Three Perfect Days: San Francisco
Hemispheres

Three Perfect Days: San Francisco

By The Hub team , October 05, 2017

Story by Justin Goldman | Photography by Amy Harrity | Hemispheres, October 2017

San Francisco is a city of booms. The first came in the mid-19th century, when prospectors were drawn by rumors of gold in California's mountains. Fifty years ago, hippies streamed to Haight-Ashbury in search of love-ins and electric Kool-Aid. And in the last decade, the tech boom has seen a flood of young entrepreneurs who are using Silicon Valley cash to change how we communicate with each other—and to imagine the city of the future. This latest influx has sparked controversy, as skyrocketing rents have priced out many of the people who gave the city its bohemian, devil-may-care spirit—an exoticism that inspired journalist Herb Caen's 1949 book, Baghdad by the Bay. So how is the old San Francisco (per Caen's instructions, don't call it “Frisco") blending with the new? Hemispheres sent this former SF resident home to find out.

Day 1 Graphic

In which Justin squeezes through Chinatown's alleys, channels the Beats, and gets rained on inside a bar

I open my visit the way it seems all San Franciscans begin their days: Standing in line for breakfast. I'm on Polk Street, the main thoroughfare of Nob Hill, waiting for the morning fog to burn off and for Swan Oyster Depot to open. This storied seafood market has been in business for more than 100 years, and if you want to get a spot at its 18-seat counter, you'd better get here well before the 10:30 a.m. opening. The front window teases me with a display of freshly caught fare on ice, and once inside I do my best to consume all of it: briny, creamy West Coast oysters; a beautiful sashimi plate with salmon, tuna, hamachi, and scallops; sourdough dipped in crab fat; and perfect smoked salmon. I wash it down with the city's favorite brew, an Anchor Steam. Hey, it's almost noon.

A short cab ride takes me to the tech industry haven of South of Market (SOMA), where I'll be walking off my meal in the galleries of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. SFMOMA reopened last year after a three-year renovation that made it one of the largest modern and contemporary art museums in America. The permanent collection features Diego Rivera's Flower Carrier, Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe, and Marcel Duchamp's urinal, but my favorite part of the new building is the sculpture garden's lush Living Wall, which, at almost 30 feet tall and holding nearly 20,000 plants, is the largest of its kind in the U.S.

Coit Tower rises from the top of Telegraph HillCoit Tower rises from the top of Telegraph Hill

It's a short walk across Market Street and through the towers of the Financial District to reach the oldest, largest Chinatown in the Americas. In Portsmouth Square, surrounded by huddles of elderly Asian men playing cards, I meet Sharon Traeger, a Tours by Locals guide who has agreed to tell me a bit about the neighborhood's history. The city—then known as Yerba Buena—established its first public square here in the early 19th century, and the Chinese, Traeger notes, moved in at the beginning of the gold rush. After the 1906 earthquake destroyed much of San Francisco, officials tried to push the Chinese community farther from downtown, but after protests, Traeger says, “the city eventually allowed them to stay here, on the condition they rebuilt it to look Chinese."

We exit the square and zigzag through crowded alleys, below colored balconies and alongside shops carrying everything from sea cucumbers to giant mushrooms. After tasting samples at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, we climb three flights of stairs to the 1852 Tin How Temple, a tiny space decorated with lanterns, embroidered fabrics, and bowls of fruit left as offerings to the goddess who controls the wind and the waves.

Our next stop is China Live, a food hall that's aiming to bring this historic neighborhood into the future. Founder and executive chef George Chen meets us at the entrance. “China's changing, yet Chinatown's the same as it was 50 years ago," he says. “And Chinese food hasn't changed in this country that much. I wanted to do a marketplace to show that Chinese food can be ingredient-driven, just like any other cuisine. When I saw the success of Eataly"—Mario Batali's palatial Italian food emporia—“I said, 'If they can do it with Italian, why not here with Chinese?'"

Hanging Peking ducks at China LiveHanging Peking ducks at China Live

Chen shows us around the tea bar, decorated with hand-painted blue and white tiles, and the retail shop, where we sniff Eight Treasures tea and Sichuan peppercorns, then offers us a seat at the Marketplace Restaurant. He sends over a slew of small plates: xiao long bao soup dumplings, black tree ear mushrooms, roasted Peking duck served in sesame pockets, and richly spiced mapo tofu. We cool off with sesame soft-serve ice cream topped with mango shaved ice, which Traeger keeps inching closer to her. I can't say I blame her.

From here, it's only a block downhill to North Beach, SF's Little Italy. This city has a rich literary history—everyone from Mark Twain to Jack London to Alice Walker has called it home—and the center of it all is Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore. The poet published Allen Ginsberg's Howl in 1956 and then was put on trial for obscenity (he was acquitted), and City Lights has continued to distinguish itself by selling and publishing experimental works. I find a novel by a grad school classmate of mine, Marc Anthony Richardson, which I take across Jack Kerouac Alley to Vesuvio Cafe, the bar that the Beats favored back in the '50s. I wind up the stairs, past old fliers for readings by Kerouac and Bukowski and photos of Ginsberg and Dylan, and sit at a window table, sipping an Anchor Steam and flipping through my book. It's a perfect San Francisco happy hour.

“Chinese food can be ingredient-driven, just like any other cuisine. If they can do it with Italian, why not here with Chinese?"

Dinner is right across the street at Tosca Cafe. This nearly century-old neighborhood bar and restaurant was bought and updated in 2013 by the owners of New York's famed The Spotted Pig. Bon Appétit named Tosca one of the 10 best new restaurants in America in 2014, but it retains a homey feel. The bar in front has the air of an old dive, while the dining space looks like a classic red-sauce joint, with wine bottles lining the walls and a mural of Venice's Grand Canal. I meet my monthly calorie requirement with orders of tender meatballs, lumaconi pasta shells in beurre blanc, and a delicious roasted chicken. There's only one legitimate drink order: the House Cappuccino, a Tosca original that blends armagnac, bourbon, chocolate ganache, and milk. They were so busy putting all that good stuff in the “cappuccino," they forgot one thing: the coffee.

It's a five-minute cab ride up to my hotel, the Fairmont San Francisco. At the peak of Nob Hill, this old palace is a part of Bay Area lore. It was here, in 1961, that Tony Bennett first performed “I Left My Heart in San Francisco." The lobby, with its grand staircase and expanses of marble, is impressive, but I'm looking for a kitschy kick, so I take the elevator down to the Tonga Room, the beloved tiki bar that dates to 1945, when an MGM set director converted an indoor pool into a lagoon with a thatch-roofed bandstand in the middle, surrounded by ship's rigging and Polynesian artifacts. I sit at the railing and sip a mai tai—a tropical drink that was actually invented across the Bay at Trader Vic's—until lights begin to flash overhead, thunder rolls over the house speakers, and finally rain streams down from the ceiling onto the lagoon. Uh, did someone put some of that electric Kool-Aid in my drink? Either way, it's time for bed.

Day 2 Graphic

In which Justin takes a mural tour in the Mission, ponders where to put a taxidermied giraffe, and drinks a really, really old whiskey

I'm not sure if it's the clanging of the cable cars or the sun pouring into the 10th-floor Funston Suite that wakes me, but I open my eyes to a panoramic view of the Bay Bridge, Transamerica Pyramid, Coit Tower, Alcatraz, and Golden Gate Bridge—you know, all the landmarks that make this America's most beautiful city.

Even with the early start, I'm not down the hill and into the Mission District quick enough to beat the line at Tartine Manufactory, the new industrial outpost from the owners of America's most famous bakery. I make my way to the counter, where I order smørrebrød—a Danish open-face sandwich, made here with multi-grain bread, avocado, poblano peppers, and sunflower seeds—and cold-brew coffee, which gets me ready for my next stop.

