Way back in 2011 we had flights booked for a spring trip to Japan. Of course, that was the year they had the infamous earthquake & tsunami, so our flights were eventually canceled, and somehow we never got around to rebooking ourselves to Japan. When we discovered that the 2019 Rugby World cup was to be hosted in Japan we figured it was a good excuse to finally go, so in 2018 we transferred points for an October 2019 trip.
Our flights were booked with Korean Air via JFK and Seoul, which meant we had an overnight in New York on the way, and a three night layover in Korea on the return. In Japan we started in Tokyo, followed by a night in Hamamatsu (for the South Africa v. Italy rugby match), then three nights in Kyoto, and two in Osaka.
We walked MILES each day, exploring different parts of each city, and nearly wore ourselves out on this trip… and still feel like we barely scratched the surface. See some of the highlights in the video below.
New York to Tokyo: Grabbed our Korean Air boarding passes at the premium check-in counter (no wait) and went to the lounge. Staff was nice and cleaned up regularly.
Boarding was smooth, we were seated and off we went for the nearly 14 hour flight; made our connection no problem even going through a security checkpoint.
Our flight on the upper deck of the A380 was fine. The cabin was fairly quiet and dark, with a decent temperature. Seats have lots of legroom, but don’t lay fully flat and lack personal storage options on aisle seat (lots of storage for window seats). Bathrooms were quite small too. Food was ok to meh – surprisingly the bibimbap was tastier from JFK than it was from Seoul.
Osaka to Seoul: Checked in using the priority line, then went to the lounge for an hour before passing through express security (Leandra got pulled out due to her toiletry bags – they wanted to double check all the sizes). Cleared customs using an automated system to scan boarding pass and take a photo of your face.
We had forgotten that we booked into Seoul Gimpo, the smaller airport closer to the city so we had to quickly review the transfer options to Seoul Station.
The flight was uneventful, with the only strange item– they only had one red wine, and no white on offer. Bonus – saw Mt. Daisen (one of Japan’s tallest peaks) through the window.
Seoul to New York: Woke up early after a good rest and took the hotel shuttle bus to Terminal 2. We didn’t see the check-in gates for business (prestige) right away but we found them eventually (business has its own section all the way to the right). There was a line so we waited ~15 minutes before we were quizzed about our luggage (thanks TSA) then received our boarding passes. Surprisingly Korean Air doesn’t have a separate security line, but both security and customs were quick on this morning. We made our way to the lounge for about an hour before the flight where we had a light breakfast.
On this trip we tried out the bar in the back of the plane. It was a nice place to get away from our seats for a while, and they served several tasty cocktails, along with a few snacks.
Korean Air was OK, but they compare more to an American airline rather than some of the amazing experiences we’ve had with other Asian and Middle East airlines.
Where we stayed
Courtyard New York Manhattan/Chelsea
This Courtyard has a good location for exploring midtown, right around the corner from Madison Square Garden and Penn Station. Rooms were fairly large for NY, with a very comfortable bed, a desk and a small table, plus a good size closet. Lots of outlets were also appreciated.
Japanese hotels in general: all had 10am checkout; never could check-in before 3pm and all came with variations on the fancy Japanese toilet.
Garden Hotel Otemachi, Tokyo
This hotel is in a business district about 1km from Tokyo Station, and even closer to Ōtemachi station. As usual in Tokyo, there were several convenience stores within a few blocks. The whole area was very quiet at night.
Our room was on the small size, but with enough space for carry-on luggage, and was very quiet. The mini fridge was useful, and included free water each day too. We appreciated the hooks by the door, the individual temperature control for the room, and that the shower mirror had a steam proof feature. The bed was comfortable, not too firm like so many in Asia, and the drapes kept the room dark so we slept well.
Hotel Leon Hamamatsu, Hamamatsu
Check-in was a little strange, where staff checked our passports, but then directed us to complete payment at an automated computer kiosk on the other side of the lobby. After paying we received a paper key card engraved with Leandra’s name which we used to get into our room. Unfortunately we were on a smoking floor, but it wasn’t too bad (and only one night).
