Japan: Take 2

The best laid plans of mice…

-Slartibartfast

When I left Canada nearly six weeks ago it was with the promise that I would be blogging nearly every day.  I said that I was going to be traveling around the country on the week-ends, I would be taking a ton of pictures, and I would be blogging about my experiences.

While I have blogged a little bit over the past few weeks, it has not been nearly as much as I had hoped.  There are several reasons for this:

  1. I have been busier with work than I anticipated.  It has all been a good kinda busy, but busy nonetheless.
  2. My accommodations, while not generally uncomfortable, are, for me, not conducive to writing.
  3. While in many ways the trip has been going extremely well, I suppose I have been in a bit of a funk.

Does that mean that I have not been traveling?  That I have once again wasted this wonderful opportunity of travel abroad?  Definitely not.  While I have not traveled as much as I would have liked to, I have taken a few trips:

  • My regular readers will know that I spent a wonderful week-end in Kyoto a few weeks ago.
  • I have taken two day trips to see Mount Fuji, and to experience the areas around the mountain.
  • While Shibuya is in Tokyo, I spent two incredible evenings over Halloween taking pictures there.
  • I have booked an evening next Saturday in Nara, so I will get there by train earlier in the day, toddle around, and in the morning I will take another tour.

12194657_10153088877761898_2047175420690303089_oNow, I should mention that between my two trips to see Mount Fuji, or Fuji-San as it is referred to here, both of them were to one degree or another a bust.  On my first trip the weather was completely overcast… from the moment I got up in Tokyo until the moment I went to sleep the rain and clouds did not abate.  This picture, taken on the shores of Lake Yamanaka-ko, shows Mount Fuji in the background… if you are able to see through the clouds, which I am not.

Doshi Rest Area 3 - CopyThat doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a great time on the trip.  Simon and I met at the train station where we rented the car, and took the scenic route into the country.

Our first stop was the Japanese equivalent of a Rest Area… only it was not the generic, cookie-cutter type area that I am used to.  It was called the Doshi Service Area, and it was gorgeous, relaxing, and very… restful.  It was built on the banks of a stream, and offered an opportunity to take some great pictures.  Although there was ‘fast food’ available for purchase, there was also a delicacy of fish grilled on a stick.  I opted for a bag of crisps instead.

As we drove along the Pacific Coast (on the Tokkaido Road.  What was once the ancient roadway during the times of the Samurai is now a nice stretch along the ocean with tourist spots and surfing and sun bathing.  According to one of my friends, you have to be very aware of the hawks along this stretch… not because they are a danger to you, rather because they will steal your food right out of your hands.  I was tempted to stop and pick up a sandwich just to experience this, but I decided to put that aside for another day.

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We stopped for lunch at a traditional Japanese Soba restaurant.  I had experienced several ‘authentic’ Japanese restaurants where you seemed to sit on the floor, but under the table there was a hole to put your legs and sit normally.  Not here… You could sit cross-legged, on your knees, or straight-legged with your legs under the table if you wanted, but this was the real deal.  They cut their soba noodles by hand, and you could order any drink you wanted… as long as you wanted tea.  It was a wonderful experience, and even if I hadn’t been pretty comfortable, it was my goal to experience the real Japan during my stay.  This is as real as it gets!

After lunch we went for a tour of the Kirin Gotemba Distillery.  We got to see how they make and store whisky, and at the end of the tour we got to taste it.  While it was a nice experience, I think the whisky they produce there (yes, they are blends) are sub-par.  They gave us two drams, neither of which was worth my time.  I did however buy a set of six whisky glasses for my bar at home – the base has a 3D carving of Mount Fuji, which when you pour your liquid in takes on that hue.  Truly very nice, and I hope they survive the plane ride!

…And then we arrived at the highlight of the day trip.  The best thing that could possibly have happened on this rainy Sunday afternoon.  We arrived at the Onsen.

If I had to pick one thing that the Japanese do soooo much better than anyone else, it is the Onsen.

The mountains around Mount Fuji and Hakone are quite volcanic.  Because of that, and I expect because of their proximity to the ocean, there is an abundance of hot springs.  The onsen is a hot spring bathing area.  You enter, removing and storing your shoes at the entrance.  You are given a wrist band which is good for everything… it is your ID, but it also has a bar code so that anything you want to buy while on the premises (and aside from the restaurant there is also a gift shop) will simply be charged to your account – in other words, you can walk around in a towel, go in and out of the baths, and do anything you would like without having to carry or go get your wallet – or worry about it getting wet.

After we finished a very relaxing afternoon, we decided to head into Hakone to get dinner… and buy a particular candy that is hand made there, and which my friend Simon is quite partial to.  I was hoping to look into an art shop or two, but we spent too much time at onsen and only got to town when the stores were closing.  Oh well Smile

I mentioned I had taken two trips to Fuji-San; as wonderful as the first was, the second was essentially a waste of time and money.  Simon, who took me the first time, knew exactly where to go, what routes to take, and so on.  What he did not know, he asked.  My second trip was taken with a friend Jay who reminded me of… me, twenty years ago.  He thought he knew everything, refused help, and because of that we spent nearly five hours driving (to the wrong spot) and arriving with a very half-decent view of Fuji three minutes after sundown.  In other words, we saw the top of the mountain far in the distance… but not well enough to take a picture.  I did get a couple of decent shots of the lake… but that was not what I traveled for.  Oh well, live and learn.

While I started writing this article a few days ago, it is now Saturday at 12:26, and I am on the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) bound for Kyoto, from where I will transfer to the train for Nara.  I am looking forward to my last weekend in Japan… even though I am dying to go home already.  This trip was too long without seeing my family.

Who would have guessed it by the way… After two failed trips, I just got some absolutely breathtaking pictures of Fuji-San from the train!  Wow, I feel blessed.  The mountain is truly a sight to see.  I am also blessed because this afternoon (or tomorrow morning) I will have the opportunity to feed the deer in Nara Park, and if you know me, you know I love wildlife!

A couple of months ago when I realized I was coming back to Japan I set certain goals for myself: I wanted to take a lot of pictures, I wanted to travel outside of Tokyo almost every weekend, and I wanted to blog a lot.  While I do not feel like I did a good job on achieving these goals, I didn’t do too badly.  I had seven weekends here, and I left Tokyo for four of them (although two were day-trips without an overnight).  I didn’t blog nearly enough, but that was in part because I have been very busy with work, and have not had the proper work area where I am staying to do so.  I have taken some breathtaking pictures though… not only of Fuji-San, but of nature, temples, shrines, and people.  It has been a wonderful experience (if a bit too long), and I am thrilled to have lived it.  I am also thrilled that in four days I am getting on a plane and coming home.

I will try to write another article, this time about Nara, on the train back tomorrow.  Unfortunately I did not bring my SD-Card Reader (www.juicedsystems.com) with me, so if I am going to include pictures I will not publish until after I am back.  However whether now or later, I promise you will see them!

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A (Mostly) Boring Trip

I really did have images of going out and having fun every night.

I really planned to travel outside of Tokyo and see the country every weekend.

That is not what happened.

Don’t get me wrong… I have gone out for dinners, if mostly close to home.  I have also been spending a lot of time relaxing at a pleasant spot called Le Connoisseur Cigar Lounge – certainly not a Japanese name, and certainly not a French lounge.  But I have been enjoying it nonetheless (as seen in this article https://garvis.ca/2015/10/16/sushi-cigars-welcome-to-japan-mitch/).  It turns out that it is a chain of lounges, and I have spent many evenings at the one that is within walking distance of my apartment.

I have also traveled out of Tokyo twice – once by Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Kyoto), and once by car (with a friend) to Mount Fuji.  Well, he tells me we were at Mount Fuji… it was a very overcast and rainy day and the mountain was absolutely invisible through the clouds.  We made up for it though – we went for a very authentic lunch (on tatami mats on the floor and all) at a local restaurant, we went for a distillery tour at the Kirin Gotemba Distillery, and we spent a couple of hours in the onsen (hot springs) before having an agreeable dinner and then driving back to Tokyo.

But all in all, I am not doing even as much as I did the last time I was here… despite having more money to spend (if I wanted to), more free time (okay… about the same free time), and living a little closer to the action (I am four subway stops from Shibuya).

I am spending most of my evenings in one of two places – at the cigar lounge, or at the apartment.  Yes, after the first week in a hotel room slightly smaller than a respectable prison cell, the company found an apartment for me.  It may be small to some, but having moved out of the shoe box it feels utterly palatial to me.

I watch TV – that is to say, I download the American TV shows I would normally be watching at home – and I watch movies.  I do have work to do in the evenings, as I am still taking care of the network back in Oakville.  However if I wanted to there is no reason I couldn’t (if I so desired) be out exploring the city every night.  I just don’t seem to want to.

I want to be clear – I am not loving Tokyo less than I used to.  It is an amazing city and I love being here.  I probably went out more at the beginning of my stay – I went to Shibuya several evenings – but maybe it is the result of my being in a reasonably posh area; there is every sort of restaurant I might want to try (If you are following me on Facebook you will know that I have had Yakiniku, Soba, Tempura, and of course loads and loads of sushi… not to mention a couple of Chinese and a couple of Korean meals just to mix it up a bit.  All within a kilometer of my apartment.

I should mention that I am not staying home every night; I have gone out on the week-ends (Halloween was amazing, and I have also gone out with friends to a few different areas).  It is just a little less frequently than it could be… than it once was.

Maybe, a little too late, I am becoming the homebody that my ex-wife wished I had become much sooner.  Maybe I am just not enjoying being on the road as much as I used to.

I miss my kids… I speak with them on Skype and VoIP often enough, but it is not the same.  And of course, my girlfriend is all the way back there too.  It is harder to be separated from her for longer periods than it would have been for me a few years ago.  Maybe at long last I am growing up.  Maybe I am finally… Naaah!

