Author Topic: Japan Trip Report  (Read 3552 times)

Offline jnb1800

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Japan Trip Report
« on: April 17, 2023, 07:25:07 PM »
Japan March 2023 Trip Report

Pardon the inconsistent structure and staccato nature of this report- its more like a stream of consciousness dump but if you don’t immediately unload the trip info as soon as you return, it never happens. No time for pics sorry.

So - Japan- guys trip - 3 of us - long talked about, sidetracked by Covid, but finally we seized the moment and made it happen

No expenses spared from an activity standpoint as it’s not every day one gets to leave their wife and children at home to gallivant around the other side of the world - but we tried to make it points/miles heavy when possible to keep costs palatable

Initially tried to plan to avoid going over Shabbos but not really feasible - no good Saturday night flight options, so leaving Sunday means an arrival Monday night at the very earliest - and then a Thursday afternoon departure, which means less than 3 days in total  (there is a Friday am nonstop option to get home but not everyone was comfortable with an erev shabbos transoceanic flight so this idea was scrapped)

March was not our first choice for time of year initially and our trip ended up being sandwiched between Purim and Pesach, but in hindsight worked out very well, just in time for loosening of Covid rules in Japan (we were not asked or forced to wear masks even once - although a majority of Japanese were still mask wearing), and we caught the very beginning of cherry blossom season. Weather was overall quite good. Nice spring weather, some rain, mostly in 50s-60s


ANA business (“The Room”)
75K Air Canada Aeroplan points (one of used a 50k certificate from opening Aeroplan CC towards this, others transferred points from Amex MR)

Initially planned on using AA JAL business as was more readily available, but about 3 weeks before the trip, this opened up for all 3 of us so switched into this

Departing on a Tuesday afternoon for Wednesday evening arrival in Tokyo

To start our trip off with some drama, the LGA-ORD leg was canceled the night before departure

Needed to get us on to an earlier LGA-ORD flight to make sure enough time for the connection

Meant there was now enough time to pop over to Shallots for a delicious lunch during our layover

Back to ORD to the Polaris lounge to do hachanos for the next leg of the trip

ANA outfitted some of their routes to their new business class called “The Room” - each seat is very wide, with ability to completely close off with dividers

Rivals if not surpassed the Q suites on Qatar as the premium business class product available IMHO

We debated if it was worth the stop in Chicago to get on this specific flight, over taking a JAL business nonstop from NY - and I would say with a resounding yes, this was worth it. Tons of space, amazing privacy, great service, everything you want.

Landed HND 9pm on a Wed night

Prefilled the covid entry fast track website ahead of time so breezed right through (needed either 3 covid vaccine doses or a neg test within 72 hours of departure - I believe these restrictions are further loosening in May 2023)

Tokyo - one night

Pre-booked car for 50$ from ; 25 minute drive to Shibuya

Since our first night in Tokyo was very short (late arrival, itching to get out and explore after a long flight during which we rested very well, and an early morning bullet train to Kyoto planned) we opted for a quintessential Japanese lodging experience for our first night

A capsule hotel - The Millennials Shibuya - booked via, about 70$ per person

Needless to say not all in our party - especially those of us who happened to be 6’3” - were thrilled about the size of these capsules - but everyone was a good sport about this in the end

Chose this specific one as seemed the most foreign friendly, was well located, clean, and had a bit of a WeWork type feel

Dinner waiting for us at the hotel - arranged delivery through Chabad (R’ Edery/Kosher Japan - technically “unofficial yellow flag” chabad)

We then explored the Shibuya neighborhood, including the Shibuya scramble intersection, with lots of little alleyways to get lost in

Crashed in the capsule for a few hours. Tiny little sleeping area, shared bathroom/shower area but very clean and neat and did the trick. You get an iPhone at check in that controls your lighting, bed reclining, AC for your capsule.