I stroll down to 24th Street, the taqueria-lined heart of the Mission, the Latino quarter and hipster redoubt that has been the biggest flashpoint in the city's fight over gentrification (if you want to see a scowl, say the words “Google bus" here). One of the oldest arts organizations in the neighborhood, Precita Eyes, is here, in a bright blue storefront above which hangs a portrait of Frida Kahlo. The center has spent the last 40 years preserving and producing street art, and this morning I'm taking a neighborhood tour with Henry Sultan, a 79-year-old former muralist and occasional tour guide.

Streets of the Mission District in San Francisco

As we head around the corner to Balmy Alley, Sultan explains how San Francisco's street art scene started with Mexico's great muralists—including Diego Rivera, who came here in the '30s—and picked up during the '70s, thanks in part to the Mujeres Muralistas, a collective of female artists. We inch down the alley, where nearly every sliver of wall and fence and garage door bears an artwork. Some address the AIDS crisis, which hit this city hard; some, including one by Precita Eyes founder Susan Kelk Cervantes, show migrants fleeing the civil wars of Central America; some comment on gentrification. “The Mission has always had a strong political group of activists," Sultan tells me, “and I just don't think people are going to be pushed away." He points to a mural. “Like that says: 'We're not going anywhere.'"

Aside from these murals and the guitar licks of Carlos Santana, the greatest contribution this neighborhood has made to world culture has to be the Mission burrito. Locals fiercely debate which one is the best, but my favorite is Taqueria Cancún's burrito mojado al pastor, which comes not foil-wrapped, like most Mission burritos, but on a plate, slathered with red and green salsas and sour cream, à la the Mexican flag. It is fiery hot and the size of a football, and after eating it you will need to douse your tastebuds with a Pacifico, which I do at a picnic table in the bright yellow restaurant while listening to a mariachi band play for tips.

Rarely in my life have I needed a walk as much as I do after that gut bomb. The sun's shining on me as I pass the fruit stands and thrift stores on Mission and head over to hip Valencia Street. My first stop is the City Art Cooperative Gallery, which is showing paintings of classic SF dive bars, including the dearly departed Lexington Club. Next I wander into Paxton Gate, a store that's bursting with taxidermied animals. When I wonder aloud where someone would put an $8,000 giraffe's head, the clerk, polishing a vase, says, “I'd put it in a circular stairwell, with a mirror at the top." I raise an eyebrow. “I have a lot of time to think about that sort of thing," he explains.

"We zigzag through crowded alleys, below colored balconies, and alongside shops carrying everything from sea cucumbers to giant mushrooms."

I continue on across palm tree–lined Dolores Street to Mission Dolores Park. On a warm Saturday afternoon, this green space, which reopened last year after a $20 million renovation, resembles a hipster fashion show. I climb past skinny jeans and rompers and bangs to the top of the grassy hill, which yields a jaw-dropping view of the city skyline and the underrated Bay Bridge. I think I'll stay a while.

I continue on across palm tree–lined Dolores Street to Mission Dolores Park. On a warm Saturday afternoon, this green space, which reopened last year after a $20 million renovation, resembles a hipster fashion show. I climb past skinny jeans and rompers and bangs to the top of the grassy hill, which yields a jaw-dropping view of the city skyline and the underrated Bay Bridge. I think I'll stay a while.

When I find myself dozing, I pop to my feet, because I've got a ticket to San Francisco's most exclusive dinner party. An unadorned doorway on 19th Street leads to Lazy Bear. Chef-owner David Barzelay (the restaurant's name is an anagram of his surname) began throwing dinner parties after he was laid off from his job as a lawyer in 2009. He opened this space in 2014, and the hype and Michelin stars followed.

The city and Land's End seen from the Marin Headlands, across the foggy Golden GateThe city and Land's End seen from the Marin Headlands, across the foggy Golden Gate

Upon entering, I'm shown upstairs, where I'm served Marc Hébrart Special Club Champagne and Morro Bay oysters topped with elderflowers. Downstairs are two long communal tables, next to an open kitchen where an army of chefs prepares each course. Each dish is served with an introduction from one of the chefs, often in amusing fashion. (“These eggs were raised by a lady named Kitty.") The food is inventive—grilled halibut with artichoke and blood orange, morel mushrooms with egg-yolk fudge—and the restaurant provides a small plaid notebook for each diner to take notes. I neglect to use mine (some journalist I am) due to the wine pairings, which run the gamut from Bordeaux to Rioja to Napa. Dessert? An Old Overholt rye that was distilled in nineteen-thirty-six. I am now as dead as the guy who made that whiskey.

I don't really need another drink, but right up the block is the hot new cocktail spot Wildhawk. The latest bar in former mayor Gavin Newsom's PlumpJack empire opened last year to some neighborhood displeasure, as it replaced the aforementioned Lexington Club, a longtime lesbian bar. (A plaque on the sidewalk out front commemorates the old institution.) I take a seat beneath the floral Victorian wallpaper and order a cocktail from Jacques Bezuidenhout, a South African expat who has lived here for almost 20 years and has been voted the city's best bartender. He brings me a Breakfast Negroni—Cocoa Puffs–infused Beefeater gin, Campari, Cinzano, and chocolate salt bitters—and stays to tell me about the changing of the guard at the bar. “We have some old regulars now that come back, and they're like, 'We really want to hate you, but we just can't,'" he says. I agree: That would be impossible.

Day 3 Graphic

In which Justin crosses the Golden Gate, gets a crick in his neck looking at trees, and rocks out at a legendary concert hall

My rented Hyundai may not be the Mustang from Bullitt, but I still feel like Steve McQueen as I zip up and down SF's famous hills, past the painted ladies of Alamo Square—the colorful Victorians from Full House—and along Golden Gate Park to the fog-blanketed Outer Sunset district.

I've lucked out and caught a rare morning when there's no line at Outerlands. The dining room, which horseshoes around an open kitchen beneath an undulating, driftwood-inspired ceiling, is about half full, mostly young people in surf hoodies. I get an egg sandwich with zucchini, asparagus, broccolini, and rich onion jam, served open-face on a thick slice of fresh house-baked bread, followed by the doughnut of the day: salted caramel with chocolate crumble. Yum.

Fueled up, I'm back in the car and cruising north on the Great Highway, with gusty Ocean Beach and the choppy Pacific on my left. By the time I reach the Golden Gate Bridge, the fog has burned off, and it's all I can do to stay on the road as I sneak peeks over my shoulder at the city. A few miles up U.S. 101, I steer through the town of Mill Valley and descend into a canyon, through a series of buttonhook curves—now feeling more student driver than McQueen—to Muir Woods National Monument.

The communal dining room and bustling open kitchen at Lazy BearThe communal dining room and bustling open kitchen at Lazy Bear

The park, which Teddy Roosevelt consecrated in 1908, includes 240 acres of old-growth coast redwoods, the tallest trees in the world. A wooden walkway guides me through these titans, some of which sprouted more than 700 years ago. In Cathedral Grove, signs urge visitors to keep their voices down, so I can hear creaking branches, burbling Redwood Creek, and a woodpecker somewhere hammering away for his lunch. By the end of the two-mile loop trail, I've spent so much time with my head craned back toward the canopy that my neck's as sore as that woodpecker's.

After that breath of fresh forest air, I'm ready to get back to the urban grit. I head across the bridge and over to the east side of the city, past red-brick AT&T Park, the Giants' home stadium since it opened in 2000 and a harbinger of the building boom in SoMa over the last 15 years. I continue on through condos, past the site where the NBA champion Golden State Warriors are building a new arena, and into Dogpatch, the once rundown industrial 'hood near where America's most famous Heisman Trophy winner/double-murder acquittee grew up.

