Singapore via Zurich

Zurich, Switzerland – 4 April 2018
Singapore – 5 & 6 April 2018

Arrived at SFO easily enough despite rush hour traffic. There was a bit of a line for business class check-in at SWISS (#outrage) but I was soon past security and seated in the not-especially-glamorous temp United lounge. It’s currently the only Star Alliance lounge open at SFO Terminal G, due to ongoing construction of what is supposed to be a really nice new Polaris lounge. Eh, it was fine – I had a seat and got myself plenty hydrated with sparkling water for the 10 ½ hour flight to Zurich.

Flying with me on this first leg was my friend Nicolas, an FA for SWISS. He kept my champagne topped up and made sure I had a great flight – though honestly, every passenger seemed to receive really lovely service from the very attentive crew.
SWISS’ 777 seating layout in C alternates 1-2-2 and 2-2-1. The single seats are nicknamed “Throne Seats” (#apropos #thisqueen) and are reserved for SWISS premium members or those willing to cough up $200 per segment for the privilege of getting these very private seats. Given that I’d used miles to purchase this ticket, I decided to go for it. And boy was I glad that I did!

Besides all the privacy, this seat has way more storage space in an around the seat. Plus, I was in 4A, one of only two bulkhead thrones (the other being 7A) – and they provide substantially more foot room when in bed mode. 4A is also in the front mini-cabin of the 777 with only two rows, so it feels very quiet and private.

Dinner was great and I got a decent amount of semi-fitful sleep after a tasty dinner. Once I was fully awake, it was only an hour-and-a-half until arrival at Zurich.

My layover before transiting onward to Singapore was seven hours. The train from the airport to central Zurich takes about 15 minutes, so it was my plan to spend a few hours in town. I’d gone back-and-forth on this plan, since the weather forecast was cold and rainy – but what the hell, why not!

Made it into town just as easily as it had been portrayed. It was chilly and the rain was steady. As I walked toward the Fraumünster, I was having second thoughts – my shoes were wet and I was simultaneously sweaty and cold. But I plodded on.

And I’m so glad I did! Fraumünster is home to a series of stained glass windows by Marc Chagall. They were breathtaking and the visit would have been so worth it just to see them. But there was also what I believe was rehearsal going on upstairs for a performance by violin and the church’s massive pipe organ. So, I was treated to music filling the church while I sat and looked at the beautiful stained glass windows.

I’ll confess I got a little misty-eyed – not just because it was a wonderful experience but it was one of those moments where I kind of can’t believe that I’ve been so fortunate in my life to travel and to visit places like this. So happy I didn’t let the rain interfere with my visit.

Next stop was Sternen Grill for a bratwurst and a glass of wine – it was great! Then back to the station, a quick trip back to the airport and then off to the gorgeous SWISS lounge in Terminal E. I had a nice long shower, put on some fresh panties and got that spring back in my step. Boarded my next flight after relaxing a bit more in the lounge.

My visit to Singapore started off rather less auspiciously than one might hope. The 11 hour flight from Zurich was AOK, as I was once again ensconced in seat 4A on a SWISS 777. I slept for only about three hours in an attempt to get myself adjusted to local time, so I watched a few movies (and liked Thor: Ragnorok substantially better than Call Me by Your Name, a film which made my eyes roll into the back of my head more than once. But I digress…)

Made it through Immigration quickly and collected my bags with the intention of buying a local SIM card at the airport. The only ones I found were for SG$38, which seemed substantially higher than I recalled, so I skipped it and headed by taxi to my home for the next five nights, the Sheraton Four Points River View.

The place is nice enough, though perhaps a bit more touristy than I’d like, especially considering how much I enjoyed the more boutique-y WANGZ Hotel I stayed in on my last visit (which had the additional plus of being named WANGZ) – but there was a substantial difference in price and Singapore is not exactly a bargain when it comes to lodging.

Anyway, after unpacking and getting a status update from Ak, who was flying in from BKK this same evening, I headed out in search of a 7-Eleven from which to purchase a SIM card. Google Maps showed two nearby, so off I went with a screenshot of the location.

