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Inside South Korean Spa Culture

A daytime view of the inside of Spa Land at Centum City in Busan. (Courtesy of Saunasinkorea,blogspot.com)

In some countries, spas are a rare indulgence. In Korean culture, though, they’re essential to the social scene.

And there’s plenty of variety. Some South Korean spas – or jim jil bang – are tranquil and soothing, like Spa Land at Centum City in Busan (the architecture there is also stunning). Other spas are a displaced section of a Las Vegas casino that’s collided with a World Wrestling Entertainment-style road show. You’ll find common themes and etiquette expectations no matter where you wind up, though. Something else cool: It’s easy to find cheap spa breaks, as low as $15 U.S., to lounge around for a few hours.

Let’s run through what a South Korean spa is like:

The Entry

There’s typically a front desk area. You’ll pay your fee and get a key, some slippers and a robe/pullover sort of thing. If you’re with a person of the opposite gender, this is where you head to separate locker rooms. Keep that key with you at all times: You also use it to buy food and drink. It tallies your purchases electronically, and you settle up at the end. It beats toting your wallet around with you, too. Yes, Korean culture can be pretty hi-tech!

Another nice view of the interior of Spa Land. (Courtesy of visitkorea.or.kr)

The Locker Rooms

This is where a lot of Americans might have trouble – the nudity here is pretty explicit … typical for Korean culture, but some travelers might find it odd. First you shower, then head (still naked) into the steam room, the hot tubs and the saunas. Westerners like me might also scratch their heads over some of the local showering customs: Apparently, a lot of Koreans prefer to shower seated. That explains the low shower heads in the hotels!

The Common Area

Done with the saunas? Put on the spa garb the front desk people issued during check-in. Meet your opposite-gender friend(s), and hit the many relaxing rooms. Like what?

There are several rooms common to South Korean spas, each of which have a different flavor and purpose. This post sums up the characteristics of the jim jil bang pretty nicely. One of the most interesting rooms was pyramid shaped, which I associate more with Egyptian culture than Korean culture.

Final Thoughts

Do your homework when choosing a South Korean spa. Some frown upon children, while others welcome them. Korean culture can be pretty sedate, but sometimes it embraces the noise. The adults-only establishments, though, will be quieter. Whichever you prefer, there’s something for everyone. But know what you’re getting into.

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Random Photo Fun – This is Air Travel!

This kid gets it.

Air travel sucks, and you know it. There’s the bad service. Nickle-and-diming passengers for every item of checked luggage, every in-flight beverage. The Transportation Security Administration and its fear-mongering brand of crazy. The dry cabin air. The delays. The cancelled flights. The airport traffic. The corpulent passenger whose bulk spills into your seat. It’s blaring TVs in the concourses, lost luggage, overpriced water, taking your shoes off to get through security. Laptops out of the bag, everything out of your pockets!

This is air travel.

Now, look at the photo. You can only see a nose, one eye, a bit of a mouth … and a glow, a manifestation of wonder. This kid holds no grudge about being herded like cattle or being treated like a potential terrorist. The swirl of air travel-related angst you experience? It never reaches him. It only reaches the older, “smarter” people. He looks down on the earth. The houses shrink. The cars are tiny. And look at the mountains from here! He ate breakfast in a desert, but lunch will be by the seaside. And he’ll get to do it again when he goes home, probably the only good thing about the end of a vacation.

This is air travel!

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Random Travel Photo – Getting Ahead in Life

This is the first time I've ever seen a head at an electronic parts store. Not sure what you're supposed to do with this. Any ideas, anyone?

My fellow traveler, blog mentor and good friend Stacy told me “Japan is the ‘Land of WTF?’.” Korea also has a high WTF factor. But I saw nothing quite this weird there. Unless you count motorcycles riding the wrong way down sidewalks this weird.

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Adventure in the English Lake District

Buttermere - Lake District
A spectacular view of Buttermere in the Lake District.

It shocks more than a few people that I have never been to the UK. Believe me, it’s on the list! Even though I can’t tell you anything first-hand about traveling in the UK, I fortunately have some people who can. Guest writer Amanda Andrews shows us the more rural and adventurous side of the UK in this post. Caving? Hiking? Biking? Yes!  Enjoy, and take a few ideas from Amanda. -Wandering Justin

I didn’t really know much about the English Lake District until recently. Now, it’s near the top of my must-visit list. It’s known for being one of the most picturesque areas of the country, with the quaint little towns and the stunning scenery of the famous lakes, but it’s also a haven for the adventurous. There’s an activity for every traveler.

Walking

The Lake District is time and again listed as one of the top UK destinations for hiking, or just walking as the locals call it. There’s no end to the trails and routes that you can take on a walking holiday in the area. There are trails here for every level of walker, so you can take a leisurely stroll across green fields and around the lakes. Eager for a more substantial challenge? Try The Cumbrian Way or The Coast to Coast walk, which is 191 miles long and takes you from the Irish Sea to the North Sea through three National Parks!

Biking

On two wheels is really the way to see the Lake District. The area again caters to all experience levels. Cumbria is a quiet, rural county so it’s great for travelling around on bike - you’re unlikely to be chased off the road by speeding cars, and travelling the country lanes by bike is a great way to see the real Cumbria. If you’re looking for something a little faster moving then check out one of the local bike shops and sign up for a mountain biking course, or just grab a map if you want to give it a go solo. With a combination of bridleways and man-made tracks criss-crossing the county there is something to suit everyone. From low valley trails to high mountain passes, this is the place to test your biking mettle in the UK.

