Saturday, March 28, 2009

Airline Meals - Or Why We Shouldn't Be Fed Beans in Mid-flight

For years already I’ve been suspecting that on-board flight menus are designed by people who rarely fly. And if they do fly every once in a grand while, then definitely not on long haul flights, and definitely not in economy.

Otherwise, they would have known what happens if you feed chick peas with onions to roughly 300 tightly packed people. As if being in a pressurized flying tin can did not produce enough excess gas in your bowels, the morons who create airplane meals want you to eat beans! With onions!

Sas meal
Economy class meal, SAS, Copenhagen - Narita flight on March 19th. No choice of "chicken or beef" - this is what you got. They ran out of vegetarian meals, too (even though people pre-ordered them).

I guess they never had to sit next to an onion-loving passenger who dozes off with their mouth half (or fully) open breathing onion breath right in your face. And farting bean induced farts…

I understand that the airlines are forced to cut costs wherever possible (hey, budget trouble is my middle name!), I also understand that beans are cheap and nutritious. But so are other frozen vegetables.

I understand that in these cost-cutting days we no longer get to choose between “chicken of beef” – on my recent SAS flight from Copenhagen to Tokyo it was just chicken, but making the meal a bit more palatable and long-haul friendly doesn’t have to be expensive.

Here’s an idea for you – cut the amount of onion by ¾ and use the money to add spinach, or carrots or beets. They are all cheap, can be found frozen or canned, can be eaten hot or cold. And best of all – they add a splash of color and texture to the usually yellow or brown mysterious goo we are forced to eat.

The morons who create economy class menus on long haul flights should be forced to eat their own pathetic creations during an actual fully-packed long haul flight. Then maybe they would come to their senses.

And please, don’t tell me that vegetarian meals are better. I’ve tried them. They just contain even more onions. And beans. - At least they do on Finnair and SAS.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Staying with Pets at Hilton Narita Airport Hotel

Finding a hotel somewhere nearby Narita Airport is easy. But finding one that accepts travelers with pets - now, that’s a lot more complicated.

There are travel websites that claim there are three or four hotels at Narita that accommodate guests with pets. That is absolutely NOT true. We have emailed more than 30 different establishments, and as of February/March 2009, there is only one that accepts travelers with cats and/or dogs. That hotel is Hilton Narita Airport. Most others suggested we drop off our cats at the Pet Hotel at the airport. Now, I don’t know about you, but for us that was not an option. Our cats are our children, and would you leave your child overnight with unknown strangers? Especially when your child is scared, hungry, dehydrated and disoriented in a new place? And please don’t tell me that pets are not kids, because to me, and millions of other pet owners, they are.

So, Hilton Narita Airport it was. And that's when things got funky.

When I asked for a normal room for two people, I was quoted the rate of 11 000 yen per night. When I mentioned that those two people would have two cats, the rate jumped up to 24 000 yen!!! That is more than a 100% increase! WTF?!?!

Maybe the management at Hilton Narita thinks that only rich bitches travel with their pets? Or the likes of Paris Hilton, perhaps? If that’s the case, then it’s about time that someone told them otherwise. Listen up Hilton Hotels! Plenty of normal, average, middle-class folks go on trips (sometimes even on long, intercontinental journeys) with their cats and dogs. And to screw them over on room rates like that is so not cool.

But then again, this is business, you know there’s no competition for you around Narita, and so you can charge as much as you want. Still, for doing that you guys are total pricks, and when traveling without our cats, we definitely won’t be staying at any of your hotels either. Nice way to lose potential customers, you Hilton morons!

50% higher I could have understood, but 120%? Give me a break! For that kind of money, I half expected separate beds with feather duvets for my cats. Instead, all we got was a dog enclosure and a water bowl. Of course, the dog cage was of no use for two cats, and we brought our own pet food dishes anyway. And our own litter box.

Cats at hilton

We also had to hand over a deposit of 30 000 yen and call for a room inspection before proceeding with check-out.