I park in front of the Minnesota Street Project, a three-warehouse space that's home to around a dozen galleries and 40 artist studios. I'm feeling peckish now, so I hang a quick right into Alta, the compound's restaurant from star Bay Area chef Daniel Patterson. As I dig into a wonderfully spicy fried chicken sandwich and a tangy housemade ginger beer, I'm joined by Deborah Rappaport, who opened the MSP along with her tech entrepreneur husband, Andy, last year.

“In February of '14, the real estate crisis in San Francisco was getting to its peak," she tells me. “It was having a really deleterious effect on galleries and artists and nonprofits. It just felt like nobody cared—all of these big tech companies were gobbling everything up and leaving the arts community, among others, in their wake." Don't think Rappaport is the gloom-and-doom type, though. The MSP is her bet that the city's creative spirit will endure. “If I didn't believe that San Francisco was going to remain an international center of exciting art, my husband and I would have stayed retired," she says with a laugh. “Things have to evolve. What I hope we are doing is helping to keep a vibrant arts scene happening."

Duly inspired, I go on a gallery crawl around the warehouse. The works at the MSP range from famed photographer Larry Sultan's celebrity shoots to Tabitha Soren's modified stills of adult film stars to Manny Prieres' recreations of banned books to student paintings in the SF Arts Education Project space. The diverse works on hand give me hope that Rappaport is right, and that the city's art scene will indeed survive.

In need of a breather, I valet the car at the Palace Hotel, smack in the heart of the Financial District at Market and New Montgomery. I stop for a moment to gawk at the ceiling of the landmark Garden Court restaurant, which is made of 72,000 pieces of glass. Originally built in 1875, the Palace was destroyed in the fires that followed the 1906 earthquake; it reopened in 1909, and despite a huge renovation in 2015, it has maintained many fixtures, from that ceiling to the doorknob I turn to enter my seventh-floor suite. My corner window looks straight up Montgomery to the Transamerica Pyramid, but I'm more concerned with my bed. As the Bay Area's own Metallica would say: exit light, enter night.

Historic concert posters at The FillmoreHistoric concert posters at The Fillmore

I wake up refreshed and ready to rock—literally. I hop the N-Judah Muni train, and a few minutes later I'm in the Haight, the neighborhood that teemed with musicians, flower children, and burnouts 50 years ago during the Summer of Love. I wander into Amoeba Music, a cavernous record shop dedicated to the analog in a city now dominated by all things digital. I pick up a live album recorded by former Haight resident Janis Joplin and her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, in 1968 at the now-demolished Winterland Ballroom.

I'm humming “Piece of My Heart" as I strut back down Haight Street, past head shops and vintage stores and panhandlers. I stop at Held Over, where I find a pair of worn cowboy boots that fit just right, and I can hear Janis singing, “You know you got it, if it makes you feel good," so I toss out the old Chuck Taylors that I've walked holes in this weekend.

Even used, a new pair of boots takes a toll on the feet, so I get a Lyft over to the Fillmore District. I reach State Bird Provisions just in time to encounter—you guessed it—a line. The wait is no surprise, given that Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski's place has been one of the toughest tables in town since Bon Appétit named it the best new restaurant in America in 2012. Fortunately, its sister restaurant next door, The Progress, has a seat open at the bar, so after I get my name in at State Bird, I'm able to kill some time with a plate of perfect local anchovies and fried butter beans and a silky Manhattan made with brown butter bourbon.

Ancient redwood trees at Muir WoodsAncient redwood trees at Muir Woods

When my seat opens up next door, it's in an extremely dangerous locale: at the kitchen counter, right next to the server's station. Much of the menu at State Bird is offered dim sum–style, and I get right of first refusal on every one of the small plates being carted out of the kitchen: guinea hen dumplings, smoked avocado with charred allium, Hog Island oysters topped with kohlrabi kraut.

“We didn't want to be held back by tradition," Brioza stops by to tell me. “We wanted there to be a lot of freedom in our food. It's high energy, it's frenetic, it's got so much passion from the staff." Take the anchovies: “Those are a religious experience for me. We have anchovy protocol. Twelve man-hours get put into that dish."

Brioza's menu knows no bounds, and by the end of the meal, neither do I, as I find myself hugging the cart-pushing waitress goodbye. Perhaps I'm hoping she'll clear off the cart and roll me out of here on it?

Luckily, I'm not going far. Right around the corner is The Fillmore, the concert hall that once hosted legends including Janis, the Grateful Dead, and Jimi Hendrix. I climb the red-carpeted stairs to the second-floor bar, which is hung from floor to ceiling with trippy concert posters for these artists and many, many others.

When I hear a roar from the ballroom, I join the crowd on the packed floor. The acclaimed rock group the Mountain Goats takes the stage, and between songs, singer John Darnielle pauses to look out across the dark, smoky room. “You get these moments at The Fillmore when you say, 'This is the best room to play in the U.S.,'" he says, and we scream, because yes, a gold rush is on, and all the new money may be changing Baghdad by the Bay, but at the end of the day, San Francisco still rocks.

Hemispheres deputy editor Justin Goldman yells at his coworkers anytime one of them calls it “Frisco."


This article was written by Justin Goldman from Rhapsody Magazine and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

Fun and spooky travel destinations for Halloween

By Matt Chernov

For many people, Halloween travel typically involves a stroll around the neighborhood with the kids as they go trick-or-treating, or perhaps a drive across the city to a costume party. But for adventurous travelers who are searching for genuine thrills and chills on October 31st, a trip to one of these seven destinations is the perfect way to celebrate the spookiest day of the year.

Sleepy Hollow

Lighthouse on a dark day in Sleepy Hollow.

Washington Irving's classic story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" tells the eerie tale of an unlucky schoolteacher who encounters a pumpkin-headed phantom while walking through the woods at night. In actuality, the fictional town of Sleepy Hollow is based on the real-life village of Tarrytown, New York. Every October, the residents of Tarrytown pay tribute to Irving's fable with a series of family-friendly events that attract visitors from far and wide. This year's celebration includes a spooky cemetery tour, an elaborate haunted hayride, vintage horror movies at the historic Tarrytown Music Hall and a possible visit from the Headless Horseman himself.

New Orleans Haunted History Tour

Above ground cemetery in New Orleans

New Orleans is widely considered the ghost capital of the United States, and for very good reason. Founded as a French colony in 1718, the city has a rich history of attracting immigrants from Spain, Africa and Haiti, each of whom brought with them a unique set of superstitions and religious practices. Today, voodoo rituals, vampire legends and zombie tales abound in The Big Easy, and the best way to experience them is by taking one of the popular Haunted History Tours. Choose between the classic ghost tour, the haunted pub crawl, the creepy cemetery stroll and the authentic voodoo tour.

The Stanley Hotel

The Stanley Hotel in Colorado

Nestled amid the glorious Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the beautiful Stanley Hotel is the real-life inspiration for Stephen King's terrifying bestseller “The Shining." In 1974, King and his wife Tabitha spent a night at The Stanley and quickly discovered that they were the only guests in the entire hotel. This sparked the author's fiendish imagination, and he began outlining the novel's chilling plot that same evening. Though he changed its name to The Overlook Hotel for the book, The Stanley remains the true setting. Today, fans of “The Shining" can celebrate Halloween at the hotel with a series of horror-themed events, including a murder mystery dinner, a lavish masquerade party and an official Shining Ball.

The Paris Catacombs

The Paris Catacombs

Throughout much of its history, Paris has been known as the City of Lights. Yet beneath its lovely streets, a more accurate description would be the City of Bones. That's because the skeletal remains of more than 6 million bodies are buried in the network of underground tunnels and narrow passages that wind their way below Paris. Since it was first opened to the public in 1874, this macabre labyrinth has become one of the most popular attractions in all of Europe. Catering to demand, a variety of catacomb tours are available for travelers who want to explore the hidden world of the dead.

