Tech, Travel and Tourism (revisited)

Just over two years ago, I posted a blog on how the tourism and travel industries needed to embrace the opportunities brought about by digital disruption. Having been on half a dozen overseas trips in the past 12 months, I can see that there have been some improvements in the traveler experience, but there is still a lot of room for improvement…

One of the biggest benefits has been the expanded integration of public transportation information into Google Maps. Navigation and route planning, right down to which platform to board from or which subway exit to take, has been a huge boost to the traveler UX. Many cities are now using integrated stored value cards for public transport, but limitations still exist: for example, some systems don’t make it that easy for overseas visitors to obtain the card itself, others make it hard to re-load other than by cash; while only a few systems, like Hong Kong and Japan, support multiple point-of-sale transactions for shops, restaurants and other services.

Another plus for frequent travelers has been the increased adoption of chip-enabled, e-passports which streamline the immigration entry/exit process (but only for participating countries, of course). Laborious paperwork still exists in many cases with arrival/departure cards and customs declaration forms – but over time, these processes should become more streamlined with the adoption of digital IDs and biometrics.

Using local mobile phone networks may have gotten easier with compatible operating systems, but even with pre-paid travel SIM cards and data packages, access costs are still disproportionately expensive for overseas visitors. Sure, there are more and more public WiFi services and hotspots available, but most still require users to provide personal data and/or reveal security weaknesses. Even though I recently purchased a mobile pass to access “free” WiFi services abroad, it’s hard to see what value it offers, because it only works after I have already logged onto the WiFi network.

Getting flight information, notifications and alerts via SMS and e-mail has improved considerably, along with easier online booking tools and mobile check-in solutions – and of course, QR codes now support paperless boarding cards. But I’ve noticed that some airline apps don’t support full integration with mobile phone wallets, and consolidating ticketing and invoicing information (e.g., for consolidated expense reporting) from multiple airlines and booking platforms still feels a long way off.

Finally, a constant irritation for travelers are the card transaction fees that most hotels still pass on at checkout – as if many guests are likely to pay in cash! – compounded by the FX fees that the credit card companies also like to charge. All up, this can mean an average of between 3% and 5% in additional fees, in a situation where hotel guests are something of a captive audience. Transaction fees remain a target for further disruption….

Next week: Token ring – a digital ID solution

 

 

 

There’s an awful lot of coffee in Japan (but not much espresso…)

Living in Melbourne all these years, I have become spoilt when it comes to the choice and quality of coffee on offer in the numerous cafes and bars around the city. So when I go overseas, I can get withdrawal symptoms if I don’t get my morning doppio. And I don’t mean an over-priced and over-rated big brand product from a certain you-know-who-you-are multinational chain store. My recent experiences in Japan, which has the third largest coffee consumption by nation, revealed that espresso-style coffee is on the increase, but is competing with some entrenched coffee tastes.

Walter de Maria "Seen/Unseen Known/Unknown" (Photo: © Rory Manchee - all rights reserved)

Walter de Maria “Seen/Unseen Known/Unknown” (Photo: © Rory Manchee – all rights reserved)

On my recent trip to Japan, I not only found some excellent new espresso outlets, I also acquired a renewed respect for siphon and filter coffee, which are both great when they are done well. As anyone who has been to Japan will know, coffee (both hot and cold) frequently comes in a can, either from a vending machine or a convenience store. In cafes, the coffee is usually brewed, and however good the coffee beans, this style just doesn’t do it for me. Rarely have I seen a cafetière (“plunger”) or percolator in use, although iced drip coffee is something of a delicacy.

From three weeks of travel, here are some of the highlights:

In Tokyo’s Ginza district, there is the Renoir Coffee Room which has a certain appeal, if you like authentic retro (i.e., it’s probably the same decor since the 1970’s, without a hint of irony or post modernism). Certainly a favourite with an older clientele, presenting a genteel atmosphere (somewhat undermined by the popular smoking section) and a reminder of a slower, gentler time. In the absence of espresso, I had a standard filter or pour over coffee, and despite being a little on the weak side, it had just enough of a roasted flavour to compensate. Rating: 6/10

Over in hipsterish Ebisu, I was expecting to find loads of local coffee shops, packed with neo-beatniks, retro-hippies and proto-punks, and the constant hiss of espresso machines. Not to be – maybe it was too early in the afternoon, but there were few options. Marugo Deli is more of a juice bar and organic cafe, that also happens to serve espresso. It was a friendly place, nice atmosphere, but the coffee was nothing special. Rating: 6/10

