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By: Frank – @dugup46 – A year or so after accumulating points, Danielle and I knew it was time to book our first aspirational trip. One year and one 16-hour flight later, our plane was touching down in Tokyo, Japan. Our itinerary only gave us four nights and three days in Kyoto, followed by one day and night in Tokyo, so it forced us to pack a lot of action in just a few days of travel. Two of the three days we spent in Kyoto, while the final day we spent in Nara. I thought I would share our experiences and itineraries in one of the greatest, most friendly countries. So sit back, prepare yourself a cup of green tea, and check out our action packed trip in Japan.
We decided on Japan because of the historical culture, amazing architecture, and cherry blossom season (Sakura). We want to go back because of the kindness of the people, the modern culture in which they live, and the hospitality that we experienced in some of the best hotels in the world. Use the links below to jump around the article… it’s a little lengthy!
- Cost Breakdown – Let’s breakdown the total cost of the entire trip (minus food)
- Introduction – Flight there, train ride down, and Ritz-Carlton Kyoto
- First Day – Ginkakuji, Reikanji, Nanzenji, & More!
- Second Day – Golden Temple, Iwatayama Monkey Park, & Bamboo Forest
- Third Day – Nara, Japan – Bowing Deer, Tōdaiji, & Kōfukuji
- Final Day – Tokyo – Bullet Train, Mt Fuji, Andaz Tokyo, Shibuya Crossing
- Our Ride Home – Japan Airlines First Class (Incredible!)
- Japan Airlines Business Class PIT-NRT
- 50,000 AA miles x 2 from the Citi American Airlines Platinum card
- No referral link, offer is only 30k. Wait for the 50k offer.
- Estimated value: $6,000
- 2 Japan Rail Passes (7 days, unlimited travel)
- About $360 paid for by the Barclay Arrival+
- 4 Nights Ritz-Carlton Kyoto
- 2 free nights x 2 from the Chase Ritz-Carlton credit card
- No referral link, $395 annual fee not waived
- Estimated value: $4,200
- 1 Night Hyatt Andaz Tokyo
- 25,000 Chase UR points from the Chase Sapphire Preferred
- Estimated value: $650
- Japan Airlines First Class NRT-PIT
- 80,000 AA miles x 2 from the American Express SPG card.
- Offer is only for 25k, but has been higher. Consider holding off!
- Estimated value: $36,000
- Total Costs
- Estimated value: $47,210
- Total out-of-pocket cost: FREE!
- All taxes and fees were paid by various other credit cards such as the Barclay Arrival+, Chase Ritz Carlton, and Amex Platinum.
After our 16ish hour flight on Japan Airlines beautiful business class we touched down in Tokyo, Japan around 2:40PM. I tell you what… it doesn’t take long to realize you’re in a different country. Everything from the people, the signs, the audio, and the visuals – it’s just sensory overload. We made our way to pick up our Ninja WIFI Mobile Hotspot (one of the best purchases we made all trip) and pick up our Japan Rail Passes. We then navigated our way down to the Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto. The train was another three hour ride, so we wouldn’t be in Kyoto until around 8PM.
After the train ride (nothing too special… it was dark and we couldn’t really tell what was going on) we arrived in Kyoto. The first problem we have is getting a cab. Signs are all written in English; however, nobody speaks English. So we jump in the cab and slam the door shut… but it doesn’t shut. So I close it like 4 more times. The cab driver is saying “NONONONONONO”, but I have no clue what he’s talking about so I try to close the door three more times. Then I eventually realize the doors close themselves. Really? Where am I even at right now? I apologize, let the door close itself, and a 10 minute cab ride later, we arrive in the Ritz Carlton Kyoto (hotel review coming soon. Don’t worry, I wouldn’t leave you hanging) and head off to bed.
The Ritz Carlton Kyoto was the single nicest hotel I have ever had the privilege at staying in. From the check in experience to the moment we left, we always felt incredibly welcomed. The staff would remember your name and your daily activities! We would leave to visit such and such temple, return four or five hours later, and the staff would ask, “Did you enjoy your trip to [temple name]?” Incredible! As I said above, I will have a full write up on the hotel, and I highly suggest you do not skip over it!
Day One: Ginkakuji, Reikanji, Nanzenji, & More!