Poenari Castle

Perched high on a cliff in the Arefu village of Romania, this atmospheric castle is considered by many to be the original home of Count Dracula himself. In reality, it was an imposing stone fortress belonging to the infamous warlord Vlad the Impaler, who was the inspiration for Bram Stoker's legendary vampire character. Built at the beginning of the 13th century, Poenari Castle is in a state of perpetual ruin, yet tours are still available to brave souls who are willing to climb the 1400 steps to reach its crumbling citadel.

Newgrange Tomb

Newgrange Tomb in Ireland

The first people to celebrate Halloween (then known as the Festival of Samhain) were the ancient Druids of Ireland, so a trip to this 5,200-year old Druid tomb in Ireland's Boyne Valley is the perfect place to spend the holiday. Constructed during the Neolithic period by Stone Age farmers, Newgrange consists of a massive circular mound divided by a long stone passageway and filled with multiple burial chambers. According to Irish folklore, it was believed to be the dwelling of a god called Dagda, who wielded a massive club that was capable of raising the dead. Tours of the prehistoric monument are available to the public.

Loch Ness

View of ruins of a castle from a boat in Loch Ness.

If you've ever dreamed of coming face to face with a genuine monster, why not spend this Halloween searching for aquatic sea creatures in Scotland? The legendary beast, affectionately nicknamed Nessie, was first spotted in the freshwater Loch as far back as the 6th century AD. Since then, there have been countless sightings, but aside from a handful of grainy photos, no actual proof has been captured. So grab a camera and reserve a seat on the Jacobite Loch Ness Tour. You just might be the one to prove its existence, once and for all!

If you go

Halloween can be frightening, but planning your next trip doesn't have to be. Book your tickets by visiting united.com, or by using the convenient united app.

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Celebrating Girls in Aviation Day

By The Hub team

We are proud to work with Women in Aviation so that together we can help break down barriers and promote inclusion while also inspiring a future generation of aviation leaders that includes women.

We kicked off Girls in Aviation Day by bringing in young women from Girls Inc. to meet a group of our female pilots and to try the flight simulators at our new flight training center in Denver.

We are continuously working to build a workforce as diverse as the communities we serve, which is why we are excited to hold Girls in Aviation Day events in a record number of 12 locations around the world. Through this event in Denver and the other events held across the globe, we are working to engage girls as they begin to think about their own futures so we can ensure a strong future of women in the industry.


Cuba: A city filled with culture and heart

By The Hub team

Each week we will profile one of our employee's adventures across the globe, featuring a new location for every employee's story. Follow along every week to learn more about their travel experiences.

By Remote Reservations Sales and Service Representative Susie Grisley

My favorite travel experience was visiting the beautiful city of Havana, Cuba. My strong curiosity persisted when the U.S. and Cuban governments finally agreed to cooperate on U.S. citizens traveling to this previously forbidden place. Reviewing the documents, I learned we could go in under the "Humanitarian" category, as the borders had not been opened to come and go as any American pleased. A group of us gathered, including some of my Boston-based colleagues and my three sons. We purchased a ton of toys and goodies for the children of Cuba.

Colorful, classic cars in Cuba.

Upon arriving in this fortress of deteriorating concrete, old buildings and damaged structures, we found an amazing city full of culture and heart. The Cuban people were glowing with an unmatched happiness and welcomed us with open arms. They were friendly, hospitable and very excited to see us, the Americans. They are extremely proud of their city, which despite the broken sidewalks and crumbling walls, was insanely beautiful. The colorful buildings and the colorful working vintage Chevys are among the amazing things to see. They are so proud of their old cars. Out of necessity, they have learned to work on their own cars with very simple tools. If the car breaks down while driving, they simply get out, open the hood, twist and bang and get it running as they know how to do. No one honks at them if they are in the road. This is just their way. The insides of the cars are simple, yet they maintain them as their prized possessions. They all, however, have music! They love driving proudly through the streets in their shiny old cars with music pouring out the open windows. Riding in many of them, each "taxi" was a new experience of its own.

Despite the gorgeous architecture and the classic cars, it truly was heart-warming getting to mingle with the Cuban people and learning their way of life. They are a beautiful people with beautiful, happy hearts ready to greet every American.


When it came time to hand out toys and gifts, we carried our toy bag through the streets, and it was apparent to us the children did not live with much. The delight and smiles on their faces were unimaginable. Their gratitude was evident, and my only regret was that we did not have enough for every child we saw. I thought my heart would explode at their excitement and appreciation.

Havana, Cuba is a travel must. It is an unbelievable place with an unbelievable story.

I left Cuba with a new realization of what it is like to live in a closed nation. I found a vibrant society of happy people full of fun, music and culture. I came home with a love of Havana and its people forever in my heart.

It was a trip of a life time and an experience we will never forget.

7 family-friendly activities to celebrate fall

By Matt Chernov

Ask someone to name their favorite thing about fall and you'll likely get a different answer depending on where they live. For many people, the mosaic of vibrantly colored leaves and foliage is what defines the months of September through mid-December. Others find the scent of autumnal spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and turmeric is what makes the fall so special. And for some, it's the cooler temperatures that make being outside even more enjoyable. Plus, fall is full of fun activities no matter where you are — from pumpkin patches and apple picking to watching football and enjoying a bowl of chili. All of these things, and more, make the fall so magical. To help you celebrate the season, here are seven fall-themed activities to try this year.

Go apple picking

Apple Orchard

Apple picking combines outdoor fun with delicious and healthy snacks that can be used in a variety of ways, making it the perfect fall activity for adults and children of all ages.. Though you'll find countless orchards around the country worth visiting this season, New England is widely considered a prime apple picking destination with over 120 varieties found in the region. It can be argued that the variety they are best known for is the McIntosh apple. This type of apple and many more can be found at Honey Pot Hill Orchards in the lovely town of Stow, Massachusetts, so be sure to stop in and take home a bushel that you pluck from the trees yourself. Picking times are from 9:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. daily, making it easy to schedule a trip.

Meanwhile in California, apple season runs until the end of November, giving you plenty of time to pick a few baskets of Red Delicious or Gala apples before winter. Riley's at Los Rios Rancho in the city of Yucaipa is one of the largest farms of its kind in Southern California and has been welcoming apple pickers to their 10,000-tree farm for more than 100 years. If you're considering a visit, you might want to plan to be there on November 23, since that's when they're hosting their famous Apple Butter Festival this year.

Visit a pumpkin patch

If there was a fall mascot, it would be a pumpkin, so to celebrate the true essence of the season, it's hard to beat a trip to a colorful pumpkin patch. A pumpkin patch is more than just a place to find the perfect candidate for this year's prize-winning jack-o'-lantern, it's a wonderful way to create cherished new memories with your children or friends. The Great Pumpkin Farm in Clarence, New York, is perfect for pumpkin picking, but also offers weekend activities throughout the fall, including scarecrow making lessons, cider brewing demonstrations, pumpkin pie eating contests, and live music and barbecues.

If you're traveling through the Midwest this season, hop aboard a vintage farm wagon at Polly's Pumpkin Patch in Chilton, Wisconsin, and make your way out into their scenic fields where you can pick as many pumpkins as you want for only $3 each. Other activities at Polly's include a livestock petting zoo, a 40-foot slide and a popular corn cannon that lets older kids launch corn cobs at targets for cash prizes.