Across the river from the hotel are plenty of other hotels and condos and tons of restaurants, all of which seemed vaguely questionable, thanks to their photo-based menus, too-broad offerings (burgers, pizza and North Indian cuisine in one place for example) and more-than-fair share of boisterous Western tourists. Again, a bit of a let-down from the charming Tiong Bahru neighborhood I’d stayed in last time – but at this point I just needed a 7-Eleven.

My map failed me, pointing me to a street devoid of any establishments whatsoever, let alone a convenience store, so I wandered semi-aimlessly in the direction of a ramen place I knew was close by. And lo and behold, I stumbled across a different 7-Eleven – only to have the clerk tell me that her SIM registration machine was not working, which was frustrating enough, but she also used a tone that I felt was unnecessarily surly.

I did find the ramen place, Ippudo, and had a decent bowl along with some sake – which sort of took the edge off their lack of Wi-Fi (#srsly?). But all in all, I was not really feeling it my first night in Singapore – though this was no doubt exacerbated by the nearly thirty hours I’d spent in transit.

Back to hotel and awaited Ak’s arrival, while intermittently dozing. He arrived from the airport quickly, we had a brief happy reunion before we both had to hit the hay.

Friday morning we woke up early and went back out in search of SIM card, this time with directions from the front desk clerk and found the place immediately – only to be advised that I needed to present my passport and no, a copy wasn’t good enough. Ugh, y tho? Back to hotel for passport, back again and I was finally back online, thank heavens.

And I swung into action by ordering us a Grab (the SE Asian version of Uber) to take us to Maxwell Food Centre, one of Singapore’s many, many hawker centers. Due to the early hour, lots of stalls still closed, but I had a really tasty stir-fried noodles with shrimp and Ak had chicken congee and then we shared a kaya bun, “kaya” being a local coconut jam that’s a breakfast favorite here.

Next stop the National Gallery, where we looked at paintings before visiting an installation on the rooftop, a bamboo maze with a tiny teahouse at the center. Back downstairs, we ended our visit at a really entertaining video installation that also proved to be irresistible IG bait for the both of us.

Wandered around the bay until it was time for our afternoon tea at L’Eclair by Sarah Michelle. It was pretty tasty – though the eclairs, while the flavors were excellent, were done in by rather soggy pastry. Quel dommage!

Walked back to the hotel for a lie-down, then a swim, then another lie-down and then dinner in the neighborhood (preceded by a stop at the front desk to share my hope that our room would be made up prior to 4PM as had occurred today. But I digress…) at Wine Connection Cheese Bar. Ak isn’t really familiar with cheese, so we shared a plate of Brie, Tomme de Savoie and some pastrami. I was quite surprised at the high quality of all the offerings – along with a decent bottle of rose at a reasonable-for-Singapore price. As it turned out, neither Brie nor Tomme de Savoie were big hits with Ak – he didn’t hate them, but also didn’t love them. In a surprise twist, when we ordered a refill, he loved the Tête de Moine – authentically prepared with a girolle – and the Serrano ham! So, perhaps not the most traditionally Singaporean meal, but given its proximity to the hotel, reasonable price and excellent quality, it turned out to be a great pick for dinner.

Had a leisurely walk back and checked the forecast for Saturday’s weather. Rain predicted, so we’ve postponed our visit to the Botanic Gardens to Sunday and tomorrow we’ll head back to Tiong Bahru to visit the market and hawker center which was closed for renovations when we stayed nearby last time. Here’s hoping I can finally eat some char siu there!

Japan Wrap-up

So, if memory serves, my last post found me in Osaka, awaiting Marco’s return from Kyoto. As it turned out, he was too beat to have dinner that evening, so I grabbed a tonkatsu sandwich and a beer, before settling in for the evening. But then I realized it was very early (only 7:30!) and perhaps I ought to go out on my own and try to find that gay bar I went to last year…

So, off I went, with a lengthy set of directions on how to get to where the gay bars are, near Umeda Station. And amazingly enough, I was able to find Frenz, where I’d had a few drinks my one night in Osaka last year. Perhaps even more amazing, Sari-chan, an ex-pat Aussie who owns the place, remembered me immediately, including much of our conversation from last year. I was impressed to say the least. And of course, he was as charming a host as I recall.

