Jeff and Lance, Big In Japan Part I: The Chicago Opening Act

It begins here, folks…our super-sized report of our trip to Japan!

Why Japan?  Well, it sort of became a question of, “Why not Japan?”  I had spent two years amassing enough frequent flier miles to get Lance and I to Europe for free-ish (those pesky fuel surcharges’ll get you every time!), but suddenly we were significant over the amount we needed, and within striking distance of enough miles for two roundtrip tickets to Japan.  We scrambled to liquidate our hotel points programs to transfer those points into miles so we’d have enough.  Finally, right after Christmas 2011, we were able to book our two round-trip tickets to Japan for the hefty price of…like $180 total (taxes be damned!).

Of course, this gave us PLENTY of time to plan.  Or, more accurately, it gave me plenty of time to plan.  I researched hotels and transportation, did language audio lessons, booked tours and classes, etc., etc., and then rearranged everything a dozen or so times.  Lance admitted a few days before the vacation, “Wow. I have no idea what we’re doing on this trip.” All the while I’m panicking trying to keep everything straight in my trusty day-by-day planner/binder full of confirmation e-mails, train passes and so forth.

Finally, the big day came: October 20, 2012! We drove to the airport bright and early that morning:

Is Lance smiling, or is he just about to sneeze?
Requisite airplane photo!

Since we had a frequent flier mile award ticket, the routing from Philadelphia to Tokyo was not fantastic, and meant that we had to stay overnight in Chicago before connecting on to Japan.

Problem? NO!  We both love Chicago.  It is my super-favoritest place in the United States.  I so badly want to live there it’s not even funny, so when we had the chance to actually get a “free” day in the city, I did not complain.

One suave CTA passenger.

We went directly to our hotel, the Radisson Blu Aqua in the Loop, only to find out that, since it was so early yet (just about noon), our room wasn’t available.

Our purdy hotel, which is on the bottom 19 floors of the Aqua Building, pictured above.

We did scope out the lobby, though, which was really gorgeous.


We didn’t have a big agenda for Chicago, since we only had about 24 hours in the city, but one of the places we had to go was…coffee chain Caribou Coffee! Lance loves Caribou…he says for their actual coffee, though, let’s be honest, it’s really for their dessert drinks, like the $8 Campfire Mocha (which has, like, marshmallows and graham and pieces of firewood in it or something).  We don’t get Caribous on the East Coast north of Baltimore, so we made sure to swing by.

Then we took our Campfire Mochas and Pumpkin Chai Lattes and walked down State Street, only to run into…

…City Target! What the what!

Apparently, this City Target is part of the first wave of Targets specifically designed for urban centers.  It also just so happened to be the most gorgeous, seemingly most enormous Target either of us had ever been in.  If we didn’t need another reason to relocate to Chicago…!

Lance is in heaven.

Above: NOT the Tokyo we were going to.

Of course, at this point, it’s about 1:00PM (2:00PM…2:00!…Eastern Time), so we’re getting pretty famished.  Lance, who is a chain restaurant loyalist, actually suggested a placed he spotted called Grahamwich, a sandwich/popcorn concept by some supposedly famous dude named Graham Elliot.

The roast beef.
The pastrami rueben.
Cheddar and BBQ chips.
If I remember correctly, this was a caramel apple donut. Donut #1 of 65 of this trip.

Grahamwich was actually pretty good (the Yelp reviews can suck it!).  The restaurant had a bit of that hipster pretentiousness which I am usually not comfortable around, but a good sandwich brings people together.  Recommended if you find yourself with the munchies in downtown Chicago.

Finally, the hotel called and told us our room was ready.  Hoorah!

Or…well, not really.  We hoofed our luggage to the room, only to find a dirty towel in the shower (the towel was covered in…brown. ICK.)  I called down to the front desk, who was able to move us up a floor to another room.

What’s that?  A view of Millenium Park?

Why, yes, it is!

The good news about moving up a floor, besides the obvious awesomeness of being higher up, was that our room was part of the “business class” rooms, which got us access to the hotel’s lounge:

Gorgeously designed, with free soda, snacks, and…a Nespresso machine!

Lance will now demonstrate how to model in front of a Nespresso machine:


At this point, Lance was dragging pretty bad, so he headed back up to the hotel room for a nap.  Me?  I realized as we were taking the CTA into downtown Chicago that I forgot Tami Taylor! A quick trip to FedEx Office was in order:

$8 later:

“What’s all this abstract public art, y’all?”

The Bean on a Saturday afternoon in the fall was a hotbed of quinceaneras and weddings. Lots of girls dressed up in pastel princess outfits frollicking about, and this…

Now, there was one thing on the Chicago agenda that I was really looking forward to: the Brandi Carlile concert at the Chicago Theatre.  I’ve been a Brandi fan for years, and may have squealed the littlest bit when I saw that her tour just happened to stop in Chicago the same night that we would be there for our layover. What are the odds? Coincidence? I think not!

Suffice to say, I purchased pre-sale tickets without even looking at the price. It was fate, dammit!

Fun street art. Why can’t we get this kind of stuff in Philly?

