31 Hours in Tokyo

In our previous post, we reviewed our last minute efforts to plan a President’s Day / Valentine’s Day long weekend getaway to Tokyo. TL;DR – we left off with two Japan Airlines (JAL) award tickets on hold: SFO-LAX-NRT in first class for the departure and HAN-SFO in business class on the return. These tickets weren’t ideal for a couple of reasons:

  1. The departure flight left on Saturday meaning we’d lose an entire 12 hours in Tokyo.
  2. The first flight landed at NRT which is much further from the center of Tokyo versus HAN.
  3. The HAN-SFO return flight was in business. We’d flown business already and were eager to fly first, especially given that it was only 12,500 additional miles each way.

With a couple weeks til the departure date, Sarah was tasked with checking the British Airways website multiple times a day to monitor changing award availability. The ideal ticket was a direct SFO-HAN leaving Friday (technically Saturday AM) at midnight, which would get us into Tokyo at 5am Sunday versus our current itinerary which got us in 5pm on Sunday. While this flight never became available, two first class tickets popped up on our return HAN-SFO which we quickly grabbed.

Route Fare Class # of Tickets Miles Redeemed Per Person Total Miles Redeemed Cash Cost Per Person Total Cash Cost
SFO-LAX-NRT First 2 62,500 125,000 $5.60 $11.20
HAN-SFO First 2 62,500 125,000 $38.06 $76.12
TOTAL 250,000 $87.32

We’d now be redeeming 250,000 American Airlines miles. With the upcoming AA devaluation on March 22nd, this itinerary would soon cost 320,000 AA miles. The math made sense from a points perspective but we were still a little skeptical – was going to Tokyo for 31 hours (closer to 24 hours actually in the city) a bit too crazy…even for us??

Clearly not :)

Saturday February 13th we had a 7am flight from SFO to LAX. The 3.5 hour layover gave us time to check out both One World International lounges in LAX – Qantas First Class and the One World Business Class.

Qantas First Lounge
Qantas First Lounge

While the Qantas First lounge was certainly nice, it was not on-par with other first class lounges we’ve been to (notably in HKG and HAN). The table service dining was a nice touch and the breakfast menu looked enticing but given our upcoming first class flight, we decided to pass on eating anything substantive (David had some muesli). Other than the dining area, the lounge was rather sterile. All in all, next time we’d probably skip the lounge entirely in favor of the One World Business lounge.

OneWorld Business Lounge

OneWorld Business Lounge

The One World Business lounge had a much more chic feel to it, almost like what you’d find at a W Hotel or a Virgin America lounge. The food was buffet style instead of a la carte and despite our upcoming flight, we couldn’t resist the temptation of polishing off a plate or two of tater tots.

Tater Tot Temptation

After about two hours of eating, drinking, and relaxing, we headed to our terminal to board JAL’s 777 for some more eating, drinking, and relaxing.

As we mentioned in 2015 Year in Review, we had flown JAL Business on our Christmas trip to Vietnam/Cambodia. We had a terrific experience on the business product and had high expectations for JAL First. Despite the high expectations, we were blown away by how much nicer the experience was up in front.

First off, you get a substantially larger amount of space, both length and width. As we’ve shown below (JAL First on left and JAL Business on right), you can see that there’s a substantial difference between the two. Second, while both are completely lie-flat and have a comfortable mattress pad, the first class seat is effectively a real twin-sized bed (a really comfortable one at that) whereas the business seat reminded us of the experience of sharing a bed with one too many people (comfortable, but not really much room to maneuver).

JAL First vs Business

Furthermore, the cabin feels much more intimate with only eight seats in first compared to 30+ in business. Despite having only eight seats, there were four first class flight attendants. Needless to say the flight attendants were extremely attentive. Upon boarding we were asked if we wanted to change into the complimentary JAL pajamas. Our standard long haul plane wear is athleisure anyway but we figured we might as well take this opportunity to get extra comfortable. At the end of the flight, they encourage you to take them with you, so we are now the proud owners of four sets of JAL-branded pajamas.