I was the only person in the bar. But a few minutes later, a former regular who’d moved to Tokyo showed up. Then a young Aussie on holiday. We were all enjoying chatting together, when who walks in but Stefan, my new French friend I’d met in Tokyo! Anyway, a few more folks showed up and it was a fun though quiet evening. Stefan and I also had a few more drinks around the corner at another bar.

Friday, Marco and I were up and at ’em by 11 and headed to Festivalgate. I’d read about it in the guidebook – it sounded like some sort of crazy giant arcade/amusement park thing. We figured it would be fun just to check out – and I’m sure it would’ve been, had it not gone out of business. The place was boarded up and abandoned – recently, I guess, since all the city maps and subway signs still pointed the way. Oh well – what’re you gonna do?

Then off to the Japanese Ceramics Museum. Took us a bit of time to find it, but it’s right along the river, so we had a lovely, leisurely walk. The museum itself was charming and the collection amazing.

On the way home, we decided to try our luck at a ramen stand. It can be a bit intimidating, since one has to purchase a ticket from a vending machine to get one’s ramen. Happily,this place had a couple of buttons in English (“noodle soup with pork” or “noodle soup with extra pork”) – and wow, was it good. Marco and I were both exhausted – but after standing at the counter, slurping and splattering our noodles, we were completely re-energized.

Ambled about a bit, then got ready for a night on the town. Basically a repeat of my night before – drinks at Frenz and Physique, lots of good conversation with friendly locals and tourists, then home at midnight.

Saturday was my shopping day. Thus far, I’d only purchased track jacket, so I had some catching up to do. Despite getting in early-ish the night before, we were both a bit worn out – travel taking its toll. Marco begged off and I contemplated just chillin’ with BBC World news – but it being my last full day, this seemed like a waste. I forced myself to the subway station and headed to Hep 5, a ten-story mall with a giant ferris wheel on top (I know, right?). And I scored big time – got some hot boots, a cute belt and a great pair of trousers, lined with plaid that shows when the cuffs are rolled.

Quick pit stop for ramen on the way home (now that I knew how to order it) before another night on the town. Saturday is the night in Osaka – the streets were crazy and the bars, which had been so mellow the night before, were packed and hopping. Met more fun boys, danced, drank, then home again…

Oh, I just realized, I neglected to mention that on three of the four prior nights, we’d had a sufficient number of beers to stop into the glamor-shot photo booths. And we were probably ugly Americans, seeing as we were drunk and unable to read any of the instructions in Japanese. We figured out how to take the photos, but then one has to interact with a highly complex set of instructions to get the photos to print. Basically, we’d lean out of the booth, shouting “Sumimasen! Sumimasen!” until an attendant came over and then we’d beg him, “Print-u o kudasai! Print-u o kudasai!” Thankfully this worked… and as friendly and helpful as everybody was, I’m sure they were (correctly) thinking “stupid round-eyed gay devils…”

Sunday packed and ready for the flight home at 6:30PM. Hotel let us check out late for a small fee. I ready to go with an hour-and-a-half to spare, so I made a quick run over to Uniqlo. Good thinking, Eric! Winter jacket, wool blazer, plaid trousers, lots of socks and undies – all for around US$100! Picked up a tonkatsu sandwich for the flight home, then crammed all my new purchases into my suitcase.

Off to the bus station, right next to the hotel, trying to manage two bulging suitcases, an overstuffed backpack and countless shopping bags. Of course, I also had to pick up a couple of boxes of octopus-ball-flavored pretzels at the bus station (you should see the packaging! I’m not made of stone…)

Had some mediocre udon at the airport, then spent an hour buying more tschotskes in the airport mall. Plane was an hour late leaving, but at least it was on a 777 – very comfy in Economy Plus… Though, I swear, not one of the crabby flight attendants cracked even a hint of smile for the entire ten-hour voyage.

