Monday 13 February 2017

Of storms and snow part 2: Jetstar SIN-TPE-KIX, NRT-CNS-SYD

We continue our journey through Asia making our way up from Singapore to Osaka, Japan via Taipei with Jetstar Asia, then returning home via Cairns on Jetstar.

In part 1 my wife B, eight year old son Alex and myself flew up from Sydney to Singapore via Melbourne on a combination of Qantas and Emirates and I struggled to put learnings from a turbulence anxiety course into action.

I have a rotten sleep the night before. Too alert for the alarm, too alarmed about the flights. So when the alarm rings at 4am I have no wish to get up.

Forty minutes later we are all piled into a taxi driving through the amber lit canopy of trees lining the road to Changi Airport. I try to study the sky but the darkness gives no hints. The forecast is for morning storms.

Unlike last trip I've given myself four days of rest in Singapore, some time to enjoy it without worrying about the next flight. But it's crunch time now.

I'm eager to check in and get airside of Terminal 1 and the process is very quick. Alex is immediately attracted to the giant Pikachu statue and game area, then to the Social Tree where you can compete with others waving your hands around.

I don't feel like doing any of that. B is hungry so we head upstairs to the Killiney Kopitiam but I sit outside on the almost comfortable sofas around the televisions and half sleep. My guts are churning with anxiety and I find myself dry retching in the bathroom shortly before we head for the gate.

Onwards. No giving up this time.

Back in 2013 we flew direct from Singapore to Osaka on a Jetstar A330, striking a typhoon near Okinawa. We returned south from Osaka to Singapore via Taipei on Jetstar Asia in an Airbus A320. It started off well with a pleasant flight down from Osaka, but the others ran out of entertainment and it was quite bumpy on the second leg to Singapore.

I do remember collapsing into bed at the Grand Mercure Roxy Square at the end of the flight, falling blissfully asleep to the sound of the storm that had flashed outside the aircraft windows on the way in. That was when I truly fell in love with that hotel.

The A330's are gone from the fleet and Jetstar no longer flies the route direct. At a total journey time of a bit over eight hours (including a little under an hour in transit in Taipei) I know what you are saying.

"Eight hours stuck in a low cost narrowbody sardine can with no IFE?!?!?! Are you crazy? Why didn't you guys fly another airline? It's Singapore, there's plenty to choose from!"

Well, when I booked the flights Jetstar was the cheapest, or amongst the cheapest. Plus, they had a departure time sometime after Scoot's stupid o'clock that has lead to my wife banning the airline on many routes (for example, Singapore to Sydney). Jetstar also allows you to earn full Qantas frequent flyer and status points and heaven knows I need them if I want to get back to Silver (for seat selections).

It's more than that. We've flown Jetstar virtually every year since their inception. I know opinions vary, but we're comfortable with them and they have usually treated us very well. As I've said before, I wasn't travelling as an aviation nut on this trip.

Alex proves a useful travel accessory once more as Jetstar calls for families with children to board first. Our seats are over the wing and on the right hand side of the older Airbus A320. With my short legs I actually find the seats well padded and really comfortable. Being enclosed in a smaller space is somehow reassuring.

Dawn arrives as the passengers gradually board and the crew ready the aircraft for take-off, revealing more of the skies. My first sighting of a Airbus A350 as a Cathay Pacific aircraft taxis past us. The sun illuminates a cumulonimbus storm cloud in the distance.

Singaporean Captain Chua introduces himself and the crew, informs us that it will be a smooth flight, though our descent into Taipei may be bumpy due to strong winds.

That makes me feel a lot better, as does sunrise revealing clear skies overhead, the storm clouds staying in the distance for now. Just hope we won't have to fly through them on our ascent.

The orange-gold Sun is just above the horizon as we align with the runway. And we are off!

An arc over the Straits of Johor and Pulau Tekong and we are heading north, the sun shimmering below and disappearing as we rise into hazy morning skies.

Soon after we reach our initial cruise altitude we are offered both hot meals and snacks of blueberry muffins and fruit cups, plus a kids pack for Alex. As we were on Starter Plus fares there were meal inclusions offered on the website, but it was quite confusing, seemingly offering four meals for the two flights.