Down in Himeji, after a challenging climb to the top of the castle on a hot day teeming with hundreds of other visitors, it was a welcome relief to escape into the cool, calm comfort of Hamamoto Coffee. Again, they don’t serve espresso, but they specialise in siphon coffee (something I probably haven’t had since I used to visit the former Martinos Coffee Lounge in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay in the 1990s). Sitting at the counter meant that I got to see the whole process close up, as the bar tender kept several siphons going at the same time. It’s as much an art as working a good espresso machine, and makes for interesting entertainment. The coffee itself was bold, yet mellow at the same time – full-bodied but smooth with an almost zesty edge. HIghly recommended. Rating: 8.5/10

Wandering around Kyoto‘s hipster quarter close to Nijo Castle, I came across Cafe Bibliotic Hello! (quirky name, quirky building!!!) where it’s easy to while away the time browsing through the library of art books and sampling the excellent baked goods from the adjoining store. The espresso was a welcome bonus, and was the best I’d had up until then on this trip. Rating: 8.5/10

Outside Kyoto, in Saga-Arashiyama (near the bamboo forest), % Arabica has recently opened its second Kyoto coffee shop. Overlooking the river, this tiny cafe is really only a takeaway stand, but everything has been designed for maximum aesthetic effect. There’s clearly a personal statement being made here, almost verging on the pretentious/precious, but not surprisingly it is very popular with the passing visitors. And the coffee is also pretty good – full-roasted, robust, just enough acidity, and an excellent crema. Rating: 9.5/10

Back in Tokyo, nearing the end of my trip, I spent a day walking around the district of Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, visiting the numerous galleries, second-hand bookshops and the Kiyosumi Gardens. In 2014, the New Zealand-based Allpress Espresso roastery and cafe group opened a branch here, in a former timber warehouse. It’s an interesting space, and is bringing some serious competition to a rival coffee roaster nearby (which only serves filter coffee to its customers). However, not all the locals seem to have taken to espresso – after having the coffee menu explained to them, a number walked out without trying, looking somewhat confused. But for me, having an Antipodean barista was obviously a plus. Rating: 9/10

Finally, I tried a couple of other espresso bars on my stay in Shimo-Kitazawa, one of which was not much more than an espresso stand, offering good coffee (Rating: 7.5/10), but the service was very slow. I can’t remember the name, and I can’t find a website for it, but it was close to the west entrance to the railway station. This trendy neighbourhood has a number of well-regarded coffee shops, but sadly, I did not have enough time to visit many of them. Next trip, perhaps.

Next week: More #FinTech stuff

Seeing Japan with #Airbnb

Hotels in Japan can be very expensive, and despite the fact that the shared economy operates in something of a regulatory grey area, I am pleased to say that the experience of using Airbnb throughout my recent visit was a great success. Luckily, my travelling partner had done extensive advance research, so there were very few hitches.

Kan Yasuda: “Shape of Mind” (2006) Photo © Rory Manchee – all rights reserved

Whether innovation is on the rise in Japan, or whether the “illicit” sharing economy is gaining traction, it seems that Airbnb in particular appeals to certain enterprising and entrepreneurial types who see an opportunity in the current market. The various hosts comprised an agent managing several properties on behalf of the owners, professional couples renting out an investment or spare apartment, and a self-motivated entrepreneur also building social enterprises.

I won’t specify the apartments I stayed in, partly because these particular hosts in Tokyo, Kobe and Kyoto are proving very popular (especially over the upcoming holiday season), and partly to avoid any potential “regulatory” hassles. But hopefully the following insights will be helpful in planning your own trip.

First, the bookings were all for self-contained apartments (usually a studio dwelling, close to public transport), and selected based on previous positive feedback. In each case, the accommodation was situated in older, low-rise developments, located in mainly residential neighbourhoods. In one case, it was a traditional apartment, complete with tatami mats, sliding doors/room dividers, and an older style wet-room bath and shower.

Second, the “hosts” were all very helpful in giving travel directions, offering suggestions on where to eat nearby, and/or providing local guides and maps. One had even posted a self-made YouTube video showing the walk from the train station to the front door. Obviously, the fact that they were happy to take bookings from foreign visitors meant that all of the communication was conducted in English.

Third, for the most part decor was simple but comfortable, but some of the beds were on the small side. And one apartment was owned by a fan of a certain cartoon character, with furnishings to match, which was quite surreal.