Good as it was to be home, I miss Japan terribly – especially after the taxi ride up disgusting 6th St. here in SF. Sigh… Can’t wait to go back to the Land of the Rising Sun. Maybe this time I really will find a Japanese husband…

Last night in Japan

Our flight home is Sunday at 6PM and I arrive back in SF at 11AM the same day. Weird…

At any rate, I’m not going to waste my last evening in front of the computer. Heading for dinner soon and another night at the gay bars (yes, we finally found them and had big fun, though it’s a bit quieter than Tokyo). But I’d be remiss if I didn’t post at least a few pictures from the past couple of days…

This makes me uncomfortable...
Available in Whity Town!
Shhhh... We've found the fountain of youth

Osaka Castle

Been fighting off a chest cold for a couple of days, so wasn’t so sure how I’d feel today. Spoke with Marco in the morning and he’d had a night of insomnia and decided to sleep in for a bit. I was tempted to do the same, but forced myself out into the world and had a delightful day on my own.

Headed to Osaka Castle on the subway, foolishly neglecting to bring my guide book. But between a vague memory of its location and a subway map, I made it there no problem. And I must say, it was lovely. The trees are awash in their fall colors and provided a rather stunning setting for the eight-story castle tower. There were also bunches of chrysanthemums all about, this being chrysanthemum-viewing season and all.

As I neared the tower, I saw a couple of groups of school children running about in their uniforms. One group came rushing over the moment they laid eyes on me, all shouting, “Hello!” while one of them explained that they are sixth-grade students and would like to interview me to practice their English. They asked my name, where I was from and quizzed me on my familiarity with photographs of Japanese celebrities. They wrapped things up with a hand-written thank-you note and some origami they’d made, then had me pose for a photo with them while their teacher snapped away.

This was repeated twice more (though the quizzes were different: one was on animated characters, the other on sports). Anyway, they were charming and brave – I got the impression that most of them would’ve rather been seeing the dentist than taking to some weird gaijin, but they all toughed it out admirably.

The tower itself was rather fascinating. A lovely view from the top and then artifacts from the times of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who united Japan under his single rule. One of my favorites was a large four panel screen that displayed the various banners of the scores of generals who fought under Hideyoshi. With the highly stylized symbolism and simple forms used in each banner, the screen would be right at home hanging on the walls of MoMA. It was really lovely…

Headed out wondering what to eat, as I was starving. Despite the unbelievable number of restaurants lining every street, finding somewhere to eat for a non-Japanese speaker can be challenging. But lo and behold, right outside the castle entrance was a ramen stand. Nothing fancy, I figured it’d be adequate. Wow – it was delicious… And went a long way to curing whatever it is that’s ailing me.

So I headed off, my bushy mustache redolent of ramen – which was actually a a rather pleasant thing… Though I was a bit greasy and concerned I might’ve had noodles still present in my thatch- a quick trip to the john proved otherwise. Though I still haven’t really figured out what the deal is here with not providing napkins. I bought a trinket at the castle which was wrapped, bagged in paper than put into a plastic sack. But restaurants seldom provide napkins – and if they do, they are very much akin to a single-ply square of toilet paper… I keep  forgetting to purchase some hankies to keep on hand for emergencies – something especially likely with my current facial hair configuration.

In fact, speaking of napkins, when I stopped for a green tea soft ice cream after lunch (by the way: soft ice cream and handlebar mustaches are an extremely ill-advised combination, particularly in public), I asked the lady who assisted me for a napkin. She obliged with the usual wisp of paper – but also with a look that seemed to imply I’d asked for a cone filled with dog shit.

Anyway, on to the Osaka History Museum. As with many museums here, one is encouraged to start on the top floor and work one’s way down. So, I rode up to the 10th floor and started poking around. The English signage was rather minimal, but the archeological pieces were fascinating. I rounded the corner and was inside a large darkened room, surrounded by mannequins wearing traditional dress of various courtiers from the time of the Early Naniwa Palace, along with video screens showing a computer-animated reproduction of a ceremony at the palace. I was like, “OK, this is kinda cool” – and then I gasped. The video ended and what I’d thought was a wall was revealed to be a huge series of panoramic windows, their shutters rising magically and flooding the gallery with light. I was now overlooking the exact spot where the Naniwa Palace had stood, which remains not only a huge open space, but the locations of the palace’s support beams are still clearly visible. It was a truly breath-taking exhibit…

Poked about the remaining floors which included many intricate scale models of the palace and other buildings; plus a section on 20th century Osaka that had some great old black-and-white home movies from before WWII. Subway back to the hotel, beers and rice balls in hand. And now for a nap before dinner…