Some of us were jet lagged and did some early morning exploration of the Meguro Sky Garden (an outdoor rooftop Japanese garden), Starbucks Roastery Reserve (4 story megastore with nice views of cherry blossoms) and Meiji Garden/Shrine (peaceful central park type vibes in middle of busy city)

Then back to the capsule to rouse the rest of the crew

Breakfast was delivered the night before together with our dinner, and kept in fridge overnight

We checked out and took subway to Tokyo station

Bought “Pasmo” cards at subway station - these are prepaid, refillable and great for subways and almost anything else you might want to pay for in the whole country- can add it to Apple wallet and then discard the actual physical card and can refill directly through wallet when needed - was awesome

Subways extremely easy to navigate -Google maps and google translate were the keys to this whole trip

Bullet train (“Shinkansen”) Tokyo - Kyoto

Bought ahead of time using ShinEx app, reserved first class cabin with seats (there are cheaper economy cabins, and cheaper still economy without reserved seats but we didnt want to risk standing with luggage for 2 hours). Also some of us are feinshmekkers.

Debated buying a Japan 7 day rail pass (unlimited travel) instead of individual train tickets - but 1) limits you to some types of trains only, eg can’t book the fastest category bullet trains with this pass  2) seemed more difficult to navigate the booking and reserving, websites were not English friendly 3) calculated it out and wasn’t really going to save much given our planned itinerary

Tokyo Station is like eight times the size of grand central station and 20 times as busy but still fairly easy to find train, car, seats

We only had backpacks and carry-ons - plenty of room - train also was not full - even with bigger luggage could make it work

For this leg, we sat on right side of train for a Mt Fuji view about 40 min in (ride is 2 h 15 min total)

Davened on the train (? First ever tallis/tefillin on this route ? )

Arrive Kyoto station

Kyoto - first night

We planned one night at the Suiran hotel - more on outskirts of town, in area called Arashiyama - quieter, set on riverbank and nestled in mountains, serene with beautiful gardens, baths, etc - but far from chabad so not a good Shabbos option - so stayed here one night, and then would move more to center of city for shabbos to be closer to chabad and for a different Kyoto feel

Suiran booked spg 88k (one of us booked w Amex plat instead - it’s a FHR property so came with perks)

Reservation included free ride from station to hotel which we arranged

As we arrive to the hotel, our new friend R Moti from Chabad Kyoto was pulling in as well with our lunch. He is also “unofficial” -  both of the unofficial Chabads had simple, easy to navigate websites and were readily available via Whatsapp to discuss details and timing, etc

We tantzed for Moshiach in the courtyard and checked in

Exactly the type of Japanese lodging experience we were looking for - ryokan (traditional japanese inn) style, but with service and luxury seamlessly integrated

Immediately took advantage of their onsen - hot springs bath

Then it was time for our samurai sword cutting experience - this was back in the center of Kyoto - intended to be both a tour of the ninja/samurai museum, and a workshop where you can learn to use and swing a samurai blade

That experience turned out to be pretty bad- they were not adequately staffed for the size of the group booked for the activity, and although it was booked for an hour, it stretched closer to two ours without any signs of finishing, the instructor was still droning on and on - so we did not get to actually slice the intended mannequin in half (they fully refunded us for the subpar experience after we complained via email)

This was in the Gion area (the old, traditional district of Kyoto, famous for its tea houses, geishas, and gardens), near Nishiki market - busy area with lots of street food (fried octopus balls anyone??) and shopping of all types - fun area to walk around

Next was dinner

This ended up being the biggest hiccup of the trip but was quite entertaining

During our food research, we didnt find many options other than Chabad (again, there are both official and unofficial chabad houses in both Tokyo and Kyoto - I will leave the political and hashkafic debates out of this, there are plenty of other forums here to discuss that- as long as they feed me and give me a place to Daven, they are free to feel however they like about Mashiach)

But we were hoping for some more authentic Japanese cuisine options, other than just shnitzel and pita (Chabad did ultimately come through with this - more on that later)

My furious googling led me to stumble onto what appeared to be an incredible find - a restaurant called Sushi Gion Matsudaya - a one Michelin-starred sushi joint in the heart of the most traditional part of Kyoto - with a purported ability, as per their website, to facilitate a kosher menu!?!

Too good to be true right?