So, all things considered, would we stay there again when traveling with our cats? Are you kidding me? I think it would have worked out cheaper lining the litter box with dollar bills and sleeping at the airport than staying at Hilton Narita.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Bringing Pets to Japan from Rabies-Free Countries

The cats survived the trip from Europe to Japan rather nicely and now behave as if they’ve been living here all their lives. Though the pain and discomfort of the ordeal is not yet forgotten (and I doubt it will ever be) - as soon as their pet taxis are taken out of storage, the cats run and hide. They know the bags mean trouble.

And I can’t blame them. If you were forced to sit squashed in a tiny space for an indescribably long period of time (which I’m sure that’s exactly how 18 hours feel to a cat and most people I know), you’d have some serious trauma, too.

Cat in carrier

My unhappy camper getting ready to board the flight.

Of course, whenever possible, and even several times during the flight, we took them out of the carriers, massaged their legs and let them stretch out. And because we did that in the airplane bathroom (the one with the changing table), as you can easily imagine, some passengers were not amused. Oh well, their problem. As I told one particularly nasty prick (who was old and traveled alone, if he had an infant, I would have been more understanding) – I don’t see any cats here, only babies wearing fur, and they deserve their time on the nappy changing table too.

“What? You want them to piss in the isle?” I asked the prick. That shut him up.

And FYI, we always cover the table with disposable hospital liners (the ones used for babies and patients with incontinence), so the cats never take one step on any unprotected surface. They never leave the table. And after we finish, the liners are thrown out, and the table is cleaned with anti-bacterial wipes. I might be a crazy cat lady, but I have my moments of common sense. ;)

Also, to be able to transport a cat across international borders, the cat MUST be declared disease and parasite free - you should have seen the tests and treatments these poor kids had to go through before the trip! So, the only thing we were unable to help our fellow passengers with were any potential cat allergies.

At helsinki

Relaxing at the airport in Helsinki

Of course, the cats didn’t piss, and wouldn’t piss anywhere either way. That was the main reason why we chose the shortest connection and subjected ourselves to the Finnair treatment.

By the time we got to Narita, I could tell the cats were desperate for a litterbox. Even though we didn’t give them any food or water the day before the trip, after nearly 18 hours spent in their pet taxis, they really had to go. In more ways than one.

However, first we had to go through the pet quarantine procedure. Technically, for pets coming from rabies-free countries, there is no quarantine upon arrival in Japan. There is, however, quite a lot of paperwork to submit, file, check and sign. And the cats need to be inspected by an official vet at Narita before they can be released to you.

This is how it works:

1.    Before you fly to Japan, at least 40 days before your intended arrival, you need to submit a "notification of import of animals" form. You will then receive an "approval of import inspection of animals" document along with an approval number from the Animal Quarantine Service in Japan. Then you will need to fill out two additional forms (forms A and B, one of which needs to be signed and stamped by your normal veterinarian) and get them certified by an official government vet in your country. And you may also need a third form, an annex, if your flight itinerary involves a stop-over in a third country, or to certify that the container with the animal has not be opened during transit (if going as cargo).

2.    Once in Japan, proceed through the passport control as usual. In the Customs area, head to the Animal Quarantine desk. Over there, a clerk will look up your pet’s approval number and tell you what to do next. Hint – have the original of the "approval of import inspection of animals" paperwork ready, depending on a clerk on duty, your filled, signed and stamped forms A and B, both containing the freakin' approval number, may not be enough. What can I say, Japan loves its bureaucracy.

3.    The clerk on duty will give you a piece of paper, which you will need to give to a customs officer to get it stamped. You will also get a map to the Quarantine Office. Then you hand your pets over to the Animal Quarantine clerk at the desk and off you go.

4.    On your usual yellow customs declaration form don’t forget to write you are bringing live animals into the country. Show your customs declaration and the paper you got from the Animal Quarantine desk to the customs officer. He will keep the declaration, but make sure that after stamping the Animal Quarantine paper, he gives it back to you! You will need to show it at the Quarantine Office upstairs to collect your pet.