Enjoy a harvest festival

Autumn Harvest Festival

An annual tradition in America that dates back to 1613, harvest festivals are outdoor celebrations that coincide with the growing and reaping seasons we all enjoy. Filled with food, fun, music and dance, you haven't truly experienced the wonder of the fall season until you've participated in a local harvest fest. The good news is that there are plenty to choose from around the country this year. Two of the most popular are the Autumn at the Arboretum festival in Dallas, Texas, which runs until October 31, and the incredible North Carolina Pecan Harvest Festival in Whiteville, North Carolina, which ends on November 3. Both of these festivals have been drawing huge crowds for years.

For a harvest fest that's slightly spookier, head to Wisconsin where you'll find the classic Jack O' Lantern Days celebration in the cozy town of Fish Creek, and the Halloween-themed Zombie Days festival on the coast of Chequamegon Bay. Ghoulish activities include an undead musical show, a zombie pub crawl and a traditional harvest festival pumpkin parade. The scary fun lasts from October 26 through October 27.

Hit the trails

A path through autumn foliage forest in Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

Hiking is more than just great exercise; it's an excellent way to bring the whole family together during the fall. And since the leaves are changing colors, it's also a great way to snap some incredible nature photos. So lace up your hiking boots, grab your kids and your camera, and find a trail that's right for you. If you're looking for suggestions, Sterling Point Trail in Vermont and Rome Point Trail in Rhode Island are impossible to beat when it comes to picturesque fall hiking.

On the opposite side of the country, the trails at Dry Creek Falls in Portland, Oregon, were voted one of the most photogenic hiking spots on the west coast by BuzzFeed, and it's easy to see why once you've been there. Covering a distance of just over 4 miles, this beautiful trail is perfect for all skill levels, making it a solid choice for families with kids.

Roll in the hay

Corn Maze sign

Hayrides and corn mazes are traditional fall activities that have never gone out of style, and for very good reason. There's just something wonderfully nostalgic about introducing a new generation of children to the simple pleasures of wandering through an overgrown corn maze, and with so many participating farms scattered across the country, there's a plethora of options to choose from. The Johnny Appleseed corn maze at Shady Brook Farm in Yardley, Pennsylvania, and the popular horse-drawn hayride at Papa's Pumpkin Patch in Bismarck, North Dakota, are two of the best.

In honor of Halloween, the massive haunted hayride at Fear Farm in Phoenix, Arizona, brings an assortment of ghosts, goblins and ghouls to life from early October until the first week in November. Filled with sinister special effects, creepy costumes and macabre makeup, this Hollywood-worthy hayride is recommended for adults and children over the age of 12. With five terrifying corn mazes to choose from, Fear Farm certainly lives up to its name!

Up, up and away

Hot Air Balloon on a farm

Hot air ballooning during the fall is a dazzling way to experience the season in all its natural splendor. After all, how else can you get a spectacular birds-eye view of the colorful trees as their leaves change from green to golden orange? Balloons Over Letchworth, located near New York's Letchworth State Park, offers astonishing views of the surrounding area, including majestic waterfalls and stunning forests. Best of all, they offer a variety of family tour packages, so you'll find just what you're looking for, regardless of the size of your group.

If you're visiting Southern California's wine region this fall, reserve a balloon ride with the fine folks at California Dreamin'. Their friendly FAA commercial licensed pilots will take you and your family on an unforgettable balloon voyage high above the vineyards of Temecula wine country.

Pitch a tent

closeup of one tent in woods

Though typically associated with summer, in many ways the fall is truly the best time of year to go camping. Thanks to the cooler weather, there are few — if any — insects to bother you and your family. Plus, there are less people claiming all the best spots, so you should have no problem picking a prime location to pitch your tent. And when it comes to toasting marshmallow for s'mores over an open campfire, everyone agrees that they simply taste better when eaten on a brisk autumn night.

For the ultimate fall camping trip, book a spot at Earth First Farms in southwest Michigan and set up your tent in an actual organic apple orchard. The 49-acre farm provides campers with complimentary firewood and plenty of fresh produce to pick.

Getting there

Regardless of where you plan to celebrate the fall, book your flight at united.com or by using the convenient United app, and share your story on social media with the #UnitedJourney hashtag.

Contributor

Weekend inspiration: Omaha

By Kelsey + Courtney Montague

When we arrived in Omaha, Nebraska, recently to create a series of murals within the city, we didn't know what to expect. What we ended up finding was a thriving restaurant, bar and karaoke scene.

We spent most of our time in the newly revitalized, historic district of Blackstone and found numerous restaurant and entertainment gems around every corner.

When we arrived in the Blackstone district we sat down with one of the men in charge of the revitalized neighborhood, Matt Dwyer, and were really impressed with his absolute commitment to bringing the best of the best to the historic district while still keeping everything all local. What he and his partner have created is an idyllic, historic district with a wide variety of locally run, high quality restaurants, shops and entertainment.

Here's what we wound up doing during our weekend in Omaha.

Friday evening:

Cone flower employee

If you want a great pizza and beer joint head to Noli's for artisan pizzas without an expensive price tag. The owners of Noli's are committed to maintaining New York City standards for their pizza creations and actually hired a water expert to filter their water to the exact filtration standards you find in the Big Apple. Their claim, "it's all about the water" rings true – their pizzas are awesome and definitely compete with some of our old pizza joint haunts in New York.

After dinner, stroll down the block to Cone Flower. At first it sounds like an odd name until you try their ice cream. They have, hands down, the best ice cream I've ever tasted and have coined the phrase "farm to cone."

Pro tip: Splurge on the sugar cone. It tastes like a light short bread cookie and will cause tingles down your spine.

Saturday morning:

Bob's neon sign at restaurant

Head down to Bob's for a creative version of an American classic donut. Some of their flavors include fruity pebbles and vanilla confetti. Then grab a coffee at the hipster Archetype coffee and enjoy your morning newspaper.

Saturday afternoon:

Stop by Omaha's Old Market for some upscale shopping and art gallery visits. Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo is also known as one of the best zoos in the country.

For lunch, head to the brewery Crescent Moon to try what Draft Magazine has deemed one of the best beer bars in the U.S. The Reuben sandwich was created in Omaha in the 1920s, and this restaurant uses the original recipe to create a true masterpiece.

Saturday evening:

Renos Karaoke Bar

Blackstone Social Club is the perfect place for a pre-dinner cocktail. For dinner, we highly recommend stopping by Mula for some awe-inspiring Mexican fare. We highly recommend the salsa flights, the queso and any taco.

Across the street, Blackstone boasts some fantastic karaoke at Renos Karaoke. You can rent your own themed room to keep any embarrassment to an absolute minimum. We recommend the island room, but have a few drinks on their back patio first.

Sunday morning:

Early Bird wall in the restaurant

Brunchers know that one of the best places to go in Blackstone is Early Bird. Try to be an early bird and go when they open because the restaurant fills up quickly. If you are in need of the "hair of the dog" after a late Saturday night, their Bloody Marys are incredible. If you're looking for a healthy way to finish the weekend, their avocado and egg toast is the perfect choice.

Sunday afternoon and evening:

In the afternoon, stop by our wing and balloon mural on the side of the gorgeous Bouquet flower shop on Farnam street. If you're looking for an adventure, go next door to Ponderosa Cyclery and Tour Shop and book a bike tour in the area.

You can also experience Omaha's wildlife at the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari, where you can drive through the park and see wild elk, bison, cranes and antelope as they walk up to your car.

Cheese and wine at Corkscrew

For an afternoon snack, Corkscrew Wine and Cheese is the place to go. They have hundreds of bottles of wine and fancy appetizers to choose from. End the evening across the street at the Blackstone Meatball restaurant. All the ingredients are locally sourced and you can choose the type of meatball, the side and the sauce.

Now all that's left is to take a shot of the stunning sunsets you'll experience almost every night in Nebraska.