After many back and forth emails with the restaurant, our hotel concierge, and an Israeli tour guide from Kyoto that the Rabbi put us in touch with.. it seemed like this would actually work - only kosher sashimi, kosher soy sauce, and separate utensils..

Reservations were purchased - required prepayment (pricey as one would expect a Michelin starred high end Japanese restaurant to be) - one member of our group was even tasked with bringing along kosher soy sauce packets from home, to have as backup

So we arrived

Six seats in the entire restaurant, in front of the chefs sushi counter

The other seats were already occupied by our dining companions who looked like they were preparing for this meal their whole lives - put it this way, on the restaurant’s English language website, it actually says: “ ​​People who want to chat a lot rather than enjoying eating sushi [sic] are prohibited.”

They were all sitting in silence watching the master chef at work..

..he was at work slicing baby squid..

It got awkward right away

Language barrier, trying to confirm that we are the kosher diners, wondering how we were going to navigate through this encounter

It seems he wasn’t going to actually serve us the squid

But was using the same knife to cut the tuna he was going to feed us

So much for separate utensils

And a soy sauce debacle as well - it was his own homemade version- and the chef, as a man of principle (and honestly, props to him - you don’t get a Michelin for nothing) refused to serve us his dishes without his soy sauce, as he felt it wouldn’t be appropriately flavored and representative of his preparation

We awkwardly debated all this using some broken English and google translate

The other diners who had just laid out serious cash to have a memorable dinner were horrified at all this (so were we honestly)

Eventually we bowed out (? Kiddush hashem - I say no- but this was endlessly debated by us for the rest of the night as we nursed our hunger over some beer)

We were still charged for dinner obviously (I mean we were 50% of his diners for the evening)

Good story, but we were stuck eating some leftover shnitzel from lunch, once we made it back to the hotel after walking around the Gion area

Next morning, again ate the breakfast delivered with the previous day’s delivery order

Then we set out to explore the Arashiyama neighborhood, all of which was walkable from our hotel
Some traditional shopping areas, gardens, temples
Then the bamboo forest, followed by a short hike to an observation deck with great views of the nearby forest, rivers, and gorges. Early cherry blossoms as well (NB. Japanese are obsessed with this. Like come to a standstill and start praying and partying every time they spot a blossom. We thought they were nice but a bit overrated - although they were not yet in full bloom)
Then across the river over a famous bridge to the monkey park, worth trekking all the way up the mountain there for about 35 minutes, for the dozens of monkeys roaming about, but also the panoramic Kyoto view

Back to Suiran for check out, then an Uber to our next hotel

Kyoto - two nights

Ritz Carlton Kyoto for two night stay (over shabbos)
120k bonvoy points per night

Probably a top 3 nicest hotel experience I've encountered. Perfection start to finish - new, modern Japanese decor, excellent location on the riverbank in the historic area of Kyoto walkable to most of the city, fantastic service with all the little touches 

Great check in process, some time for tea and cocktails

Our lunch delivery from Chabad was a bit delayed (they were also busy preparing Shabbos) so after going to our rooms, we set out to our Camellia Tea Ceremony in the Ninenzaka area (pre-booked online directly through their website)

Quaint, semi-private traditional Japanese tea ceremony led by a geisha, make your own matcha

The neighborhood is a pedestrian only historic area, streets filled with old stores and gardens, almost feels like its a Disney World park its so well-preserved. Explored the area and then headed back to hotel

The food had arrived so we had some erev shabbos sushi toamehu

Chabad (again, unofficial - R Moti) was 25 min walk away so we Ubered there before Shabbos

Great shabbos, communal meals, pretty typical international chabad shabbos feel and demographic

Shabbos afternoon went on a walk after the seuda to philosophers path, which is a nature walk with cherry blossoms set alongside a stream, then circled back towards the Gion and Nishiki Market for a long walk, essentially got lost in the markets and alleyways for a few hours

Motzei shabbos melava malka with some of the leftovers from our Friday lunch

Utilized the excellent pool and spa at the hotel, then explored the Pontocho area - full of eclectic little hole in the wall nightlife establishments