I have really been enjoying my work, and I am glad to be here for that.  My boss and I discussed it earlier, and we agreed that this is the length of time we needed for me to be here for this project.  I am enjoying working with my team, and meeting other people on other teams.  It has been a blast, and I hope I can continue to work with this company on other projects when this one is over.  We’ll see…

Two weeks before I head home, and the trip is far from over.  I might still venture out of town one more time, and I have several evenings planned… with friends, colleagues, and even one with a reader who reached out to me.  How cool is that?  Each of those will be another evening of fun and excitement, hopefully exploring new places and areas and discovering new foods and treasures.

But unlike past trips, I am counting the days… I am so looking forward to getting home, to hugging my kids, playing with my dogs, and of course seeing Stephanie.

Fourteen days to go.

Kyoto is to Tokyo…

I got off the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) at Kyoto Station, which was a hustling and bustling place, just like Tokyo Marunouchi Station where I had embarked.  In fact while the layout was different and so were the shops, there wasn’t all that much to differentiate this building from all of the other major ports I had visited.  I might as well still be in Tokyo for all the difference it made.

I walked outside, and by the time I was a couple of blocks from the station I realized I was in a very different world from the Tokyo I had left behind less than three hours earlier.

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Don’t get me wrong… Kyoto is busy and bustling and there are lots of people around… but unlike Tokyo (where everything is modern and neon, unless you are around a temple or shrine), this city had a different look, a different feel… a different vibe, if you will.

At first I thought it was the slightly smaller scale.  When you exit the station it feels more manageable, less overwhelming.  It might be like traveling from Montreal to Calgary – the smaller city being easier to manage.

A hawk flying overhead at the Ginkakuji Shrine

Then I thought it might have to do with the people… Tokyo is a very stressful place after all, but Tokyo moreso than the rest of the country.  Maybe it was like going from Montreal to Vancouver – a little less stressed, a little more laid back.

And then someone told me that Kyoto had been spared the aerial bombardment that Tokyo endured during World War 2; he told me a story about American Secretary of War George Stimson who had honeymooned in Kyoto, and spared the city because of his wonderful memories of it.   In fact, Kyoto, was the top choice of the Targeting Committee tasked with deciding where to drop the first atomic bombs (this committee included Robert Oppenheimer).  Stimson did veto it, but it might have had more to do with the fact that Kyoto had little military significance, and the destruction would have been entirely civilian.  (Source: https://www.quora.com/Is-it-true-that-Kyoto-Japan-was-nearly-bombed-in-WWII)

One of the gates to the Hingashi Honganji Shrine

So instead of having a city completely rebuilt after 1945 (while there are many older sites in Tokyo, many of the temples and shrines have been rebuilt to look like the originals), Kyoto actually has buildings and sites that date to the 15th century… and earlier.  Maybe a more accurate comparison would be to equate the Tokyo-Kyoto trip to the Toronto-Quebec City trip.  Tokyo and Toronto, the busiest metropolises in their respective countries, modern, crowded, stressed; both replete with modern skyscrapers reaching for the heavens.  Kyoto and Quebec City, calmer, quieter, shorter… while there are modern buildings, they are smaller, and there are many historical sites dating back hundreds of years, lovingly preserved; both more concerned with history, beauty, and culture than with the race to be the best.

One of the towers of the Hingashi Honganji Shrine

I could have spent another week in Kyoto and not seen everything there is to see.  I don’t know when I will be back, but I hope I will have the opportunity soon.

Kyoto: The Ancient Capital

The last time I was in Japan I did not leave Tokyo. This time I vowed would be different. Before I left Canada I bought several Japan Rail passes, and I was ready to explore.

After consulting with my peeps over here, and with Simon’s help tracking down a room (it seems autumn is a difficult season to your last minute!) I made plans to spend my first weekend out in Kyoto. Saturday morning I redeemed my first JR pass and boarded the 11:03 Shinkansen (bullet train) on the Osaka Line. I was in Kyoto at 1:44, having enjoyed the train ride even though I was working on a report.

Riyoyan 1I have stayed in enough ‘western style’ hotels to choke a horse, and the Tokyo Efficiency hotels are way too cramped. I reserved a Ryokan- a very traditional Japanese room, that looks very much like the ones you see in movies depicting the times of the Shogunate. I arrived after a short walk from the train station and was welcomed by the front desk, and a bellhop in traditional Japanese attire carried my bag to my room on the sixth floor. Upon entering the room I removed my shoes in the foyer, and walked into the tatami room. There was a table with a tea service, and that was it. I loved it.

Notice I didn’t say anything about a bed; in a traditional ryokan the maid comes in the evening, moves the table to the side, and sets up your bedding on the tatamis. Spectacular!

Ryokay Ready for Bed

Before I left Tokyo I tried to book a number of bus tours, but was informed that I was too late. Oh well, right? Well it turned out to be for the better, because I was able to book the exact same tours at the Kyoto Train Station for much less money. Woot!

Dinner is served!The evening tour would involve a very traditional Kyoto Cuisine dinner. They tell me that because Kyoto is surrounded by mountains it was difficult to get fresh seafood in, and because of that the chefs are tasked with creating wonderful dishes that are simpler than you would find in other areas.  The chef at our restaurant did a magnificent job – both the presentation and the taste was fabulous!

Our next stop was Gion Corner, where we got to experience seven forms of Japanese art and culture in one sitting.  The show is designed to not only expose gaijin (foreigners) to the beauty of Japanese culture, but also to show a generation of Japanese growing up in a modern society their roots.

The show started with the emcee asking the audience for volunteers to experience the Japanese tea ceremony, and my hand shot up.  Two of us got to experience it, with the Tea Master and her apprentice working hard to make sure the experience was highly authentic.  We were shown how to turn the cup, and how to hold it in both hands.

Koto Players 3

Flower Arranging 1As we sat in the tea corner, the next two sets of artists took to the main stage: Two women playing an instrument called a koto (a 13-stringed instrument that lies flat and is strummed with the fingers) played, while two other women took turns arranging flowers.  It had never occurred to me that flower arrangement could be a performance art, but for a culture that for centuries has revered the beauty in simplicity, I suppose it makes sense.  These two pairs worked side by side for the next several minutes.

When this group left the stage the next musical act came on.  The gagaku is a style of music that was played exclusively in the ancient imperial court, and as such never gained the widespread popularity of other arts.  While the music did not appeal to me, I found the costume of the conductor (who was almost dancing) was amazing, and well worth the show.

Gagaku Conductor 2

Once the Gakaku left the stage we were introduced to a Japanese comedy troupe.  It is easy to imagine that there would be a language barrier to understanding, and at first there was.  Three men in kimonos came onto the stage in turn, and after a few minutes the language fell away, and their performance triumphed.  They were a hilarious hit with the mostly foreign audience!

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Next came the Maiko dancers.  Apprentice geishas, these dancers are meant to be flawless in their beauty and movements.  As you might imagine, I took a couple of pictures… along with the videos!

Geisha 4Geisha 1

The last performance was a form of puppetry that I had never imagined before.  Three men came onto the stage dressed entirely in black – two of them were hooded as well – in control of a single marionette-cum-Muppet.  I confess that I did not follow the story line very well, but I was enthralled by how the three men worked in unison to control this person (and they did such a great job of bringing her to life that I thought of her as a person).  She walked across the stage, then climbed the tower, and it was easy to forget that she was made of wood.

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The following day I woke at a reasonable hour and after getting breakfast I went on my second tour.  We were to visit three temples and shrines, and each was incredible to see.

At the Golden Temple 2

It struck me as our tour guide spoke (okay, as the translation played in my ear) that nearly every site we were shown was on the World Heritage or National Treasures or some other fancy list.  However when you see the spots we visited it is no wonder… Kyoto is absolutely breathtaking.

The picture of me near the Golden Shrine is not the best picture I have taken, and was indeed taken by a fellow Canadian I met from another tour.  He and his wife were in from Vancouver, and seeing that I had a good camera as well, they were happy to let me take a picture of them with their camera, and I let them take one of me with mine.

Unlike many parts of Japan, I am told that Kyoto was spare the destructive power of the U.S. Army during World War II.  Consequently many of the sites date back to the days of the Shogunates.  Unlike tours I took in Tokyo, when they mentioned that a temple had been rebuilt after the original had been destroyed by war, that was was usually hundreds of years ago.  It is no wonder that there are so many sites recognized internationally and by the Japanese as Heritage sites.

Ginkaku-ji Shrine was built by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa as a retirement villa in 1982 (ten years before Christopher Columbus set sail for ‘India’).  Walking around, you can see that the Shogun (military ruler, and separate from the Emperor) knew how to live.  ZSC_0279

Our last stop of the tour was the Kiyomizudera Temple, and while it was also a World Heritage muckety-muck, I was more interested in observing the people.

Kiyomizudera Temple 1

We were there on a Sunday, and it was an absolutely gorgeous day outside.  I suppose these factors contributed to a plethora of Japanese visiting the temple for religious reasons.  When I think of dressing up for synagogue I always think of putting my best suit on (my Saturday best?).  Here they dress up as well, but their outfits are not western.  And so there were a plethora of Japanese women (and quite a few men) in their traditional kimonos.

ZSC_0390 As you can see from this duo, many of them were out taking the same sort of pictures I was (note the ‘selfie stick’).  However unlike them, I was certainly not dressed for the occasion.  Nevertheless they were all very happy and smiling, and most of them were thrilled to pose when asked.
All of the kimonos were colourful and bright.  I am told that women tend to opt for less colourful kimonos later in life, but these were all happy colours. ZSC_0360
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From what I was told, no visit to Kyoto would be complete without experiencing the special and unique sweets they make.  Made by hand, they are difficult to describe… other than absolutely heavenly.  Depending on the variety they can have macha or sesame or chocolate or any of a dozen other fillings, and the ones I tasted were magical.  I brought some back to the office as Omiyage and they were extremely well received… possibly even moreso than the Quebec Maple Candy I brought when I arrived.

All in all I had a wonderful time in Kyoto, and strongly recommend spending a few days there the next time you find yourself in Japan!

Sushi & Cigars: Welcome to Japan Mitch!

