in the arrivals area and one has to pity the officers who have to contend with this issue – it is not their fault and they do their best to be courteous.  Baggage retrieval is a bit slow, but a welcome feature is the fact that one can simply proceed through the local equivalent of a green lane without paperwork of inspection at Customs.  The Arrival Hall following Customs is still rather dim and one is confronted by the usual prepaid SIM card booths.  However, a very welcome addition is a properly uniformed security person at the door who does his best to see that passengers are safely on their way.  He even double checked that my car was, indeed, the one that I was entering and he saluted me.  That is a welcome addition!
Japan Airlines Boeing 767

Manila International (NAIA) Terminal 1 Entrance

Payment booth for baggage cart and porter services

Congestion at entrance caused by security scanners just inside the door

Japan Air Lines check in counter at NAIA

Immigration at NAIA Terminal 1

Japan Airlines lounge at NAIA Terminal 1

Japan Airlines Business Class on the 767-300

Business Class seating on Japan Air Lines Boeing 767-300

Meal Service in Business Class

Plane side arrival area at Tokyo Narita

Clean, uncluttered access to immigration and transit areas at Narita

Airport Limousine bus desk at Narita arrivals area

Airport Limousine bus interior

Japan Air Lines Business Class check in at Narita

Access from check in to security at Narita

Japan Air Lines Sakura Lounge at Tokyo Narita

The view from the Sakura Lounge as the sun begins to set at Narita
 
In general, Japan Air Lines to me seems to be an excellent choice between Manila and Japan.  Yes, their planes are older, but they are very well maintained and super clean, and comfortable – at least in Business Class!  The crew are excellent and the in flight service on par with the best.  It would be good if they, like ANA, could offer flights to Haneda Airport, which is closer to downtown Tokyo, and perhaps to other cities in Japan (Osaka, Nagoya, etc.).   All told, I had a great trip with JAL!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Philippine Airlines Flight Review: Manila to Hong Kong (Round-Trip)

Because I am a Paranoid Traveler, I arrived four hours ahead of my 10 a.m. flight to Hong Kong via my "home in the sky," Philippine Airlines. I had hoped that I would be allowed to fly the 8 a.m. flight but was told my fare code didn’t allow for it.

philippine airlines flight review
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So I had a lot of time to kill as check-in and immigration clearance took less than 15 minutes. It was a good thing that the chairs for the computer table were available this time after a long while so I just kept myself online. I then proceeded to our gate near boarding time and noticed that the seats were kind of cramped.

philippine airlines flight review
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One "kuyakoy" (leg swing) will lead to a kick in the shin.

philippine airlines flight review
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Boarding commenced on time.

philippine airlines flight review
Copyright photo: The Paranoid Traveler/PFN
Things were pretty normal until a kid came along to take his seat behind my row but not without screaming (not crying, mind you) first. Upon sitting, he started slamming the window repeatedly prompting my window seat mate to shush him. The kid kept doing his thing so there was another reprimand but this time, the father defended his son's behavior saying he was just a little kid.

"Doesn't matter! This is a two-hour flight!" my seat mate shot back. She then called the flight attendant requesting to be transferred which was granted.

"Take me with you," I said in jest. That made her smile but she just couldn’t resist and turned around for one last look at the father telling him to teach his kid "some respect." The father cursed under his breath.

The kid's sibling behind me then started kicking my seat. I could hear the father telling his unruly kids to behave but the kid kept kicking. I was about to turn around when she stopped.

Take-off was smooth but a bit noisy as this same family decided to chitchat among themselves as if they were on a chartered plane with no sleeping passengers around them.

philippine airlines flight review
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Newspapers were offered afterwards.

philippine airlines flight review
Copyright photo: The Paranoid Traveler/PFN
I wanted to try the In Air entertainment app but it was not offered on our flight.

Meals were then served to the kids first. I prayed that the unruly kids would be so stuffed that they would doze off for the remainder of the flight. Turns out it was just wishful thinking as it gave them sustaining energy leading to the resumption of kicks.

philippine airlines meal
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We had a choice between pork adobo and braised chicken and I chose the former which tasted like those awful microwaved foods. As I was gulping down my meal, I heard the attendant give out a shriek as a Coke bottle tipped over when she reached out for another bottle next to it, spilling some of the contents on the passengers seated across me. I tipped the bottle back to its proper place to prevent the contents from emptying entirely on them. The other attendants came with several moist towels and apologies. I tapped the passenger on the arm lightly and teased him about having the possibility of a free ticket. He chuckled, along with the attendant who overheard me and returned with an unopened juice for him as their way of making up for staining his Lacoste and his wife's Penguin shirts. I told him he should have gotten wine instead. He drawled, "The juice will just give me diabetes."

The duty free cart was rolled out and in the busyness of things, the male steward stepped on my exposed toe. But I guess his foot was so big that he didn’t feel my tiny toe whimper underneath its weight. He just kept walking.