We decline the hot meals and the crew say they will "save" them for our next leg. Though I am feeling much better about this flight I can barely stomach the fruit cup and muffin. I force myself to finish the latter.

There is no entertainment provided on this flight apart from the airline magazine. Not even tablets to hire. Last time, while Alex mainly slept, B had finished her book half way along and was bored for the rest of the flight. This time both had books (which B spent most of the flight reading), iPads with games and movies and Alex had his Christmas present of a Nintendo 3DS. Plus both had the ability to sleep during flights

After arguments between B and Alex last year over who got pillows and blankets we packed two small pillows and two old Jetstar fleece blankets. They used to come with the $10 amenities pack or for free in business, but last time in business they had supplied reusable cotton blankets that they took back at the end. I've no idea if things have changed again. We have unopened amenity packs at home.

Something incredibly wonderful had happened prior to this trip. Google released their Play Movies and Music apps for the iPad. No more wrestling with iTunes and struggling to convert movies from DVDs into something that could be transferred and watched on these devices. I run an Android and Windows PC (work...) ecosystem at home (apart from their iPads) and the electronic movie library is on Google Play.

Days of digital packing is now one click and a few minutes of waiting for the download to complete.

 In my earlier imaginings of this route I saw myself spending my time watching movies on my (Android) tablet or (Android) phone. I have amassed a collection of aviation friendly movies (many of them originally watched on flights) but I barely get time to watch them.

I'd like to go back to being able to watch movies on flights. Instead I listen to Christopher Lloyd Clarke's Adrift on loop for almost the entire flight. It is electronic relaxation music and I find it really does relax me. I even drift off a few times.

My visual entertainment is the scenery outside. It really is a smooth flight with just a few little bumps here and there that don't bother me. At one point we skim past some big cumulonimbus clouds and I simply enjoy the spectacular sight.

I am dreading the descent into Taipei after the captain's warning. There is now a thick band of cloud beneath us which we are steadily approaching.

But the clouds proves to be almost as unsubstantial as our last descent into Taipei in January last year. Yes, I have a good reference to that, for on the day of our departure it was a very windy day as well.

Our aircraft is fighting a strong headwind and the ground speed seems very low. I feel like we are almost at a standstill, the slow speed making the bumps far more tolerable as we get closer and closer to Taoyuan International Airport.

Across from us, as we park at the terminal, is my first passenger 747-8, belonging to Korean Airlines. I'm having a good day for spotting new types!

This is one of those wasteful transits when, despite continuing on in the same seats on the same aircraft, you have to get out, pass through immigration and security, and reboard without enough time to do anything other than take a toilet break. That said, it was nice to stretch our legs.

It's a pity that we don't have enough to properly break our journey in Taipei. Last year we enjoyed a few days in and around Taipei, a friendly city that combines both Chinese and Japanese sensibilities with something extra.

Instead we just do a loop around, carrying our transit cards. Without any local currency on us we are unable to be tempted by Hello Kitty and friends.

Again boarding early with a kid and the crew recognises us from the first leg.

A Korean Air 748i reverses out of the bay before us, as does another Korean airline, a Jin Air 737 without winglets.

Then it is our turn. Thankfully, unlike last time, there is no lengthy wait on the tarmac as we queue for take-off.

However, just like last time, the winds are blowing strongly and there were more bumps than on descent. Soon we are above the clouds and the wind has died down.

The actual flight time was only two hours, less than half inbound, but it actually feels longer and more uncomfortable than before. There are niggling bumps the whole way and I just can't get settled, despite listening again to Adrift.

This time we accept our hot meals. Apparently the chicken rice is good. My sweet and sour fish is about as good as you would expect from a food court take-away and too much for my queasy stomach.

The sight of land is a welcome relief, but things got bumpier as we descend. I'm not sure if they were rain or snow clouds as we begin our final descent into the artificial island of Kansai International Airport. The crosswinds are quite strong and I can feel the aircraft fighting them as we get closer and closer to the tarmac.

It is a huge relief to be on the ground. Two more legs complete and two weeks before our next flight!

Wonder if they have any eggs...

All up, I actually preferred our eight hours in a low cost sardine can to the belly of a full service whale. Strange that.

Immigration at KIX is improved from before, with finger prints and photo scanning outposts prior to the immigration desk. We are soon collecting our bags and changing into warmer gear.