No matter how you fly, getting from Toronto to Tokyo is a long flight.  Sitting in the window seat of Row 62 probably makes it that much longer… especially when you are my height and size.  Since Friday was going to be a regular working day for me, my real first relaxing evening would be Friday, and even so I decided to stay close to the hotel.

On my first trip here I discovered that while Japan is a nation of smokers, cigars have not quite become mainstream here,  So imagine my surprise and delight when walking around my hotel looking for a bank machine I discovered a cigar lounge with a walk-in humidor filled with (mostly) Cuban cigars, and a very respectable selection of single malt whiskies. 

Following my first sushi dinner of the trip I walked back to Le Connoisseur Lounge in the Akasaka Flora Plaza in Minato-ku.  Once they explained to me that there is a cover charge of 1,080 Yen (about $10) they seated me in a lovely leather arm chair.  I settled in, then walked over to the bar to peruse their selection of whisky.  The bartender noticed, and asked if I wanted to try a Japanese whiskey, not realizing that while I am not quite a connoisseur I am definitely a keener.  He handed me the list, and I immediately noticed that my all-time favourite – Nikka Yoichi 15 – was on the list.  This was a bonus, because the 15 year old has been discontinued, and is very hard to find.

As I sat down the waiter brought me a hot towel; this is not uncommon in Japanese bars and restaurants, and is extremely welcome, especially on a humid night where one will walk in from a light mist outside.

While their humidor is extremely well stocked and the prices are reasonable, I had left my hotel not realizing I would find a cigar lounge, and I had my own.  I asked if I was allowed to smoke my own, and they said that I was.  A lot of places I have visited add a ‘cutting fee,’ but I suppose that is offset by the cover charge,  no worries.  As I prepared my H. Uppman cigar, the waiter brought my drink – neat of course – and a glass of ice water on the side, and a small bowl of popcorn. 

Connaisseur2At my table waiting there was an ashtray, as well as a lit oil candle, and a shot glass with cedar sticks for those who did not bring their own butane torch.  If my Japanese was better they would have offered to cut and light it for me (I observed them do so for other patrons), but either to save my having to explain that I don’t understand, or because they saw me put my cigar punch and torch on the table they let me punch and light it myself.

The atmosphere here is wonderful – while you can smell the cigars, it is well ventilated and the smell is not overpowering.  The furniture is rich leather, the bar mahogany, the staff wearing white shirts, black neckties and vests.  As I look around there are a dozen people in the place including three women (none of whom are currently smoking).

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Along with their bar (which does not seem to have the typical well drinks), they also have a cappuccino machine for those who prefer caffeine to alcohol.  While I did not ask about food, there is a trio of Japanese businessmen from Osaka at the table in the corner who have a selection of edibles that they are sharing.  And yes, they have WiFi for those of us who are dedicated to writing for our readers on a Friday night.

I have been here for an hour, and decided to shift from the Yoichi to another whisky I have been meaning to try – the Taketsuru 17 Pure Malt.  While strictly speaking it is not a single malt, my understanding is that Pure Malt (a Japanese concept from what I can tell) is a nice compromise, and is extremely nice and smooth.  I would compare it favourably to a Glenfiddich 15, with a fruity bouquet.  To accompany the new whisky I lit a new cigar, this one a Romeo y Julieta Belicoso.  As he reads this I can imagine my friend Brian saying to himself that he wished he could hop on a plane to join me.  Brian, come on down!

Le Connaisseur (www.leconnaisseur.jp) was a great discovery.  With six locations around Tokyo (Ginza, Shibuya, Roppongi, Chiyoda, and Minato-ku are all areas I am familiar with) it has become easier to decide where to go when I do not want the hustle and bustle of my regular standing bar.

If you find yourself looking for a great place to hang out in a normally hustle-bustle city, this is definitely the place.  I can assure you that I will be back!

Going Away…

When I leave town for two or three days my preparation depends on two factors: How am I going (by car versus by air or train), and what will I be doing (business versus pleasure).  My usual MO is to pack two bags: Clothes and sundries in one, electronics (photography and computers) in another.  Depending on how I travel I will pack differently – if I am driving I don’t need to be anywhere near as efficient as if I am flying, because I can just throw things into the trunk.

When I leave town for a week or longer I have to be more careful; will I have the ability to do laundry where I will be, and so on.  However aside from that, the only thing that usually changes is that for more than three days I will take a proper suitcase instead of throwing my clothes and kit into a backpack.

What about longer trips?  As I write this I am less than a week from getting onto a plane that will take me away for nearly two months.  I will be going to a different country with a different culture, different language, and different customs.  There are several factors I have to consider for a trip of this magnitude, and a lot more planning goes into it.Japan1

I am going to Japan… one of my favourite countries in the world for sure, but definitely a different culture.  So here are some of the things I planned for, and hopefully will help you the next time you head out on the road:

1) There’s no question about it… I can’t get away with a single suitcase.  The reason isn’t as simple as I need more clothes – although I do.  However other things that will go into my suitcase will include my small laptop bag and my messenger bag, because I like to carry most of my electronics on me (and especially my computers and camera equipment) as carry-on, so rather than just carrying on a small and unobtrusive laptop bag, I start with the fact that I need two carry-ons – one for my camera equipment (which is a full sized backpack), and one for my computers… even though both of my computers are very small, there is a lot of extra gear that I will take with me.  On the other hand, once I am in Tokyo I do not want to have to lug my large Briggs & Riley laptop bag (which when empty weights three or four pounds) back and forth from the office to my hotel.briggsu174ol

2) You never know… and that’s the problem, you do not always know what you will be faced with once you get to the destination.  That goes for both camera equipment (and so I am taking two camera bodies and five lenses), and computers (which is why I will take a docking station, external speakers, as well as a plethora of cables and connectors and adapters (and not to mention a wireless network switch).  Why?  Because I might need to connect to HDMI… or VGA, or Display Port.  I will likely want to watch TV and movies in my hotel, but that will mean downloading them to my computer, and then watching them (hopefully with my computer connected to the hotel’s TV).  I need a PowerPoint remote for when I present, and I need a ton of other things that I can’t think of… but don’t want to have to buy again (I remember arriving in Hong Kong only to discover I had forgotten my wireless presenter mouse, and had to buy a presenter and a mouse).

3) Cell phone woes… If I were going to the USA for seven weeks I wouldn’t worry about it because of my cell phone plan.  However I wasn’t sure with regard to Japan so I called my provider and asked, and sure enough, there was no good way for me to use my Canadian cell phone in Japan.  The first thing I did was had them unlock the phone for me, so that I could just get a SIM card to put into it in Japan.  I asked my colleagues in country to look into the best way to do that, and they did.  However what I wouldn’t have thought of before was this… My cell phone plan costs about $140 per month.  I will not be using it for the next two months.  I cannot cancel it… but what I did do was change the plan to the least expensive one they offered.  It leaves me with enough data for the week until I leave, but no more.  Rather than having the lavish 10GB per month plan with unlimited North American calling, I now have a 1GB plan with ten hours per month.

**NOTE: If you are going to do this, you also have to make sure you change it back at the tail end of your trip.  I put a reminder in my calendar to call them back the day I get back.

4) Renew prescriptions! If you are my age there is a decent chance you have at least one medication that you take daily.  Make sure you have enough for the entire trip.

**NOTE: Insurance may screw you on this.  In speaking with my pharmacist last night I found out that insurance plans often will not allow you to renew your prescription until you are 2/3 way through your last refill.  Make sure you don’t get dinged.

5) Weather the whether… or whatever.  I am leaving for Japan on October 14.  I know what the weather will be like this week.  However I also have to anticipate what the weather will be like in Japan in six weeks, so that I am not stuck wearing shorts when it is 5C outside.  If you are traveling across seasons, make sure you have enough appropriate clothes for both seasons.

6) SHOES ARE IMPORTANT!  I always pack with the philosophy that whatever I forget I can just buy when I am there.  When I was preparing for my first trip to Japan my boss warned me that I will not be able to get shoes in my size in Japan, so I made sure to take an extra pair… just in case.

7) The last time I went away for a long period of time I lived with my family.  Now that I am living on my own it is important to make sure someone is checking in on my condo every couple of days.  Let’s be honest… the one bamboo plant I have does not need watering; however it is important to make sure that there are no leaks, that the pipes don’t freeze, and that nothing goes wrong.  Every few days should be enough, and that is taken care of.  Also, rather than ‘stopping my mail’ it is a good idea to have someone bring the mail from the mailbox into the house.

Traveling abroad for longer periods can be fun… even when you are going for work.  Planning for every contingency is impossible, but giving it a bit of thought will make your trip more enjoyable.  As they say, Luck favours the prepared mind!

Goodbye Vegas: A Friday Post :)

Thanks, I needed that. As I write this I am sitting on a plane outbound from Las Vegas. Aside from spending five marvelous days with great friends, I really needed the vacation. This was, far and away, my most enjoyable trip to that city; part of that is because it is my first visit that wasn’t for business, part because I was better able to afford to enjoy myself with shows, good meals, and so on, and partly because I just needed a few days to sit by the pool and in the hot tub, drinking and smoking cigars and talking to people.

On a number of my previous trips I had ventured out beyond the confines of my hotel/casino/conference centre to golf, eat, and more… but this was the first time I really went out a lot, and I got to see and enjoy a lot of the sights and sounds of one of the most opulent and ridiculous cities in the world.

IMG_0262I have said many times that Las Vegas is a city that was conceived of and engineered with the sole purpose of separating adults from their money, and that perception certainly has not changed. However if you look around the city, and especially the Las Vegas Strip, you can’t help but notice that there is no greater waste of money and resources anywhere in the world.

 

With that said, it is certainly a great place to spend a few days (although I think my visit was one day longer than it needed to be). Of the four complete days I was there, three days were spent lounging and enjoying myself by the pool. The fourth? Well, Nick and Jenna and I walked along the strip for a couple of hours, and then we got onto the Deuce Bus and headed out to see the Gold and Silver IMG_0272 - CopyPawn Shop of Pawn Stars fame. Before you ask, no I did not buy or sell anything. Although right across the street there is a discount ticket booth for shows, and I bought a dinner and show package for Saturday (the night that Nick and Jenna were doing their own thing). We walked for a bit, and then got back on the bus to return to the Monte Carlo.