Climbing

The Lake District is considered the birth place of modern mountain climbing and has been the training ground for many with Everest aspirations. It doesn’t matter if you’re a complete novice or a fully fledged crag-rat: The adventures are endless. Don’t let their modest height fool you. Many of the climbs in the Lakes are incredibly technical. And it’s not a bad idea to head out with a guiding company at first just to get the lay of the land.

If you’d rather go down than up, try caving and canyoning. Both of these give you a completely different perspective of the landscape and allow you to explore areas of the world that most people have never seen. Just one warning: Claustrophobics need not apply.

By Water

Open water swimming, canoeing, gorge walking, kayaking, wind surfing-being that the area is famous because of its lakes it isn’t surprising that water activities abound! Lake Windermere is the venue for the Great North Swim, the UK’s biggest outdoor swimming event, and holds ½ mile, 1 mile, and 2 mile events and is currently open for entries. What an amazing way to spend part of a holiday in the UK, jumping in the water with some 10, 000 other swimmers from around the world! Don’t expect tropical water temperature here though, it’s the north of England and you won’t want to hit the water here without a wet suit.

Where to Stay

Now that your appetite has been sufficiently whet, you want to know where to stay on your trip. There is no shortage of accommodation in the Lake District and there will be something for you no matter what your budget. Camping and hostelling are probably your cheapest options, though the weather in the Lakes can be a bit unpredictable so camping might not be to everyone’s taste. A great option if you’re looking for an outdoor based trip is renting a self-catering holiday cottage in the Lake District and the cost may be less than you’d expect. Splitting the cost between a group of friends can really cut down the individual cost and if you’re looking for a really great deal then travelling in the off season can save masses. Web cottages are an online holiday cottage rental agent with independently owned cottages throughout the UK and Ireland and are a great option if you’re looking for Lake District cottages.

All of this makes the Lake District a must-see location on my next trip to the UK. The area is ideally located to stop at when you’re doing a trip around the little island of Britain, it’s just north of Liverpool and Wales and not too far from the Scottish border. If it’s as good as it sounds I think a holiday in the Lakes won’t soon be forgotten.

Amanda enjoys traveling and has traveled extensively both in the UK and abroad. Amanda writes regular travel articles for Web Cottages and its partners, including blogging about interesting travel news/stories when they crop up. Her experience traveling and excellent ability to research means her articles are both informative and enjoyable.

This post is featured by Web Cottages. 

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Spooling up to High Speed – Korea’s KTX Train

A shot of the fast, smooth KTX high-speed train.

My love of flying sometimes makes people think I’m weird. Fair enough.

Now I’ll make it worse – I love traveling by train, too. I know, I know … I have the brain of a 6-year-old boy perched atop a 6’2, 200-pound body.

I wanted to share the rail love with even more people who’d appreciate it, so I wrote a guest post for Jools of TrainsontheBrain.com. He’s tops when it comes to train blogs, no foolin’. It’s all about my first-ever taste of high-speed rail on the South Korean KTX train that sent me hurtling from Busan to Seoul.

You should go check out my post and all the other cool train stories at TrainsontheBrain.com.

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An Airsoft First-Timer Tells All

airsoft first-timer
Probably the coolest protective gear on the field.

Light drizzle, a chilly wind, 45 degrees and overcast -- it’s finally winter in the desert. I’m warm thanks to my Army battle dress uniform, gloves and balaclava.

And every run, dodge, dip and duck through the ruins of Sasco, Ariz. also keeps the chill away. The abandoned mining town is filled with foes firing torrents of plastic 6mm projectiles at me from replica assault rifles – I’ve lost count of every M-4, M-16, MP-5 and AK-47 I’ve faced.

I’m an Airsoft first-time. And my first game ever is a heaping slice of deep-fried gold.

Never heard of Airsoft? I think of it as paintball done right -- the guns function better, they’re less awkward, there’s no dye getting everywhere. The very realistic-looking weapons spew plastic balls somewhere between 300 and 500 feet per second. My Echo1 rifle, one of its RedStar line of AK-47 replicas, straddles the middle. It’s not fancy or pricey, but it helps me hold my own. No malfunctions, just steady performance.

airsoft first-timer
The pylons lead to the way to what’s left of the mining tunnel. Lots of ambushes and betrayals here …

My Monolith team – one of several teams in the game – has only four people. We’re overmatched and outgunned, with nary a true machine gun or sniper rifle among us. We try to compensate, bribing other teams (like Free Stalkers and Bandits) to harass, harry, heckle and harangue the team standing in as the Russian military.

My entire day of Airsoft first-timer fun is the result of some hard work put in by a go-getter named Darr. He displays ambition, serious organizational chops and a real love for this game. Throughout the day, people rave about his scenario, which he based on the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl video game. The remains of the smelter and skeleton of the mining operation fill in nicely as a slice of the abandoned, irradiated Russian city called Pripyat. Darr has everything right: the game area, his ability to improvise, the props and layout. Success requires negotiation skills, duplicity and wariness (for the inevitable betrayals).

airsoft first-timer
Max, David and Henry were my Monolith teammates.

About 30 minutes pass before the teams open fire on each other. Until then, it’s a crock pot of diplomacy, misdirection, evaluation. I love the tension, especially next to the premature release of so many flavors of paintball games.

I learn a lot about Airsoft and the people who play it. They are professionals, college students, high schoolers. Some sit back to take advantage of cover, firepower, superior numbers. Others make and break deals at will. Some sneak through the creosote and ruins, unheard and unseen. Others stomp around in heavily armed herds. In short, there’s something for everyone.

