Long weekend in Japan: HK Express (UO) HKG-FUK

While I love Hong Kong and the professional and personal opportunities I have here, some days I have a physical need to be back in Japan. While HK is quite close to Japan, particularly Okinawa and Kyushu, the fares and flight times often make it impossible to go there for a weekend. It’s a similar flight time to KL, Singapore, Bangkok, etc, but the departure times make it possible to leave HK on a Friday night and come back on a Sunday afternoon or evening. Moreover, fares to Japan are often ridiculously expensive, even on budget airlines. So my trips back to my second home are largely limited to the longer breaks over Christmas, Easter, etc (trip reports: here and here).

Luckily, in October I managed to grab a good deal to Fukuoka, city of my twenties, on HK Express for a long weekend in May, with fares for about HKD1800 per person. They can be up to HKD3000 in non-peak times and during big holidays like Christmas, a whopping HKD8000 or above (it’s only a three or four flight!). It would be my first time travelling on this budget airline, and with the limited number of trip reports out there, I trusted several acquaintances who have no qualms flying them.

Our flight to Fukuoka left at the rather unpleasant hour of 7:45 on a Saturday morning. Too early for the Airport Express, we luckily found a cab quite easily and arrived at Terminal 2, where UO checkin desks are. Having checked in online and travelling only with hand luggage, we realised that it would have been better to just arrive at T1 and go through security and immigration from there, as it’s a fair drive between terminals. Whoops.

I’m not a morning person, and I was jonesing for a coffee. The airport felt eerily quiet and so few shops were open. I couldn’t find a coffee shop open anywhere, although there were dozens of local Hong Kong food places serving up stuff that turns my stomach for breakfast, and probably the stomachs of many non-locals who also use the airport. Finally, I found the only coffee shop open at this hour. Check out the queue:

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Sorry, but for an international airport in “Asia’s world city”, this is pathetic.

Anyway, once I’d finally got my coffee, it was time to head to gate 502, where the staff immediately greeted me with “Travelling to Fukuoka? No outside food allowed”. This is repeated many times when travelling with UO. I had no intention of taking the coffee on board and had a good 10 minutes to sit and drink it before boarding would start through buses. While I was sitting and sipping away, the ground staff took our passports and the boarding passes we’d printed at home, and did whatever checks they needed to do.

Finally, it was time to board the bus to our aircraft. I was so excited to be heading to wonderful Fukuoka again, the first time since Christmas.

As we boarded, it felt like any other budget airline. Slimline leather seats with seat pitch that would be tight if you are tall. Luckily for me, I’m not. After a few minutes on board, a second busload of passengers arrived and I wondered if there’d be a third. Nope, it would be a light load this morning. I’d say about two thirds full. Surprising on a long weekend, but perhaps most passengers favour the later departure from HK.Works for me!

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Announcements were made in English and Cantonese. No Japanese, even though this flight was headed to Japan. Also, the language in the in-flight publications was barely bilingual. Some of the travel guide stuff was in Chinese only. Again, Asia’s world city! The menu, however, was quadlingual (English, Chinese, Japanese, Korean), though extended description of menu items was only in Chinese. The English language skills of the crew member making announcements was average, with quite poor pronunciation. The pilot made announcements only in English.

We departed exactly on time. Nice!

It was quite a pleasant flight for a budget airline. I slept as much as possible, as did most of the other passengers, so it was quite peaceful. My return flight would not be so, but that’s a story for later. Most of the passengers were Hong Kongers, but our seatmate was Japanese. Due to the early departure time and light load, the cabin was blissfully quiet. This is not something that is common on flights to and from HK, especially on local airlines. I relished it. Alas, the return trip would not be so pleasant, but that’s a story for later.

cabin
An A320 cabin not unlike that of most LCCs

After a nap of about an hour, I ordered a genmaicha. That’s what it’s called in English on the menu, but the crew member didn’t understand me. Didn’t understand “roasted rice green tea” either, so I finally had to point at the menu. Asia’s world city.

