The fancy-frugal way to get to and around Japan

JR local train in Kyoto station.
JR local train in Kyoto station.

I’ve wanted to visit Japan for years. As an Asian American kid in the late 90s and early 00s, Japan was the epitome of Asian cool. I watched a ton of anime, listened to J-pop, and did every school project I could on Japan. I even took Japanese at the community college for a semester, which came in handy on this trip.

Japan has a reputation for being an incredibly expensive travel destination. This year, though, the exchange rate has been very competitive for Americans, with 100 yen being a bit over 80 cents USD. And since I had just enough American AAdvantage miles to take me to Japan, I figured that this was the right time to go.

The problem

Food, accomodations, and the like might be cheaper in Japan for dollar-earners now, but getting there is just as expensive as ever. I could only go during the summer, when airfare costs are sky high. I knew from internet research that domestic flights and bullet train tickets in Japan are also very expensive. How could I save money on transportation?

The parameters

  • I wanted to spend as little cash as possible in getting to Japan and back.
  • My dates were flexible.
  • I was okay limiting myself to one region of the country. (Given my proclivity for travel, this trip to Japan was not going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m sure I’ll be back some other time!)
  • If possible, I’d like to travel in comfort.

Budget

  • I had enough American AAdvantage miles to get to and from Japan in business class.
  • I also had enough Air Canada Aeroplan miles to get around Japan and Asia in business class.
  • I wanted to spend less than $500 on airfare for the entire trip (preferably much, much less).

The solution

First course of a business class meal on Japan Airlines.
First course of a business class meal on Japan Airlines.

I ended up booking a roundtrip from Los Angeles to Kansai (Osaka) on Japan Airlines in business class. This cost 100,000 American AAdvantage miles and $48.50 in taxes and fees. The miles came from years of flying on American and US Airways and from the bonus points from the Citi AAdvantage credit card.

My flight from Osaka to Singapore (the long way) also included some domestic legs in Japan. Except the domestic Japan flights, all of the flights were in business class. This cost 30,000 Aeroplan miles and $124.62 in taxes and fees. The Aeroplan miles were converted from American Express Membership Rewards points. The Membership Rewards points, in turn, came from American Express credit card signing bonuses.

Why Kansai?

Part of the Gion Matsuri festivities in Kyoto.
Part of the Gion Matsuri festivities in Kyoto.

Most Japan itineraries start and end in Tokyo. I skipped Tokyo entirely on this trip and went straight to the Kansai region in western Japan, anchored by the big cities of Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe. I also spent a day in Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu, and had planned for a day in Okinawa (but had to scrap that plan because of a typhoon).

The reason I ended up flying straight to Kansai was because Japan Airlines (an American Airlines partner) had just started flying between Kansai and Los Angeles when I was planning the trip. Because this route was so new, I could pick just about any date in July and find business class seats that I could pay for with miles. The flights to Tokyo, on the other hand, had no miles availability, even several months ahead.

The Kansai flight also worked out well because it meshed well with my own travel goal: seeing the juxtaposition of old and new Japan, and eating lots of delicious food. Kyoto and Nara have so many historical sights that it’s impossible to take them all in on such a short trip. Osaka is well-known as a foodie paradise.

Getting around

My Hello Kitty-branded ICOCA card. This IC card works as a public transportation card and as electronic money in stores across Japan.
My Hello Kitty-branded ICOCA card. This IC card works as a public transportation card and as electronic money in stores across Japan.

To get from the airport to Kyoto, I bought the ICOCA and Haruka deal, which included an ICOCA smart card and a ticket on the fast train to Kyoto. I bought the one-way for ¥3,030. Later on, I ended up buying three one-day Kansai Area Passes. I used the first on the train from Kyoto to the airport on my way to Hong Kong (thanks, Typhoon Chan-hom), the second on the train from Osaka to Himeji, and the third was on the train from Osaka to Kansai Airport on the way back to Los Angeles. The one-day Kansai Area Pass costs ¥2,200 if booked in advance, or ¥2,300 if bought at the station.

Between cities in the Kansai region I mostly took JR West express (shinkaisoku: 新快速) trains, which are clean and economical, if not always super fast. Within the cities I mostly took the subway and bus. I paid for all of my transportation (except the ¥500 one-day bus pass in Kyoto, which is cash only) by adding cash to my ICOCA card and tapping in and out at stations.

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One thought on “The fancy-frugal way to get to and around Japan

  1. Pingback: Flight report: Japan Airlines business class, Los Angeles to Osaka (JL69) – The Itinerant Egghead

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