But here’s what worries me about Airsoft, especially in Arizona – there are few convenient places to organize awesome events like this. And too few people willing to do the heavy lifting of contacting the owners and managers of empty spaces. Sasco is terrific, but remote. I can think of several places within 30 minutes of the Phoenix area that would be perfect.

And the Airsoft industry needs to work harder to get more people involved. It should target every single World of Warcraft/Call of Duty/Halo fiend. If one out of every 50 uninitiated people permanently attached to gaming systems wound up on a field with a decent Airsoft replica in-hand, profits and advocacy would soar. I’d also hit CrossFit gyms and all the people who love stuff like the Warrior Dash -- fitness pays dividends in Airsoft. I could see a smart Airsoft shop (or manufacturer/brand) even holding a biathlon – running with your Airsoft replica and stopping to use it to hit targets every half mile. Provide loaners for Airsoft first-timers who don’t have their own – a perfect introduction.

airsoft first-timer
Me!

From there? Get players talking about finding viable places to play just as much as they talk about gear (your fancy hop-up and tight-bore barrel will be more fun if you have more places to put them to work).

But those are thoughts for another time. For now, my bottom line: All credit to Darr for his imagination, thoroughness and commitment to crafting a really outstanding time for the Airsoft players from the Valley to Tucson. Поздравляю!

Check out Darr’s YouTube slideshow, and do note the groovy pirate-metal soundtrack. Avast!

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Review – South Korea’s Incheon International Airport

incheon korean airlines 747 golf course
South Korea's Incheon Airport shows its whimsical side.
I’m watching people in traditional Korean dress teach art classes. To my left, there’s a string quartet playing to a growing audience. But when I look to my right, I get roped back to reality – masses of travelers rushing to gates or shambling toward the baggage claim after a long flight. This is Incheon International Airport, and it’s seriously the best damn airport that’s ever waved me through a magnetometer.

Let’s start with these art classes: Travelers can drop into one of the Korea Traditional Cultural Experience centers scattered throughout the terminal behind the security area.

There, they can take a free lesson in a few different simple Korean art projects. It’s a great way to spend part of a four-hour layover -- and I have visions of an Arizona Traditional Cultural Experience Center at my home airport, Phoenix Sky Harbor (I have visions of a shooting gallery, a road-rage driving simulator and a mechanical bull).

Is that not some spacious airport architecture? (Kanchi1979)

What else is cool about Incheon?

Wi-fi, food, architecture and transit. Let’s talk wi-fi first – you’re in luck if you have your own computer. But if you don’t, just drop into Naver Square Internet Lounge, where you can hop onto a netbook for absolutely free.

Food’s important for an airport, too.

Incheon has the array of Asian food you’d expect, with just about every country represented. I had a nice Vietnamese fried rice from one of the food courts just upstairs from the main floor. Sarah and I both scooped up some quality gelato – I was tempted to try the black sesame flavor, but it didn’t have anything chunky in it. It’s one of my odd quirks that I like chunks in my ice cream. I’m typically not a hot dog person, but they have some crazy hot dogs throughout Korea. I didn’t try any since, like I said, I’m not a huge lover of nitrate-crammed cylindrical mystery meats.

They have to taste better than they look. The Asian entrees appealed to me more!

The architecture is open an airy, with plenty of windows.

Plane spotters must surely love it, though I didn’t find any outdoor areas for taking photos. For such a busy airport, it never felt cramped. Traffic flowed, and it was easy to find anything you might need, when you need it.

It’s easy to get to and from Incheon.

By rail is the best way, with commuter and express trains zipping people into Seoul and its surroundings. There are also buses, and plenty of helpful airport staff members to help you navigate if your Korean language skills are limited to "hello" and "thank you" (like mine!).

And there’s one final thing about Incheon that I love – that current of energy that permeate nearly every major intercontinental airport. People from everywhere stream across the globe – some for business, some to enjoy new-to-them cultures, people and sights. It’s one of my favorite parts of travel. Incheon brings it to a rare height by having that unmistakable vibe while also being a paragon of design.

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What’s Up With Wasted Dates?

You'll see this all over Phoenix in the late summer. (photo by Balaram Mahalder)

Don’t let the headline fool you. I’m not turning into a dating website (though I offer my friends lots of dating advice that they never take). But dates are on my mind.

The Phoenix area is full of big, beautiful, bountiful date trees. Come the end of summer, they begin to hang heavy with fruit. Before it ripens, though, landscaping crews scurry about. They cut the branches down and toss pounds upon pounds of growing dates into the trash. At grocery stores and farmers markets, these same dates sell for up to $10 a pound.

That’s right: Every date tree that gets pruned is a wasted opportunity -- to make money, to even feed some people. Sure, they’re tasty. They’re also a great source of potassium, iron and fiber. Yet they just wind up in the trash.

To the best of my knowledge, only Arizona State University is smart enough to harvest and sell its dates (and olives!). The university invited volunteers to prune the plants and take the harvest home. Sure, they’re not a revenue source. But at least the dates aren’t feeding and breeding legions of flies in a trash bin.

Every other municipality and property owner with date trees is squandering a great renewable resource. Considering our economy and the growing interest in being green, is there a better time to tap into an easy, ready-made source of urban agriculture?

I’d love to hear from our local city governments and property owners: Why do they allow this waste to continue? Help them do the right thing: Write to your city council representative. Knock on a nearby business owner’s door and say "hey, I’ll harvest ‘em." Figure out a way to harvest your own tree.