5.    Follow the maze to get to the Quarantine Office upstairs. At least, it was upstairs in Terminal 2. It’s a bit complicated, so don’t hesitate to ask for directions. On the departures level, you will pass through a guarded door into a “staff-only” area. After that, take the elevator to the 6th floor.

6.    Upstairs, the appropriate office is clearly marked, just open the door, go in and take a seat and wait your turn.

7.    Your pet’s paperwork will be EXTREMELY carefully checked, line by line, letter by letter, number by number by an anal-retentive official. Any discrepancy between what you wrote on the initial "notification of import of animals" form and your current forms A and B and the Annex will be questioned and investigated. Forms, which bear the stamp of your country’s official government veterinarian are as sacred as the Holy Bible.
On our "notification of import of animals" application we listed our cat’s color as “brown”, then our vet listed it as “orange” on Form A. But since our vet’s form was later stamped by the government veterinarian, the color of the cat needed to be changed to “orange” in the Quarantine Office computers and a new document had to be printed out.

8.    Your pet will be waiting for you behind the desk. Pick up the bag and go to the next room where a veterinarian will take over. The microchip will be read, the pet will be examined, you will be asked questions: “are your pets well behaved?” and “any vomiting or diarrhea within the last three days?” and “how do you think they feel?” and so on. The vet was competent and thorough, he understood our cats were tired and scared.

9.    After the health-check, go back to the other room to sign the arrival paperwork. If everything is deemed to be in order, you are free to go.

10.    Your sweet fluffies are now officially in Japan.

The whole process took us about 30 minutes. It would have been shorter, if not for the brown-orange issue in the paperwork. By the way, if there are issues, make sure the Japanese official doesn’t make any spelling mistakes, our clerk misspelled “orange”, which resulted in additional corrections and wasted time.

While waiting to get the paperwork corrected, we saw one rabbit and two cats being processed. The rabbit went very quickly. The cats were in hard containers (came in as cargo, I assume) and were handled by a pet moving company. Their processing dragged on and on.

The above applies to pets from rabies-free countries, which are listed as: Sweden, Norway, Iceland, UK (Great Britain and Northern Ireland only), Ireland, Guam, New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, Fiji and Taiwan.

But before you make any plans to bring your pets to Japan, make sure to get the scoop from the official Animal Quarantine Service website.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Sushi Around the World – Tokyo, Near the Tsukiji Fish Market

Unlike in Stockholm, they definitely don’t eat it there with a fork and knife, even them white folks use chopsticks over there. Not that there were that many white folks in the restaurant we went to, anyway.

Sushi master


It’s one of the restaurants across the street from the Tsukiji fish market. I have no idea how expensive it was, because we, as VIPs for the day, didn’t have to pay.

Sushi tray1


I forgot how good sushi could be, or rather – should be. Oh how I missed it! And from now on, I’m not going to touch the Swedish-made stuff with a ten-foot Pole (or even a ten-foot Hungarian).


But since I’m a glutton for punishment, I know that sooner or later I WILL visit sushi restaurants in Poland while I’m there. Because if you can’t have what you like, you gotta like what you can have.


PS. And this lunch finally convinced DH that the move to Japan had been a brilliant idea indeed. He never wanted to admit just how much he missed the stuff “back home.”

Saturday, March 7, 2009

%*$@%# Finnair! (Yet Another Airline Rant)

Plane on screen With budget airlines, like Ryanair and Wizzair, you know exactly that you get what you paid for. You don’t expect much in terms of service or quality, and that’s understandable.

They’re called “budget” for a reason. But when you fly on a standard airline that claims to be Northern Europe’s gateway to Asia, you think you can anticipate, at the very least, an appearance of service. Unfortunately, Finnair fails on all accounts. That’s the reason why I normally avoid it like a nasty virulent plague. All it can offer you are short connection times in Helsinki and luggage delivered to your home when your bags don’t make those said short connections. And that happens quite often.