The captain then announced the start of our descent. It was nothing unusual except that it seemed like a female voice. I asked the purser, “Did I hear her right? She’s our pilot?” She said yes nonchalantly like I was living in the dark ages for being surprised about having a female captain. I followed up wanting to know how many female pilots PAL has and she said, "We have quite a number, probably more than twenty flying different aircrafts."

Upon touchdown, the unruly kids gave one final loud scream and proceeded to chat with their mother for all to hear, probably including the pilot. The other passengers and I just exchanged looks.

philippine airlines flight review
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As usual, immigration clearance was a breeze at Hong Kong International Airport but what was not usual was the time it took for our flight’s baggage to come out. We must have waited for twenty minutes before the first one appeared and banged against the carousel loudly. The passengers beside me started feeling sorry for the owners of the baggage that followed suit until one noticed he was observing his.

“Bah-bay, HK!”

philippine airlines flight review
Copyright photo: The Paranoid Traveler/PFN
And now it was time to go home. I did the in-town check-in service at Hong Kong Station and took the Airport Express afterwards.

I arrived three hours early but time passed quickly with so many distractions like the TV news report on the Umbrella Revolution, shops, restaurants, free (and fast) WiFi, and even an exhibit right next to our gate.

philippine airlines flight review
Copyright photo: The Paranoid Traveler/PFN

philippine airlines flight review
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philippine airlines flight review
Copyright photo: The Paranoid Traveler/PFN
philippine airlines flight review
Copyright photo: The Paranoid Traveler/PFN
philippine airlines flight review
Copyright photo: The Paranoid Traveler/PFN
Then a ground crew member announced that they were ready to board Group C. The other passengers and I looked at each other perplexed as to what she meant. I then took out my boarding pass and saw which group I belonged to. That was the first time I encountered boarding by groups.

philippine airlines flight review
Copyright photo: The Paranoid Traveler/PFN
philippine airlines flight review
Copyright photo: The Paranoid Traveler/PFN
philippine airlines flight review
Copyright photo: The Paranoid Traveler/PFN
Like my earlier flight, there were two noisy kids behind me and a crying baby to my left. But unlike the previous flight, nobody complained to the parents. However, in fairness to the kids, as soon as we took off, they were so quiet that I had forgotten all about them.

philippine airlines meal
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Newspapers and meals were served. We had a choice between pan fried fish and lechon manok (roasted chicken). I have sworn off fish on flights as they tasted like frozen dinners. But when the chicken was served to me, I almost wanted to return it and have the fish instead. I do not lay claim to being a lechon connoisseur but I have never seen Andok’s or Baliwag serve something like this. I couldn't even tell what the sauce was so I gave up after a few bites. I lapped up on the green beans instead---and I don’t even like vegetables. 

I turned to the coffee cheesecake and it, too, did not taste like any cheesecake I have had. Once again, I do not claim to be a cheesecake expert but are coffee cheesecakes supposed to taste like yema thrown together with something that looked like pudding and crumby cake? It reminded me when as a kid, I used to mix a lot of food (Chippy on my instant noodles) or soft drinks (Royal, Coke and Sprite) together just to see how they would taste. And usually, they never tasted good but my brother and I enjoyed annoying our parents. I think our experiments tasted better than what I was served.

philippine airlines flight review
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I then remembered to check PAL’s In Air flight entertainment app which was offered aboard this particular aircraft that we were on. Here is what it looks like per click.

PAL inAir
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philippine inAir
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philippine airlines wireless flight entertainment
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philippine airlines ife
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philippine airline inAir
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philippine airlines inair
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I wish they also had TV shows particularly that travel show, "Asian Air Safari."

As I forgot to take out my earphones from my hand-carry stowed in the overhead bin, I decided to check out the magazines.

philippine airlines in-flight entertainment
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pal inair
Copyright photo: The Paranoid Traveler/PFN
I tapped on all the icons but nothing happened so I decided to try another.

pal in air wireless ife
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Okay, let’s just watch “Batman” without sounds.

wireless in flight entertainment philippine airlines
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pal ife
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An hour into the flight, the (male) captain warned of some major turbulence due to rains in Manila and the crew was immediately ordered to their stations. This got my heart beating real fast and hard so I prayed equally fast and hard. God answered fast by making the baby cry out his lungs thus diverting my attention away from my anxiety. The noisy kids behind me resumed as well. A few minutes later, the seat belt sign was turned off with hardly a wiggle. (Thank You, Lord!) The captain then announced our arrival leading to one of the smoothest landings I have ever experienced.

philippine airlines flight review
Copyright photo: The Paranoid Traveler/PFN
Immigration clearance was quick as I was second in line among many counters opened. Baggage claim wasn't as bad (by Philippine airport standards) as it took only fifteen minutes before mine came out and off I went to exit the airport looking forward to my comfortable bed and dogs.


Until next time!


---THE PARANOID TRAVELER