Japan is a land of contrasts. Beautiful untouched nature in the midst of cities of millions. Quaint traditions alongside quirky modern fashion. Miso Soup and Bubble Tea. Incredible shopping and consumerism juxtaposed with shrines and temples. Neatness, politeness and civility reign supreme in this surprising country that makes a fantastic year-round getaway for all types of travelers. And with one of the most modern transportation systems in the world, Japan is very well served by all major international airlines and is an outstanding award redemption.
The 3 major US international airlines and most other international airlines have regular service to Japan, often to Tokyo's Narita (NRT) or Haneda (HND) Airports. Given the frequency of flights, award redemptions, often for 3-4 people, can be found using AA, Delta or United miles. However, some of the best award flights can be found using some sweet spot awards through some of the major airline partnerships.
For example, Japan Airlines First Class from the US to Japan can be booked using 70,000 Alaska Airlines miles or 80,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles. Similarly, Singapore Airlines First Class costs 107,000 Singapore KrisFlyer points from the US to Japan, a good use of KrisFlyer points. Singapore of course is also a transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards. And while you can use 70,000 United Miles to fly Business from the US to Japan, you can also book ANA flights using United and pay 110,000 miles for ANA First Class or 80,000 for Business Class. Similarly, you can book the ANA flights using Virgin Atlantic Flying Club points on Virgin's web site.
Japan has a fabulous, clean and reasonably economical train service, with many key routes covered by "Shinkansen", the original Bullet Train, making door-to-door travel via train competitive to air. Narita Airport is more than an hour away from downtown Tokyo, for example. While we encourage train use, there are a couple key domestic flight award sweet spots available in Japan. Using BA Avios' distance-based award chart, short hops on Japan Airlines can cost only a few 1000 miles. Domestic ANA flights can be booked for only 15,000 Virgin Atlantic points.
Many large Japanese cities have large international chain hotels which, given the overall high costs in Japan, can be excellent value use of hotel points, For example, the epic Park Hyatt Tokyo, famous as the setting for Lost in Translation, can be booked for around USD $650 or 30,000 Hyatt points. In Kyoto, you can stay at the Westin Miyako for USD $330 per night or 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy points. And if you have some IHG points, you can splurge at the Intercontinental Osaka for 60,000 points or USD $240 per night.
We have 3 tips for Japan.
Tip #1: At some point, non Japanese-speaking westerners traveling in Japan will find themselves confused. Perhaps they'll realize they're the only person not dressed in some weird cosplay/anime costume walking down the street. Or they'll find air conditioned glass boxes outside with businessmen inside them smoking. Inside a box, outside. Or they may walk into a small tavern in Shinjuku and feel that they've stepped into the middle of a US diner in the 1950's, complete with Cadillac bumper and jukebox. Our tip: Japan can be weird, wild and wonderful. Dive in. Have fun.
Tip #2: Kyoto is an amazing city, and we highly recommend visiting. There are no less than 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in & around the city, well worth staying at least 3 days to visit. There's a very strong geisha culture that still lives on in Kyoto, and it's not uncommon to see Japanese wedding parties dressed in full traditional garb around the central area of Gion.
Tip #3: Japan is famous for some of the freshest and most inventive cuisine in the world. Do not think it's all Ramen & Sushi. Many cities have their own specialties, such as "Takoyaki" - fried octopus balls in Osaka, or the delicious "Yakitori" grills just outside Tokyo's Shinjuku station. In Kyoto, try the "Okonomiyaki" which is a kind of pancake made with lots of pork, squid, shrimp, scallops, and egg.