 

If you happen to be a fan of Pawn Stars, it might surprise you that the neighbourhood in which the shop is located is not among the classiest; some of its neighbours include sex clubs, strip shows, and bail bondsmen. I wouldn’t want my kids walking around there alone. However it was a nice experience – we like the show, and seeing it first hand was a nice field trip.

A few weeks ago Jenna asked if I wanted to join them at the Las Vegas Comedy Club (in the V Theatre at Planet Hollywood) for the show, and I said sure. We saw a decent host and opening act, but the resident headliner at the club is a very funny man named Edwin San Juan who had us in stitches. Check him out online at www.edwinsanjuan.com, or on Twitter at @EdwinSanJuanESJ. After the show we went for a late dinner at the Harley Davidson restaurant on the strip, where we were able to enjoy dinner on the patio while people watching (an activity that you have not truly experienced until you do it on the Las Vegas Strip).

IMG_0278Friday was the big day. As the Best Man, Maid of Honour, Ring Bearer, Flower Girl, Photographer, and Witness I can proudly attest that I witnessed Ms. Jenna Dunlap become Mrs. Nick Duratz. She was an absolutely radiant bride, and with the fountain show of the Bellagio in the background it was an incredibly beautiful ceremony conducted by the Reverend Peck. Once the pictures were done we got back into the limo. First we headed to the Las Vegas sign to take some pictures, and then to the Stratosphere Hotel for dinner at Top of the World Restaurant, a magnificent experience on the rotating 106th floor, from which point the rest of Las Vegas looked gorgeous but small. The meal was fabulous – we all had the lobster bisque (which was to die for); I then had a Caesar salad, followed by the third best steak I have ever eaten in North America. We didn’t leave the restaurant much before midnight, and you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice… Jenna had spoken about going clubbing somewhere with one of the Kardashians after dinner (which appealed to me much on a level that root canal surgery might), but we were all absolutely beat. We took a taxi back to the hotel, and although I didn’t go right to bed, I did tone it down a bit.

It always amazes me that I can make temporary friends so easily; it isn’t that I go looking for them (although I am happy to talk to anyone), but they often search me out. That was the case Saturday by the pool, where a group of 25 year olds from Minnesota pulled me into their clique. They had rented a cabana for the day (a colossal waste of my money, but when someone else is spending it is a nice experience). They wouldn’t stop pouring drinks for me – and they were not chintzy with their booze. I am not usually a vodka drinker, but the five Grey Goose & Red Bulls that they poured me went down very nicely, accompanied all the while with a procession of cigars.

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Speaking of drinking by the pool, if you have been reading my non-technical articles for any period you will know that I am usually a scotch drinker. None of the bars at the pool stocked single malt scotch. Not a one. I had to make do with gin and tonic (when I was buying), and Grey Goose & Red Bull when the kids were. That is not entirely true; if you follow me on Facebook you will have seen a picture I posted a few days ago of my ‘Vegas Wallet’ – a leather folio with what looks like two cigar tubes, a cutter, and slots for credit cards. On closer inspection though you will discover that it only has one cigar tube; the other tube is actually a flask that I refilled with The Glenlivit 12 in my room every time I went back. It amused me that on the first morning Nick and I went to the pool straight from breakfast with our portable cups of iced tea; Marcus was standing at the pool entrance checking peoples’ bags and preventing them from bringing any outside alcohol in. He wouldn’t let us bring our iced teas in, but even after inspecting the Vegas Wallet he let me in with my scotch! He was actually a really nice guy… I spent a bit of time talking with him, and I was surprised that someone who sees a thousand people or more per day said to me the second time he saw me that ‘Don’t go looking for your room key… I remember you!’

IMG_0296That same day that I met Dean, TJ, and company in the cabana I also met Batman. Okay, his real name is Johnathan, and he is a big hulking African American dude from West Palm Beach. He and I had a great time together, chatting it up and smoking cigars. He was a very easy person to spot… I think the term ‘brick shithouse’ was coined for him. He’s a dude that someone like me looks at and thinks ‘I wouldn’t want to mess with him!’. Nicest guy though, and we laughed it up for two days straight!

If you have never been to Las Vegas you might not appreciate how omnipresent the advertising for shows and such are, but they really are everywhere, starting in the first minute you are off the plane. I probably saw a lot of the usual suspects (Cirque de Soleil, Jersey Boys, Elvis and MJ and Brittney and whoever else) that didn’t phase me before I saw one that stood out, but the minute I saw a billboard for Zombie Burlesque I started mocking it. You can like Burlesque or not (I have never been into it), but as much as some people may like zombies I think the whole concept of them is stupid. So when someone told me on Thursday that they saw it and it was fabulous I didn’t give it much thought. But then a second and a third person said the same thing… and so when it came time to buy a show ticket for Saturday night I said ‘What the Hell?!’ and decided to give it a shot.

The ticket I bought was actually for dinner and a show, so after I checked in at the box office and picked up my ticket, I headed over to Pampas, a Brazilian Barbecue in the Miracle Mile shopping mall. Since I didn’t think to make a reservation I had the option of waiting 90 minutes or sitting at the bar. SOLD, the bar won without a second thought. It was probably the third best Rodizio I’ve been to, behind Fogo de Chao in Sao Paulo and Brasa in Niagara Falls, Canada.

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What can I say about Zombie Burlesque? It might well be the most enjoyable show I have ever seen in Las Vegas. To say that I was pleasantly surprised is too much of an understatement… shocked is more like it. There was singing, dancing, comedy, and boobies… all of the components I look for in a burlesque show. The fact that all of the actors were zombies (real ones, I swear!) did not deter from the magnificence of it. I even bought the CD as I walked out… how can you not, with songs like ‘Eating Penis Doesn’t Make You Gay?’ J I am happy I was able to have my picture taken with many of the cast members… look at it, you will see that this is no ordinary cast of players! While I saw that, Nick and Jenna went to Divas Las Vegas, a drag show that they asked if I wanted to join them at which I did not. They then went to a club to hang out with some guy who is apparently the baby daddy of one of the Kardashians. They paid handsomely for this experience, and saw him for precisely two seconds. I can assure you I had a much better time.

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The weather Sunday morning did not look promising for lying by the pool, and the forecast predicted rain. Nick, Jenna, and I opted (for the first and only morning) to forego the gluttonous buffet and opted for brunch at the Café, still in the hotel. It was fabulous, and the only breakfast (possibly the only meal) I had in Vegas that I did not feel (too) guilty about. By the time we finished and paid it was around noon, and the sun was doing its best to beat the clouds back. The newlyweds occupied their usual chairs as I lit my first cigar of the day and headed for the hot tub. As had been the case both Thursday and Saturday, a cast of people rotated in and out of the tub throughout the day, and I chatted with many of them. Each day I got out for a few minutes now and then to swim the Lazy River, to talk to more people (Batman, etc…), but for the most part I held court in the hot tub.

When we were done lazing by the pool we got cleaned up and took the bus to Freemont Street, or ‘The Freemont Street Experience.’ I didn’t know what to expect from Old Las Vegas, and was pleasantly surprised by how much more I like walking around there than I do along the Strip. Jenna really wanted to do the Zip Line, and Nick (being married to her) went along. I had no interest, so as they waited in line to get harnessed I walked around taking pictures, and then when it was almost their turn I camped out in a place where I thought I would get the best shot of them plunging to their deaths flying safely through the air from tower to tower.

Did I mention that I love my Digital SLR camera? Some time ago I decided I wanted to get into photography, and having pushed the limits of what my PhD (Press here, Dummy!) camera could do, a couple of months ago I bought a (used) Nikkon D5000 with an 18-105 lens. Wow, what a difference. I was shocked by how incredible it is to shoot with, and while I did not bring it to Chicago a few weeks ago, I certainly brought it to Vegas… complete with tripod. It is the first time I have ever gotten onto a plane when my camera gear outweighed my computer gear… and got much more use during the trip.  I should mention though that all of the pictures in this article were taken with my iPhone camera.  It’s just what is currently available!

With the Duratzes safely back on terra firma we walked to the end of Freemont Street and then back trying to decide where to eat dinner. By this point not only were we hungry, but it was nearly 10:00pm, and I had to go back to the hotel, pack, and try to get some sleep ahead of a 3:30am wake-up call to catch a 6:15am flight. Neither of them had ever heard of the Heart Attack Grill, but I had. While I didn’t really want to gorge myself, they thought it was funny and we should try it. Let me tell you folks, this is a great hamburger. We all stuck to the single patty… they are very clear that if you leave foodIMG_0299 over on your plate they paddle your ass (and if you think I am kidding or that they take it easy on you, let me assure you that during our meal a number of diners were escorted to the tower of shame, strapped in, and the waitresses (sorry… NURSES) spanked them HARD with a paddle. Folks, I am a trained fighter and I know when someone is pulling their punches… these women were taking a running start and the crack of the paddle echoed throughout the restaurant. I was at the same time reminded of two great movie scenes: the first was Animal House, during the initiation scene where the frat boy (I am tempted to say it might have been Kevin Bacon) grabbed his ankles and got whacked, screaming ‘Thank you Sir may I have another?!’ and Biloxi Blues, where the Drill Sergeant (Christopher Walken) examines the trays as the soldiers leave mess and says ‘This is the army, son… we don’t waste food. You take what you want, but you eat what you take.’ Fortunately for Jenna (who failed the test) we were sitting in close proximity to a garbage can, and she was able to destroy the evidence. We all left with our bottoms intact.

The bus ride back to the Monte Carlo was much longer because of traffic. After nearly an hour sitting on the bus and hardly moving we decided to get off at the Bellagio and walk the rest of the way. On the first night I wore a pair of black dress shoes with my suit that I hadn’t worn since probably 2008, and I paid the price… they didn’t fit properly, and my feet were in pain the rest of the week. I was relieved that the other pair of shoes that I brought (my running shoes) are black with black laces, so I wore them every night (I wore sandals during the days) and it’s a good thing too because boy were my feet hurting. I was glad that I was still able to walk between 12,000 and 18,000 steps every day, despite the bad feet, and was also able to wear a suit and tie most nights (Freemont Street didn’t call for it) with the black running shoes and not look too stupid.