There’s not much else to say about this flight, but I’ll let the pictures do the talking:

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Southern Japan – stunning

 

All up, my first trip with UO was pleasant, and for the price, I can’t complain. Fukuoka is wonderfully close to the city centre, so after breezing through immigration and customs, we hit the city and made a beeline for our favourite sushi restaurant.

What a feeling, touching down somewhere exotic and yet entirely familiar. Sliding back into old habits, knowing exactly where to go. And yet, that jolting realisation that something has changed, or that YOU have changed, and you don’t live there anymore.

Still, it’s marvellous. You have the best the city has to offer, without the mundane stuff like work to worry about. Oh, and she’s beautiful, Fukuoka. Beautiful food, people and weather. I soak it all up, hoping to take it with me, to sustain me till my next visit.

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Where in my daily life in HK can I encounter such quiet and beauty???

Sigh. Time to head on back.

One last soak in a neighbourhood onsen (more like a sento, but anyway), feeling relaxed but sad to leave, we took a taxi to the airport. Given its proximity to the city centre, it cost a reasonable 1200 yen. The international terminal hadn’t changed much from when we lived there (my most recent trips had seen me using the domestic terminal, which is separate and connected to the subway).

fooks.jpg
Bye for now

We’d checked in but needed to have our documents verified. This was easily done and smoother than JAL in January. After this, we went downstairs to the sole convenience store on the arrivals floor to purchase some candy for workmates, which I’d forgotten to do downtown, to find it had been cleaned out and it was barely 4pm. Was it the hungry hoardes of stranded Chinese travellers? Or, given the amount of LCCs and people’s reluctance to pay for food on board, was this a regular daily occurrence?

 

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Finnair is coming to Fukuoka and proclaims “a northern European style” of travel. Looking forward to flying them in summer.
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One last beautiful meal before our departure. This is a run-of-the-mill airport restaurant, yet look at the presentation! Everyday beauty.
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Dragonair flight to HKG which departed a little before ours. In the background, the green and blue hues signify summer is on its way. I can hear the cicadas already!

The only major change I could notice was more budget carriers and a new duty free collection area, which was heavily patronised by Chinese travellers. It’s definitely not a place you’d want to while away much time, even if you had lounge access, as I don’t think they’re much to write home about either.

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On our departure day, some flights to mainland China and a Jetstar flight to Singapore via Bangkok had been heavily delayed, around 8 hours. The Chinese flights cited poor weather conditions, while Jetstar Asia announcements blamed late arrival of aircraft. The terminal was filled with the sound of Chinese, both Mandarin and Cantonese, reminding me of where I was returning to.

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We saw our aircraft pull up to the gate

Boarding was conducted in an orderly, if not confusing manner, whereby there were two lines and particular row numbers were allowed to board, but it was never really clear which ones. Finally, the ground staff used a sign that showed my row was due to board, and it was time to say goodbye to Fukuoka. I was sad to leave Japan, but glad to get out of the airport- being around that many people and with nothing much to do was tiresome. Alas, I’d be trapped around noisy people for the next 3.5 hours.

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Pushing and shoving like it’s the MTR

On first impressions, the seats looked comfortable but the cabin decor was very… red. I don’t think it’s a particularly soothing colour scheme, and would go as far to call it gaudy. The seat didn’t turn out to be that comfortable, either. For all its plush appearance, it was actually quite firm. Fake leather green headrests adorned the red seats, and looked a bit ratty. Settled in my seat, watching the remaining passengers board, I observed both the crew and passengers bump into each other and brush past each other, without noticing or apologising, like they were boarding the subway. A familiar sight in Hong Kong and I was reminded of where I was returning to. Pity some people don’t spend enough time absorbing the manners of Japan as they do consuming its products.

 

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I just love how the ground crew bow. The Delta flight in the background is headed to Honolulu.