Trending

We unveil a new state-of-the-art flight training center in Denver

By Matt Adams , October 09, 2018

After more than two years of construction, our newly renovated, fully consolidated flight training center was formally unveiled today at a special rededication ceremony in Denver. Home to more than 30 full flight simulators, the Denver Flight Training Center will welcome each of the airline's 12,000-plus pilots every year for new and recurrent training, along with pilots from more than two dozen other airlines and government agencies who visit our campus annually to sharpen their skills. In addition to pilots, the center will host flight attendants and maintenance technicians for emergency training and other activities.

United CEO Oscar Munoz poses with fellow United employees for the ribbon cutting event at Denver's new flight training center

"This state-of-the-art flight training center symbolizes the investments we're making in our people and our company, both in Denver and throughout our network," said our CEO, Oscar Munoz, who headlined a ribbon-cutting ceremony on October 9 for the facility, the largest such flight training center in the world. "In addition to providing industry-leading training for our pilots, flight attendants and other vital work groups, this facility will become a thriving center where we foster the professional culture, commitment to safety and dedication to customer service that's at the heart of the United success story we are seeing take shape."

Our flight training presence in Denver goes all the way back to the early 1940s, while the current campus was opened in 1968 with four buildings, expanding to six over the subsequent years. Recently, we broke ground on a seventh building which, when completed, will bring the size of the campus to nearly 540,000 square feet, with space for eight more flight simulator bays. In the five decades since its opening, pilots have participated in more than half a million training events, totaling approximately two million hours of training time.

Hemispheres

No translation necessary

By The Hub team

The white and yellow dots spread out farther than the eye can see, seemingly even beyond imagination. These lights, millions of them comprising Tokyo at night, helped make the Park Hyatt's New York Bar famous. After all, the bar and its view, 52 stories up, were an instrumental part of Sofia Coppola's 2003 paean to love and jet lag, Lost in Translation.

That movie turned this bar into a mecca for film fans, and in a way it provided the reason for my maiden voyage to the Land of the Rising Sun, as well. Only I'm not here as a cinephile. I've crossed 13 time zones to drink Japanese whiskey—a phenomenon I was awoken to by Bill Murray's Oscar-nominated performance. You know the one: “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time."

"My love for brown spirits and my lifelong fascination with Japan were inevitable bedfellows."

When I first saw Lost in Translation, 15 years ago, my reaction to that line was probably exactly what Coppola intended: Japanese whiskey? Bill's really selling out… As a recent college graduate whose budget couldn't handle much beyond the occasional bottle of Maker's Mark, I had no idea how wrong I was. In fact, Suntory, the maker of the now famed Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Hibiki whiskeys, was just launching itself into the global consciousness. In 2003, the Yamazaki 12-year won a gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge, and from 2010 on, Suntory whiskeys raked in golds, with the company winning Distiller of the Year four times. In 2014, Whisky Bible author Jim Murray called the 2013 Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask the best whiskey in the world. Bottles from Suntory and its main competitor, Nikka, became nigh unavailable in the U.S. (The cheapest bottle of that 2013 Yamazaki Sherry Cask I can find online is $3,500.)

A vintage Nikka Whiskey logoA vintage Nikka Whiskey logo

During the years that Japan's distillers were rising like the sun over the Pacific, I was busy fostering a determinedly American predilection for bourbon. While I systematically worked through the ever-shifting catalog at my excellent neighborhood bar—The Page in San Francisco—Pappy Van Winkle was going from a $15 pour I'd order when I was feeling mildly indulgent to a symbol of the cruelty of supply and demand. I visited Kentucky on several occasions, tasting my way down the Bourbon Trail, from Clermont (the home of Jim Beam, which Suntory bought in 2014) to Loretto (my beloved red wax–topped Maker's) to Lawrenceburg (Four Roses, William Faulkner's favorite, which another Japanese company, Kirin, bought in 2001) to Frankfort (Buffalo Trace, where Pappy is made, along with another of my regulars, Eagle Rare). And when I crossed the pond to Ireland, my two must-visits were James Joyce's house (as a thank-you for “The Dead") and the Jameson distillery (as a thank-you for the many, many shots I've taken after Giants playoff victories).

My love for brown spirits and my lifelong fascination with Japan—which I owe to my Kurosawa-worshipping father—were inevitable bedfellows. So, finally, this spring, I decided to make my way across hemispheres to learn exactly what makes Japanese whiskey so good—and to drink as much of it as possible.

A jazz band at the New York Bar in TokyoA jazz band at the New York Bar in Tokyo

Naturally, I've started at the New York Bar. I'm seated at a long communal table, listening to a jazz singer do the Eagles' “Desperado" (it was Simon & Garfunkel's “Scarborough Fair" in Lost in Translation) as the manager, Moritz Kam, sets four single malts in front of me: a Yamazaki and a Hakushu from Suntory, a Yoichi and a Miyagikyo from Nikka. “What is notable about Japanese craftsmanship is the aim for perfection," he tells me, before offering a lament I'll hear often this week: “Even in Japan, you are not able to find some of the vintage whiskeys."

My first glass contains one of the most coveted whiskeys in the world: the Yamazaki 18. It's smooth, oaky, a little sweet, with a profile somewhat reminiscent of a Macallan. The Yoichi and Miyagikyo are peatier, smokier, while the Hakushu pushes those characteristics even further, leaving a lush layer of oil on my tongue. While each stands out from the others in subtle ways, I can't help but think they're siblings who started in the same home but took different paths to success.

Scotland is, of course, where all of the world's whiskeys can trace their roots. But the fathers of Japanese whiskey, Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru, hewed closer to the original than anyone else (even spelling the word à la the Scots, without the “e"). The story begins in 1899, when Torii opened an imported-wine shop in Osaka. A few years later, he produced a popular sweet port wine and funneled the profits into building a distillery just outside Kyoto.

High-quality water feeds a pond at the Yamazaki DistilleryHigh-quality water feeds a pond at the Yamazaki Distillery

I learn all this from plaques inside that very distillery. I've taken the Shinkansen bullet train two and a half hours from Tokyo to the ancient imperial capital to visit Yamazaki, the birthplace of Japanese whiskey. At the entryway, I'm greeted by a tour guide, who explains that Torii built the distillery here in 1923 to take advantage of the local water and climate. “Yamazaki water has been famous for its pristine quality since ancient history," she says, “and the damp and misty and humid environment is very suitable for aging whiskey in casks."

We continue inside, past the mash tuns and fermentation tanks, where malt, much of it imported from Scotland, is turned into the spirit's base, wort. We follow the pipeline of fermented liquid to a long hall where two rows of copper pot stills of varying shapes and sizes (each of which imparts a different flavor) distill the wort down to new-made whiskey—what we in the States call moonshine. As we walk, my guide breaks down Suntory's history. “Shinjiro's dream was to make a whiskey that would suit the taste of the Japanese," she says, “because when he started the business, he imitated Scotch whiskey, and Japanese were like, Oh, this is too peaty—we don't like this."

Copper pot stills at the Yamazaki DistilleryCopper pot stills at the Yamazaki Distillery

That first whiskey, 1929's Suntory Shirofuda (“white label"), may not have been a world-beater, but in 1937 the company put out a second one, Kakubin, which sold well throughout Japan. In the 1960s, highball bars began popping up, specializing in what has become Japan's signature cocktail—a diluted, highly carbonated whiskey soda. Highballs continued to grow in popularity into the 1980s, and in 1984 Keizo Saji, Torii's son and successor as Suntory president, put out the first Yamazaki single malt. The high-end Hibiki blended whiskeys (which contain both malt and corn liquor) followed in 1989. In 1994 came the Hakushu single malts, which are made at a gorgeous distillery in the Japanese Alps and are now nearly as prized as Yamazakis.