On our first day in Kyoto, we ended up waking up at like 6AM, and were out the door by 7AM. Our intention was to hit up eastern Kyoto’s temples and points of interest. Little did we know that the “suburbs” of Japan don’t really wake up until 9AM. The streets were scattered with school children, crossing guards, and the occasional early morning runner. Six and seven year old kids were walking alone to school, yet it didn’t feel strange. I can’t really describe how peaceful and safe we felt, but it was something I had never felt before. I just had the feeling of “I couldn’t get robbed here if I wanted to.”
Our first temple was Ginkakuji (pictured above). Most, if not all, of Japan’s temples emit a sense of peacefulness. It’s really not easy to describe, but behind all the beauty really is something unique… something that cannot be put into words. Although the temples are scattered inside of the city, you really feel like you’re on a remote island. After Ginkakuji we proceeded down Philosopher’s Walk where we broadcasted live our weekly “award hacking” webcast. In the event you didn’t know, I have a live webcast every Monday at 9:00PM Eastern time, so be sure to tune in!
After Philosopher’s Walk we hit up Reikanji, Nanzenji, and then eventually headed down to Gion District. We did all this on foot and were really in need of a break. The Gion District is within walking distance of the hotel, so we decided to head back, take a short nap (still a little jet lagged), and prepare ourselves for the evening.
Even though the the trip was free, Danielle and I aren’t the kind of people to spend a lot of money on our vacations. Eating on a budget in Japan is really not difficult if you look around. Our first dinner was just a local ramen noodle place. Now in saying that, our dinner was FANTASTIC! In Japan, you will order most of your food from a vending machine. Pro tip: Order your meal first, not your drink. A drink will print on the ticket automatically. After placing your order on the machine, a ticket prints out. You take that ticket into the restaurant and hand it to your waiter after you are seated. A few minutes later…….
The most amazing ramen noodles ever! Alright, so the picture above wasn’t where we had dinner the first night – but you get the idea! The above photo was actually taken at another ramen shop in Tokyo a few days later. Food ticket vending machines, amazing chefs, great noodles. After about 17 miles of walking, we were pretty tired. I think we were in bed the first night by 9PM, which really is fine since we were awake early for the next day!
Day Two: Kinkakuji (Golden Temple), Iwatayama Monkey Park, & Bamboo Forest
Danielle and I woke up pretty early and headed a few blocks toward the Golden Temple pictured above. The walk itself was about two hours, and we just weren’t feeling it. We called the next available cab, didn’t close the door this time, and headed over to the temple. Although we arrived about 30 minutes before opening, the time was quickly passed with just everyday people watching. People watching in Japan is much more interesting than people watching in Pittsburgh… trust me!
After visiting one of the most iconic temples in Japan, we took the long walk down to the Arashiyama district. I think the walk was about 5 or 6 miles, so it truly was no joke! Since before leaving for Japan, we have been in contact with Alan, a Redditor who is a foreign exchange student in Kyoto. He has been able to spend about 9 months there and wanted to show us around a little! We met up with him near the train station and landed in a small cafe that was previously a Japanese style public bath house! Japan doesn’t screw around when it comes to food, everything is good. I got a matcha green tea pancake. It was amazing. So shout out to Alan for meeting up with us, we really appreciated our time with ya!
After lunch, Danielle and I headed over to the local money park. If I recall correctly, the temperature was about 70 which was perfect, but it started raining on our way down the mountain! Not enough to ruin the day, just enough to make things a little wet. The monkey park is a must visit! You get to watch them bounce around, interact with the workers there, and you can even get to feed them yourself! Very neat. After that, we made our way over the Bamboo Forest which was equally incredible I never realized how tall bamboo trees were until I was there. They are so tall it can feel like 8PM because of the darkness in the middle of the afternoon!
Day Three: Nara, Japan – Bowing Deer, Tōdaiji, & Kōfukuji
On our last day in the Kyoto region, we decided to hop on a local train and head down to Nara. Nara is made famous, first and foremost, because of the free range deer that will actually bow to you when you feed them! Danielle and I woke up pretty early and walked down to Kyoto Station to catch the next train. I want to say the train took about an hour and a half to arrive in Nara, but it really wasn’t bad. I enjoyed the trains since they got us out into the country some along the way.
