Trip duration: 4/14/16 to 4/25/2016
Route: Dallas => Narita (eco); Haneda => Honolulu => Dallas (bus)
Flying Method: Award redemption (70.3K AA miles, incl 10% reward rebate), booked in 7/2015 for 4/2016 travel.
Japan, one of the gateways to Asia, is a country full of history and modern innovations. Visitors flock to Japan for the amazing scenery, unique culture, gazillion shrines, food, manga, shopping, onsen (hot spring), and the hustle and bustle of the Tokyo city life. I booked this trip last year in order to secure the highly in demand rewards seat to Asia using American Airlines’ Advantage miles. Majority of the miles came from the Barclay US Airways Premier card 50K sign on bonus (this version is no longer available). It cost $50 in taxes and fees and over 70K miles for the airfare redemption (economy on the way there, and business on the way back).
I decided to split my time between Kyoto and Tokyo (4 nights each), and use these cities as a base for day trips to nearby places. The first night in Japan was spent in Narita near the airport to recharge before traveling to Kyoto (Hilton Narita, 20K HHonors points, this was definitely a steal). Lodging in both Kyoto and Tokyo was booked via Airbnb (private room, around $650 for 8 nights). Coincidentally, American Express at that time had a $50 rebate for Airbnb bookings over $300!!! The stars were definitely aligned!!!!!
Since I planned to travel between different cities, I decided to purchase a 7 day Japan Rail Pass for using the shinkasen (bullet train), JR rails and Narita Express. The JR Pass is only offered to foreign visitors visiting Japan, and can only be purchased outside of Japan. It’s a bit pricey (around $260), but with roundtrip shinkasen rides between Kyoto and Tokyo, as well as taking the Narita express from the Narita airport to Tokyo, it actually costs less using the JR Pass.
My airbnb host in Kyoto suggested that I get a pocket wifi, since it’s not very common to find free wifi in Japan. It was a great advice as the pocket wifi came in very handy. The cost was a little north of $50 for a 9 day rental. I had the company ship the pocket wifi to the hotel in Narita and it was waiting for me upon my arrival. I also had international data available at $10/GB through Project Fi. It may have cost less using int’l data instead of renting a pocket wifi, but I wasn’t 100% sure how reliable Project Fi is overseas.
A friend recommended the “hyperdia” app for navigating the rails and subways in Japan. Coupled with google maps, this made traveling a lot easier.
Japan is predominately cash based, unlike the U.S. where credit cards are widely accepted. I use Charles Schwab’s high yield savings account to withdrawal money from the local ATM. This product has no ATM fee worldwide and can be used at most ATMs (it’s part of the Interlink, Plus, and Money Pass network). You actually get a better exchange rate from the local ATM versus the $ exchange desk at the airport. The normal CS high yield checking has the same benefit, however you have to open a brokerage account along with the checking account. Due to my nature of work I’m not able to have brokerage accounts elsewhere. The rep that I spoke with got creative and told me i’d still get a debit card for the savings account. The only caveat is it’s limited to 6 transactions per month. For traveling internationally, I’d recommend exploring options to get a fee-free debit card. It makes me cringe every time I see people paying bank fees for ATM withdrawal (e.g. my own brother….grrrrrr).
Now on to the actual travel. 🙂
Kyoto is an old capital of Japan. There are endless places to see, notably shrines, and lots of them. There are over 2,000 shrines across the city and the surrounding areas. I barely scratched the surface in 4 days. Be prepared for lots of walking. My epic fail on this trip was not having proper footwear. 🙁 🙁 🙁
Highlights: (and more pics on Instagram)
- Fushimi Inari: This is the shrine with lots of orangey torii gates. To avoid the crowd I got there at 7 in the morning. It’s about a 15 mins train ride from the Sanjo Station (took me over 40 mins as I hopped on the express train which didn’t stop at where I needed to go. Story of my life).
- Nishiki Market: This area has a large indoor souvenir shops, restaurants, and food markets that sell picked goods, seafood, and small eats. Warning, it’s crazy crowded.
- Arashiyama: Best known for the bamboo forest. I also got there really early in the morning. Think this is where I lost my just purchased ICOCA card (a reloadable train pass). 🙁
- Nara: It’s an hour train ride from Kyoto. Best known for Japanese deer roaming around the park and nearby temple.
- Temples: Heain, Jingu, Nanzenji, Kiyomizudera, etc etc. I lost track. Kiyomizudera is my favorite. Most of the bigger temples charge a nominal entrance fee.
- Staying at a traditional machiya styled Japanese house and getting to know my host. Check out their listing here for your future Kyoto visit.
Some of my favorite eats in Kyoto:
After an amazing stay in Kyoto (and major aching feet), I made my way back to Tokyo. I was able to meet up with a friend who lives in Tokyo. It was so great seeing a familiar face. We met up for dinner twice. On my first night she took me to a food alley near the JR Ebisu station. Talk about local experience. Overall I didn’t do as much in Tokyo as I’d like to, instead i spent a good deal of time resting and watching the Blacklist on netflix…lol. A girl can only do so much.
- Food Alley for some crazy fresh seafood!
- Tokyo Pub Crawl: We went to 2 pubs in Shibuya and ended at a club (Vision). It was interesting meeting people from different places (foreigners and locals alike). The club was underwhelming and I was out of there in less than 10 mins. Also didn’t want to miss my train which stops running around midnight to 1 am-ish.
- Kamakura: An hour train ride south of Tokyo. It’s a coastal town along the Sagami Bay. There are many temples nearby. It’s where the Great Buddha of Kamakura is located (“daibtsu”).
- Walking food tour: Did a walking food tour with Urban Adventures one night. We had yakitori in Yurakucho st, mochi from Akebono in Ginza, and monja-yaki and chocolate-maki in Tsukishima st. My favorite was the chocolate-maki.
- Harajuku, Shinjuku, Shibaya: Walked around these places to get a feel of Tokyo. These are great places to go for people watching.
- Tsukiji Market: Got to visit the infamous Tsukiji seafood market. The inner-market is where the tuna auction takes place in early mornings. Ughhhh actually i went to the wrong place at first (went to Tsukishima instead…the names sound so similar). Ended up dragging myself across the bridge to find the fish market. It’s oh only a 30 mins walk…not that i need any more exercise. The view from the bridge across the Sumida river was stunning though. The wholesale building (inner-market, pic below on the bottom left) will be moving to a new location in 11/2016 to make room for the 2020 Olympic, after being there since 1935.
- I stayed near the JR Tamachi station, in a high rise with view of the Tokyo Tower and Mount Fuji (visible on a clear day). The host was an adventurous couple who took a year off traveling the world recently. We stayed up past midnight one day talking about their travels. Check out their travel blog for some fun reads.
The amazing food in Tokyo:
Japan has so much to offer for people with different interests and age group. It’s a very friendly country and I never felt unsafe (well except that one time I found myself hiking alone in the woods in Kyoto in search of a cemetery. It was really really creepy). The rail system is well established which makes it easy to explore different parts of the city and country. Go with an open mind, immerse yourself in the culture, and leave the to-do list at home. Even if you don’t know any Japanese words, it’s still easy to communicate with people and get around. Kampai!!!
Note: The entire trip costs less than $2K, including airfare, lodging, food, souvenir, rail pass, wifi rental, etc. If you plan and budget well, leverage miles and points, and have a good savings plan (i.e. cutting out any excess spendings to save for travel), it’s totally affordable. 🙂