Our next stop on the tour is the aging warehouse. Yamazaki uses several types of cask: American white oak, Spanish sherry casks, French wine casks, and mizunara, an oak that grows on the northern island of Hokkaido. Whiskeys are aged in the different casks for years—sometimes as much as three decades—and then the blenders combine them. A common misconception is that single-malt whiskey comes from single casks; actually, expressions from various casks are blended to make a more complex final product.

At the end of the tour, I meet Shinji Fukuyo, Suntory's chief blender and the creator of the gold medal–winning Hibiki Japanese Harmony. Fukuyo got into the business while in college because one of his professors noted that he “seemed to like whiskey"; he worked at Hakushu and then at Morrison Bowmore in Scotland before coming to Yamazaki. As we stand next to a floor-to-ceiling window, looking out on a hillside bamboo grove, the bespectacled 57-year-old takes me through the tasting process for his brainchild.

Suntory Chief blender Shinji FukuyoSuntory Chief blender Shinji Fukuyo

He lines up 10 slim bottles ranging in color from pale flax to deep amber. Two are grain whiskeys, two are Hakushu malts, six are Yamazaki malts. (Two of the latter are aged in sherry casks.) He offers notes as we sip and spit in the same fashion as Suntory's blenders. The sherry cask whiskeys taste “like dried fruits." The grain whiskeys are “similar to bourbon—calm, sweet, easy to drink." A heavily peated Yamazaki is medicinal, “like you were in a hospital." A mizunara-aged Yamazaki has a “very elegant, spicy top note, an important aftertaste for Japanese Harmony." Finally, a whiskey aged in French oak wine casks is “the best sweet—mild, like a strawberry." I'm jealous when I discover that Suntory's blenders taste 200 to 300 whiskeys a day in search of the ideal combination of these flavors. The proportions are always changing, because each vintage—indeed, each cask—can taste different from the last.

As the country's whiskey has grown more popular overseas, Fukuyo says Japanese people have increasingly come to treasure it. “We have drunk whiskey for a long time, but now we've got a lot of awards, and foreigners can come to Yamazaki, so Japanese people ourselves are starting to get proud of Japanese whiskey.

The Yamazaki Whiskey MuseumThe Yamazaki Whiskey Museum

After profusely thanking Fukuyo, I head downstairs to the Yamazaki Whisky Museum, where hundreds of bottles from across the whiskey color spectrum are lined up on backlit shelves. There's also a tasting counter, where I order a Yamazaki 18, a Hibiki 21, and a special Yamazaki aged in a type of cask called a puncheon. As I bring them over to an empty barrel-top table, an elderly Japanese man in a rather Scottish getup—argyle sweater vest and newsboy hat—comes over. He speaks a bit of English, and he tells me his name is Genji and he used to work as a tour guide here. (He's retired but still carries his old business card.) “I come here every day," he tells me, to have a drink and chat with tourists. He points out his favorite whiskey on the menu, the puncheon cask, and when I motion toward that very dram in my flight, he smiles broadly. I have one of the bartenders snap a photo of us, and I promise Genji I'll come back to Yamazaki soon.

I've flown halfway around the world to drink Japanese whiskey, and now I'm going a little farther. After a night perusing the eight-page whiskey menu at Bar Cordon Noir—a smoky, jazzy place just around the corner from Kyoto's bar-lined Pontocho Alley—I find myself touching down in Sapporo, Hokkaido's largest city. Here, I meet Emiko Kaji, who's giving me a tour of the Yoichi Distillery, the original home of Japan's other major whiskey maker, Nikka.

The Yoichi DistilleryThe Yoichi Distillery

It's the last week of April, and while Kyoto was warm and humid, here the skies are gray, with daytime temperatures dipping into the 40s. (While cherry blossom season has come and gone in Kyoto and Tokyo, the sakura have yet to bloom in Sapporo.) That's not to say it isn't beautiful; the train ride from Sapporo to Yoichi—broken up by a phenomenal sushi lunch at Masazushi in the small city of Otaru—skirts the rocky coast of the Sea of Japan, with snow-blanketed mountains rising all around.

There's a reason Masataka Taketsuru chose to open his distillery here. The Nikka founder, who was born into a Hiroshima sake-brewing family, had moved to Scotland in 1918 to study chemistry (i.e., distilling). There, he met a Scottish woman, Rita Cowan, who he married and brought back to Japan—an international romance that was the basis for Massan, a hit TV series that aired on NHK, Japan's national broadcaster, in 2014 and 2015. Taketsuru began working at the Yamazaki Distillery in 1923, but he had a fundamental difference in philosophy from Shinjiro Torii. While the Suntory founder wanted to produce a whiskey for the Japanese palate, his counterpart was determined to make authentic Scotch whiskey.

So, in 1934, Taketsuru decamped for Hokkaido, where the cold climate, rocky seashore, oak forests, natural reserves of grain, and peat bogs all reminded him of his wife's homeland. As I walk two blocks through a biting rain from the Yoichi train station to the distillery, I feel as if I'm at a crossroads where Japan and Scotland meet. The facility's exterior looks like a stone-walled Scottish castle—but with Eastern-style pitched red roofs.

Charring a barrels in the cooperage at the Yoichi DistilleryCharring a barrels in the cooperage at the Yoichi Distillery

At Yoichi, I get to see some of the more industrial aspects of production. This is the last distillery in the world that heats its stills with coal, and in the stillhouse I watch as a safety-suited employee shovels coal into the furnace below one of
the six two-story-tall copper pots. “It's like a kettle on a direct fire, so it's very difficult to control the flame," Kaji says. “Our craftsmen have to look after the flame every seven or eight minutes from morning through evening. It's a tough job, but we stick to the coal fire because it makes a distinct flavor."

From here, we walk across the campus to the cooperage. In a space the size of a racquetball court, I watch as a cooper, Hiroaki Nishizawa, hammers the steel rings off a freshly charred cask. He sprays water into it, motions me close, and waves his hands over the top of the barrel, wafting a heavenly vanilla, banana-ester smell into my face. I'm woozy. Then he rolls another barrel onto a steel rack in front of an industrial torch. When he flips the switch, the barrel begins to slowly rotate, and when the torch turns on, a firestorm ensues, bursting into and out of and around the barrel in a hypnotic hail of sparks. After about five minutes, he flips the switch off. I ask Nishizawa, who has been a cooper for eight years (he shoveled coal prior to that), how he knows when to stop.

"When the torch turns on, a firestorm ensues, bursting into and out of and around the barrel in a hypnotic hail of sparks."

“There's no clear written manual," he replies. “I learned from my senior. Now we use a machine, but before that everything was done manually, so it was very difficult to do it right."

While the demonstration is spellbinding, I'm beginning to wonder when I can get a drink. As if in anticipation of that question, Kaji waves me toward the tasting bar, which is lined with tartan-patterned place mats. I want something I won't be able to get in the States, and the bartender brings three limited-edition single malts, each named after its flavor profile: Sherry & Sweet, Woody & Vanillic, and Peaty & Salty. The first is dark amber in color, and as I'm about to say that it reminds me of Macallan (which is also aged in sherry casks), bagpipe music comes on the stereo. The second has a strong bourbon character, thanks to American oak casks. The third is very peaty and salty (truth in advertising!), heavily influenced by the sea, surely the closest to what Taketsuru was going for. I posit that it's like three different musicians playing the same piece of music, and Kaji nods

A worker shovels coal into a fire to heat a still at the Yoichi DistilleryA worker shovels coal into a fire to heat a still at the Yoichi Distillery

For my last sample, I try a limited-edition Nikka Coffey Grain, a higher-proof variation on the distillery's best-seller in the U.S. This one has an even stronger bourbon characteristic than the Woody & Vanillic, as it's made from corn. It's interesting, I say to Kaji, that one of the best-selling products from the Japanese distillery most closely associated with traditional Scotch-style whiskey isn't really a Scotch-style whiskey. I wonder, is it an advantage for Japanese distillers that they don't have as long a history as the Scots and the Kentuckians? That there's more freedom, less of a demand that they adhere to tradition?