Nara is a unique city. From the train station, it’s about a 15 minute walk up a slight hill to the city center. That is where some of the nicer temples are and the famous park with most of the grazing deer. Another 15 minutes of walking and we finally found the park’s entrance! Just like you see the deer in all the videos, they really do bow to you! It’s very cool, almost unreal. They are also very aggressive. If you have crackers (you can buy them at stands just about anywhere), the deer will not leave you alone! They will bite your shirt, head butt you, and run at you to get the last of your crackers. You need to show them your empty palm before they back off. Check out the video below:
After hanging out with the deer we walked over to the UNESCO World Heritage site, Tōdaiji, which is one of the most visually powerful temples we visited. The temple was built in the year 728 and has the Great Buddha inside, which is just shy of 50 feet in height! It had an incredible balance of serenity inside and power outside. A lot of the temples in Nara and Kyoto are impressive; however, the sheer size of Todaiji really gives you the “wow” factor.
After that, we visited a couple of the other seven great temples of Nanto and started to explore some of the city of Nara. We didn’t eat anywhere impressive in Nara… in fact, I think we found a little Italian restaurant and had spaghetti haha! I can’t remember why, but we must not have been in an experimental mood that evening.
Tokyo – Bullet Train, Mt Fuji, Andaz Tokyo, Shibuya Crossing
Our final day in Japan was just waking up early and catching the first bullet train to Tokyo! Much to our dismay, the train was sold out and we had to wait an hour for the next train heading up. Over the course of the next couple hours we toured Kyoto Station which is just an incredible place to see. Before too long, our train arrived and we were on our way to Tokyo!
About three quarter of the way there, we were able to look out the window and see Mt Fuji! Because the ride down to Kyoto was at night, the mountain was not visible. It really is an incredible sight to see. The surrounding area is very flat so when you look out the window, all you see is a mountain. We were there in April and, as you can see, the top was very much covered in snow and ice.
After arriving in Tokyo, we hopped in a cab heading to our hotel, the Andaz Tokyo. This is really the place to stay if you have the opportunity. The hotel itself sits on top of the Toranomon Hills building, which is the tallest building in Tokyo. Yes, the Tokyo Skytree and Tokyo Tower are taller; however, they are not considered buildings! The hotel was incredible, and I will link the full write up as soon as it is completed. I’m still not convinced that it actually exists. It may have been a dream… not sure.
Our one afternoon in Tokyo was spent around the Shibuya Crossing area. I’m sure you were hoping for something a lot more exciting; however, we had a great time and that’s really all that matters. We hung out at Shibuya Crossing (check out this live video of the crosswalk ideally around 11 PM EST or later), then just strolled around the area at some of the different shops and restaurants. While we thoroughly enjoyed the little time we had in Tokyo, I think we both just had the feeling that it’s very westernized. Kyoto will hold a very special place in our hearts, because it holds true to it’s cultural roots. It’s a perfect blend of size and culture.
After that, we went back to the hotel and had one of the most memorable meals of our lives back at the Andaz Tavern. The photo above is Danielle and me right before dinner, standing on the rooftop terrace of the Andaz. Check out that view! Being the tallest building in the city, you have a full, 360 degree view of the city from up there. Be sure to check out the entire hotel review here (I promise as soon as it’s done I’ll come back and link you to it)!
Our Ride Home
You HAVE to read all about our review of Japan Airline’s First Class suites. Constantly rated in the top 5 or 10 first class products in the sky, it was the best way imaginable to end an incredible vacation. As you can see above, Danielle and I were really roughing it eating our gold flake covered tiramisu together. I didn’t even know eating gold was a thing, but I guess it is! I will be sure to link the First Class Japan Airlines review here as soon as I finish it up!
Japan could not have been a more magical vacation. I’ve always been a person who hates to see the same place twice; however, I would love to go back to Kyoto and just hang out there for a week. Kyoto’s initial impression on me was that it is just about the perfect style of city to live in. It’s exciting, yet relaxing. It’s big, but it’s small. As our first REAL international trip (other than the Hyatt Zilara Montego Bay in Jamaica back in February), we could not have selected a better destination.