Osaka & Kyoto

Selfie taken with my iPhone gimbal on our approach to Osaka Castle

Many that know me are familiar with one of my interests: Churning. For those who are unfamiliar, “churning” refers to maximizing one’s normal spend to obtain reward points and miles. These points come predominately from credit card sign up bonuses. By maximizing these bonuses I have been able to accumulate a nice stash of points across various programs which I then use to book travel. For our first trip earned through “churning”, we visited the Kansai region of Japan! Thanks to churning we were able to enjoy over $16,000 in air fare and hotel accommodations for a little over $700 in taxes and fees. 

Japan Airlines Sky Suite

I enjoy traveling but I hate the general experience of flying. Standing in lines, enduring flight delays, and cramming into small seats with little legroom can really put a damper on things. One of the reasons I got in to churning was to build up miles I could then use to book premium cabin seats. On this trip to Japan I was able to use my American AAdvantage miles to book us round-trip tickets on JAL Business Class. These seats feature full lie down seats, a personal entertainment center, and a full meal service. This was one of the most comfortable flights we’ve ever been on.

I’ve been fortunate to visit the Kansai area a couple of times, but this was Judy’s first experience. We started our trip in Osaka with a few nights at the Ritz Carlton Osaka (again courtesy of some free nights I had available). We visited Osaka Castle, Tempozan, Kaiyukan (Osaka aquarium), and Universal Studios. Of course we also did out fair share of shopping and eating, including a couple of dinners at some restaurants in the Michelin guide.

The nicest hotel on our trip!

Apart from building up a lot of points, churning also can help you gain status at many hotel chains. My gold status with Ritz Carlton got us an upgrade to a corner room in Osaka, but it came in really big in Kyoto! We were upgraded essentially 4 levels to a Garden Terrace Suite. Not only was the room bigger, but we had our own private zen garden overlooking the river. This was by far one of the best hotels I’ve had the fortunate of staying in.

The golden pavilion of Kinkakuji Temple

In Kyoto we visited many historical sites. For those traveling to this area of Japan I would highly recommend Kyoto. Osaka is great, but is far too industrialized. Kyoto has its share of big modern buildings, but has many more features that feel rustic and authentically Japanese. We spent an entire day in the Arashiyama area with a private tour guide who took us around the area including the bamboo forest, monkey park, and the Oi river.

On a walking tour of Gion

Kyoto is also home to a few famous geisha districts. Gion is by far the most notable. We booked a private walking tour and, with the guide’s help, were able to catch a glimpse of a handful of maiko and geiko (geishas of different seniority) as they were preparing to head out for the evening. Like much of Japan, Kyoto has a rich history and culture.

A few courses from the 3-Michelin starred Kikunoi Honten

During this trip we were able to dine at many restaurants. In all we ate at five Michelin rated restaurants totaling 9-stars. The best meal of our trip was, to no surprise, at the 3-star rated Kikunoi Honten in Kyoto. The kaiseki menu was incredible. It was a true display of season ingredients treated simply with great skill and care.

All-in-all we had a fantastic and memorable trip. Being able to fly home comfortably in business class after a long trip was also a great treat. This post covers only a fraction of what we were able to do and see. I also put together a short video with highlights from our trip:

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