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Remembering a Favorite Veteran

Col. Cecil flew the F-4 Phantom II - is that not an awesome-looking machine?

It’s perfect – a cool-looking bag to stash guitar cables and assorted gear for going out to gigs. In its previous life, it was an Air Force pilot’s helmet bag. I hand $15 to the owner of the antique store and scurry home with my prize.

I rifle through it, discovering all its pockets and nooks and crannies.

Then I feel something – a small, leather rectangle. It’s stuffed into an inside pocket. I yank it out. It read, along with a stamp of senior aviator’s wings:

Cecil (Name Redacted for Privacy)
Lt. Col. USAF

(The actual wording may vary – I don’t have it in front of me right now)

I wonder who this is or was, and how his helmet bag wound up in an antique store. I have a vision of him that I don’t like -- that he sold his possessions because he was down on his luck. This helmet bag seems too cool a memento to give up easily. I wonder if I can track Col. Cecil down and return a bit of his better times in the form of his bag. I can find something else for my music gear.

And sure enough, I find him thanks to the Internet. I call. I explain that I have his bag and wonder if it’s something he regrets parting with. If he does, it’s all his.

As it turns out, Col. Cecil is doing just fine. He just had a bunch of memorabilia and gave that to his son-in-law for his antique store in Phoenix. Col. Cecil is in his 60s -- a former F-4 Phantom II pilot. Recently remarried, living in Texas. But he comes out to Arizona often.

On his next visit, we meet. Col. Cecil spins great stories about flying the Phantom (the afterburners of jealousy are aflame – I’d love just one ride in anything remotely resembling an F-4). He has me howling with his tale of showing up for a formal soiree at the Turkish embassy clad in a custom tuxedo made from camouflage material.

Something funny occurs to me: Will the next senior that irks me for driving 10 miles under the speed limit be the same person who once flew a jet at twice the speed of sound?

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Matching Gone Wrong – His and Hers Lingerie in Korea

The thought of wearing undies to match my special lady friend's doesn't sit well with me.

I hope my eyes have malfunctioned. I rub them with my knuckles, blink rapidly, shake my head like a dog shaking water from its fur. And then I re-focus.

Nope. I still see them: Two mannequins, one male, one female. They wear matching lingerie.

I leave the storefront, amazed. And I fervently hope it’s an aberration.

But soon, another storefront. Another set of mannequins in his-and-hers lingerie. Out comes the camera – without proof, nobody will believe me. Being behind a shop window and armed only with the point-and-shoot hampers me (Go to this grrrltraveler.com post for better photos of matching Koreans, plus some other quirks. It’s a very fun post!).

This repeats itself several times a day during my stay in Korea. Once the horror wears off, the amusement sets in.

Then for the coup de grace. I’m at Incheon International Airport waiting to board my Asiana Airlines flight to Los Angeles. I take a short stroll -- and I notice a young Asian couple dressed in matching outfits. And another. And another. And another.

Several couples in, I started counting. Within five minutes, I arrive at my gate. During that time, the count hits 22. I whip out my compact point-and-shoot digital, surreptitiously trying to capture photographic evidence. The late-evening light and attempted stealthiness hamper my effort, and I barely get anything clear.

The winners: a couple wearing matching hoodies emblazoned with Marmite jars and the words "We Like It!".

I have to assume they are the target demographic for the matching lingerie.

Please, please, please – do not let this trend come to the United States.

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Asiana Airlines Review: 5 Flights

Asiana Airlines review
Rolling to the gate next to an Asiana 747 at Tokyo Narita.

This just wouldn’t be an Asiana Airlines review without mentioning my breakfast choice: spicy octopus with rice. Yes, this is my kind of airline.

This is just eight hours into my handful of Asiana Airlines flights spanning the Pacific, with shorter flights to Jeju Island and Tokyo. During these five flights, I got to know Asiana pretty well. And I have some impressions to share about how Asiana Airlines scores for international flights. I admit, I have no other Asian airlines to compare it to. But it stacks up well for any airline, winning a number of Skytrax awards over the years. To get much better, you’d have to step up to Emirates business class, which has an impressive reputation with flyers.

1. Let’s loop back to that food. Other meals including a traditional bi bim bap, bulgogi, and tempura chicken and shrimp. Most of the meals included fresh fruit. Hands down, it was the tastiest and healthiest airline food I’ve ever encountered. It easily dethrones the Qantas meals, which were decent but nothing memorable. But I’ll never forget spooning marinated beef, bean paste and rice into a huge lettuce leaf, folding it into a burrito and munching away. I was more than a bit amused that, half the time, the flight attendants didn’t ask if we wanted to the squeeze tubes full of tasty hot chili sauce. They probably hadn’t encountered many Arizonans -- many of us crave spiciness in any form.

The Travel Class cabin of an Asiana 777, Asiana Airlines review
The Travel Class cabin of an Asiana 777

2. In-flight entertainment was everything it should be for international flights. I caught up on my silly superhero movies, plus the latest Star Trek. No hiccups from the equipment at all, and it was easy enough to work. I might’ve expected Asian airlines to be even more slick and hi-tech. But it was just solid, no-fuss equipment.

3. The cabins were immaculate whether I was aboard an A320 or a 777. Asiana’s 767s are probably no spring chickens, but they looked great. A question for Asiana – I could’ve sworn our 1:30 flight (Oct. 15) from Narita to Incheon was a 767 configured in 3-3-3 rather than the usual 2-3-2. Was I overdosing on the spicy chili sauce, or is that some unusual 767? Bottom line: Whatever I flew, I have to mention the cleanliness in my Asiana Airlines review.