But there came a time when I needed short connections, and so in January, with a heavy heart I booked us two tickets from Stockholm to Tokyo on Finnair. We were taking our cats to Japan and wanted to make the trip as short as possible. Should have known right there and then that it was going to be an utter disaster.

Since you can’t book pets as cabin luggage on the internet, I had to call. And it took three days of phone calls to get the matter resolved and confirmed. Each time we were assured that “someone will call you back.” Needless to say, nobody ever did. And since the fees for making a phone booking are substantially higher than on the internet, it wasn’t exactly a budget-friendly proposition. You’d think that if an airline is going to charge you 50 euro per ticket for a phone booking, it should provide a minimum of service. Alas, not Finnair.

I am typing this while flying back to Europe. On Finnair, unfortunately. And I’ve been thinking long and hard what sort of nice things I can say about this airline. Just to be fair, you know. Hmmm… The planes are new and clean. There’s plenty of water to drink. You get a toothbrush and toothpaste (but no socks). I like the 2-4-2 seat configuration. We’re talking about economy here, of course. The entertainment screen is big. Too bad it didn’t work when I turned it on, both on the way to Japan and back. It had to be manually reset. The flight attendant said it was a common problem. Then why nobody bothered to reset the bloody thing BEFORE the flight? She didn’t have an answer to that question.

Speaking of entertainment systems. Even though we’re already six days into March and the new film schedule is already provided in the seat pocket in front of me, the screen still shows the old stuff from January and February. The flight attendant said it normally takes “a while” to update the programming. When asked to define “a while” she didn’t have an answer. Hint – " a while" is definitely longer than six days.

Speaking of flight attendants. There was a problem with my armrest and I pushed the call button. It took a flight member 47 minutes  (yes, I was bored and I timed it) to finally get to my seat. And it wasn’t during a meal service. This, I have to say, is an all-time slow for any airline I’ve ever flown on. I shudder at the thought if my need had been an urgent one, a medical problem for example. I’d be dead in my seat by now, especially since there isn’t anyone sitting next to me to get help.

What else? The food is horrid. But by now I'm used to horrid food served in economy on European airlines. They gotta reduce costs somehow, you know?

Carryon tag And I suppose in an effort to reduce costs (and customer service) even further, Finnair’s ground service at Arlanda was sub-contracted to a handling agent – Menzies. The firm handles ground operations for all members of One World Alliance at Arlanda, and that is reason enough for me never to fly on a One World partner airline out of Stockholm. The individuals working for Menzies are so nasty that even Finnair’s very own flight attendant working the Stockholm-Helsinki route agreed they are a bunch of pricks. She also implied they get paid bonuses based on the number of extra fees they managed to collect.

That goes a long way to explaining the mystery of why our luggage, which when weighed at home and by SAS on a connecting flight to Stockholm, was 22 kgs a piece, suddenly became almost 25 kgs per bag when put on a Menzies scale at Finnair’s check-in counter. This is an old scam, a couple of years ago KLM tried it on me at Barajas in Madrid. But that time I knew my luggage wasn’t overweight and demanded  to have it re-weighed at a different airline’s scale. KLM suddenly gave up and told me I didn’t have to pay for excess weight. Sure, because I knew there wasn’t any.

This time we knew we had overweight bags. The question was by how much. I was fully prepared to pay for 4 kilos, because that’s how much the bags weighed that morning (two bags at 22 kgs each; two passengers). But the Menzies sourpuss at the check-in counter said "10 kilos." At 30 euros per kilo it was cheaper to start throwing things out than pay the fee. Note to Finnair – this is a VERY dumb way of collecting excess luggage fees, if it’s cheaper for the passengers to buy new stuff when they reach their destination, duh.

In the confusion at the check-in desk, while weighing the cat containers, we put the same container on the scale twice. Each time it registered a different weight, once 6 kilos, the second time – over 7. Very odd indeed. When we pointed this out to the woman manning the check-in desk, she became agitated and just plain rude. Whatever. We went to repack our bags.