Announcements were woefully soft, no match for the cacophony made by the passengers. The safety demonstration was ignored by everyone, as even if one wanted to pay attention, it was impossible to hear.

What a beautiful view as we climbed – without a flight map I could only guess where we were flying over, but I later saw on FlightRadar 24 that we flew over Kumamoto, the city and prefecture that has suffered a terrible earthquake, close to the Shimabara Peninsula, which I’d visited at Christmas, and over some islands I’m now intrigued about – Ueshima, Nagashima, Shimoshima. I was disappointed when my view was interrupted by the clouds.

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Before too long, the meal service started. Pre-ordered meals were delivered first. The meal choice has somewhat improved since we first booked, as at that time there was no vegetarian option. There is now “fukien fried rice”, which unfortunately looks like gloop over a lot of white rice. The other food options are also very Hong Kong-centric and very expensive by Hong Kong standards – 30HKD for cup noodles is crazy, let alone the prices for the hot food. I daresay if they followed Air Asia’s lead and provided more affordable meals to suit a variety of tastebuds, they wouldn’t need to remind everyone of their ‘no outside food’ policy.

I again ordered genmaicha, which is what it’s called on their menu, and again the crew member didn’t understand. This time she at least understood ‘roasted rice green tea’. Just as I ordered, we encountered some turbulence. I was told that it was too dangerous for hot drinks and they would give me my change and the beverage later. It wasn’t too dangerous to cease trading completely, mind you, and the food sales service continued for those who wanted less risky items. Before long, however, I was given my tea and change.

The flight continued uneventfully, only marked by the sound of babies crying, passengers snorting and snoring. The duty free service commenced and it seemed to be a long process for anyone who wanted to purchase anything. Finally, the lights were dimmed after the duty free finished. It was then that the flight became tedious for me. A family behind me seemed to be travelling with half the plane, and were entertaining various random visitors to their seats. Some visitors were engaging in loud conversations with mouths full of food, again reminding me I was returning home to Hong Kong I must add I had noise-cancelling headphones on and could still hear them. ‘Dear god, please let us not get stuck in a holding pattern in HK,’ I mentally begged. In between entertaining callers, the mother in the middle seat quizzed her young child, who could not have been more than three or four years old, random words in Mandarin and spelling tests in English, in rapid fire, and loudly and harshly scolding her when the poor lass couldn’t come up with the correct answer quick enough. I won’t detail the thoughts this educator had about tiger mothers and the ridiculous amount of academic pressure placed on children here, grr. The tiger mother was just awful, and it was really unpleasant (the poor kid and passengers like me having to hear it!) and impossible to tune out.

Finally, at 8pm HK time, the captain announced we were in HKG airspace, and would be landing on schedule. Hooray. We landed at one of the new gates 2 train stops from the immigration hall. Breezing through immigration with my Hong Kong ID and thankfully having no luggage to collect, we jumped in a cab and headed home.

Final verdict – we luckily had flights on time and not subjected to the crazy congestion at HK airport. I was able to have a really refreshing weekend in a place that I adore, thanks to the reasonable fare UO charge and their flight times, which are more practical than Dragonair (or Cathay Dragon as it’s now called). The food and drinks could be improved and prices lowered to encourage people to buy it and not sneak on their own food. The disturbance from other passengers was unpleasant and I wonder if the entertainment and meal service of a legacy airline would have pacified them (hmm, maybe not the tiger mother). If the fares are good enough, I’d fly UO to Japan for a long weekend again, at least for the morning flight on the outbound leg. Coming back, I’d consider redeeming some AsiaMiles for the Dragonair flight.

Still, when travelling at times like Christmas when there is often not a huge fare difference between budget and full-service carriers, especially when add-ons such as luggage are factored in, I’d spend the extra 1000HKD or so and choose ANA or JAL – they’re an extension of Japan in the sky.

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