Whilst immigration was faster than before, the next step continues to get worse. Unfortunately our school holidays coincide with Chinese New Year this year. There is a huge queue of foreign Asian tourists at the train station offices waiting to pick up rail passes. I must have spent an hour in the chilly winds waiting.

I think I hear more Mandarin than Japanese on this trip. It is the language of my Mother-in-law nagging my son while he protests learning a second language, of a billion people in competition with each other and everyone else engaging in a superpower's apparent prerogative of demanding respect whilst giving none. I guess this is what others think of English.

Most of the tourists on this trip seem to come from Taiwan or Hong Kong. It's not that they were badly behaved, as they weren't. It was simply their numbers, meaning crowds at tourist attractions and on transport. One of the joys of travelling in Japan was, so long as it wasn't a local public holiday, as a tourist you could often enjoy peace and anonymity, making up your journey as you went. As Japan gets more popular this is less and less an option.

These masses of tourists have another effect and it infuriates me.

Everywhere we go there are Pretty Young Things (male and female), all big glasses and selfie sticks with their lists of Places You Must See, posing in front of them so that they too can show their social media followers that they have been to an officially cool spot for the officially cool photo. It doesn't matter what they seen, it's that they are seen in front of it.

You are in a new place and there's nothing to eat in your immediate area. You want to get some idea of some food options so you go looking online for recommendations from locals, or at least an expat with local experience. Instead you get a dozen lists of Restaurants You Must Visit from some food blogger (yes, they claim that as a job title) who themselves got the list from another blogger, a book of Michelin starred restaurants, a travel show or were paid by the tourist agency themselves. They have no idea if the food is authentic, good value or whatever, just that Anthony Fricking Bourdain once visited it.

I call it the Mamak Effect after a Malaysian restaurant in Sydney with long queues and only so-so food.

It doesn't matter if the food (or sight) is good. All that matters is that it is trendy. And there are the Social Media Influencers, the bloggers, Instagrammers, the YouTubers basking in the publicity and their own ignorance. (To be fair there are plenty of the above, except for the "influencers" that post genuinely good information, but they get drowned out and earn less than the rubbish posters).

And now my wife is piggy backing off my portable WiFi router, iPad Mini in hand, finding those damned lists...

Rant over for now.

The objective of this trip to Japan is to experience snow. Not to ski, because we don't know how to do that, just to throw snowballs and to enjoy some white scenery. Please read my blog for more information, below is just a summary (and my blog doesn't tell you where to go, I write it for me. You can make up your own mind!).

Before we can explore, we need to equip ourselves (though I had to buy everything in Australia - size 11 shoes aren't easy to find in Japan!). We stay a couple of nights in Tennoji, Osaka, meeting up with a teacher we once hosted and purchasing cold weather items for B and Alex.

View from Harukas 300 tower in Tennoji.

Glico Man has been updated. Tourists...


We then head up to Kanazawa, hoping to catch a bus down to the Gassho-Zukuri thatched houses of Shiragawa-ko. But either they are booked out or are just not running. Furthermore, our ryokan at Yudanaka Onsen near Nagano has just emailed to say that the railway line and onsen monkey park is snowed out.

Fortunately, I am able to book a hotel in Kanazawa for the night. It is one of my favourite cities in Japan and we have the opportunity to view Kenroku-en, in my opinion the best garden in Japan, and the samurai district in the snow.

Our next stop is all the way up in Kakunodate, a town known for its preserved samurai district and cherry trees. My only previous visit was for less than an hour between trains. It is gorgeous in the snow. I love the night time walk back to the hotel past tiny shops still beaming with colourful light amongst the black and white landscape.

The following day we catch a railcar up along the private Akita Nairiku Jukan line, past tiny towns and a snowbound landscape. I am at my happiest in these places and on these slow local trains, staring out the front window as we trundle along. Not so the other two, who like big cities, amusement parks and fast trains. The kind of places you find lots of tourists.

That night we stop at the rural city of Hirosaki, popular for apple products.

From there is is under the Seikan Tunnel to Sapporo in Hokkaido. We go snow tubing at Takino Snow Park, visit the outdoor zoo in temperatures of almost -12C at Asahikawa, watching tourists get pissed on by a snow leopard, watching penguins march and listening to the howls of wolves. Then down to Hakodate via the Niseko Express for a night, where we skid on ice and eat snow crab.