Our room was compact but well arranged, with cabinets for everything – it felt like a nice ship cabin in that respect. Features included a mini fridge, DVD player, a big TV, microwave, water dispenser and plugs everywhere. There was even an automatic light panel by the bed and a Jacuzzi tub. There were tons of shampoo and random beauty samples both in the lobby and in the room.
Our room wasn’t the easiest to sleep in. Besides a very firm mattress, the wind was rattling the AC unit in our room in a random manner (this may be something unique to the top floor?). The room was rather bright too. Taking half an Ambien helped us out.
Breakfast was more than we were expecting. Eggs (scrambled and soft boiled), fried chicken, ham, breads, rice, soup broth, etc. Leandra never figured out the coffee machine in the breakfast area (it may have just been for hot water), so she grabbed a latte from the machine in the lobby. There was also a free soda fountain machine in the lobby that was a nice touch.
Super Hotel Kyoto Shijo Kawaramachi, Kyoto
Great location for exploring Kyoto – near to several rail lines, not too far to metro, and near lots of restaurants and bars. We didn’t receive any keys for our room, just a six-digit code that Leandra quickly memorized.
As expected, our room was small! While we had a futon-like couch – so in theory could have fit a third person – though it would have been tight. The bathroom continued the tiny theme, and almost seemed like a self-enclosed unit from a sci-fi movie. We found the bed to be quite firm, and the standard pillows felt like an actual bag of beans… thankfully they have a pillow selection by reception which has better choices.
Breakfast buffet was pretty good – fresh baked bread and pastries each day, with different flavors every morning we were there. Also included eggs and a few other cooked dishes (Asian and Western). The coffee was fairly terrible, orange juice was ok.
Besides the great location, this hotel had two bonus features. First, the natural spring was a nice bonus for relaxing sore muscles. They had different times posted for men and women throughout the day, which is important as this is a traditional bath (meaning fully nude). They did have lockers for holding your belongings, including your towel. The second great feature was the inexpensive laundry. At 100 yen ($0.95) each for the washer and dryer, it’s a great deal that let us travel carry-on only for this trip.
Kamon Hotel Namba, Osaka
Staff were very friendly at this hotel that is tucked away on a side street, but still quite close to the busy parts of Osaka. The trendy lobby had a cool art piece on one side, and tables & chairs on the other.
The Japanese-style twin room we booked was tight, but workable. Big bags would not have fit in this room! A shelf for luggage would have been helpful. As expected, the bed was rather firm. Also, the shades let in too much light in the morning, and it did have some urban noise.
Breakfast buffet spread was good with a few hot and cold items, plus made to order udon noodles.
Millennium Seoul Hilton, Seoul
As we had read in reviews, this hotel is located up a big hill and those comments were accurate. Walking from Seoul Station is possible but rather difficult given the stairs and incline.
Once we got inside (and caught our breath) we were wowed by the massive lobby! We were assigned a room on the executive lounge level with a view toward Seoul station. After all the small rooms in Japan our room felt enormous! It was quite generous with lots of room to spread out, and a big comfortable bed. Nice blackout drapes, fairly quiet, which made for excellent sleeping. Decor was a little old fashioned but not too bad. Housekeeping was quite good, everything was really clean and tidy.
The lounge had great views, plus it was nice to have the complimentary food and drinks. It was quite popular in the evening with cava, several liquors, and a small array of hot items – we loved the coconut cookies! The breakfast spread was reasonable with eggs, breads, several hot dishes, etc. Lounge staff were helpful too (Leandra was able to get two band-aids for her blistered feet).
Grand Hyatt Incheon, Incheon
We located the free hotel shuttle from the airport after scouting out two maps (the signage wasn’t great). On the bus, there was a notice about knowing what tower you were in so you knew which stop to get off. As we didn’t get an email about which side to go to, we just got off at the first stop and thankfully the front desk sorted us out.
Our room was very large and included a shoe rack, big closet, and a comfy bed. Oddly, one side of the bed had a fancier night table. The bathroom had a big tub, separate shower, and lots of counter space. Most importantly, it was easy to get to and from airport in the large shuttle bus (no reservations taken, but there was plenty of space at 7am).