Japan (Part 1) Introduction- A Babymoon…….Sakura Style!?
Japan (Part 2) Japan Airlines First Class Chicago O’Hare to Tokyo Narita
Japan (Part 3) St. Regis Osaka
Japan (Part 4) Around Kyoto
Japan (Part 5) Around Nara
Japan (Part 6) Andaz Tokyo
Japan (Part 7) Around Tokyo
Japan (Part 8) Conrad Tokyo
Japan (Part 9) Fujigoko Sakura viewing (Beautiful full bloom cherry blossoms)
Japan (Part 10) Westin Tokyo
Japan (Part 11) Japan Airlines First Class Lounge
Japan (Part 12) Japan Airlines First Class Tokyo Narita to Chicago O’Hare
Introduction- A Babymoon……Sakura Style!?
When one thinks “babymoon” one’s thoughts typically run to a nice relaxing beach destination. One where mom-to-be doesn’t have to do much besides lay around and take dips in the pool and sips on mocktails. In fact the anti-babymoon might be Japan. One of the most densely populated countries with Tokyo having the largest population in the world. Japan is generally hectic and “go, go, go”, so not your typical baby moon destination. Alas I must admit that this wasn’t originally booked to as a babymoon. I had booked this trip out about 7-8 months back in August 2014 which was before my wife got pregnant. We took a trip to Australia in Jan 2015 and a trip to Japan was now on the books. Then in November we found out we were expecting our first child together. My wife’s doctor said both trips were fine and since the baby isn’t due until later in the summer were cleared to take the trips! Thus a babymoon is born (actually two baby moons if you include Australia months earlier).
This trip is to be our “last hurrah” so to speak as far as far flung vacations go until the baby is at least one year old. We debated not taking this trip as to allocate additional funds for things for baby and Japan will always be there and isn’t going anywhere. However Japan Airlines first class flights from US to Tokyo for 62,500 AA miles will not always be there and will be gone sooner than later! So I really wanted to burn these miles and experience a new first class product and take one last major adventure with my wife for a while.
We have both wanted to visit Japan. It appears such a “quirky and unique culture” to us on the outside. One of my pastimes since a child is the occasional video game and Japan is home to some of the greatest game producers and video game characters of all time. My wife gets a kick out of seeing the Japanese people dressed in cosplay (if your not familiar with cosplay look it up its interesting!). The Karaoke, sake, moisture masks all so intriguing to us!
I figured if we are going to visit Japan for our first time then it would make sense to try and plan it around Sakura season. Sakura is basically Japanese for “cherry blossom blooming”. I checked for JAL availability between Chicago and Tokyo for late March to Mid April. I was able to find some decent availability. However peak sakura season is typically around April 1st or so depending on the weather and other factors and I couldn’t find anything that worked unless I wanted to be in Japan for two weeks and we didn’t want to use that much vacation time on this trip. I managed to find a nice Sunday to Sunday one week itinerary but for mid April, thus gambling that the cherry blossoms would open late this year (they didn’t). These were direct ORD to NRT and back flights, no connections on this trip (aside from the bus ride from Milwaukee to O’Hare). Well a few days before the trip I checked the cherry blossom forecast and found that this year the blossoms are blooming a few days early (of course)! Thus meaning that we would miss the peak Sakura season in Kyoto and Tokyo. However there are many late blooming trees in Kyoto and also as long as you are in Japan in April there are always different areas of the country that are blooming at different times you just may have to go to them to see them.
We loved our flight on JAL F and were all smiles for the 12 hour journey!! On landing we got turned in our exchange orders at the JR station and received our JR rail passes which would be good for 7 days which is the exact number of days we would be in Japan. We chose not to buy access to the green cars (or first class cabins) and opted for the regular “coach” cars for our JR rail passes thus saving around $80 per person. I must say the normal cars are perfectly comfortable and was quite happy we didn’t spent the additional $160. We took the Narita Express to Shinagawa station and connected there to the Tokiado Shinkansen for the near three hour train ride to Shin-Osaka station via the Hikari service. There is a faster Nozomi service which cuts the ride time down by 30 minutes however JR rail pass holders cannot ride Nozomi service. We took a cab from Shin-Osaka to our hotel, the St. Regis Osaka.
We used the St. Regis Osaka as our base for three nights. Its a great central location to explore not only Osaka but its only a 20 minute Shinkansen ride to Kyoto and also not too far from Nara either. The St. Regis was fabulous for the most part (as usual) and we enjoyed our stay there using points and cash and points combinations for our three night stay.