Fourth, due to the apparent semi-legal nature of Airbnb in Japan, the hosts were keen to make sure that not only did their guests not make any noise or disturb the neighbours, they did not want guests either to talk to or to answer the door to strangers. One host even suggested that if guests put rubbish in the wrong place for collection, they would be extorted by the local Yakuza.

Lastly, although the basics were consistent (bedding, towels, soap, shampoo, hairdryer, cutlery, crockery), there were some significant differences in what other facilities were provided, as follows:

Apartment 1

Location: Close to the Metro, convenience stores, restaurants, bars and a shopping mall. Also, in the vicinity of museums, galleries and other cultural attractions.

Accommodation: Studio apartment, with own bathroom and kitchenette.

Amenities: No TV, but free WiFi, kettle, microwave, single-burner stove, fridge, washing machine.

Apartment 2

Location: Reasonably close to the local private railway station, supermarkets nearby, and a couple of small shops in the area. No bars or restaurants in the immediate neighbourhood, which was mostly residential, but there were the ubiquitous vending machines. More choices in the nearby suburbs.

Accommodation: 3-bedroom traditional apartment (tatami mats, futons), with own bathroom and kitchen/diner. Very spacious.

Amenities: No WiFi and no washing machine, but free-to-air TV, kettle, microwave, single-burner stove, fridge. And no knives. Of any kind.

Apartment 3

Location: Very near to a large JR station and major bus routes, with a supermarket and a couple of convenience stores on the same street, and several small bars and restaurants close by. Mixed residential, commercial and light-industrial area.

Accommodation: Studio apartment, with own bathroom and kitchenette.

Amenities: Free portable WiFi, free-to-air TV, kettle, single-burner stove, fridge, washing machine. But no microwave.

Apartment 4

Location: Few hundred meters from a major interchange station, and very close to several convenience stores, bars, restaurants and a decent coffee shop. Adjacent to a very popular shopping, eating and entertainment precinct, getting very trendy with the hipster brigade (even some co-working spaces in the neighbourhood!).

Accommodation: Studio apartment, with own bathroom and kitchen/diner.

Amenities: No microwave, no stove and no TV. But free WiFi, hot-water urn, fridge, and washing machine.

Finally, the only major criticism I have is that the Airbnb app itself was not that easy to use while travelling, so messages to/from hosts were often delayed. (More on Japan in coming weeks….)

Next week: navigating #MedTech

Japan – renewing my long-standing relationship

I’ve just spent three weeks in Japan, travelling around by train, staying in Airbnb accommodation, and soaking up the art, architecture, design, food, beer and general culture. It was the longest time I have spent in Japan, and several years since my last trip in 2010. But given I have been to Japan more than 25 times in the past 20 years, it was like renewing an old friendship.

Image © Rory Manchee - all rights reserved

Akashi Castle – Photo © Rory Manchee – all rights reserved

My earliest visit to Tokyo, back in 1995, was to spend a few days with a friend from London who was managing a now-forgotten Britpop band on their debut tour of Japan. After attending a couple of their concerts, being entertained by their Japanese record company, visiting a few tourist spots and hanging out in a number of Tokyo nightclubs, it was a very limited/skewed introduction to the country.

My next visit the following year was even shorter, and even more skewed. Another friend from London (now a well-known writer and broadcaster) was supposed to be covering yet another Britpop band on their Japanese tour, on behalf of a British magazine. Instead, we scored some free tickets to see the Sex Pistols at Budokan (it was their infamous Filthy Lucre tour), and my one night in Tokyo was spent drinking with the band after the gig, in a bizarre subterranean bar. But that’s another story.

Most of my trips to Japan have been for business, and only to Tokyo. So this latest visit was an ideal opportunity to stretch out and explore in more depth. Over the next few posts, I’ll be commenting on my experiences, across such topics as coffee, AirBnB, art & architecture, crate digging and some navigational issues.

First, here are just a few of the reasons why I appreciate Japan:

  • The love of good design
  • Hardly any graffiti, virtually no petty vandalism, and scarcely any litter
  • The food
  • People rarely talk on their mobile phones on the train or in public places
  • The service culture and overall politeness
  • Trains run on time
  • The convenience stores
  • IC cards (take note, Myki…)

Of course, nothing’s perfect: Japanese TV is mostly awful; good espresso coffee is in short supply; everything comes over-packaged; and in many situations, it’s still a cash-only economy. I also appreciate that it’s a complicated society, often seen as repressed, and difficult for outsiders to understand.

But for all its challenges, Japan must be doing something right, as in-bound tourism numbers (especially from Greater China) are at record-breaking levels.

Next week: Seeing Japan with #Airbnb