4. From the check-in counter to the cabin, every Asiana employee was helpful and welcoming – no exceptions. They were all efficiency, and they said everything with a smile. They weren’t quite as jocular as Air New Zealand or Qantas, but who is?

Asiana Airlines review
Dinner is served – bi bim bap! I usually take other travel bloggers to task for posting food photos – but I think this warrants breaking my own rule. I mean, steamed pumpkin, kimchi, fresh veggies … that’s out-of-the-ordinary!

5. There was a bit of weirdness the moment our flight pushed back from the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX on Sept. 30. We’d only moved a few feet when I felt the plane lurch. This led to a few announcements about tire changes, which made us a bit more than two hours late. I didn’t mind, even though international flights are long enough with no delays. I took advantage of the time to read and doze. I’m really curious about what it takes to change tires on a 777 at the gate. Kind of cool, really! Oh, and props to my mostly Korean fellow passengers. They took the delay announcements in stride. Does this cost Asiana Airlines review points? Not really. They seemed to make the time up in the air. And really, we still arrived in the early morning hours.

6. There are only two things that prevent me from flying Asiana Airlines every chance I get: First, Seoul is its only hub. Second, I always love trying a carrier based in the country I’m visiting. So if I go to another Asian country, I’d want to fly some different Asian airlines just to sample its airborne culture. Asiana’s competitive fares and excellent in-flight service would give me second thoughts about booking on another airline if it’s possible to use them, though. A follow-up Asiana Airlines review would also be interesting.

Asiana Airlines review
Our ride … with all the sweet hook-ups.

7. Something else odd – most of our international flights were only about 75 percent full. The busiest ones were the flights to and from Tokyo. But the trans-Pacific flights had plenty of empty seats. That’s very nice, of course, since it gave Sarah and I some room to stretch out.

8. In one way, Asiana Airlines might learn from fellow Asian airlines JAL and ANA: Both these Japanese airlines sell small trinkets with their logos on them at Narita. Asiana should do the same at Seoul. I would definitely add an Asiana t-shirt to my collection of airline stuff – if one was available.

I can honestly say that Asiana deserves its Skytrax Airline of the Year award for 2010. I always insist that getting there is part of the fun, and that my vacation truly starts when I step aboard the plane for international flights. Asiana did everything right and put the Republic of Korea’s best foot forward. Maybe next time, I’ll get to try some other Asian airlines, too.

Check out Asiana Airlines on Twitter!

This post contains an advertiser link.

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High School Reunion, Tokyo Style

David Zee Frenchman and Wandering Justin in Tokyo, catching up on nearly 20 years.

I have a lot to say about my trip to the Republic of Korean and Japan – including hikes, cityscapes, people and a whopping dose of enlightenment.

For now, though, here’s my major highlight – a reunion with a high school friend I hadn’t seen in 19 years. Davíd (aka Zee Frenchman), myself and Farhad – whose parents are from Iran – were pretty much Larry, Moe and Curly … though we had an occasional Shemp and Joe along. Throughout my junior and senior years of high school, we ate lunch, went bowling and engaged in fun verbal fisticuffs. By the time Davíd returned to France (after nearly being my college roommate), I felt like part of his family. Farhad actually did join me for a year in the ASU dorms.

I found Davíd online a few years ago and we had some sporadic contact. Just weeks before our trip, Sarah said “hey, isn’t The Frenchman in Tokyo?” YES! The light bulb went off, and I sent messages to not only his last-known email address, but his sister’s, too. It so happened that I sent it to one of those addresses people have and rarely check (I’m also guilty). By a stroke of luck, he happened to check it. And the reunion was on!

When we checked into the Sakura Hotel near Jimbocho Station, one of the managers came out and informed “Sarah-san” that a friend was looking for us. Moments later, David was there. Sarah returned from a quick freshen-up to find us about to dive into iced coffees before heading out on a quick jaunt of Tokyo sites.

Farhad, David Zee Frenchman and Wandering Justin circa 1992. NOTE: My mullet is hidden as a ponytail in this shot.

Even after nearly 20 years, the rapport was still there – the jokes, the banter … but we also mined a thread of serious conversation as the day went from Electric Town to dinner with his wife, Mika (who makes one nice couscous!). We discovered a similar political  direction and outlook on life, and I spied more than a few items on his book shelf that any visitor would also find on mine. Of course, he’s still a Magic: The Gathering-playing nerd!

Through it all, Sarah-san enjoyed a nice screen of two six-foot-two-plus gaijin trying to clear a path for her on the crowded Tokyo streets.

The sights and sounds themselves were something to behold. But even better? Having an old friend leading the way, reminding me of crazy things I said earlier in my life and forgotten (believe me, I returned the favor).

We ended the reunion at TY Harbor Brewing Company a few nights later, with Davíd treating us to some Japanese craft brew and tasty vittles. I look forward to welcoming him back to the States sometime to reconnect him to the rest of the old high school crew and to introduce him to some new friends (Beware, Stacy … your reputation precedes you).

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Ten Days of Transportation

Since I left on Sept. 29, I have sampled all sorts of travel. A brief so-far recap:

-1 leg on US Airways

-3 legs on Asiana Airlines

-1 leg on Air Busan

-1 leg on the KTX high-speed train from Busan to Seoul

-A nice little boat tour of Busan

-Too many taxi and subway trips to count

I’ll have lots to say about all this – and some photos. Quick thoughts:

-Asiana Airlines deserves its Skytrax awards

-The Busan metro system rocks my socks off

-The KTX is ludicrously cool. It is a jolt of high voltage frankensteining my inner train-loving 3-year-old boy back to life.