#JALSWAG
Sarah’s Note: Area of improvement would be to provide feminine fit jammies.
David’s Note: Pretty sure Sarah was the only female in the cabin both times, as the cabin was mostly older business travelers and other mile-hoarders like ourselves.

The food was excellent. You get served a full meal upon takeoff in addition to an “Anytime You Wish” menu being available for the length of the flight including delicious late night munchies options such as udon, ramen, curry rice, ice cream, among others. Between the dizzying array of food options and the nice bed + unlimited high-end champagne, it’s hard to decide whether to sleep or stay up! Finally, you get served breakfast before the flight lands in Tokyo.

Filet Mignon

Caviar

La Piece De Resistance (if you're vegan that is)

Upon landing in NRT we were out the door and on our bus in a matter of 10 minutes since Japan is the most efficient country on Earth, and their airports are no exception.

2 Hours In: 7pm Sunday

We checked into the Park Hyatt Tokyo and headed straight for Valentine’s Day drinks at the New York Bar (aka the “Lost in Translation bar”). The drinks are not cheap but the ambiance is unbeatable (there’s a jazz singer there in the evenings) and the bar has some of the best night time views of the city. There’s typically a cover charge after a certain time but if you’re staying at the hotel it’s waived.

NY Bar @ PH Tokyo

4 Hours In: 9pm Sunday

One of the main reasons we stayed at the Park Hyatt Tokyo was its close proximity to Shinjuku, our favorite Tokyo neighborhood and in close proximity to shopping in Shibuya and great street food in Harajuku. After drinks we decided to take a stroll in the unseasonably warm weather and walk around Shinjuku in search of some delicious late night yakitori. After finally finding Omoide Yokocho (a street full of tiny yakitori pubs), we chose one crowded with a lot of locals and had our first meal in Tokyo. We had a full next day ahead of us and were in bed by midnight.

12 Hours In: 5am Monday

We woke up at 5am thanks to the time zone and the natural light from our huge windows. For this reason, we actually find it much easier to sightsee in Asia as opposed to Europe. As an added benefit, we even had time to take some obviously staged photos of the sunrise.

Park Hyatt Sunrise

14 Hours In: 7am Monday

We walked to Yoyogi Park in the center of West Tokyo near Harajuku. We hadn’t been to this park on previous visits to Tokyo which goes to show that shorter trips can allow you to uncover hidden gems since you aren’t so busy fitting “everything” in. The park was incredibly peaceful since Monday is a work day, with only a handful of people walking through the park on their commute to work. Because we got there early, we were able to see the morning ritual from the shrine’s caretakers.

Meiji Shrine

Fountain for washing your hands and mouth before entering

Sake Barrels

17 Hours In: 10am Monday

We were getting hungry so exited the park to nearby Harajuku. We then realized that it was a tad early to be eating since most of the restaurants didn’t open until 11:30 for lunch so we popped into a local coffee shop for some morning pastries (something Tokyo does really well) and also some badly needed wifi (navigating Tokyo is very hard without Internet).

Harajuku Cafe

18 Hours In: 11am Monday

By 11am we were starving so walked over to the nearest Ichiran. For all you ramen enthusiasts, Ichiran, while definitely not the best ramen in Tokyo, is absolutely the most convenient source of quality ramen in the city. With dozens of locations spread throughout the city, no matter what neighborhood you’re in, you should be able to find one within walking distance. You order through a vending machine (with English translations) at the front and when it’s your turn you sit down at a stall, give them your order and your ramen appears a short while later, exactly to your specifications. Additionally, if you’re having trouble locating it, you can ask almost anyone on the street and they’ll know where the nearest one is.

Ichiran

Note for Vegans/Vegetarians: only pork broth here, so Sarah ate a bowl of rice with nori seaweed as David loudly slurped his ramen in the adjacent stall.

Ichiran

Ichiran

After lunch we decided to walk through Harajuku’s famous Takeshita street. As the cultural center of Tokyo’s teen fashion world, you can typically find some pretty outlandish looking outfits. However, since it was a Monday and most teens were presumably in school, we just went for the delicious street desserts. Having had the crepes before, David decided to try something new and had one of these churro-looking things.

