Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Tokyo Food

With Instagram nuking its map feature, I can't just point people there to look for our nearby restaurant check-ins... So here's a few of our favorite Tokyo eats*. We lived in Ebisu, so lots of our recommendations are in the south Shibuya area. I'll keep adding things to this page.

TIP: Some places you may need to look at the Kanji from the Instagram check-in or the Google Street View to help find the place.

My main Japan tips page is here.



Shin Kawa sushi. Ebisu (map ๐Ÿ—พ). We used to go here for lunch. Small, quiet, full of locals. No English. Don't be intimidated, there are only two choices when you walk in: chirashi (bowl style) or nigiri (individual pieces). Everyone orders chirashi. You should too. Everything is perfect and reasonably priced.

look at the knife skills on that cucumber!

Tenka Sushi. Shibuya (map ๐Ÿ—พ). This is a great kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi place. Cheap, lots of locals, some traditional stuff, some crazy stuff. Try the "bonito carpaccio" with lettuce and Italian dressing and mayo. Or the deep fried shrimp with mayo and unagi sauce. The spigot next to each seat dispenses hot water for the teabags.

Our plate stack was so high an old man came over and asked if we were training for a sumo match!

Sushi Nova. Asakusa (map ๐Ÿ—พ). The next-generation conveyor belt sushi is maglev sushi. Skim the menu on an iPad at your seat, make your selection and a high-speed sushi train zips over to your seat with your custom order. These are popping up everywhere.

Niku Sushi "Meat Sushi". Ebisu (inside the little Yokocho market ๐Ÿ—พ). Who says you have to love fish to love sushi? It's not really for picky eaters, though, because you're going to get at least half a dozen parts of the cow that Americans rarely eat.


Afuri Ramen. Ebisu, Roppongi Hills, several others. Their specialty is yuzu ramen. The random question they ask you when you order is if you want an extra ladle of super-tasty chicken fat in the bowl.

Kaoriya Soba. Ebisu (map ๐Ÿ—พ). The best soba I've ever eaten. Make sure you order the dashimaki tamago to start – it's a nice way to enjoy the quality of their dashi.

Kyujukyu ramen "99 Ramen"Ebisu (map ๐Ÿ—พ). A machine grates a little Matterhorn of cheese onto your ramen and it slowly turns to ramen fondue while you eat. Definitely get a beer to help wash this down.


Monja Mugi. Tsukiji (map ๐Ÿ—พ)Okonomiyaki is actually from Western Japan. Its Tokyo-area cousin is called Monjayaki. It's a bit more runny and soupy but it's still quite tasty. There's an entire district near Tsukiji dedicated to restaurants serving it. I'd be falling down on the job if I didn't mention that before an actual Okonomiyaki place.

Jingumae Yaiyai. Shibuya (map ๐Ÿ—พ). Get the Amakara or the Negi. 


Angelica. Shimokitazawa (map ๐Ÿ—พ). First off, I love this neighborhood, so it's worth coming here even without the bakery. That said, I still dream of their sweet potato donut. So so so good. They have several types of curry pan as well, all of them delicious. 

Shirahige cream puff. Shimokitazawa (map ๐Ÿ—พ) Not sure if they're officially licensed, but if you want Studio Ghibli cream puffs in an adorable tree fort-like space, go here.


We spent so much time on trains that we ate a ton of these little bento boxes during our stay. They run the full gamut: from fancy department stores' $80 ekiben full of wagyu beef to the train platform kiosks' rice and vegetable ekiben for $6. My favorite was this one: pull the little rip-cord and it heats itself up!!

Wagyu beef eki bento

Other Japanese

Niagra Curry Station. Nakameguro (map ๐Ÿ—พ). Model railroad curry! Be careful – the spicy curry is actually really, really spicy!

Tonki Tonkatsu. Meguro (map ๐Ÿ—พ). Tonkatsu is a breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet. Tonki's is legendary. The line starts well before they open, so plan accordingly. 

Parting Thought…

I posted this to Instagram and I think it's a great mantra: be brave!

“I'm intentionally not tagging this photo because awesome #Ramen is so ubiquitous and cheap in #Tokyo that all you need to do is just walk into the little shop underneath the train tracks and order what everyone else is having”


Japan has amazing coffee, it's just not quite as ubiquitous as it is in New York. There's a coffee search engine here. Three personal favorites:

* I've omitted places where you need to read/speak Japanese


My New York City food guide is here

Last update 28 Oct 2016

Friday, October 14, 2016

How we're getting to Boracay, Philippines


  • JFK—Houston—Taipei—Kalibo—Manila—Seoul—JFK
  • $439 JetBlue positioning flight from New York JFK to Houston
  • 80,000 United miles from Houston to Taipei on the EVA Air Hello Kitty plane in Business Class.
  • $498 from Taipei to Kalibo on China Airlines in Business Class
  • $115 from MPH to Manila
  • 75,000 Korean miles (Korean Air credit card bonus topped off with Chase points) plus $45 for Manila – Seoul – JFK in Business Class
    • ๐Ÿ›ฌ UPDATE: Trip report for the Manila to Seoul leg!
      ๐Ÿ›ฌ UPDATE: Trip report for the Seoul to JFK leg!
  • TOTAL: 155,000 miles + $1042 . CPM low: 2.2¢, high: ∞ (Hello Kitty plane has been on the bucket list for a while now!) but seriously, somewhere in the 3.5¢ range, HOU-TPE r/t is $4800.
  • all numbers are per person
As I mentioned before, we've had long-term plans to attend a wedding in the Philippines. There were a bunch of good options, but in the end we decided to take a slightly more expensive and circuitous route in order to ride on Eva Air's Hello Kitty jet. I went to the Hello Kitty exhibit in Los Angeles a couple years ago and they had a bunch of the plane's memorabilia on display and that made me want to fly it even more. Can't wait to check it out myself! I was hoping to fly it from NYC or the west coast, but if it's gotta be Houston, then so be it. Rumor has it even the foie gras in Business Class has her face emblazoned across it :)

On our way back, we're flying on the Korean Air 747-8 upstairs – not quite a "bucket list" item, but definitely a big plane geek win for both of us. We love the upstairs on a 747, but we've never been on one of the very-rare 747-8's, which Boeing sold very few of. Sadly none of the buyers ever opted for the SkyLounge or SkySuites options. If you look at the pictures you can see Boeing proposed taking the back half of the plane – which isn't fully double-decker – and turning it a loft of sleeping compartments. Economy passengers could pay an extra fee to have a sleeping bunk in addition to their bed upstairs. I'd vastly prefer that to most of the Premium Economy options for long-haul flights! More info about the 747-8 here.

A few things I learned:
  • Flying Korean from New York to Seoul is about the same price (in dollars) as Los Angeles to Seoul
  • There were still lots of award seats on Korean Air in late August for most November dates
  • Korean JFK or LAX to Manila: 75k each way in Business, 95k in First
  • Korean JFK or LAX to Seoul: 62.5k each way in Business, 80k in First
  • United/Asiana JFK to Manila: 80k each way in Bus, 130k each way in First
  • Very surprised by the number of award seats we found on Asiana through United's website. We found several dates with 3 available seats with only two months notice.
  • We'd flown Korean in First before and it's not really worth the extra miles versus Business Class (plus it lacks the fun clubhouse feeling of the 747's upstairs Business Class mini cabin)

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Which JetBlue card should you get?

JetBlue has a fairly straightforward rewards program. You earn 3 points for every dollar you spend, and each point is worth about 1.3¢ – in other words, you're getting slightly under 4% as a rebate in point form. (Taxes and fees on airfare don't earn points)

If you have the no-fee JetBlue Mastercard, you'll earn an additional 3 points per dollar spent on JetBlue flights, for a total of 6, which brings your rebate up to almost 8%.

But if you'd like to earn yet another 3 points per dollar and get a 10% bonus every time you redeem your points, you can upgrade your no-fee JetBlue Mastercard to the JetBlue Plus card. That brings your effective rebate up to 12.8%. (But beware! ONLY the primary cardholder gets the 10% bonus!)

The PLUS card carries a $99 a year annual fee, but also comes with a card anniversary bonus of 5,000 every year (a $70 value), bringing the effective annual fee down to $29. Ergo:

If you spend more than $700 per year on JetBlue airfare, get the Plus card. 

Quick sidenote: if you make Mosaic elite status, you earn yet another 3 points per dollar, bringing your rebate up to 17%. And this is without factoring in any of the 37,000 bonus points (worth $481) you can earn as you rack up the flights.

Since I had a JetBlue Amex, I got a weird hybrid card that's between the free and no-fee card:
4 points per dollar, 5% rebate on redemptions, $40 annual fee…

Friday, October 7, 2016

JetBlue Mosaic math

One of my rules of traveling is that airline elite status is best earned when someone else is paying.

I'm still seeing friends planning crazy year-end mileage runs (during the holidays when airports are at their worst!) just to keep Delta/United/American status. I can't help but wonder if they're doing that out of old habits or if they've adjusted their math for the new reality.

These days airlines reward points based on dollars spent (not miles flown), and airlines are actively pushing to sell every single upgraded seat instead of giving it away as a free upgrade to their elites. With load factors on the airlines at an all-time high, the era of the complimentary upgrade is largely a thing of the past. (And as I've written about before, I found complimentary upgrades to be way more stress-inducing than you might expect).