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Travel Writer Annoyances – Haggling Abroad

I don’t fly 7,500 miles to haggle in a fish market. Apparently, that’s a highlight of any trip if you happen to write  Frommer’s travel guides. At least that’s what I can infer from my Frommer’s South Korea travel guide.

I guess the writers think this all somehow makes them more worldly, this process of saving a few won on a kilo of mandarins or a dried hunk of squid. It’s literally nothing to the bank account, a dollar here and there. But these travel writers make it sound like it makes them plugged in.

Oh, please. I’ll bet they turn to jellyfish when faced with a real haggling challenge. So here’s a word for you Frommer’s/Lonely Planet/Insight guide types: Save your haggling “skills” for a worthwhile opponent who really is sucking undeserved money out of your pockets … someone like the finance manager at your car dealership.

That’s right – stand up to those characters. Show your steely-eyed bargaining prowess when it counts. Do your homework. Come prepared. Rebuff questions like “what do you want to pay a month?”. Say no to inflated destination charges. Don’t let anyone get away with running a credit check when you have your own financing lined up. That’s where you’ll save enough to finance at least part of your next trip if you really know how to drive a hard bargain.

But seriously – lay off the little old ladies trying to make a living. Shell out your 3,000 won. Take your bag of mandarins. Enjoy the Vitamin C. And maybe drop in and comment about why you take such pleasure in putting the screws to someone for a slightly better deal on a bucketful of fish parts/vegetables/knick-knacks. ‘Cause I can’t figure it out.

 

CategoriesTravelUncategorized

A Quick Guide to Sky Harbor International Airport

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Sky Harbor about to fall under the veil of a monsoon-season haboob. (Wikimedia Commons)

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is in a constant state of change. Perpetual construction, evolving security protocols and the addition of a "people mover" to connect to the Metro Light Rail shake things up with every visit. Fortunately, I’ve spent enough time here to understand Sky Harbor’s flow. This is my insider guide to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

 

It’s a busy summer evening at Sky Harbor.

The Layout
Sky Harbor has three terminals numbered two through four. T4 is the biggest, the most modern and also the most generic. The visitor experience varies greatly, with the nicest portions serving Southwest Airlines. T3 is smaller, older -- but possessing a certain kitschy 1980s Arizona charm. Then there’s T2 – which was once super-cool but completely ruined by the TSA’s security effort. It once had an eye-catching, airy entryway. Everything has shrunk to accommodate the security lines. But there’s something very cool about T2 -- more on that soon.

The Players
Despite its name, Sky Harbor is really an overgrown domestic airport. It’s a major hub for Southwest Airlines and US Airways, both of which hog T4. And while US Airways flies to places like Tel Aviv and even Helsinki, it sure doesn’t do it from Phoenix. A daily British Airways flight connects Sky Harbor to London. American Airlines (T3) isn’t a major player here, nor is United (T2). [UPDATE April 2014: The US Airways/American Airlines merger changes this. American Airlines is now at Terminal 4 and becoming more important. The future is still in flux for what the merger means for Sky Harbor’s hub status.]

The Big Secrets
These are my two biggest insider secrets about Phoenix Sky Harbor, and I’ve never seen any other blog mention them.

Boeing 767 Hawaiian Airlines
Hawaiian Airlines – a way to fly international from Phoenix without a stop at LAX. (Photo by Dylan Ashe)

First, try to book flights on airlines serving Terminal 2. What? The oldest terminal? Yes. Because it’s small, the odds of getting lost or missing a flight due to a gate change or long TSA line plummet. You can also walk from the West Economy lot directly to the terminal in moments – the only place st Sky Harbor where that’s possible. Airlines serving T2 include United, Alaska Airlines and Great Lakes Airlines.

My second tip is for international/intercontinental travelers. Phoenicians are generally forced to San Francisco or Los Angeles for intercontinental flights. Both are pretty harried airports, but LAX is definitely worse. If you’re headed west to the International Date Line, you have another option: skipping West Coast connections with Hawaiian Airlines (at T3). It has daily flights to Honolulu, which can then connect you to Japan, Tahiti, the Philippines, Korea and (drum roll, please) Australia. I haven’t flown Hawaiian Airlines – but considering their interactions with followers on Twitter, it seems this is an airline that gets it -- that wants to make air travel fun.

Plethora of Parking
There’s really no shortage of cheap parking at Phoenix Sky Harbor – you have choices between the Economy lots on-site, plus private off-site parking. If you’re into planning ahead and you leave yourself enough time, off-site parking is a solid option. You’ll find it a bit more secure and generally less-crowded. Another bonus: They’re easier to get to. Recent construction has completely changed most of the roads leading into Sky Harbor. I can no longer drive in relying on memory. It’s a roadscape in flux, and you can just leave it to the shuttle driver if you park off the grounds.

US Airways – a big dog at Sky Harbor.

If you want on-site covered parking, you can find it right at the terminals. But be prepared to pay through the nose. The covered parking at the East Economy lot is far more affordable, but you’ll have to catch the shuttle to the terminals. This can be a factor if you’re running late or facing summer heat (the bus stops in the Economy Lot reflect a lot of heat).

