Kansai Revisited: The Journey

I wanted so much to give him another magical week. That’s how planning our second trip to Japan started. Chris fell in love with Kyoto back in 2014 and I saw no reason to deny him more time in such a wonderful city. Let me take a step back for a second and explain my motivations, if you’ll indulge me. For starters, I love this guy more than bacon. (Trust me, that’s a significant statement) When we last visited Japan, Chris had thrown off the shackles of a corporate job to pursue life as a professional photographer, which he had legit gone to school for. Flash forward to two years later, he’s still doing his best to prove himself but he’s also taken a retail job to help make ends meet. My spidey senses told me that a return to Kyoto might soothe his soul a little, and that was all the motivation I needed to try and find our way back.

Since first visiting Kyoto, I’ve always thought of it as The Place I’ll Return To Someday (if you get the Uematsu reference, we should be friends). Through… I don’t know, equal parts determination and luck, I was able to find award flights on Japan Airlines for a week-long return to Kansai in late Ocober. I thought, “well we’ve seen Kyoto at the peak of cherry blossom season. Seeng it in the autumn sounds like the next-best thing.”

I barely asked for permission to book the flights. We had enough AAdvantage miles banked for two seats in business class and I couldn’t think of a better way to spoil my husband before the terror of working retail during the holidays descended upon him. You obviously don’t know Chris, but he’s a brilliant, sardonic, beautiful man who makes me happier than a cat that fell into a mountain of catnip. Between you and me, I’ve always worried that he spends a little too much time worrying, which in turn makes me eager to find ways to send some light through his window. Giving him this trip felt like an opportunity to do just that.

Planning our return to Kyoto was shockingly easy. Granted, I had a bit more background knowledge this time around, but I was still surprised at how effortless it felt to plan this one-week trip to the Kansai region. And I won’t lie, I was kind of totally excited to fly Japan Airline’s LAX-Kansai direct service on their 787-8 and experience their inflight service this time around. Compared to our trip in 2014 on Hawaiian Airlines, I have to say JAL pretty much kicked their ass. Chris was rather excited when we found our seats on the plane:

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Now I know Hawaiian is in the midst of refitting their planes with a more competitive business class seat, but even when you factor in the benefit of a non-stop route to Kansai, JAL still has additional advantages beyond that which are worth pointing out:

1: The food

If you get the opportunity to fly business class on JAL, do yourself a favor and order the Japanese menu. I don’t care what you think about Japanese food, this is a chance to experience a comprehensive variety of flavors and textures that you’d be a damn fool to avoid trying at least once. In my case, they managed to open my heart to several items that I had a well-established aversion to. And while there were a couple of items I didn’t particularly find appealing, I’m still glad I had the chance to experience them.

2: The service

Japan Airlines is the closest approximation to Jet Age inflight experience that I have had the pleasure of witnessing first-hand. I believe this is due in no small part to the cultural mannerisms of the Japanese. Let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment: In the United States, our sense of decorum and politeness is embarrassing compared to pretty much any other developed nation. Whether you like it or not, Japan has these things deeply ingrained in its culture. Constant attention, formality and, because it’s plainly there, humility, create  an experience unlike anything you’ll experience on an American or European carrier.

A sidenote: My mom raised me a certain way, which is to say I’ve always been particularly kind and thankful to others providing me service. In this particular case, I gave the four forward cabin crew members each a pair of pilot wings my cycling club had made to go with our vintage flight attendant-inspired team kits. While meant as a small token of my thanks for their attentive care, their response of surprise and gratitude for the gesture was  humbling and genuinely sweet.

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A friend pointed out that it’s entirely possible that my gesture may have actually embarrassed them. Japanese culture has some pretty specific expectations when it comets gift giving, and all they had at their disposal were kids toys… Which I absolutely enjoyed, so I sincerely hope they did not feel imposed upon by my gesture of thanks for their hospitality.

3: The booze

I’ll keep this point brief. These folks know how to pamper a person. Yamazaki 12-year whiskey? Hell yes. A 2004 French merlot meritage? Sign me up. And yes, I drank plenty of water alongside the adult bevvies. I’m no fool. Even on a Dreamliner, the air is still pretty dry (at least for me).

Now that I’ve tried the Hawaii stopover versus the direct route, I have to say I’m a fan of putting in 12 hours on a single plane. While the seats on JAL’s LAX-KIX route don’t lay totally flat, it’s still absolutely worth it for the comfort and the shorter, direct flight. Their service to Tokyo offers their lie-flat Sky Suite product, so if that’s really a big deal to you, hop on one of their 767 jets and connect through Narita. Just know you’ll miss out on the  really cool light that filters in through the windows on their 787-8 jets during the Westward journey.

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We landed around 5:30 p.m. and after a relatively quick run through customs (photos, fingerprints, and oh yeah, your passport) made our way to the crowded JR West office to pick up our Haruka+Icoca tickets, a great deal for tourists who need to get into Kyoto or Osaka from the airport. Being no stranger to the cost of transit in Japan, I upgraded my Icoca card to the Kansai OnePass which requires an outlay of an additional ¥1000 but offers discounts and select stores and tourist spots. I scored a handsome (if unfinished) Japanese-style handkerchief at Kyoto station just by showing the card at the information counter on the second floor.

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Thanks to immigration and the ticket office, we didn’t reach Kyoto proper until about 8:00 p.m., but we easily found our AirBnB (which I highly recommend considering due to its convenient location). Exhaustion finally crept up behind us as we sat on the balcony, enjoying the view of joggers circling around the Southwest corner of Nijo-jo Castle across the street from us. We turned in for the night, excited to spend out first full day in the city doing one of my favorite things: Riding a bike.

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