Sunday morning, we arranged a (complementary!- this hotel really was top notch) guided biking tour (e-bikes) to a mountain on the outskirts of Kyoto, then a 45 minute hike to the top for some incredible views, and then biking back to the hotel. Weather was perfect and this was a great activity and unique way to see the Kyoto streets

OK - tangent! How do you make an already memorable trip and hotel stay, even more memorable? You find yourself staying in said hotel along with Steve Cohen, billionaire hedge fund guy but more importantly, owner of the NY Mets - he, and us, were all conveniently wearing Mets gear - we had a good shmooze about the Mets playoff chances - he was in town for a business meet but also perhaps doing some baseball scouting?? - as the World Baseball Classic had been in Tokyo just a few nights before and he was spotted there. Nice guy. LGM.


Time for lunch - we successfully arranged a real (and yes really kosher too) Japanese omakase experience at the Chabad house through R Moti - with a full staff using their kitchen, preparing a delectable multi course meal just for the three of us - dishes like dashi omelets, tofu a million ways, stewed daikon (Japanese radish), fried lotus, exotic sweet potatoes, lots of fresh sushi and sashimi, and then the highlight - an incredible tuna dish (? sort of like a boneless tuna rib maybe ? ) slow roasted so that it had the consistency and taste of a beef short rib. Unique and delicious. Accompanied by sake, shochu, and sparkling yuzu wine to wash it down

Then, time to say goodbye to R Moti and Kyoto, as we took the train from Kyoto Station on to Osaka Station - this would be about 15 min by bullet train vs 28 min via regular local train, but the bullet train station in Osaka is actually farther out from the center of the city, so we opted for the regular train, and then from central Osaka Station, a 5 minute subway ride to our next destination

Osaka - one night

St Regis Osaka
59k bonvoy points - pretty solid redemption here

City hotel in a skyscraper, well located, perhaps a bit dated and nothing spectacular especially as compared to the Ritz Kyoto but we would only be here for a very short time. Butler service like in other St Regis properties.

After check in and welcome drinks, hopped on the subway to our next activity - arguably the centerpiece of the trip - and the reason we tacked on this side trip to Osaka to begin with

A Sumo wrestling tournament

Japan has six tournaments a year, each lasts two weeks, three are in Tokyo, the other three are elsewhere, and the March one is in Osaka and overlapped well with our dates so we made it happen

After some digging, we figured out how to buy the tix in advance online (they were released about 6 weeks prior, on a specific day, needed to be on top of that, or they can sell out)
This worked out pretty well  there were some other options for purchasing, including same day purchase if you wake up early and wait on line at the stadium, or by going through a hotel concierge or travel agency, but this was easy enough to navigate

Can buy individual seats in the upper decks or if you want to be closer to the action you can buy a “box” which allows 4 people to sit - on mats, not actual chairs - we obviously opted for this because who can pass up an opportunity to be crushed by a tumbling sumo wrestler while awkwardly sprawled on a bamboo mat

The ticket entry is good for the entire day of matches (there are several dozen matches starting at like 10am and going until 6pm, but the higher level competition doesn’t really begin until 3ish which is when we planned to arrive)

We found our box, bought some beer, and had an awesome time once we figured out what was going on

Matches only last a few seconds really, but the crowd is into it

The arena and atmosphere in general was very old school - not like American sporting events or arenas with blaring music, big screens, ads all over the place

We were basically the only foreigners in the joint

Had to make some friends with google translate to get good analysis and strategy tips but we got the hang of it

After it ended at about 6pm, we explored the surrounding areas which makeup the bustling commercial and entertainment areas of Osaka, including Namba and Dotonbori, filled with little alleyways, street food establishments, shopping, markets. The Dotonbori area has a river running through its main artery, we took a 20 minute boat ride there which was a fun way to see all the neon lights

Back to hotel for a late dinner (brought it with us from Chabad in Kyoto)

Some more exploring of the Osaka nightlife near the hotel and an attempt at playing Pachinko but we could not figure it out

Early wake up next morning, Uber to Osaka bullet train station and then caught our pre booked bullet train back to Tokyo

Tokyo - two nights

Arrive Tokyo Station and headed straight to our last hotel for the trip

Andaz Tokyo Toranomon Hills
35k Hyatt points per night - transferred from Chase UR

Fairly centrally located, very nice, but missing the “character” you feel in more memorable hotels, and again, more of a city skyscraper hotel- beautiful bar with incredible views - opted for this over Park Hyatt even though Park Hyatt better located (and was only 30k a night) because it seems these days the PH is really showing it’s age. Andaz was very cool clean and modern.