Old Government House, Sapporo

We took a tram ride around Sapporo for no good reason

Tubing at Takino Snow World

Soup Curry

Oshamambe's Manpo wrestles children into the snow.

Hakodate's red brick warehouses - tourist trap

I have to return to Hokkaido soon. The Hokkaido Railways have announced that they cannot maintain all their tracks and many may close, including to the furthest north and east stations.

Our final stop in Tokyo and back to the Prince Hotel in Shinjuku, our second home. A day trip to Hakone, to Odaiba for the Toyota MegaWeb and the excellent Miraikan Museum of Emerging Sciences and shopping all over the place.

RomanceCar to Hakone


Mount Fuji

Alex getting his driving license at Toyota

Asimo doing an amazing demo at the Miraikan

Gundam at Diver City, Odaiba
Shinjuku from our hotel room
I hate leaving Japan. I say it every time and it's always true. The others are ready to leave and feel homesick, but I still have lots to do. That said, I wish again that the Tokyo Teleport lived up to its name. I've been feeling sick since last night. The anxiety of the flight home is eating me up, whilst I cannot stomach anything.

We depart our hotel at the checkout time of 11 AM, leaving our bags in their safekeeping. The sky is beginning to cloud over after days of clear blue sky. Straight across the road from the hotel is our favourite sushi haunt, Sakura. We had supper there last night, but I can't take the fish for the brunch. There is time for last minute shopping, though Sony has moved in Ginza and no longer stock the parts I want.

B pushes me to eat and eventually we end up in the Aaliyah cafe (another of our favourites, which we found all by our little selves years ago) eating their exquisite (and probably 100% unhealthy) French toast. The cool cream and fruits make it palatable, but even now my stomach protests.

At four o'clock we join the crowd of foreigners taking the Narita Express (NEX) to the namesake airport. I try to calm myself.

The half kilometre walk between the train station and Terminal 3 feels a lot longer than that. When we arrive there is a huge queue at the Jetstar desks. Apart from our flight there is another 788 to the Gold Coast and narrowbodies flying domestic and intra-Asian routes. But basically it's Australians flying home to start school after their family ski trips. School restarts in three days time.

Eventually we are checked in, leaving time for some dinner. The others have hamburgers and noodles, but I can barely swallow a slice of plain cake and an iced chocolate. Even the smell of savoury food makes me feel nauseous.

We make it through security and board the aircraft through covered stairs on the tarmac, entering our red and blue mood lit Jetstar Boeing 787-8.

I apologise for the lack of photos, but I honestly wasn't in the mood to take many, plus there's not much I can add to last year's report on the same route.

Being a points redemption flight at night I haven't paid for the additional Starter Plus fare which includes meals and nor have I paid for entertainment. Neither usually get much use, but Alex spots Trolls on the seatback screen movie selection, so I waste $10 with a credit card swipe for him. It's just the free flight map for me.

The captain greets the passengers over the PA and tells us that there are likely to be bumps on the ascent to cruise due to jetstream activity and around the tropics.

I know exactly what he's talking about because I've seen the turbulence forecast map and I'm scared. Last time (and another time before that) we hit nasty turbulence during our ascent out of Narita. Then an hour in presumably due to the jet stream. And I've had many, many bumps due to storms in the tropics.

The forecast is for morning storms around Cairns too.

Seven hours of this torture. I can't cope. All I can do is cuddle a cushion and curl up as tightly as I can by the window, sobbing quietly to myself.

We take-off slightly behind schedule. Fortunately, it's like that other flight, the one before the last, where it was smooth off the coast. Okay, barrier one past.

The crew come through and serve meals. I am glad not to have one on my tray table, because I don't want to worry about food going over me when we hit that jet stream.

I guess we go through it when it starts getting a bit bumpier. Except that the seatbelt lights are never switched on. And the aircraft seems to be handling very well. We "go up" (ie the force increases on me), but we never seem to "go down" very much as all. I don't know what happened on the previous flight, but this seems to be the 787 I know and love, its turbulence mitigation features actually working.

With the jet stream activity subsiding the flight gets smoother again and I regain some confidence.

