Checking luggage on Korean Air at Seoul (train) Station

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Access to the airport train from Seoul Station is to the left of Entrance/Exit 3 in this photo

Korean Air offers a very convenient service (unavailable for code-share flights): You can check-in and check your luggage at Seoul Station before taking an express train to the airport. To do this, you need to arrive 3 hours before your flight. (This isn’t really a big deal since they ask you to arrive at the airport 2 hours early if you’re going to check luggage there, and the direct train from Seoul Station is about 45 minutes.)

The process at Seoul Station is as follows:
1. Arrive 3 hours early. (The location is by Entrance/Exit 3 of Seoul Station, down two floors via escalator and/or elevator.)
2. Buy a train ticket to the airport (either at a machine if you have cash or a local credit card, or at the office just by the machines–to your left as you face the machines–with a foreign credit/debit card). You MUST buy the train ticket first. You’ll need to show it at check-in. Choose a time at least 30 minutes in the future for your train ticket to allow time for check-in and immigration. If you should miss that train departure time, you can exchange your ticket for a later time at the office.
3. Check-in and check your luggage at the Korean Air check-in desk just as you would at the airport.
4. Go to immigration. This is located at a small office just beside the ticket office, at the entrance to the check-in desks. The process was very quick.
5. Take the elevator a short distance away to the train platform. The train is clean, comfortable, air conditioned and (like so many public places in Korea) offers free wi-fi.

At the airport, you take a special entrance, along with diplomats and crew, for those who have already passed through immigration. (There’s a convenient photo of this entrance taped to the Korean Air check-in desk.) Follow the signs to this “Designated Entrance” which was to our right just past a cell phone service shop as we exited airport security.

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Photos of entry points at airport taped to Korean Air check-in desk at Seoul Station

The system worked like a charm for us and our luggage was first off the plane when we arrived in Shanghai.

Tokyo to Kyoto in a typhoon

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View from the Park Hyatt of the worsening weather

The sunny weather gave way to occasional mists and light rain in the days following our arrival in Tokyo as the first advance wisps of Typhoon Malakas reached the city. It wasn’t enough to interfere with our plans–other than nixing trips up Tokyo Tower, the Skytree or the Government building. The sweeping views with Mt. Fuji in the background that my boys and I had enjoyed on a previous visit just weren’t happening this time.

We got a light mist at the Meiji Jingu Temple, but the thick trees of the park surrounding it did much to shelter us. At least three weddings proceeded in quick succession while we were there; a veritable production line of brides. Clearly, it was an auspicious day with or without the rain.The clouds did drop the temperature pleasantly, so all and all, things worked out for the newlyweds and for us…if you don’t count my head of increasingly frizzy hair!

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Wedding party at the Meiji Jingu Shrine
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Wedding procession at Meiji Jingu Shrine

Our first week on Honshu, the main island of Japan, encompassed two Japanese holidays: Respect for the Aged Day and Autumnal Equinox. The first holiday fell while we were in Tokyo and treated us to wandering groups of costumed people toting shrines through the streets of Shinjuku and chanting. A festive air reigned through the neighborhood with stalls of food being hawked by groups of smiling people dressed in costumes to match the shrine-bearers. An open stage blared live Japanese rock music, trucks trundled by broadcasting music sounding more military than anything else to our bemused ears. Inquiries resulted in answers that lost something in translation: “There’s a ghost in the box.” when we asked about the shrine bearers. Oh well, it was big fun anyway.

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Despite the variable weather, we visited the soon-to-be-moved Tsukiji fish market which was top on David’s list. Unfortunately, the big commercial market was closed for the Respect for the Aged holiday, but the food stalls overflowed with people.

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This guy was giving out free samples. David tried it, but couldn’t identify.

We wandered popular Shinjuku Park and explored its greenhouse, braved the rain to try an izakaya (Japanese gastropub) on the 40th floor of a Shinjuku building where we dined among the clouds. Wanting to see the relatively-new Park Hyatt, we got a birdseye view of the worsening weather which we were soon to discover was no minor storm.

In Tokyo, we stayed in the Hyatt Regency, using 1 free night apiece David and I had from our Hyatt Visa credit cards. At $95/ year, we find these cards to be no-brainers: With our travels, we’re bound to be somewhere–like Tokyo–where we can get a much more expensive hotel for the yearly fee on the card, plus the perks of the status the card gives us. In Tokyo, this saved us about $200/night. When we discovered that a typhoon was bearing down on Japan, threatening high winds and devastating flooding in the south on the day we were scheduled to depart on a bullet train to Kyoto, it was nice to have the super-helpful concierge staff at the Hyatt checking on the status of trains and providing detailed transfer information from the hotel to Tokyo Station.

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The massive chandeliers at the Hyatt Regency were only a week back from cleaning and more magnificent than ever

We’d planned to catch a taxi from our hotel near Shinjuku Station to Tokyo Station where the bullet trains depart, but it turned out to be faster to simply catch the Oedo Line from Shinjuku to Tokyo. The price was also included in our bullet train ticket. [We did not purchase a JR Pass because the math just didn’t work out given the length of our trip and our proposed train travel. Also, David wanted to ride the fastest bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto and that train, the Nozomi, is not included in the JR Pass. The time difference is minimal between bullet trains, but it was something he wanted and, as I said, it made financial sense anyway.]

The ride itself was uneventful–and fast. I don’t think the weather caused any slow-down, although we were told that was a possibility in typhoons. We enjoyed our bento box lunches and the trip flew by.

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Inside the Nozomi Shinkansen to Kyoto (2nd class, reserved seats)
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Bento box lunch bought at the station; beer bought on the train

We arrived in a rainy Kyoto. No surprise there, but not exactly the beautiful fall weather I’d envisioned. Oh well, such are the whims of the travel gods. After a short ride with a truly nasty-tempered cabbie (the only unfriendly person we encountered in Kyoto), we arrived at our AirBnB apartment. As billed, it sits just across the road from Nijo Castle and our balcony looks out on one of the watch towers. Beautiful, even in a typhoon!

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Nijo Castle in a typhoon; view from our balcony

One of the joys of lengthy travel is being able to slow down and try to get at least a little taste of living in a place. It’s a big reason why I like renting apartments rather than hotels, along with the extras like a washing machine and kitchen. Usually, apartments provide more space as well, but a typical apartment in Japan also means compact. I’d chose Kyoto for our longer apartment stay and, as always, ran it by David before booking. David’s 6’3″ and I knew some of the features of the apartment I’d chosen might be a little tricky for him. As usual, he was game.–It’s one of the things I love about him.

The apartment is exactly as described: immaculate, small, but well-equipped and well-thought-out. We have a double bed*, a tiny kitchen, a washing machine/dryer combo (that doesn’t do much in the way of drying), air conditioning, free bikes at our disposal, wifi and a portable wifi hotspot. I love the odd, but practical, touches–like the toilet where you can wash your hands in the water that’s refilling the tank. (‘Makes sense: It’s clean water, you’re recycling…there’s just something about the idea that’s a little unsettling to the Western mind.) We’re in a good location and the building is very nice. It’s a big change from living at home, but it’s fun…and funny to listen to David banging around in the bathroom while he tries to bathe in the meter-long bathtub. He really is a great sport!

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We’ve got a large grocery store just a couple of blocks down the street and we’ve had fun shopping the often-mystifying items. Once again, Google Translate has been invaluable as we scan labels of products we’ve never heard of.

*A double bed may sound small to my American friends, but I’m going to do a separate short post on why it’s actually a very awesome thing. Hint: Beware the “semi-double!”