After check in,we  headed straight to TeamLabs Planets Tokyo - in Odaiba- had reserved admission to this place, which many people recommended as a top destination in Tokyo- an immersive art museum I suppose would be the best way to describe it? Was enjoyable, if perhaps more tailored to the blond Russian supermodel influencer types that were all instagramming live from there - was worth coming just to see the looks on the faces of my two traveling buddies when they found out that for part of the exhibit, you needed to remove your footwear and roll up your pants because you wade through a foot of murky water in a dark room filled with strobe lights

Afterwards, took an elevated train to explore the rest of the Odaiba area, mostly malls and entertainment complexes (and a random replica Statue of Liberty), didn’t spend too much time there, took the train onwards to the Ginza area, which is the main high end shopping district in Tokyo. Lots of very cool architecture. Every luxury brand you can imagine. Madison Ave on steroids

Next, we needed to head over for a late lunch / early dinner at the Chabad house at 430pm- again unofficial, run by the Ederys- the location is a bit out of the way (more on this in a bit) but we had arranged another Japanese omakase meal there, and this was the only timing it was available so we didn't want to pass that up

Again an incredible meal and experience with the amazingly hospitable Rebbetzin- with a legitimate celebrity Japanese chef in the kitchen frying us fresh tempura, hand rolling sushi, and cooking us miso, noodles, rice balls.. Got to hear from the Rebbetzin about their unique setup, including her close to 25 years on shlichus there, saw their private japanese garden and Kosher Japan warehouse which is the where they run their kashrus organization with many kosher certified products

The meal and tour was too good to end abruptly- but this meant that by the time we got in a car to try and get to our next activity, we hit with some terrible cross town rush hour Tokyo traffic

We had planned a Mario kart style, go-kart adventure in Shinjuku, the central downtown district of Tokyo - as it became clear we were going to miss it, we called andwere able to reschedule it for the next morning, and pivoted instead check out the Harejuku area (shopping district, including the famous Takeshita St, filled with lots of eclectic stores dedicated to every interest imaginable) and then the Shinjuku area that evening - fun and lively area, lots to see and do, like a cross between Times Square and the East village maybe? tons of little streets to get lost in, and even a batting cage open 24 hours??? that was a great end to our night out on the town

Next morning, we made it to our rescheduled Monkey Cart Shinjuku experience - good thing we didn’t miss this because it was absolutely incredible and a real highlight - you dress up like a cartoon character ??? and then drive go karts at 50+ mph on busy city streets, through the equivalent of like Times Square, filled with throngs of people- we are not quite sure how this was legal but it was amazing (in addition to prepaying and reserving this online, also needed an international drivers permit - which we got from our local AAA office for 20$ prior to leaving the US)

We then headed over to the Akhibara neighborhood, which is the center of gaming, anime, and cosplay

Megastore after megastore filled with people dressed as furry animals playing dance dance revolution basically - some good insights into Japanese fan culture   

Next, we headed over to the Tokyo Dome for a spring training game between the Tokyo Giants and Yokohama BayStars (yes if not apparent yet, we like baseball)

Bought tickets online, also fairly easy to figure out, but had to print these at a 7-11 (which wasn’t too complicated, just show barcode to cashier and he printed them)

This was a much more modern feeling sporting event, both in crowd and venue, but still uniquely Japanese - including cheering sections for each team, and guys who blow whistles to alert people when foul balls are flying into the stands  - place was packed despite it being a midweek afternoon exhibition game

After the game, headed to the Asakusa area, which is the older, more traditional part of Tokyo

Went up to the top of the Asakusa Visitors Center for a great free observation deck overlooking the area

Then strolled along the Nakamise shopping street towards the Sensoji temple, great souvenir area, interesting street food, some cherry blossoms - nicely encapsulating most of what Japan has to offer all within a few blocks

Back to the hotel, dinner delivered by Chabad (this time official chabad - R Mendy/Chanas place- we are non-partisan here) and enjoyed the hotel bar view before exploring the nearby Roppongi area for a bit, but wanted an early night ..