Upon returning to the check-in counter, we found a new agent on duty. Just like his predecessor, he had all the attitude of a rabid skunk with an IQ level of a stool sample. It was time to weigh our cabin luggage. Thanks to the amazing scales, it was also overweight. We were instructed to remove the excess weight. We simply stuffed things into our pockets and when the bags came off the scales, we put all of it right back. The utter lack of logic of this exercise in futility was totally lost of the Menzies moron working there. But then again, hey, what can I say? He was Swedish, and after five years in Sweden I knew you couldn’t expect a Swede to think rationally.

His behavior was so rude, and because he wasn’t wearing a name tag (none of the Menzies check-in people was, come to think of it) I asked for his name. He grew agitated and totally belligerent. When I attempted to take his photo, he threatened us with “you put it down (while pointing at my camera) or you won’t fly today.” Because he knew it was an empty threat, and I pointed out as much to him, he responded with “at least your luggage won’t fly today.”

Standby tag The jerk (I wanted to use a stronger word here, but let’s keep this a PG blog) marked our checked-in bags as stand-by luggage. How’s that for great customer service for you? Needless to say, we were not stand-by passengers. We’d been fully paid and confirmed for a month and both our flights were not fully booked. And there was no stand-by mark on our boarding passes.

Note to Finnair – this is a perfect example of how to lose customers in a hurry.


Compare this with the experience at Narita. My bag was slightly over the 20 kg limit, but the check-in girl didn’t even bat an eye. She was more concerned with my seat preference. Out of curiosity I asked her what they do when a suitcase is significantly heavier than the limit.

She said: “a little overweight, like about 22 kilos, is normally OK, it’s hard to pack exactly, we understand that. More than 22 or so, we give a box and suggest the person to mail the excess weight to their destination, or to their home. Post office is right over there (she pointed to a window opposite check-in banks C and B) and it’s cheaper to mail a package than to pay overweight fees.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, will never happen at Arlanda. Not in a million years. That’s the difference between Sweden and Japan. But I stopped expecting any semblance of customer service in Sweden a long time ago.

The sad part is, I really like Helsinki as an airport and I wouldn’t mind transiting through there. The saddest part is that in this harsh economy when airlines are struggling financially and when every passenger should count, Finnair doesn’t seem to care in the least bit.

I will be returning to Japan in two weeks, and then again in a couple of months. This year it looks like I might make as many as six round trips between Europe and Japan. And you betcha they won’t be on Finnair. Goodbye and good riddance!

PS. I should have known that the Menzies check-in staff was not quite all there when the woman looked through my passport and told me that I didn't have a visa. No, I didn't have a visa, because I didn't need one. Her answer? "But you have a Polish passport!"

Can somebody please tell those morons that Poles can travel to Japan (and many other countries) visa free? And that the cold war had ended years ago? Because it looks like they never got the memo.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Nikko? NOT Again!

I never thought that Nikko was anything special. We had a direct commuter train to Nikko literally right outside our front door. It was the only train that went to our village. We had no choice but to ride it pretty much every day. Though mostly in the opposite direction - to Utsunomiya.

Station sign in T-ta


My guy’s grandfather (when he was alive, of course) was the JR station master at Nikko. He used to take my guy (when the guy was a baby, of course) with him to work. When he was about three years old, DH was a Nikko station mascot. LOL! He remember those times very fondly, and we even have old photos of him being fed candy by ladies working at the station.

Nik is nip sign on train


So when a relative used to suggest that we’d go and visit Nikko, which they would suggest almost every weekend, simply because the place was so bloody close, we’d always say “oh no, not AGAIN!”And then we'd try to come up with some sort of polite excuses to stay home and watch TV.


But he fact that I lived (and looks like I will live again) a stone’s throw from one of the touristy World Heritage sites in Japan always seemed to impress people (foreign people, I mean) when I told them about it.


And now grandma says that we need to have a proper shinto wedding ceremony. Where? In Nikko, of course. Eee gadz! I'd rather stay home and watch TV! ;)

Sign on the train nk