Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Adventures in Flying: Chinese Budget Airlines

While jetting around Southeast Asia is fun, flying every couple of months can get expensive.  In an effort to cut costs, we have started to fly the budget airlines. 

Flying regular-priced airlines in China is like flying in the US in the 80’s.  Most airlines serve a full sized meal or snacks on any flight over one hour in plastic trays, don’t charge for baggage, and have comfortable seats.  Airlines like Cathay Pacific and Dragon Air will make you feel downright spoiled.

Budget airlines like Air Asia, and Spring Air are a little different.  You pay for what you get, no more no less. By the way, you have to pay for every little thing.  The plus side is many of these airlines have evening flights so we can get a jump start on our holiday without taking time off work.

Budget airlines may not offer you in flight water on an international flight, but you may get a complimentary seat exercise class.
If I continue to fly budget airlines, I would more than likely fly Air Asia.  On Air Asia you pay for what you get, but the good news is you can buy some pretty nice perks like 24-hour buttermilk pancakes and seats in a childfree quiet zone.  You can pre-pay for your beverages, but if you don’t pre-pay there usually are some drinks to buy on board.  They have some duty free items you can purchase from the magazine in the plane seat in front of you.  You have to pay for checked baggage, however if you pre-book your luggage you get a discount.  The seats are comfy, the service is good, and the flights are cheap!

I'm not kidding when I say you have to pay for everything.  For $2.75 USD you can rent a blanket.  You can rent a power bank for twice that.

The pancakes were definitely the highlight of my overnight flight from Shanghai to Bali. I highly recommend them!

A Coke Zero was well worth the $2, but in the future I will carry on.

This is the first airline I have flown that offers selfie sticks.

Chris was less than impressed with the Taylor Swift gear.  
One airline I hesitate to fly again is Spring Air.  With Spring Air, what we saw definitely wasn’t what we got.  We decided to go to Japan at the last minute, and Spring Air gave us a semi decent price on the airline tickets. The flight to Kyoto was less than two hours so we figured we could tolerate it.  We were wrong. The drama started from the minute we checked in at the airline counter.

I was able to carry on my bag (pictured on the right).  Chris was forced to check his smaller bag (pictured on the left) because it had wheels.  All wheeled luggage is required to be checked in. 
I think the Spring Air seats were a little snug.  They were the first non reclining airplane seats I have ever flown in. 

I'm about 5'7" and my knees touched the seat in front of me.  
All I wanted to do was sleep on the flight home.  Unfortunately, every Spring Air flight comes with a 40 minute duty free infomercial.  No, I don't want to buy a plastic plane or cigarettes.  All I wanted to do was sleep.  The over head commercial killed that plan.

After the infomercial, it was time for our in seat aerobic class.  I was amazed that an airline that did not provide water provided in seat calisthenics.

After stretching, it was time for eye exercises.

My only advice is when flying budget airlines is buyer beware.  Sometimes you get what you pay for.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Weekend Getaway: 61 Hours in Japan

Now that the reality that Shanghai isn’t our permanent home has sunk in, my feelings of wanderlust are in full gear.  Ever since I studied Japanese culture in fourth grade, I have wanted to visit Japan, so we decided to take a quick trip to Kyoto for a few days over May Day.  We were a little bummed that we missed the cherry blossoms, but it was great to visit Japan during their golden week.

I was so excited to finally take a Japanese adventure.

Here’s how the trip went.

Friday 1:30 A.M.- We land in Japan.
After a shaky budget airline flight, we landed in Osaka, caught a $150 USD cab ride to our hotel, and grabbed a good night’s sleep.  

Friday 11:30 A.M.- We take a train ride.
Fueled by an exceptional brunch, Chris and I walked to the Osaka train station to catch the express train to Kyoto.

I love traveling by express train!  They are clean, comfortable, and convenient.

We were able to purchase our train tickets outside the station.  The Osaka-Kyoto trains leave multiple times per hour.

Friday 1:30 P.M.- It’s sushi time!
After checking in to our hotel, we decided to catch some sushi for lunch. 
After our travels, I was very ready to try some sushi.
We opted to grab a seat at the sushi counter.  Apparently, that is the way to eat the freshest sushi.
According to the restaurant manager rolls are so "American", so we ordered our sushi lunch box or Chirashizushi style.  My favorite piece was the "toro tuna".
Friday 4:20 P.M.- We are entertained by Geikos
Since we were unable to catch dinner with a Geiko (a Geisha from Kyoto), we caught a dance drama at the Ponto-cho. For copyright reasons, I couldn't take pictures of the performance.  