Harajuku Snacks

Harajuku Snacker

20 Hours In: 1pm Monday

After Harajuku, we took the subway back to Shinjuku to explore the malls a bit and people watch (as well as pick up some food court snacks for Sarah).

Subway Rider

Food Court Snacks

Afterwards we hit up numerous liquor stores in search of Yamazaki 18, David’s favorite whiskey. As recently as two years ago, you could pick up this whiskey duty-free at the Tokyo airports but lately it’s been impossible to find after a string of international awards for Japanese whiskeys. After our thorough search it’s safe to say that this label is probably sold out worldwide. Multiple store owners chuckled when we walked in asking for Yamazaki 18, as I’m sure we weren’t the first naive tourists who thought we could get our hands on some of this stuff. Fortunately, David was able to pick up two bottles of Kavalan, a highly underappreciated Taiwanese whiskey with many of the same qualities as Japanese whiskey but a much lower price tag.

22 Hours In: 3pm Monday

Time for a second lunch at the excellent Sushi No Midori in the Mark City mall near Shibuya crossing. The line was 45 minutes at 3pm on a Monday, making us question if Japanese people do in fact work as hard as everyone thinks they do. David has been here several times before and it’s his go-to spot for “value sushi” (something you typically want to avoid in America) as his meal clocked in at less than $35 USD. Comparable quality sushi in San Francisco would easily clock in over $100.

Sushi No Midori

25 Hours In: 6pm Monday

At this point jetlag is suddenly starting to kick in. We are both quite literally falling asleep standing up and the temperature is about 20 degrees cooler than the previous evening. We came, we saw, we ate and even though our flight was not until midnight we decide to head to the airport early and enjoy the first class lounge.

26 Hours In: 7pm Monday

Our bus from the Park Hyatt to HAN took 45 minutes (compared to 1.5 hours to NRT); we made a mental note to only fly into HAN when possible. Security was a breeze because, to reiterate again, Japan is the most efficient country on earth. There was a separate first class security line and our shoes were presented to us on a platter by someone after we passed through the metal detectors – full service!

27 Hours In: 8pm Monday

The JAL first class lounge at HAN is an excellent experience all around. This is probably our second favorite lounge, only after Cathay Pacific’s “The Pier” first class lounge in Hong Kong. As AA Executive Platinums / One World Emeralds, we get first class lounge access while traveling on any international flight. Of course, the first class lounges are best enjoyed by actually flying first class :) The lounge has complimentary massages, an abundance of comfortable seating, lockers for luggage, a hot buffet, a chef making made to order food, and a cool champagne chocolates room with vintage relics from JAL’s history.

JAL First Lounge

JAL First Lounge

JAL First Lounge

JAL First Lounge

We knew the return flight would be difficult timing; we were completely exhausted and the flight was taking off at midnight Tokyo time, which was 8am San Francisco time. As we had to be at work on Tuesday there was no time for jetlag. We took a short nap in the lounge and tried to stay awake for as long as possible on the return flight.

31 Hours In (Midnight Tuesday)

We had different seats for the return versus departure, across the aisle from each other on the departure and together in the middle on the return. Both had pros and cons for a couple traveling together. It was easier to talk when we were next to each other in the middle, but more difficult to go over and “visit” the other person’s seat as you’d have to walk all the way around through the flight attendant’s gallery (definite first world problems, we realize, but when you’re splurging for first class, it makes sense to optimize each detail).

The return flight flew by, clocking in at just 8.5 hours. We – sadly – arrived in SFO 30 minutes ahead of schedule just before 5pm. This was excellent timing as we still had a few hours to enjoy our President’s Day before heading back to work. Given that our journey was so comfortable we weren’t tired and went to bed Monday evening at a normal time. Overall, this weekend was a lot of fun and well worth the 250,000 miles that we redeemed for our two first class tickets. Of course there is still much to do and see in Tokyo, and we’re hoping that one of our next actual vacations will be a week or two exploring other places in Japan such as Kyoto, Osaka and Hokkaido.

A Whole New World
Sarah watching Aladdin on the return flight. JAL First is the closest she’s ever gotten to a magic carpet ride.

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