“Yes, we have a lot of freedom to be more flexible and to experiment," she replies. “We don't need to stick to tradition. [But] we firmly believe that innovation starts from tradition."

Visiting Japan's most hallowed distilleries is a great way to learn about what makes the liquor here so good, but there's only one way to really get at the heart of a place's drinking culture: visit its bars. So, upon my return to Tokyo, I head for Shot Bar Zoetrope. Hidden on the third floor of an unassuming building on a quiet side street in the otherwise neon-blasted neighborhood of Shinjuku, this might be the single best place in the world to drink Japanese whiskey.

Atsushi Horigami pours a dram at Tokyo's Zoetrope Shot BarAtsushi Horigami pours a dram at Tokyo's Zoetrope Shot Bar

The bar is tiny—about the size of a New York City studio apartment, with a half-dozen or so stools at the bar, plus a couple of tables. When I walk in early in the evening, an old black-and-white Hollywood film is playing silently on the far wall, and there are only two people inside. One of them is Atsushi Horigami, who opened Zoetrope 12 years ago. He looks a bit like a middle-aged Pat Morita in a Hawaiian shirt, and he's standing in front of an astonishing wall of whiskeys that contains difficult-to-find bottles from all over Japan. Why, I ask him, did he fashion this tiny portal to heaven on earth?

“I like whiskey," he says. “Basically, I am a geek. Before I opened this bar, I visited so many other whiskey bars, but always the bartenders didn't know about Japanese whiskey."

Horigami estimates about 70 percent of his customers are foreigners, and right on cue three more Americans walk in. As he's seating them, I start chatting with the other guy at the bar, who's named Steel. He's in his mid-20s, with long hair and a blackout arm tattoo, and it turns out he's a bartender at Minneapolis's acclaimed Esker Grove restaurant. Much like me, he's come to do a drinking tour of Japan. So, what does he think of the whiskey?

“Hopefully, it'll be the next big thing in America," he says. “It's some of the best whiskey I've ever had, especially for cocktails. Once people try it, they're not too deterred by how expensive it is—they usually want to stay on it. People come in and ask about it all the time. They're like, 'Ah, Japanese whiskey,' and I'm like, 'Man, I only have Toki'"—an export-only Suntory whiskey made largely for highballs.

It's not a problem that's going away anytime soon. While Japanese companies are working on newer products, like Toki, Hibiki Japanese Harmony, and Nikka Whisky From the Barrel (which Nikka began exporting to the U.S. this spring), the aging process required for vintage whiskeys makes it impossible to ramp up supply in a timely fashion. For that exact reason, earlier this year Suntory discontinued the very bottle Murray is shilling for in Lost in Translation: Hibiki 17.

But, as I sit at the bar at Zoetrope, talking with my new friends and sipping whiskeys from Fuji Gotemba and Mars Shinshu—two smaller distilleries whose products are also (surprise!) exceedingly difficult to find abroad—I try not to focus on the privations that my fellow Japanese whiskey lovers and I will face in the years to come. Instead, I take heart in the good news: that a shared love of whiskey has helped connect me and these two bartenders from opposite ends of the planet. We don't need a translator. As Murray tells Scarlett Johansson: “The whiskey works."


America's most haunted locations

By Bob Cooper

Abandoned asylums and ghoulish graveyards in rural America are notoriously haunted, but so are visitor-friendly venues like the White House, Gettysburg Battlefield and Alcatraz. These haunted hotspots in 9 U.S. cities are worth visiting even if you don't believe in ghosts.

Dark alley in New York City, New York

New York City, New York

The Merchant's House Museum may be Manhattan's most haunted place. People inside the 1832 NoHo historic home have reported being touched by ghosts. Halloween-themed events and tours are scheduled throughout October. Over at Landmark Tavern, an Irish restaurant and saloon in Hell's Kitchen, three ghosts — a sailor, a retired soldier and a little girl, all traced to the 19th century — have been spotted by patrons.

Los Angeles, California

Los Angeles, California

The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel has attracted celebrities since its 1927 opening — some living, some not. Marilyn Monroe has been seen dancing in the ballroom, a ghost has appeared on a security video and guests have been locked out of rooms from the inside. In Long Beach, guests on The Queen Mary, a luxury cruise ship-turned-hotel with year-round paranormal tours, have experienced chilling encounters in the pool area and recorded unexplained banging on engine-room pipes.

Chicago, Illinois

Chicago, Illinois

One stop on Chicago haunted tours is Hull-House Museum, a National Historic Landmark and the inspiration for the horror movie “Rosemary's Baby." Jane Addams, the social activist who lived there, is among those who saw ghosts in its rooms. Another stop is the Congress Plaza Hotel, where the more than 1,000 guestrooms have been occupied by presidents and celebrities as well as ghosts — including the hotel's former owner, Al Capone — that move objects and slam doors.

National Mall, Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C.

Abe Lincoln was spotted in the White House for decades after his assassination, not surprisingly in the Lincoln Bedroom and the Oval Office by a First Lady and a visiting queen, among others. Close by is Lafayette Square Park, a national historic landmark where the ghost of “Star Spangled Banner" writer Francis Scott Key's only son — murdered there by a jealous husband — haunts the grounds along with other ghosts.

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Guards at Eastern State Penitentiary routinely tortured inmates, whose ghosts now get even by spooking caretakers and visitors with cries and whispers. Even Al Capone said a ghost haunted him while he was imprisoned there. Equally spooky is Fort Mifflin, a Revolutionary War fort and battlefield with year-round paranormal programs. Resident spirits include a faceless man and ghost dogs.

LaLaurie House, New Orleans

New Orleans, Louisiana

The French Quarter is packed with haunted bars, hotels and mansions including the notorious LaLaurie House, an 1832 home where the owner's wife, Delphine, allegedly murdered a young slave girl. Delphine and the victim have both been seen in the mansion. Also in the Quarter is Hotel Provincial, a former Civil War hospital where guests have heard the ghosts of Confederate soldiers conversing at night.

Alcatraz Island, San Francisco

San Francisco, California

Some visitors to the old prison on Alcatraz Island have seen ghost prisoners walking the cellblocks and heard voices in the old inmate cafeteria even when it's empty. In the city's Haight-Ashbury district, birthplace of the hippie movement, many have heard running footsteps on the sidewalk outside Janis Joplin's old Ashbury Street house, where a man was shot in the head while fleeing a gunman in 1969.

Battery Carriage House Inn, Charleston

Charleston, South Carolina

A headless torso and the ghost of a student who died leaping off the roof have haunted guests at the Battery Carriage House Inn. Another beautifully restored, but equally haunted, early-19th-century building in Old Charleston is the Dock Street Theatre. Its ghostly residents include a woman killed by lightning nearby and actor Junius Brutus Booth, the father of Abe Lincoln's assassin, a former audience member who's been seen watching rehearsals from the balcony.

Farnsworth House Inn, Gettysburg Battlefield

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Many visitors to Gettysburg Battlefield, where 8,900 Civil War soldiers died in a 24-hour period, say they've seen and spoken to “ghost soldiers." Some have even captured audio and video recordings of screams and cannons. Nearby at Farnsworth House Inn, a former Union general's home scarred by more than 100 bullet holes from the battle, nightly ghost walks are offered. To date, 14 apparitions have been seen.

If you go

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