Grabbing a Bite
I rarely eat at Sky Harbor. There’s usually time for me to grab a snack at home before showing up for my flight. If I run low on time, though, there are some options beyond the usual fast-food, bland, greasy megacorporation options: Several local restaurants will open at Sky Harbor. The standouts: Cartel Coffee Lab, Press Coffee, Le Grande Orange and Barrio Cafe. I’d like to see Pita Jungle set up shop, too – and not like its mall locations, but with its actual sit-down menu.

Keep this info in mind whenever your flights take you to Sky Harbor. You’ll be in, out, well-fed and less frustrated. You might even have a little fun.

CategoriesTravelUncategorized

Remembering my T-6 Texan Warbird Flight

I always had fantasies about flying in one of these. Carl’s T-6 brought me a little closer.

I catch the 10 p.m. newscast as it’s about to go to commercial; the anchor teases a story to come in the next segment.

“A vintage airplane crashes in the desert, killing two,” she says.

It could be any vintage plane, any pilot. But I know it’s not. I turn the TV off. Moments later, my phone rings. It’s Alexa, a friend and colleague at The Arizona Republic.

“Justin, there’s been an accident,” she says.

“I know.”

Where Pilots Are Born

It’s an ungainly beast, this T-6 Texan. No enemy fliers feared it. The Japanese didn’t give it an ominous nickname like “Whistling Death.”

But the sunlight and its deep-blue coat of paint make it look just enough like Pappy Boyington’s F4U-4 Corsair to reach the 6-year-old boy I used to be — the boy that refuses to miss an episode of Black Sheep Squadron.

And really, the T-6 Texan made the Corsair – and the P-51 Mustang and sundry other American fighters. Or at least the most important part of those planes: the pilots. Yes, every fighter pilot of the era started here. A few hundred hours in a T-6 Texan, then into planes twice as fast, twice as powerful and heavily armed. Into the fray against the Luftwaffe or the Japanese.

Carl Schmieder is only 6o — too young to have flown in WWII. But he’s a member of Cactus Squadron, an aerobatic outfit flying the T-6 Texan to its limits at airshows. He’s fairly short, fit, genial. But I expected to see him in a vintage flight suit. In his striped button-down shirt and slacks, he looks like a jeweler sneaking out of work. Which he is.

I climb into the cockpit behind him. There’s a plaque bolted to the instrument panel: Intentional straight and level flight prohibited.

The Takeoff Roll

The radial engine harrumphs to life. The vibration reaches me at the cellular level. I’m more excited than I’ve ever been. We taxi, wagging around so Carl can see what’s in front of the Texan’s elevated cowling. We gather speed, and we’re in the air.

The next hour or so is the stuff of my dreams. Carl starts slowly, with aileron rolls. It’s the first time I’ve ever been upside-down in an airplane. A laundry list of combat maneuvers follows: Cuban 8, Immelmann turns, steep banks, barrel rolls. Carl explains every maneuver – I hear the still-awestruck young boy in his voice. He’s done this countless times, and the little boy still lives.

I learn what a four-G turn feels like. I grunt and tense every muscle in my lower body – quads, core, arms … all clenching to force enough blood into my head to stay conscious. Still, I feel an invisible electric blanket cranked to "HIGH" settle over me. The edges of my vision distort just slightly. It’s amazing.

Back Down to Earth

We land, and I’m physically wrung out, nauseous, over-heated. Carl slides the canopy, and I drink the air. It smells of exhaust and is barely any cooler – but it’s refreshing as lapping water straight off an Icelandic glacier.

I’m delighted, maybe as much as Carl is. He got to fly — and share the magic of aerobatic flying.

But Carl is gone, along with his final passenger and his priceless, dynamic piece of flying history. The National Transportation and Safety Board report can tell you why. A sad piece of aftermath: The Arizona wing of Cactus Squadron disbanded after the crash.

Maybe we shouldn’t embrace risk. No aerobatics, no mountain climbing, no polar expeditions. It’d save lots of lives.

But it would sure make living a lot less interesting.

(UPDATE: Jan. 2020: My original story for the Arizona Republic is no longer online. I’ll see if I can find it somewhere else or even scan it. It wasn’t great, but I was new at this newspaper thing!)

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CategoriesBlogging/WritingTravelUncategorized

When Air Travel Blogs Go Wrong

Too many details are like too much throttle - you wind up in a messy situation. (photo credit unknown - let me know if it's you!)

Attention, air travel bloggers: I don’t care what runway you took off from. The registration number of your aircraft is worthless fluff, less than meaningless. And photos of your food? Please, don’t. Just don’t.

And I love flying! Commercial air travel is a blast. Yet I still can’t fathom what’s remotely interesting about the most banal details of a routine flight.

But you all take it too far. You need to realize something – not every flight is worth a discussion -- or enough photos to fill a 4-MB SD card.

Need an example? Witness this over-the-top display in the One Mile at a Time blog. This post would’ve been just fine with one photo of the terminal, some airplane photos and one shot of the interior. But no – there’s seriously a photo in that post of a used hot towel! Yes, you read that right. I don’t ordinarily hang another blogger out to dry – but some of these frustrate me because they make something I really like seem obsessive, boring and over-privileged. I scrolled through the post looking for the part where it gets interesting.

And really, does gabbing about divestiture not suck all the fun out of the airline industry? Oddly enough, one of the most unabashed (and tightly focused) aviation industry analysis bloggers still manages to be more interesting than this. At least it’s breaking down what makes the industry tick – and conveys some enthusiasm.

There are gobs of air travel blogs out there. Nearly every one has an occasional nugget that’s terrific – though you’ve just seen them sink into the quagmire of insider privilege, industry glossolalia and institutional apologia (I just made that word up -- or so I though until spellcheck didn’t hold up a red card).