Lance finally emerged from his slumber so that we could go to dinner before the show:

Big Bowl for dinner!  We’ve been entranced with Big Bowl ever since we walked by it years ago on our last trip to Chicago, thinking it was a bowling alley, only to find out that it was a sorta-P.F. Chang’s-style Asian food restaurant.  That, and their restaurant is themed pretty awesomely, with giant take-out boxes and abacuses hanging from the ceiling.

Seriously, what’s better to kick off a trip to Japan than to eat Americanized Asian food?

The very Asian seasonal cocktail, the ginger cinnamon sangria.
Lance’s lemon honey-ade.

Pondering why my thumb joint looks so weird in this photo.

Chicken satay with peanut sauce. YUM!
Kung pao chicken with noodles.

Lance and drink #3. He was preemptively forgetting the concert he had little desire to attend.

Off to the show!

I’d never been inside the Chicago Theatre before, which was another reason why I was excited for this show.  It was gorgeous inside, very similar to the Fox Theatre in Detroit.  (I still have to admit, though, that the most crazy ornate theatre I’ve ever been in is just down the street from this, the Oriental Theatre in Chicago where we saw the standing production of Wicked years ago.)

Between the opening act (Blitzen Something-something…not that good) and Brandi, the woman sitting next to us with her partner offered to take our picture, which I happily accepted:

She then asked, “Would you take a picture of us?”  She turned to the empty seat beside her where her partner was just moments ago.  “…If she ever comes back,” the woman added, choking up.  I thought the girlfriend had just gone to bathroom. Way to make me feel awkward, lady!

Thankfully, Brandi came on just a few moments later so I wouldn’t have to interact with Miss Sad Sack anymore!

Sorry these pics are so blurry; we had good seats but not THAT good:

Brandi and the twins do an unplugged number. She has quite the voice–it carried throughout the entire theatre!

It was a great show, though I was fighting a cold at the time and I felt in a slight haze the entire time.  Still, I spend $25 for a signed venue-exclusive poster to commemorate the experience. Ahh, capitalism makes memories better!

The next morning, I tracked down an Intelligentsia Coffee, which (so I’d seen on some TV show) has one of those 24-hour iced coffee brews.  24 hours! I don’t know what that means in terms of coffee, but it sure sounded impressive, and thus, I MUST HAVE!

Look!  Some stupid coffee contraptions to make you feel better about spending $4 on an iced coffee!

B-S chemistry! That $4 has gotta go somewhere!

I gotta say (and Lance, the iced coffee connoisseur, agrees), that this brew, while complex in flavor, was lacking in the kind of kick-in-the-teeth jolt we both enjoy from coffee.  It was almost too smooth, if that’s something that you can complain about.

Now, one last swing through the city on our way to the train that’ll take us back to O’Hare!

…oh wait, I nearly forgot (no, really, I actually nearly forgot and we were almost late to the airport because of it): Do-Rite Donuts! Ever since seeing them on my pal Teresa’s Instagram, I knew I had to try them.  Could they possibly be better than Philly’s Federal Donuts?

Candied maple bacon donut.
Cinnamon crunch donut.

Unfortunately, there weren’t all that great–I didn’t even finish them (donuts #2 and #3 of the trip!)  It kind of peeves me when places try to do “edgy donuts” and they expect for the novelty to mask a lackluster pastry. Wah. #firstworldproblems

After that, it was time to grab out bags, head to the airport, and board our 13+ hour flight from Chicago O’Hare to Tokyo Narita.  The glare obfuscates it, but there’s a “6” before that 267 miles:

Lance’s neighbor behind him really liked to share…his smelly feet.  It’s also telling when the flight attendants cut you off from having any more liquor:

13 hours and some not-so-restful sleep later, we land in Narita, where I have the world’s worst de-pressurization.  Don’t let this photo fool you, it really felt like my eye was going to explode as we were descending. ICK!

Aww, look at this welcoming sign! We feel so welcome!

ACK! What is this…??

Okay, so we finally made it to Japan.  Yippee!  Tune in next time to find out if we ever find our hotel!


11 thoughts on “Jeff and Lance, Big In Japan Part I: The Chicago Opening Act

  1. I actually clicked on this as I’m researching my own trip to Japan but now you’ve made me want to go to Chicago!! Very entertaining read, I’m looking forward to actually ready about Japan now 🙂

  2. Pingback: Jeff and Lance, Big In Japan Part II: Let’s Lose Our Way Together « Lance + Jeff

  3. I was directed here by a reading list reccomendation by lovely Estelle from That Happy Place Blog, and I’m so glad I clicked the link! Wonderful pics that remind me of my trip to Chicago a few years ago and our trips to wonderful Tokyo too.Can’t wait for more memories from our trips to TDL and TDSEA! Thanks for sharing! -Q

  4. Pingback: Jeff and Lance, Big in Japan Part III: Tokyo Disney Resort « Lance + Jeff

  5. Pingback: Weekly Round Up: November 13 | Mouse on the Mind

  6. Pingback: Jeff and Lance, Big in Japan Part IV: 24 (and 9) Hours in Kyoto « Lance + Jeff

  7. Pingback: Jeff and Lance, Big in Japan Part V: An Evening With Cats In Tokyo « Lance + Jeff

  8. Pingback: Lance + Jeff | The Last Year

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