We spent our first full day exploring a rainy Kyoto. We bounced around from temple to temple initially using the bus system however after just one amazingly crowded bus ride I swore off that for the rest of the day and mandated we take a cab to all the other destinations. The rain did not let up at all and there were quite a bit of tourists at most of the attractions. My wife and I were sharing an umbrella all day and lets just say we found out that in the future we both need to carry our own umbrella! LOL.
Another day we took the train over to Japan’s original capitol of Nara. We booked a tour guide to show us around for a 3.5 hour “Narawalk” package. We got to see the main attractions while in Nara amongst them the deer all over Nara and Nara Park and Great Buddha Hall. We got a lot of behind the scene information and got to see some places we would have never known about just touring by ourself. Our guide was great and spoke good english but by the end both my wife and I were tired!!!
After a few days in and around the Osaka region we headed back to Tokyo via Shinkansen to explore.
Due to limited availability at my hotel of choice (the Conrad) I had to hotel hop to avoid paying $500 plus a night and use my points. Our first night in Tokyo we stayed at the Andaz Toronomon Hills Tokyo on points. In fact we could have stayed all three nights here by transferring my UR points to Hyatt but my priority was to burn my free weekend night certificate from Hilton. The hotel was great in general but we found the beds to be too hard. Hard enough to be a deal breaker if we ever make it back to Tokyo.
What I have failed to mention up until this point is that prior to us leaving on this trip my wife got sick the day before. She was very congested and came down with a cold it seems. Well she was lucky enough and able to buck her cold in only 2-3 days in which logically she passed along to me, only my sickness continued on for the whole trip and in fact one day we didn’t leave the hotel I was so so sick! My illness hit its peek while we were in Tokyo which greatly limited our plans and what we did.
While in Tokyo we were able to visit the Ginza and Shibuya areas of Tokyo as I was too sick to explore more of the different areas.
We stayed our second night at the Conrad Tokyo which I found a slight step up from the Andaz although it could be debated the Andaz is superior to some people. I was able to redeem my free night cert from Hilton here at the very least so I was happy.
The day before our trip ended I felt good enough to get up early and take a 2.5 hour multiple train ride to Arakurayama Sengen Park. I really wanted to visit this area so I was happy I felt good enough as the cherry blossoms were in full bloom during this time. Typically this area around Mt. Fuji and the 5 lakes area of Japan bloom mid April which lines up perfectly when we would be there. We spend a a gloriously clear, cool and crisp Saturday morning admiring the views of many many cherry blossoms and Mt. Fuji in the near distance.
Our final night was spent at the Westin Tokyo which felt like a huge Vegas style hotel compared to the Andaz and Westin. The hotel was extremely busy and crowded. There was also a wedding taking place at the property which helped contribute to the hive of activity though out the lobby and common areas of the property. I thought our room could use a refresh as well.
After a six nights in Japan in which many of them we were sick with a bad cold bug it was time to depart. We took the train to Narita Airport where we checked in for our amazing JAL F flight home! Wow the service levels here by JAL staff at checkin were extraordinary!! Japan Airlines has most certainly won us over. We had about 45 minutes to enjoy in the JAL First Class Lounge before boarding for our flight home.
We had the same seats as our way to Japan (seats 2D and 2G) and for couples traveling together is probably the best seats to book. The head flight attendant was taking care of us on this trip and we ended up with so many amenity kits and JAL pajamas and even coffee mugs! Wow what a great service combined with hard product. I was surprised by my thoughts of Japan Airlines first class being slightly superior to our Cathay Pacific first class flights even with Japan Airlines having a more crowded cabin (by two seats). I felt the food was better, the seat/suite was better and mainly the service levels were off the charts! I must admit I felt like Japanese passengers got slightly better service but that just tells you how good the service is that I didnt feel slighted by this and was still overall very pleased. I will have the full reviews of JAL as the trip report unfolds.
Even though we both got sick for portions of this trip and I am even still a bit sick two days after the vacation as I write this segment of the trip report we had a good time and are very thankful and grateful we got to spend time together exploring another new spot on the globe! Adventuring around with loved ones and sharing those new experiences is what makes our vacations special. I hope this trip report will help others with there travels to Japan or at least entertain those that have never been!
As always questions and comments are welcome and remember you can click on any photo for a large version of that photo.
Thanks for reading and full trip report installments to follow!