The lights go out and the others sleep. I listen to Adrift and stare out of the window. For a long time I can't see much, just the flashing of the strobes on the wing. I wonder if I could watch a movie but don't bother trying.

There's no Moon for it is almost a new Moon. Sunday is Chinese New Year, a lunar celebration. As the skies clear I spot the Pleiades and the constellation of Orion. The stars help me judge the state of the high cloud. If I can see them then I know we are not embedded too deep.

The high cloud causes bumps. One hard bump feels like my rear has just been kicked. But again the 787 handles them with aplomb, and despite the constant niggles I am relaxed.

That's even true after we enter the Intertropical Convergence Zone after spotting the lights of Guam below. Unlike last time there are no spectacular lightning shows to entertain, but our path south is sinusoidal as we weave between the storms.

The Qantas check pilot told me that it is almost unheard of for pilots to manually steer around weather. Instead they can see them many kilometres away on the radar and enter the way points so that the autopilot will steer around those cells.

With an hour left to go the lights are switched on and breakfast is served to those that ordered it. Not me. The actual descent is left to within the final half hour and is quite smooth with only a few bumps as we pass around a few clouds.

Then we touch down into the pre-dawn darkness of Cairns Airport.

That really wasn't so bad at all.

There's a delay as we wait for the airbridge to be connected. At first we are told it's a fault, then that a fire alarm has gone off.

Finally it is attached and we begin our long walk through the hospital mint green airport corridors to immigration and bag collection.

Only one passenger tries to use the Smart Gate and he needs instructions. As a family we go to the human officer. Then we have to wait ages for Alex's checked luggage to appear.

Finally we get through quarantine and begin the long walk outside to the domestic terminal. The sky is turning purple with dawn and the air is much warmer and more humid than we have experienced for a couple of weeks. But there is the hint of worse weather approaching.

The International Arrivals and Domestic Departures are about as far apart as they could get with the terminals. The delay at baggage collection means we will only have a limited time at the Qantas lounge, so we recheck our luggage to Sydney at the Jetstar desk as quickly as possible and pass through security.

There's enough time for a quick shower and some hot breakfast at the Qantas Club lounge before we have to head down to our flight. I was actually hungry!

It's another Jetstar A320. The seat padding needs replacement as I can feel a metal bar in my lower back, the first time I've had a seating issue on the airline. It doesn't help when the man behind me either pokes his knees or crosses his legs and pokes his feet into the seat.

I'm feeling a lot better about this final flight. Dark clouds are approaching from the north, but there is a window of clear sky to the south. I will us to hurry up and fly away.

We take off towards the south, racing past the ex-HeavyLift Shorts Belfast, now all white, the general aviation and Coast Watch aircraft. This might be the first time I've sat on the right hand side of this flight.

The is a left turn to take us out across the coast and away from mountains and houses. There are views of the city and the airport as we head out to sea, missing the clouds.

After we reach our initial cruising altitude the captain says hello and that we will cross the coast above Townsville before tracking inland via Moree and Narrabri. Oh, and that they are expecting a smooth flight the whole way. Hooray!

I listen to music, not Adrift, gaze out of the window, have micro-sleeps now and then. It is dead smooth.

As we cross the Hunter the captain announces that we will begin our descent. We descend down over the Nepean-Hawkesbury River, over the Northern Suburbs and my workplace. But it's not to be a descent from the north. No, we cross over the city, head out to seas, then turn back sharply to approach from the south across Kurnell.

Suddenly it is all over.

We've made it and what a fantastic flight! I am over the Moon. Not only did I survive the flight home but I actually enjoyed it.

The only problem? Sydney is in the midst of an extended heatwave. I want to return to the snow!

And I will have to return. The closure of railways in Hokkaido gives me the imperative, but I also feel the need to experience local Japan away from the fast trains and maddening crowds. Unlike the other two I'm allergic to adrenaline and love quiet places and lonely train rides to nowhere.

There has been a change since the trip. I now find myself looking up into the skies again and thinking pleasant thoughts about flying. Am I cured? I very much doubt it, that needs more work, more flights. It's easy to feel good when nothing scary is coming your way. But I now have more data points to validate what I learned and I have proven to myself that flying can still be fun.

Thanks for reading.