So along the way, when all is said and done, I walked about 75,000 steps (42 miles); I smoked 8 cigars (maybe 9). I had about one third of a bottle of The Glenlivet (along with about a score gin & tonics and vodka & Red Bulls). I ate three ridiculously gluttonous and one reasonable breakfast, and three reasonable dinners with two gluttonous ones. I had zero lunches. I saw two shows, I witnessed two friends getting married. I took about 800 pictures, spent about 20 hours by the pool, and applied Coppertone Sport SPF 15 Sunscreen 4 times. I lost exactly how much money I set aside for gambling, and stayed on budget for the rest of my activities. Most importantly, I had ONE amazing time.

Goodbye Vegas; I will see you again soon.

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Mitch… Disconnected

So you are one of the world’s most hyper-connected individuals, known for having the Internet at your disposal 24/7.  You are scheduled to work with a customer overseas on their connected system via live link, and you have dozens of other things that you usually do / plan to do / want to do during your five day stay in Montreal… and you realize too late that you forgot all of your computers at home.  What do you do?

In my last article, Disconnecting Mitch, I outlined how it happened.  That was the situation – I was halfway from Toronto (Oakville) to Montreal when the realization hit me, and I was scrambling to figure out how I was going to manage.  The initial reason I had pulled off the road was to send an e-mail, but that was easy enough to do from my smartphone.  The rest was going to be challenging. 

As you probably suspect I don’t simply use my computer in one place… I carry it with me, and pull it out in places such as cafés (as is the case right now).  I also had my Kobo e-reader in my messenger bag, so I was not only disconnected, I was missing my books as well.

My first thought was to call Theresa and ask her to ship it to me overnight.  I couldn’t imagine how much that would cost, but it would not be nearly as much as losing two days of work.  However I knew that Theresa was in meetings all day, and to ask her to drop everything to run home, get my computer, run to FedEx, and ship it would have been asking a lot… not to mention the fact that it still would not help me with that evening’s meeting.  Okay, that was not a viable option.

I had to think.  I would be staying at my parents’ place in Montreal… not helpful; my mother does have a laptop, but it was in Florida with her for the winter.  My father had previously discussed buying a computer or tablet for himself, but not very seriously, and anyways that would not happen in time for my 8:00pm meeting.  He had one at his office of course, but I am reasonably sure it was a desktop, and there was no way I would ask him to bring it home with him.  I still have friends in Montreal, many of whom would gladly let me use their computers.  However I would need it for 6-7 hours overnight, and unless they were going to let me take it back to my parents’ place with me that would be a real imposition.

Of course I immediately posted my predicament on Facebook… for some reason that is where nut jobs turn to complain when they do something stupid these days, so why should this nut job be any different?  I wrote that I had forgotten my system at home, and did any of my Montreal peeps have a system they could loan me for my stay?  I did not hold out hope for this – for the simple reason that I have never seen anything posted to Facebook actually solve a problem.  It turns out, as it happens, that one friend did see it and offer to help… only it was on the week-end, well pas the required date.

I took a step back and examined the situation.  What exactly did I need a computer for during my stay in Montreal?  I would say that first and foremost my computer is usually for e-mail, Twitter, blogging, and the like… but I could live without blogging for a few days (I know I know, you had already noticed that), and I could use my phone for e-mail and Twitter (along with Facebook, sporadic web surfing, and even reading on my Kobo reader).  The main reason I needed a computer was for those collaborative web meetings I would have with Tokyo.  Of course I might want to do a little writing while I was there…

…It occurred to me that I didn’t really need any software on the computer, I only needed to have a computer running Windows.  It would not have to be big and powerful, it did not have to have 8 GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD or the latest Intel CPU… it needed to run Windows, period.

Naughty thoughts started racing through my head.  It occurred to me that in this day and age a lot of stores have very liberal return policies.  I felt dirty and dishonest… was I really the type of person to go into a store to buy an item knowing I was planning on returning it four days later?  I really didn’t want to… but what choice did I have?

I was going to write that I planned to compromise.  I was going to write that I was going to buy a system at one of the big box stores, and if it was everything that I wanted I would either keep it, or sell it, or whatever.  In short, I was going to lie.  The truth is that I knew as I stood at the electronics counter at Wal-Mart that my tenure of ownership of the Acer laptop that I was buying would not outlast many cricket matches.  I asked the clerk about several features of the computer that she could not possibly have known (does this model include Windows 8.1 U1, which was not yet publicly available), and was the touch screen capacitive (the screen was not a touch screen), and was the USB port LPT-compatible (really? c’mon!)).  After three or four ‘Uhhhh…’ answers I simply said ‘I’ll tell you what… just let me know what the return policy is, and if it doesn’t do everything I need I will bring it back.’  I paid for it (No, I don’t think I will need the extended warranty coverage…) and headed back to my parents’ place.

The 17” monster was reasonably light, but that was irrelevant, as it was to be a stationary desktop for the next few days.  I didn’t have an external mouse for it, and as it did not have a touch screen I knew I would be stuck with the dreaded track pad all week-end.  No matter, it was better than not having it at all.  I installed Skype and LiveMeeting (one of which proved ineffective due to bandwidth limitations), and that was it… for the first time that I could ever recall I bought a computer and did not apply patches, I did not download Windows Essentials, I didn’t even install anti-malware. 

For any site on the Internet that I would authenticate to (e-mail, etc…) I used InPrivate Browsing.  For everything else I honestly did not care if it tracked my cookies or my browsing patterns.  It wasn’t a very comfortable experience – I hated the computer, missed my touch screen, mouse, and everything else I love about my own devices – but I was able to do everything that I needed to do… if not everything that I might have wanted to do.  It did not come with me to cafés… in fact, when I left the house I did so with empty hands.  My friend Jessica, with whom I had dinner and then coffee Saturday evening, commented that it was refreshing to see me without a device.  Of course I had my phone…  but that was about it.

Sunday morning I repacked the computer into the original box, made sure I had the original receipt, and trudged back to Wal-Mart.  I was relieved that there was no line at the Customer Service counter, and the young lady who assisted me asked if I was going to try to find another computer, or if I just wanted my refund.  I told her I was going to hold off, so if she could just refund my credit card I would appreciate it.  After checking that all of the pieces were what they were supposed to be and that there was no physical damage she did just that, and wished me well.  I thanked her, and commended Wal-Mart for the hassle-free experience.

I felt bad that I had taken advantage of the major retailer, and decided that before leaving I would at least spend a few dollars there.  I bought a pack of green-apple licorice and a case of water for the ride home, and that was it… I headed out, poorer by one computer and richer by about $500 and some licorice than I had been.  My work with my customer in Tokyo had been a success, and I was able to focus on my drive back to Oakville.

When I got home I was greeted at the door by two rambunctious dogs who always miss me, whether I am gone for an hour or a month.  Past the dogs I got to spend a couple of hours with my sons.  It was great to be home.  However once they were in bed, I secreted down to my office and pulled out my Surface Pro 2.  It was not only because I had a meeting – I did.  However after five long days without my technology, it was nice to be reunited with a device I called my own.

Am I a geek?  You bet I am!

Flying High Over Sydney

‘Hey Mitch, I have my private pilot’s license… if you’d like to take an aerial tour of Sydney Harbour when you are in town just let me know.’

Mitch with the Fastrack Office 365 stunt plane!There are some opportunities that one just doesn’t say no to.  Of course, seeing as I had spoken with Yoni many times but never actually met him, I would not know until I got there if he was the sort who kept his word about things like these.  In fact he is, and when I was finally in Australia we made the arrangements, settling on Saturday December 7th.  I would meet him at the Bankstown airport (a smaller regional field) at 1:30 in the afternoon, and after all of the pre-boarding checks we would hop in and take off.

He expected that I would be late – when I arrived he asked if I had gotten terribly lost, but the truth is that I was fine until I turned into the airport… the traffic was especially bad on Saturday.  Once I was in the airport I did indeed get lost, but that only accounted for five minutes of my thirty-five minutes of tardiness.

DSCN5023The plane that we would be flying is a Duchess twin engine, with seating for four.  Because he wasn’t current (that is to say he has not flown the requisite amount of hours in the past three months) he invited Matt, a flight instructor with Red Baron Aviation, to sit second-seat, and I got into the back seat on my own.  This had three distinct advantages: I had a lot more legroom, I would be able to photograph out of both sides of the plane depending on what sights were where, and probably most important to the pilot I would not have direct access to any instruments that could accidentally throw us off course.

Had I arrived at noon we would still not have gotten away on time.  We needed to fuel the plane (if you think filling your car is expensive try refueling an airplane!) and wait for Matt, in addition to several other factors that necessitated a 3:15 departure.  No matter, I was not in a rush; and anyways we would likely only be in the air for 30-45 minutes, so either way I would be back at the hotel in plenty of time for dinner.

As we waited for things to sort themselves out Yoni showed me several Mitch in the Duchessother planes at Red Baron, including the stunt plane that was currently skinned for a promotion that Yoni had run recently for the Microsoft Office Garage series – it was branded Office 365, as well as for Fastrack Technologies, Yoni’s company.  You should check out the Office Garage series when you have a moment!  That plane was a lot smaller than the Duchess that we would be flying, but it really looked swift!

We climbed into the Duchess and once we were buckled in Yoni ran through his pre-flight checklist (as every pilot does before taking off) and then on instructions from the tower we taxied to the waiting area – we were third in line for runway 11L.  The two planes ahead of us landed, and Yoni proceeded to line up the plane for what felt like a perfect takeoff.  I spend a lot of time on airplanes, but this is certainly different… and a lot more fun!