We ordered the deluxe tickets that included Japanese tea.  The tea tasted like thick mown grass in a cup, and was served with this red bean cake.  Unless you really like red bean, don't bother with the VIP tickets. 
Until this point, I thought Geishas weren't real.  I was pleasantly surprised. 
Friday 7:30 P.M.- I eat one of the best dinners ever
I enjoyed some beef wrapped udon noodles in Ponto-cho. 
Ponto-cho is a great little restaurant street.  If you want to visit a particular place, make a reservation.  The venues are small and tend to book up quickly.
Whomever decided to make a spoedini with noodles was a genius!!
Friday 10:00 P.M.-  We head to bed.
We head to bed to rest up for our packed Saturday.

Saturday 8:30 A.M.- We start our tour de Kyoto.
We head downstairs to meet up with our tour group for a full day of Castles, Temples, and Shrines.  Luckily our tour started at our hotel!

Saturday 9:00 A.M- We learn about life as a Shogun at the Nijo Castle.
Japanese Shoguns lived in this lavish area from 1603-1867.   I was quite impressed with the castle gardens, architecture, and paintings.  Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the buildings, but I was able to capture a little of the beauty from the outside.
The gates outside the castle and garden were beautiful.  They had gilded cranes and butterflies which symbolized long life and prosperity. 
The garden outside the main building was beautiful.  The rocks, grass, and water provided a perfect natural balance.
While I was taking this picture, we were called back to the tour.  Japanese tours run on a very tight schedule. 
Saturday 10:10 A.M.- I learn how to pray like a Shinto.
After our stop at Nijo castle, we took a quick bus ride to our first shrine, Kitano Tenmangu.  We took a few minutes to watch Shintos worship.

To pray like a Shinto, ring the bell, clap your hands three times, bow, then pray.
Once upon a time, people honored the natural Shinto gods with offerings of sake.  Now sake companies use empty casks for advertising.
It has been told that rubbing the bull at this shrine will bring students much luck on their exams.
This student was taking no chances.  Both he and his mother rubbed the bull.  Then she rubbed his head.  I respect whatever it takes to pass the test. 
Saturday 10:40 A.M.- My obsession with Japanese vending machines begins.
Don’t worry about carrying beverages on this tour, there are vending machines everywhere. 
This vending machine was awesome! It served soda...with ice...in a cup!!!
Saturday 11:15 A.M. We visit the most beautiful pavilion I have ever seen.
Our third stop on our trip was to Kinkaku, also known as the golden pavilion.  This was the first stop on our tour that was packed with people.  Fortunately, everyone was very orderly and we had a great time exploring the grounds.
The upper two floors of the pavilion are covered in gold foil.  
The pavilion was used as an official guesthouse for nobility who visited the area.  Unfortunately we couldn't enter the building. 
Saturday 12:30 P.M.- It’s Time for Lunch!
Lunch was included in our tour, so we were dropped off at Washoku Restaurant for more tasty Japanese food.
Our lunch was a nice sampling of Japanese food. 
Saturday 1:30 P.M.- We learn how to properly clean ourselves at a shrine.
Our visit to the Heian Shrine was very bright and eye opening.
Before entering the shrine, use the ladle to wash your hands.  Then cup your hands and rinse your mouth with the water and then spit it out beside the trough.
The Heian Shrine was extremely bright.
For a small donation, worshipers can write prayers on small wooden plaques outside the hall.
Saturday 1:43 P.M.- I learn why Japanese restrooms are so incredibly impressive.
I love the buttons, the warmers, and the faucets that come with the traditional Japanese toilets.  According to our tour guide, one of the reasons why Japanese bathrooms are so elaborate and clean is cleaning toilets brings good luck in Japanese culture.
Every toilet I sat on had a warm seat and an assortment of functions.  If you are shy, you can press the sound button.
Saturday 3:00 P.M.  I have a flashback of the Terra Cotta Warriors at Sanjusangen-do.
When we arrived at the temple, we were warned that if we took pictures, our cameras would be confiscated.  So I stole some pictures online to share the experience.
Taking pictures outside the temple is permitted, however if you take pictures inside you may lose your camera. 

All 1000 statues were made of Cypress wood and are covered in gold leaf.
The volume of statues reminded me of the terra cotta warriors in Xi'An.
Saturday 4:15 P.M.- We brave the crowds at Kiyomizu-dera.
All of this sight seeing was exhausting, however we were really excited to see the Kiyomizu-dera. 
By the time we reached Kiyomizu-dera, we were exhausted.  However the climb up the hills and steps was worth the view.
This famous stage is featured in the Japanese proverb jumping off the stage at Kiyomizu.  The proverb means taking a big a big chance in life.  It is illegal to jump of the stage, so don't try it.
A worshiper ties her prayer to a bar outside of the temple. 
Kiyomizu-dera visitors drink lucky water from three different sources.  One source brings love, the second brings money, and the third ensures longevity.  If one drinks from all three sources, they will have bad luck because they are greedy. Our guide was unable to tell us which luck each spout provides.
Saturday 5:15 P.M.- We finally find some cheap(er) souvenirs for the family.
I wanted to make sure we got my nieces and nephews some Japanese goodies.  I finally found some in the market outside Kiyomizu-dera.
The shops outside Kiyomizu-dera are a great place to pick up presents for friends. 
Saturday 6:05 P.M.-  We take a disco nap after our long day.
The New Miyako Hotel at Kyoto Station was a great place to crash after our tour.