Unfortunately, I see very few from the perspective of someone who:

  • flies just every few months.
  • never gets comped.
  • is not an industry insider.
  • knows what flights aren’t worth writing about.
  • is only vaguely aware that first class exists.
  • does not have a trust fund.

That just might be the benefit to sites like travelervoice.com. So far as I’ve seen, it seems to be all real people rather than shills. And every month, it’s getting harder to parse the shills and get to the real travelers.

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Scenes from Chicago in the Summer

If you’re planning to visit Chicago, summer is the best time. Check out the photos and you’ll see a city that comes alive when the weather gets warmer. To be honest, it’s nowhere near my favorite American city. But I still had a decent time. The architecture is very cool, and you can get just about anywhere on-foot with enough time. On the downside, the food is overrated and so is Navy Pier. The public spaces, as you’ll see below, are also first-rate with parks scattered throughout the downtown area.

It's a busy summer evening at Sky Harbor.
The amazing giant chrome bean of Chicago

Continue reading

CategoriesBlogging/WritingUncategorized

Travel-Writing Cliche – “Exploring”

Iceland, hiking, Wandering Justin, Landmannalaugur
Remote, rugged, even dangerous. But not unexplored ... the interior highlands of Iceland.

If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s when my blog reads like some half-baked travel brochure. I’m trying really hard to watch what I say here to guard against it.

One of the sacrifices to the cause: the word "explore."

It’s become a mindless cliche. And I’ll admit I’ve used it carelessly.

Look -- I’ve been to some rugged, remote and super-cool places. But I haven’t explored jack. Every place I’ve been -- someone’s beaten me to it. By a long shot.

So I’ll leave breathless exhortations to "explore our pristine forest preserve" to the silly travel magazines.

And travelers: we do the same thing. We’re a self-aggrandizing lot, we are. We peck at our less-traveled friends, colleagues and relatives. We tell them to take a closer look at the world beyond them. We tell them to ring up some frequent flier miles. And we tell them to "explore." As if they’re going somewhere that doesn’t have electricity and flushing toilets.

I suppose you could argue that people can explore any spot that’s new to them. But damn, that is really weak sauce. It dilutes the mystique of exploration into a thin, lite-beer gruel.

And really, there’s nothing wrong with not being a true explorer. Just ‘cause you’re not first doesn’t mean you’re last (right, Ricky Bobby?). I don’t mind a well-marked hiking trail. A trail with a system of huts with water? Freakin’ bliss. Amenities like that mean someone else got there first.

Look around. Check the world out. Push your limits. But just remember: You’re no explorer.

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Why Phoenix Can’t Be More Like Chicago

chicago bean
You'll never see anything like this in Phoenix.

In July, I dropped into Chicago for a four-day visit. Overall, I was underwhelmed. Some cool architecture, yes. But the city marinates in self-importance over its fading foodie scene. The pedestrians, cyclists and drivers are by and large savages. I’d much rather visit Portland, Seattle or Vancouver.

But -- Chicago has some terrific public spaces. I was puzzled. The last few years have been an economic disaster, and we’re only starting to poke through to better times. So where did Chicago get the scrilla to keep its public works projects afloat through lean times?

Through a city sales tax of more than 10 percent.

Interesting. This could never happen here in Arizona, where the city sales taxes hover around 2 percent, give or take depending on the municipality.

An outdoor concert venue - too visionary for small minds.

I’m not upset about not having to shell out another 8 percent per purchase (especially since an intern who’s from Chicago points out that at least half of the Windy City’s sales tax props up graft and corruption).

But you know, a 5 percent sales tax that’s effectively used wouldn’t bother me a bit. The first things I’d like to see? Improved bike lanes, quality city gyms, better parks, functional water fountains along the well-travelled canals, for starters. You know – stuff to make the city more liveable, to make people healthier and more active.

Why can’t this happen here? Because there are too many regressive bomb throwers like Sal DiCiccio, perhaps the most stunted person to ever sit on the dais for the Phoenix City Council.

DiCiccio’s notion of leading is to squawk "cut spending!" like a stuttering parrot. Somehow, I started receiving his "newsletters," which are little more than angsty screeds portraying him as a crusader for the little guy. I never signed up for this; I suspect his staff tapped into city data to find an audience upon which to push his small-time agenda.

Let’s look at some recent subject lines:
Your kids’ milk money pays for raises
Taxpayers misled: Food Tax for pay raises
Your Water Bill: Going UP -- You Can Stop It!
Expected Smears on Reformers
Phoenix can Lead Nation/Unions Stop Jobs
Phoenix Spending ‘ripe for abuse’
Union takeover – Phx City Hall

How sad. Not a single idea for how Phoenix can do more for its residents (nor any idea how to write better than amateurish hack level, but that’s another story). It’s all panicky demonizing and fear mongering. No inspiration, no original thinking. No innovation. DiCiccio equates good governance simply with spending less and taxing less -- and offering fat tax breaks to pet projects in the hope of a fleeting boost in low-paying jobs.

Improving city services? Offering amenities that truly world-class cities enjoy? Forget about it.

Sure, our current tax dollars could go further. Trimming here and there? Never a bad idea. But when that and squalling about unions is all a self-proclaimed leader can do, your city is in bad hands.

I’ve always wondered why Chicagoans who move to Phoenix constantly pine for their former city (well, during the winter months, at least).

Hmm, maybe the answer is the Sal DiCiccio mentality.