There was no in-flight service, but to compensate we could essentially fly wherever we wanted – as long as we got clearance.  Yoni told me only once we were at the airport that Sydney Tower does not always clear airplanes to fly into the Harbour area, and that the last time he had tried he was denied.  Nevertheless it was a beautiful day so either way I would not have been terribly disappointed.

YK: Sydney Tower this is Delta-Victor-Foxtrot requesting clearance into Sydney Harbour for a quick tour.
ST: Roger Delta-Victor-Foxtrot, you are cleared into the Harbour.  The pattern is clear, feel free to linger around.  You are clear to 1,200 feet.  Let us know when you are leaving.

DSCN5081Wow.  Of course, I was not recording the conversation, but that was the general gist of it.  The tower Air Traffic Controller literally told Yoni he could do what he wanted in the airspace over Sydney Harbour.  That meant that instead of simply having a beautiful day of flying, I would have the opportunity to take some pictures of world-famous monuments and landscape that was really a once in a lifetime chance.

We spent about ten minutes doing figure-eights over the harbour.  It was gorgeous.  While I had seen and photographed the Sydney Opera House when I walked around it, this was absolutely so much cooler.  Somebody explained to me that all images of the unique building are automatically copyrighted by some authority or another, but as I am not making money off the blog I was okay to post one of the snaps I took.  Personally I think that if they want to sue me over the image that would be fine, as long as they paid for me to come back to Australia to defend myself Smile 

DSCN5092The fact that I was able to get pictures of the Sydney Opera House right over the Sydney Harbour Bridge was, to me, just spectacular.  Yoni rightly pointed out later that they may not be the best images ever shot of the landmarks, and that I could likely find better ones on-line, none would ever be so special to me as these.  I agree – there is no question that taking a picture yourself trumps professional photographs any day!

We only spent a little under an hour in the air, but that was fine by me.  It was an incredible flight, a lot of fun, and Yoni and Matt are two great pilots who are a hoot to be in the air with (on the ground as well, but they both had prior engagements for that evening so buying them a round was out of the question).

As I have said before I have been on literally hundreds of flights over the past decade, and most of them are not in any way memorable.  This one was a flight I will never forget.  Thanks guys!

The New Hat: Not copying anyone…

Mitch HatA dozen years ago my parents went to Australia, and asked if I wanted them to bring me back anything.  I asked for a koala.  Nothing doing.  Okay, then how about a hat?  They asked me to measure my head, and sure enough a few weeks later I was introduced to the Akubra brand, and have been wearing them since… sort of.

The Akubra Cattleman (fawn colour) hat quickly became part of my image.  I wore it for years… despite the fact that my friend Eileen (and my first fiancé) did not much care for it.

In November of 2003 I was visiting Toronto.  My car was parked in Chinatown, and when we came back to the car from wherever we had been, we discovered someone had smashed the back window and stolen (among other things) my hat.  Amazingly the police recovered many of the objects stolen… everything, in fact, except the liner of my ski jacket and my hat.  Either I was robbed by a big guy with good taste who started wearing my stuff, or by someone who quickly concluded those items were crap and discarded them.  I was distraught, but what can you do?  I wasn’t going to go back to Australia to buy a new hat.

About a year later I was having dinner with some people from Microsoft who were in town for a presentation, and some of them took me for dinner at Schwartz’s in Montreal.  Roger Benes joined us late and when he walked in he was wearing the identical hat to mine!  I was amazed – his was two sizes smaller than mine, but other than that it was the identical hat.  I asked him if he had been to Australia and he told me that no, there was actually a store in Ajax, Ontario called Picov’s that sold them.  I decided that on my first trip to Toronto I would head out there.

Indeed in May of the next year I was invited to Mississauga and I figured that hey, how big could the Greater Toronto Area really be?  I asked my friend Kathy if she would mind driving me out there.  It never occurred to me that Ajax was nearly 90 minutes drive from Mississauga, but there it was.  We got there, and sure enough they carried it, but it was out of stock.  Fortunately we knew the exact model and size that I wanted, and they shipped it to me a few weeks later.  I was thrilled to have the hat back.

Fast-forward two years later, I am now seriously dating Theresa (my wife) and we are living together.  I am becoming a father to her son Aaron, and we have adopted not one but two puppies – Jacob and Gingit.  Gingit quickly became the dog that would eat everything, including computer mice, cell phones.. .and one very coveted Akubra hat.  In fact she ate a very large hole out of the top.  I couldn’t believe it – I was furious, but what are you going to do?

I pinged Picov’s who were very sympathetic, but they told me that they were no longer carrying the Akubra line.  I would have to do some research.  Toward the end of the year Theresa and I were in Toronto and went looking for an Akubra dealer… and we found one, although he had closed his store and was now selling out of his house.  Mitch Black HatHe did not have the Cattleman, but he did have a similar model, and Theresa convinced me to try it out.  It was charcoal grey (although it looked black).  It was a little larger (the brim anyways), but it looked good, felt comfortable, and I decided this would be my new hat.

This one also lasted about a year and a half.  I was always careful to put it on a high shelf when at home, and out of Gingit’s reach.  However one day I was on a Go train heading home from a long day of training in Toronto.  As the train was pulling into the Oakville Station my phone rang and I was distracted as I collected my gear.  It was not until the train doors were closed and the train was moving that I realized that my head was cold.  I had left my hat on the seat on the train.  I was heading out of town the next day, and despite my efforts to phone Go Transit’s Lost & Found department from across the country, it was impossible to reach them, and I would have to go in person to Union Station to see if they found the hat.  By the time I was back in the city I was beyond their ‘we’ll keep your goods this long’ day, and I had no luck.

I started looking nearly immediately, and was thrilled to discover a store in Oakville that carried Akubra hats, and while they did not have the exact one I wanted in stock, they were glad to order it for me.  I went down to the Lakeshore a few weeks later and picked up my new tan Akubra Cattleman hat, that honestly looked identical to my two previous Akubra Cattleman hats!

Once again, everyone in my life knew me by my hat.  It is funny, it really does become part of my image.  People always tell me that wearing a hat – the right hat – suits me.

I have gotten to wearing the hat during all seasons except summer… which is to say that in I wear it from about September to June in Canada.  However I don’t usually wear it indoors, so when I arrive at the office I take it off and put it aside.  This was the case several months ago when I arrived at Microsoft Canada and put my hat aside in the room that a colleague and I were using.  When we came back from lunch it wasn’t there… so I assumed I had left it in the car (which does happen from time to time).  needless to say it was gone, and I never saw it again, despite an exhaustive search.

Very shortly thereafter I was in Redmond and picked up an Australian hat that was just not the same thing… it was much less expensive, but never had the right feel to it.  The people who did comment on it asked if I was slumming it.  I was not even sad when I accidentally left it on an airplane.  It was just not me… it didn’t look great, it never fit properly, and I just never got into it.

When I found out I was coming to Australia this year I was excited for several reasons… not the least of which is that this is where Akubras come from!  I did some research and found a store near my hotel called Strand Hatters.  It was just down the street, and unlike many of the other stores I have been to all they do is hats.  Checking their hours I saw they were open late Thursdays, and that is what I planned… I walked down there after I got back from work, and looked at several styles and colours,

The new Akubrait had been my original plan to buy the same colour and style I had become accustomed to, but as luck would have it they did not have my size.  That left me to choose between that colour in another style, or that style in another colour.  After spending twenty minutes deciding I decided to change both.  I ended up buying a style called Tabelands (brown-olive).  It is very similar to the Cattleman, with only slight differences.  It is a newer style, and a new colour to Akubra hats.  It will match my brown leather jacket very well, as well as go with just about anything I wear.

The fawn Cattleman was picked out for me by my parents, without any of us knowing how well it would suit me.  The second style (I can’t remember the name, but the colour was charcoal/black) we picked because of the limited selection available to me.  This style and colour I picked out for myself, with no limitations.  I expect it will be with me for a while – I will do everything in my power to hold on to this one, even though I have said that before.

I have now worn it for three days and it feels right.  I even let Rick from the store put a feather in the side, although that might or might not last.  Tomorrow I fly back to Tokyo, and I wonder how well I will fit in there.  I do know that when I am back in Canada this hat will be just what the doctor ordered for all seasons!

Driving on the wrong side of the road…

Left DriveWhen coming to Sydney I knew I was going to face a new challenge.  It isn’t that I had never visited a country that drives on the left side of the road, but I had always taken public transport in those places.  In Hong Kong, Great Britain, Hong Kong, Bahamas, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Grand Cayman, India, Jamaica, and Malaysia I walked, rode trains, and took taxis.  Australia was different – I would need to hire a car, and so I would need to hire a car.

I had actually contemplated giving it a go in Japan, but a colleague talked me out of it – and he was right.  Not only would I have to remember that right is left and left is right, but I do not know the rules of the road, and I cannot read most of the road signs.  Even worse I would get terribly lost very quickly – all of the road signs are in Japanese and there does not seem to be any great discernable order to the roads.

So I arrived at the Sydney (Kingsford Smith) Airport after over twenty-five hours in transit (2 hours on the train from Tokyo to Narita, 2 hours at the airport, 7.5 hours to Singapore, 6 hour layover, 8 hours to Sydney) more than slightly tired.  I collected my luggage and headed to the Avis counter, where the very nice lady handed me the keys to a very familiar car – a Toyota Camry, exactly the same car I drive in Canada (if newer and without all of the features).  The familiarity of the vehicle would likely make my transition to the wrong side of the road easier.

Putting my luggage into the trunk was easy, but that was about it… I went to get into the car, and immediately remembered that I was on the wrong side of the car.  This stupid mistake would repeat itself several times over the course of the week.

I walked around the car and encountered my first unexpected problem – how do I get into the car?  It is weird, but combining the seat being pushed all the way forward, and the steering wheel being on the wrong side of the road, I did need to work out a system to get into the driver’s seat.  Incidentally this issue would resurface when I first got into the passenger seat of a friend’s car – the steering wheel which I would usually grab onto when entering from the left was not there!