My husband flies JetBlue for work and was surprised when he made their "Mosaic" elite status only halfway thru 2015. JetBlue had never offered a First Class cabin until their Mint product launched in late 2014, and they didn't really update TrueBlue's Mosaic qualifications in response to it. It only takes around 3 transcontinental Mint round trips (i.e., $5000 in spending) to qualify for Mosaic.

TrueBlue Mosaic welcome kit
So what is the new math? What is Mosaic status actually worth? 

In our case, Mosaic was worth $1237

Here's how I came up with that number: First, JetBlue's TrueBlue points have a fairly fixed dollar value – around 1.3¢ – which makes calculating their value much easier than legacy carriers' points which can vary between 0.5¢ and 13¢ depending on how you redeem them.
The most important rule in doing this math is that we never blindly fly JetBlue. We've never passed up a better deal on Delta, United, etc. because we were "JetBlue people"
The Mosaic features we used/will use in 2016 and what they're worth to us:
  • free changes to your itinerary. this was worth $0 because all our itinerary changes were driven by his work so work paid. (Change fees are normally $70-$150 depending on the ticket price)
  • discounted Premium Economy upgrades for anyone on his itinerary (i.e., $9-ish worth of points to upgrade one transcon leg versus $65). 14 upgraded legs (8 for him, 6 for me) = $770
  • bonus points earned for paid flying (≈17,000 extra points worth $220)
  • 15,000 point bonus ($195) when you reach Mosaic 
  • free checked bag. $40 (2 @ $20 each)
  • free liquor in Economy. ≈$12
  • early boarding $0 - not a big deal to us. 
  • dedicated phone line $0 – JetBlue's normal phone line is actually quite good. 
So Mosaic was worth $1237 for us – with most of the value coming from discounted upgrades. If you count only the discounted upgrades for himself, that total drops to $907. Since I'm tall, I usually upgrade to Premium Economy when I fly, but if you're not, you might not find any value whatsoever in upgrading from their already-roomy 34" normal seats to the 38" ones.

One more wrinkle: JetBlue runs 3 other random bonus programs:  Go Long, Take 3, Lucky 7. If you make Mosaic, you'll likely hit at least one of those bonuses too. He hit all 3 and earned another 22,000 points ($286).

Knowing what status is actually worth can help you from blindly chasing it for its own sake.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Using your Amex travel fee reimbursement for gift cards

One of the gimmicks credit cards use to help you offset their high annual fees is they offer an "airline fee reimbursement". The hope is to get you to sorta lop that $100 credit off your perception of the card's annual fee. But of course if they make it hard enough to use the credit, they get to keep this money you thought was yours. 

For example, Amex makes you choose a single airline where these fees will be reimbursable. You can only change your choice once a year. Airfare itself on that airline doesn't count (the idea is that Amex is helping you offset all of those pesky baggage and Premium Economy upgrade fees, not the flight itself). 

Well I chose Delta as my airline and it's getting near the end of the year and I haven't used the $100. I'd read online that you could actually buy a Delta gift card and this would count toward your credit. Long story short: American Express does NOT consider Delta gift cards bought from Delta.com as airline fees. Ugh.

I recently got a Chase Sapphire Reserve and the one thing that took me from "maybe" to "hell yes" was the fact that Chase made their $300 annual travel credit super simple to redeem. Are you listening, Amex? 

A couple of other quick things:
  • I booked an Aeromexico flight (on their 787 service!) as a partner award through Delta and the $45 co-pay was reimbursed by Amex. So their credits aren't entirely useless.
  • When I bought the gift certificate online, I didn't know that you have to wait fully 72 hours before you can redeem it. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Ugh! yer killin' me here! Bottega Veneta Amex offer!

Amex periodically has offers you can attach to your card. Most of the time it's for things I don't use (trendy and expensive restaurants, expensive shops, weird online offers, and chain hotels) so I just skim the list when it comes out. Well, today I saw this one:

I love Bottega. And unfortunately my job took a sh*t last week and my cashflow is about to drop off dramatically. Not exactly the time for me to go buying $600 sneakers and a $400 wallet. But I soooo want to!! *stomps feet angrily*

UPDATE: in a bout of distraught, post-election retail therapy I ended up buying two pairs of bottega shoes, AND a belt! The 20,000 points showed up a week later. 

Ok with that out of the way, this essentially amounts to a 25% rebate from Bottega in points form. Their catalog has been sitting on my desk for the past 2 weeks and dang their fall shoes are cuuute :)


Amex is running a similar promotion with ANA – spend $1000 in airfare and get 20,000 points back. That one might also be good if ANA would ever run a Business Class fare special... But to quote one of my Japanese friends, "I'd rather fly ANA in Economy than United in Business!"