Because for our last day in a Japan, we had a very early morning to visit the Toyosu fish market and tuna auction - world famous for the size of the market, and the quality (and price) of the tunas on sale

Formerly housed in Tsukiji, moved a few years ago to a newer, cleaner area in Toyosu

Tuna auction is at 5am

Need to enter a lottery for tickets to the viewing area for this - we didn’t win the lottery - so got the Andaz concierge to arrange entry for us, along with a guide, because in addition to taking us around and showing us the auction area (which was great, but you are a bit removed from the action, behind glass), he then took us for an insider tour of the secondary market, where they bring the purchased tuna and carve em up - this would not have been accessible otherwise and was honestly way more interesting than the actual auction. Some great surgical skills on display.

Back to hotel for quick change (don’t want to smell like a fish market on a 14 hour flight) and then Ubered to HND for return flight home


JAL first
80k AA
Somehow managed to find availability for all 3 of us on this flight, although it took some time top open up (just within the 14 day window) and we had some other backup options in play  - we ended up having 50% of the cabin

Top notch JAL  lounge - got to watch the Japan-USA WBC final together with lots of drunk Japanese businessmen who ultimately got to rub their victory in our face

Then boarded for the nonstop back to JFK
Great flight, great service, but the ANA business class experience was still better and definitely fresher

And then we were home

A week in Japan with two other guys and we didn’t kill each other. Miracle

Next adventure being planned but the wives are hinting about wanting to join this time around, stay tuned for Madagascar 2025

Online yungermanchik

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Re: Japan Trip Report
« Reply #1 on: April 17, 2023, 08:21:54 PM »
Nice! Do you have any pics?
Small people talk about other people.
Average people talk about things

Offline Yehoshua

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Re: Japan Trip Report
« Reply #2 on: April 17, 2023, 10:34:16 PM »
Wow, nice TR. Pics would be great.

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Re: Japan Trip Report
« Reply #3 on: April 18, 2023, 02:33:44 AM »
Great TR!
On an unrelated note, a picture is worth a thousand words  :)

Offline Spoon

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Re: Japan Trip Report
« Reply #4 on: April 18, 2023, 08:49:21 AM »
Fantastic TR. Concise yet packed with valuable info.

Would love to see pics especially of the omakases.

Offline ponash123

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Re: Japan Trip Report
« Reply #5 on: April 18, 2023, 10:47:15 AM »

Offline Gimpel

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Re: Japan Trip Report
« Reply #6 on: April 18, 2023, 01:10:01 PM »
This is a REALLY REALLY COOL sounding trip, and the good news is that you pretty much just planned my whole Japan trip for me minus your restaurant disaster and the baseball game.

Offline myb821

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Re: Japan Trip Report
« Reply #7 on: April 30, 2023, 08:26:39 AM »
How much was the tour of the fish market if I may ask?

Offline moblitz

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Re: Japan Trip Report
« Reply #8 on: June 21, 2023, 11:36:48 AM »
Thank you for your trip details!  Do you know anyone that can help us plan our trip to Japan?  We have our dates and flights but it would be awesome to pay someone to book activities and such for us!

Offline Natey

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Re: Japan Trip Report
« Reply #9 on: June 24, 2023, 11:19:16 PM »
Eventually we bowed out (? Kiddush hashem - I say no- but this was endlessly debated by us for the rest of the night as we nursed our hunger over some beer)

Doing the ratzon hashem is always a kiddush hashem

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Re: Japan Trip Report
« Reply #10 on: November 13, 2023, 05:51:23 AM »
Great TR - any pictures?