I adjusted my mirrors, and checked to be sure that despite their locations under the right-side front seat it would still be my right foot operating the pedals.  I put the car into gear (with my left hand… grrr!) and signaled to turn NO, sorry that’s the windshield wipers.  This is another mistake I would make several times, looking stupid only when it wasn’t raining (which is to say all week).  I turned on my headlights NO sorry, that’s the windshield wiper spray, so I had to sort that out.

I got out of the parking lot and did very well, following a simple rule… I am not in a rush, and I was going to follow signs to the City, and to make sure I was on the correct side of the road I would follow the cars in front of me.  I did very well with that strategy, and in no time at all I was proficient (if not fluent) driving on the wrong side.  I got terribly lost (mostly on purpose – I was not really in a hurry to get to the hotel, and the driving around on the wrong side of the road was fun!  I accidentally found myself crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge – certainly nicer to see from below – which I suspect cost me a few dollars in tolls.

After an hour or so of driving around in circles I decided to pull over and read the map, and within about 10 minutes I was at the hotel, and just as happy to get out of the car for the week-end.  I would have to drive again Monday morning again, but for the time being it was time to lay me down my weary head.

The most interesting issue I have had with driving in Australia has been one I hadn’t expected… it was spatial.  It is easy enough to follow behind another car and not smash into anything head-on, but when I am behind the wheel of the car I am used to being flush to the left side door, with six feet of metal between myself and the right end of my lane.  As I drive flush to the right side door, I find myself drifting to the left, as I see objects in my peripheral vision that look like they should be eight feet away from my body, but are in fact much less so.

Fortunately this is not happening when there is a car to my left; my peripheral vision to that side has prevented that.  However I have become well acquainted with the rumble strips on the side of the road.  I have also somehow managed to avoid either scraping my mirrors or driving onto sidewalks… The Toyota Camry that I picked up at the airport the other day is currently on track to be returned Monday afternoon with all of its bits intact!

Really when it comes down to it the only difficult job I have had to do behind the wheel is following my friend Erdal back to his place… Driving through traffic for an hour while trying to stay behind another car can be trying.in a familiar city on the right side of the road… doing so when you don’t know the city, where you are going, and you are on the wrong side of the road is quite stressful.  Fortunately we were heading off to Taekwondo, where I got to work out my frustrations by kicking them away!

All in all Australia is not a terribly difficult place to drive, if you keep your heads about you.  I am glad that I gave it a go here and did not try in Japan… I would still be driving in circles!

Tie me Kangaroo Down, Sport!

When I found out I was coming to Sydney, Australia I made a mental list of things I wanted to do and to see.  So far I have checked off seeing the Sydney Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Bondi Beach and Manly Beach.  While walking around Circular Quay I heard an Aboriginal busker playing a didgeridoo, and in Darling Harbour I saw a shark fin.  Of course because I have friends here I knew I was going to be going to a Taekwondo class (which I did Tuesday night).  I have even gotten quite proficient driving on the wrong side of the road!

KangaI had not given food much of a thought, beyond my friend Erdal wanting to take me to his favorite Turkish kebab restaurant (which, we discovered, had burned down).  What I had not expected, when I opened the Room Service menu at the Sydney Harbour Marriott had an interesting dish on it… Kangaroo Steak.

Wow… I certainly wanted to see kangaroos while I was here, but did I have the courage to actually eat one?  The first night I opted for a hamburger.  Safe, but not at all interesting.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a good hamburger.  However I regretted ordering it almost before I put down the phone.  I consider myself to be a very adventurous sort – certainly but not exclusively with regard to food – and I always say that when I travel I don’t want to just eat the same old ‘American food’.  I decided that at my next opportunity I would order kangaroo.

Monday evening I was on my own again, and rather than going out for dinner I went for a long walk, then back at the room I looked at the menu again and ordered the kangaroo.  I asked the woman taking my order what to expect from the meat, and she told me that it would be very similar to beef, with a slightly stronger taste.

The specific dish (under the category of casual dining) is: Char grilled kangaroo with potato & carrot rosti, macadamia nut pesto & beetroot jus.  It looked very much like steak, and the description given by the woman was accurate – a somewhat stronger taste, but not at all unpleasant.  In fact, it was quite tasty.  It was delivered as several slices (much the same way my steak had been delivered at the restaurant Saturday evening) with the beetroot jus lightly drizzled on it.  It was, in a word, delicious.

Now here’s the problem.  I have heard people debate why we would eat cows and chickens but not dogs and cats, and the prevailing answer seems to be that cats and dogs are cute.  I happen to think that kangaroos are cute too, although that might just be my inexperience – I have heard people say that there are areas down here where they do become a nuisance.  Nonetheless I like them, and neither the picture above nor the stuffed roo that I was given to take to my son did anything to dissuade me from that feeling.  As much as I enjoyed my kangasteak, I must have felt guilty about it later on.. because only hours later I had a dream I was being chased by a kangaroo, and she caught me, knocked me to the ground, and got right up to my face and stared at me as her joey jumped up and down on my back and head.

For the sake of my dreams I think the next adventurous meal I will eat down here will be crocodile or something… I can’t imagine how badly I would sleep if someone served me koala pie!

Gone for Walkabout…

Mitch & Erdal BondiOne of my very good friends, Erdal Ozkaya, picked me up Sunday morning for an incredible day in and around Sydney.  He and his family took me to two very famous beaches – Manly Beach (where Erdal’s son and I practiced our Taekwondo) and Bondi Beach.  They took me to a place called Woolloomooroo (which is an Aboriginal word for ‘Let’s see if the white man will ever be able to pronounce this) for lunch – Harry’s Café de Wheels, where he made me eat two wonderful things: first a meat pie (specifically a concoction called Harry’s Tiger), which he says Australia is famous for, and a Hot Dog de Wheels, which the menu describes as ‘…continental Viennese smoked Frankfurt server with mushy peas, chili con carne and garlic onions with cheese and chili sauce.’  I got through the first, but the hotdog beat me, and I only made my way through part of it.

Mitch Bondi 3So as we drove away from Harry’s I was happy to be going to Bondi Beach, but I was certain they were joking when they said ‘and we’ll have churros there.’  MORE FOOD?  Wow, I don’t think so.  I watched the four of them devour the churros, but I stuck to my water.  All the while my stomach was telling me that I had eaten way too much, and that I needed to do a lot of walking to work off some of those calories.

I should mention that while many of you are aware that I wear a FitBit pedometer, you may or may not know that there is a community of Fitbitters who can ‘friend’ each other, and then either compete or encourage each other.  Erdal has always been one of my biggest supporters.  He has been cheering for me whenever I had a big day.  So at the end of the day today, when he was still ahead of me by 1,100 steps, he told me that if I did plan to go for a walk tonight I should leave the Fitbit at home.  Of course he was joking Smile

imageI didn’t… I mean, I did go for a walk, but I did not leave the FitBit at home.  Sorry Erdal, I am still in the lead this week, and very likely for the day (currently at 18,000, and after dinner will likely walk it off).  Fortunately I am not as much of a competitor… I am glad that my friend is doing well, and I will continue to walk my way across Sydney… as much as I can, every night!

…and don’t forget my friend, Taekwondo counts, so when I am kicking around with your kids I am still scoring! Smile

image

AC03: Flying with Phaedra!

As I walked down the gangplank toward my ‘home in the air’ for the next eleven hours I heard even before I could see her the head Flight Attendant on Air Canada flight 003 from Vancouver to Tokyo.  She was on the PA system almost cheerleading her staff, and as I appeared she put on her game face… but not the one that I am used to.

As you know I fly a lot, and over the years have not had a lot of energetic and outwardly happy and excited flight attendants.  It is not to say that any of them were bad or good, they were just for the most part very… professional is the word that comes to mind, but that would almost imply that Phaedra-Lynn Hicks is otherwise… and that would be far from the truth.

clip_image002As the first passenger on board I had a lot of time to observe the crew as they welcomed the masses to the flight, and Phaedra, manning the forward hatch, was greeting everyone with a smile.  I heard her joke with one young lady (who had purple hair) if her hair was natural, and how so many people asked if her blonde locks were natural or not.  It set a humorous tone to the flight ahead.

“At this point you should be seated comfortably (or uncomfortably) in your seats with your tray tables stowed and your seat backs in the upright position.”

You might expect this sort of humour on some smaller airlines, but on Air Canada?  It is rare, and it is no wonder that she has won almost every individual and team award that Air Canada awards, as well as a few others.

I have a confession to make.  This is not the first time I have flown with Ms. Hicks, and I remembered both her smile and her attitude from my previous flight with her.  As we had eleven hours together I asked her if she would mind talking to me for the blog, and she was delighted to.

As we were discussing the ‘interview’ she mentioned that I should check out the YouTube video that she made as a spoof.  It is an Air Canada commercial (spoofed and unsanctioned) to the Call Me Maybe song.  As I am still at 36,000 feet you can check it out for yourselves by searching YouTube for Air Canada Call Me Maybe.  From what Ms. Hicks tells me if you are checking it out from a mobile device you will need to do it via Huffington Post. (Now that I am on the ground I checked it out, and while I suspect I am the last person on earth to hear that song from beginning to end, the video is great… and I recognize quite a few of the players!)

Phaedra started flying after a friend of hers – a flight attendant with an American carrier – suggested she apply.  At the tender age of nineteen she says she applied, and for the interviews she bought a blue suit (a nice but very inexpensive one – budgets of nineteen years olds being what they are), put her hair up in a bun, and went into the interviews with the most positive attitude that the kid from Pierrefonds (the West Island of Montreal) could bring.

Three interviews and six weeks of training later Air Canada had their future best flight attendant on her maiden voyage.

I spent a lot of time chatting with Phaedra, and was able to interview her with the condition that her chain of command be able to vet the piece before it published. Unfortunately life (both hers and mine) got in the way, and the interview could not be vetted in time. As such I have removed my twelve questions and her answers from this piece. Hopefully one day I will be able to share them with you; I assure you they have been redacted, but not deleted entirely!