Saturday 8:20 P.M.- I eat the best teppenyaki ever.
Our concierge got us a reservation at Itoh Dining in the Gion Geisha district. 
The highlight of our five course teppenyaki dinner was some Kobe beef.
Saturday 10:00 P.M.- I am amazed that I can buy a three course meal in a hotel vending machine.
I was stuffed from dinner, so I didn’t buy the meal.  However, it looked awesome.
Who needs KFC when you can get the same meal from a machine?
I was impressed with the assortment of noodles.
Sunday 7:30 A.M- We arrive at the Kyoto Train station to board our express train to Osaka.
Train travel is awesome.  If I could travel around the world by train and cruise liner, I would so do it.

Sunday 9:30 A.M.- We arrive at the Osaka Airport for our trip home.
Again, I question why we decided to take a budget airline for an international flight.  After waiting for the counter to open exactly two hours before my flight, I’m greeted with this sign.
I don't know why I wasn't allowed to carry a rice cooker on the plane, but I'm sure there's a good reason.
Sunday 2:30 P.M.- We finally arrive to home sweet Shanghai.
We had a lovely time in Japan. I would love to return to see Tokyo and Hiroshima.  Generally speaking Japanese people are polite, the food is incredible, and the sights are breathtaking.  Look at Priceline.com for good hotels, and be prepared to spend a lot of money on food, cabs, and beverages while there.

While visiting Osaka we stayed at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Osaka. (We got a killer deal on Priceline.)  While in Kyoto, we stayed at the New Miyako Hotel, which was a little more down to earth than the Ritz.  If you want to eat at a specific restaurant, be sure to make reservations well in advance.  We used Viator to book our tours.  I highly recommend the full day Kyoto tour. Our guides spoke perfect English, were very informative, and did a wonderful job helping travelers with special needs. 
My only regret about this trip is we didn’t stay over a weekday in Kyoto, so we weren’t able to see the Imperial palace.  I highly recommend checking out Kyoto during the week in the Spring. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Our Spring Outing: Adventures at the Shanghai Zoo

In China, people view outings as a time for professional bonding.  Like many companies, Chinese public schools have entire school field trips to various museums, parks, and other interesting places twice a year.  In years past I have taken this day to create my perfect day, however this year I enjoyed the Shanghai zoo with my first graders.

I have to admit I was a little apprehensive about visiting the Shanghai Zoo.  Some of my friends reported the zoo was a little small, and the animals were skinny and caged.  My hometown, St. Louis, has a world-class zoo so it takes much to zoologically impress me. We had a great opportunity to see many different animals at the zoo, but I’ve seen better.  At least the class had a great opportunity to practice their real world vocabulary.

Here are some highlights from the trip.
We made the trip from the school to the zoo in a comfortable charter bus.  The zoo also has a metro stop on line 10.
I wasn't kidding when I said the entire school went on a field trip to the zoo.  We had to wait a few minutes after we arrived to enter the zoo.
The grand paparazzi were there to document the entire trip with studio grade video cameras.  
Fortunately, the kids were extremely well behaved, and excited to see the animals.

While we were waiting to enter the zoo, I bumped into my second graders...

and my third graders!

The zoo had some exotic animals like this ostrich...

...and these anorexic looking flamingos.
I was terrified that we might lose a child on the trip, so I spent the majority of the time counting first grade heads.  A chaperone trip to the zoo is much different than a recreational trip to the zoo. 
We kept walking and saw some bears...

...and a panda.  Seeing this guy made me miss San in Chengdu
Halfway through the trip we took a picnic break.  Since the kids normally eat school lunches, it was very interesting to see what they packed in their lunch sacks.   
I was really happy to learn that I teach a few shutterbugs!  It was great to see their pictures after lunch.
About an hour after we ate, we hiked to see more creatures.  I kept silently praying, "Please, Lord.  Don't let me lose any of my kids."  
The zoo has a very interesting collection of cement animals...
and live emus...

...and a hippo... 
...and elephants... 
...and giraffes...

...and zebras.

We were all exhausted by the end of the day, but we had a great time and no children were lost!

Long story short, if you are looking for a small zoo with some interesting carnival rides, check out the Shanghai Zoo.