What I will say is that Phaedra was a pleasure to speak with. She gave thoughtful answers to every question I asked, and was quite clearly not just giving me the approved company answers. Of course, a couple of the questions I asked were probably not anticipated by the company. I am looking forward to flying with Phaedra again – I do not know when that will be, but hopefully soon. As she is based in Vancouver, she likely will not be on my next flight (Tokyo Narita direct to Toronto Pearson). I think, however, I have found yet another reason to stop in Vancouver when on my way to Asia.

When on the ground (wherever she is) Phaedra is an avid practitioner of Yoga. She is currently working toward the next level of certification (enlightenment?) that one can achieve as an instructor. If she is as passionate about yoga as she is about her work I have no doubt that she will pass with flying colours!

SQ11: The Flight of a lifetime!

If I have been delinquent in my blogging over the past few weeks I apologize – I have been preoccupied with work. Overloaded may be a more accurate term, but that is no reason to neglect you, and I apologize for it. In my defense, I have a great article that was ‘in the can’ – all set to publish this past week. It has been delayed for legal reasons – or at least reasons that will cause me to rewrite much of it in order to protect the subject, a lovely and professional Air Canada flight attendant.

Sticking with the subject of air travel, I am currently on board an Airbus A380-800… the world’s largest passenger liner. A number of years ago I had the pleasure of circumnavigating the globe on a series of Boeing 777s and Airbus A330s, care of Air Canada, Air Malaysia, and Air France. On each of those flights I traveled in Executive First or First Class, and was extremely comfortable with both the seat (or in the case of Air Canada’s 777 the pod) and the service. We are still at the gate at Narita International Airport (there was a delay due to another aircraft) but so far I can tell you that this Business Class pod on the second floor of this mammoth aircraft is far and away the most comfortable and best equipped (as well as modern) one that I have sat in on any plane.

It may look like a regular seat at first glance, but looks are deceiving. When you realize that the width of the unit is twice that of my 14” widescreen laptop, and that even at my girth the seat width offers another foot of available space on the sides you will know that something is different. At 1m87cm I can still sit back and straighten my legs completely in front of me. This is what I call l a comfortable seat. Add to that the fact that I am sitting alone (the seat configuration on the second floor is 1-2-1, and I am in a window seat) and that the seat folds flat into a bed, and there is simply no way to call it ‘just a seat.’

A380 SeatWhen you build a plane this big, and are not trying to cram as many bodies into it as possible, you are able to give people more storage space than usual. Of course I have stowed both of my carry-on bags in the overhead compartment, but between my seat and the window there is a compartment that opens up and would allow me to store a lot more than just a laptop (which is, I confess, all I stored there as the plane took off). My tray table (9” wider and 4” deeper than my laptop) folds out of the armrest, and adjusts comfortably between myself and the console. Add to that the two drop-down drink tray panels in the console (one of which doubles as a mirror for those of us who might need to put on makeup), the glove compartment-like panel (big enough to put a smart phone, music player, and airline-supplied socks and eye mask), and the connectivity panel (with two USB ports, Ethernet, international electrical power) and I have to admit, this is a pod that someone put a lot of thought into.

Don’t get me wrong… the pods on Air Canada’s long-haul planes are great, but even with their diagonal ‘I am always sitting alone privacy’ design I still feel that these pods win out – especially (although not only) for a larger gentleman such as myself.

Although the movie that I chose to watch first is on Channel 2 of the in-flight entertainment system (a full 14” wide screen TV), I expect the next one I will watch is on 715… and unlike some systems that is inclusive – there are actually hundreds of channels on this plane. When the pilot told me to stow my laptop for takeoff I perused the printed guide for December. If you cannot find something that you are interested in watching then you are just not trying hard enough. I counted movies in at over a dozen languages including my three go-to languages of Hebrew, English, and French as well as Spanish, German, Portuguese, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Arabic, Persian, and several others I could not identify. This programming includes movies, TV shows, music, and documentaries. There are games and programming for both kids and adults, and everyone in between (I noticed all eight Harry Potter movies available on one of the pages).

The controls for the entertainment system (as well as the seat/bed) are in the armrest, but easily ejected into a wired remote control. This will be useful when I do lay out – the TV adjusts down so you can watch it from a prone position. They DID think of everything!

One of the issues I discussed with my new Flight Attendant friend on the Air Canada flight was the changes in her profession, and how several years ago her looks (which by the way were quite intact) would have been an important factor for her to keep her job. From the looks of the crew on board this flight that is still the case on some airlines. Please understand that I am not saying that this is necessarily a good thing, but it has been apparent throughout the service that the cabin staff consists mainly of young, slim, very attractive people – both the male and female attendants by the way. However once you get beyond their looks you cannot help but notice that they are truly dedicated to providing the most comfortable travel experience possible. That includes, by the way, spending the time to talk and joke with you. They truly seem interested in each and every one of their passengers (or at least in me… which is truly unlikely).

After dinner I plan to go downstairs. The top deck is only Business Class, but downstairs has both the Economy Class and, of greater interest to me, the First Class Suites. I don’t know if I will be allowed to see inside one, but if I can I will report back to you. I expect that the cabin crew in Economy are not all that different from the ones in Business Class, but I will talk to that too.

Dinner was lovely. The appetizer was a traditional satay that the Flight Attendant promised would be the best I ever had. I thought back to the road-side spot of the variety that Bruce Cowper insisted I find when I was in Malaysia, and knew that would be a challenge, not to mention the lack of Tiger Beer. While it was not a spicy satay is was absolutely delicious. That was followed by a three shrimp salad with citrus, and then a grilled tournedos of beef with forest mushroom sauce.

Desert consisted of a bowl of Azuki ice cream with green tea sauce, a cheese plate, and a selection of fruit. In a word, scrumptious.

I did walk downstairs… twice. The first via the staircase in the aft of the cabin, which took me to the rear of the Economy Class section. Seating is 3-4-3, and I am glad to be up here… even though the seats down below look to be as wide as the Executive Class seats on an A320. The plane seems to be only half full – as it happens SQ11 originates in Los Angeles and stops over in Tokyo. As such you could see that many people downstairs were stretched out across their three or four seats to sleep.

I could not access the front of the plane from downstairs; I was however able to walk to the front of the upper deck and walk down into the Suites. I did not walk around much, but the Suites are very nice from what I was able to see… several inches more space than the Business Class pods. I saw one gentleman working at is desk, which looked as though he was working in a modern office.

A380 Seat BedOnce my movie was over I decided to skip the second one and get some sleep. Unlike the seats on other crafts I have been on that lay flat, this one requires that you stand to fold the seat down into a bed. This was actually quite clever – rather than having to try to make your chair comfortable as a bed, it folds down and the back of the seat actually is a mattress – or at least has the look and feel of one. Hidden behind the seat waiting for you is a second full-sized pillow (there was already one on the seat) and a blanket. I admit I did ask the flight attendant for help turning it down, and once I was settled in I closed my eyes for a four hour siesta – in a completely darkened plane where the eye mask provided was actually unnecessary.

Also interesting about the pod is that there is a complete second seatbelt to secure you when you are lying flat, which is much more comfortable than having to work with the same belt positions as when you are seated. I kept mine loose, which was helpful because I did toss and turn a little before falling asleep.

I felt a bit like a fool – I needed to call the flight attendant once again to turn my bed back into a seat, which she pleasantly and mercifully assured me happens all the time.

Before I lay me down to sleep I first decided to siphon some of the plane’s electricity; I plugged my Nokia Lumia 920, my Apple iPhone 5, and my Microsoft Surface Pro into the panel. So naturally now I checked the power levels of all, and was pleased that the two smartphones were completely charged, and only slightly disappointed that the Surface Pro was not. I had placed it into the armrest-adjacent storage that I mentioned, and when I closed the hatch it disconnected the power cable from the adapter. Oh well, at least my Lenovo still has juice!

The pilot just announced that we are about 45 minutes from Singapore Changi airport, and he turned on the cabin lights. We are going to have to fill out Immigrations forms, even though I am not leaving the airport. While I was not listening too closely, I did not hear him advise us not to chew gum while in Singapore – which I know to be a criminal offense thanks to my old friend Bill Sourour. Not strictly in anticipation of that I did not bring any gum with me, so if I get a hankering for a piece while there I will have to purchase it on the black market.

The flight attendant just came by and told me that as I am not leaving the airport I will not have to fill out the form. One less thing.

I went to the washroom to freshen up. In order to get a decent sampling to report to you, I have used washrooms at the front, middle, and aft of the craft. All three are huge (by airplane standards) and very comfortable. Additionally they each have supplies that I am not used to seeing on airplanes – toothbrushes and toothpaste, hair brushes/combs, and razors with shaving cream. I know why the last is not freely available on North American flights, but the other bits are usually given out in the Business Class kits that we receive when boarding. I had been surprised that the kits only contained slippers and the eye mask, so this was a pleasant discovery. While I did not feel the need to shave (I probably should have… if only to make a good impression on the shopkeepers at Changi) I did desperately wish to brush my teeth and comb my hair. Four hours of sleep will make your mouth taste foul even absent the wonderful meal (and several glasses of champagne), and lying flat on an actual bed with real pillows tends to result in bed-head. I will shower when I get into the Air Singapore lounge in Changi, but for the time being these amenities were a welcome relief to a weary traveler.

With thirty minutes left in the flight one of the flight attendants asked why I was typing and not relaxing. I told her that I was writing a piece about the flight, and she and all of her colleagues got very excited about this. They asked a bunch of questions (including whether I mentioned the satay) and I answered them all. After all, how often does a guy like me have the complete undivided attention of so many beautiful young ladies? J

At the end of the flight I was torn – on the one hand it is always great to get off an airplane, and on the other hand you don’t want great experiences to end. This one did, as they all must, for now. After a six hour layover I am getting onto another Singapore Air flight – this time a Boeing 777 – bound for Sydney. It will be an interesting comparison, and one that I look forward to. In the meantime it is nice to relax in the lounge (after a much needed shower and breakfast). Shortly I will head down and peruse the duty-free shops, if only to get some exercise today.

Thanks for reading, and see you soon!