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Japan trip review: Okinawa, Tokyo and Nagano
I wrote a short review of this trip some weeks back, assuming people wouldn’t be too interested in the detail as it wasn’t a “usual” HfP trip. But a few have since asked for more detail, so I’ve spent a bit more time on this.
We flew out on 24/Dec and back on 7/Jan. I was determined to make this trip happen after getting the 50% off Avios + 241 AmEx redemption back in October 2021 and keeping these tickets alive through many re-bookings!
Getting through LHR Terminal 5 was a breeze and we managed to get a decent amount of sleep on the flight out. At 14hrs flying time (avoiding Russian airspace) you really get to enjoy the J experience: not have to rush the food, get a film in and still get a good night’s sleep.
NRT is clearly not premium enough to warrant the new Club Suites, but for once everything on the old seats worked and the crew were very attentive on the way there.
The Christmas Dinner on the way out was rather nice, although I’d have probably preferred the usual beef! The difference in catering on the way back was stark – BA are clearly not paying JAL as much as Do & Co!
Service on the way back was very indifferent and absent-minded, I was served an alcoholic beer despite explicitly asking for a non-alcoholic one. Although OH did not fancy any of the mains from the second meal service, so the crew member offered him her crew meal, which was very nice of her and did improve the overall experience.
The flight back was essentially a day one, routing east over Canada, and also very long. Grabbing a few hours sleep definitely helped ease into UK time on our return. It’s worth noting that on our return the international terminal was dead when checking-in for the BA flight and security took about 2mins, but a friend flying to ICN a few hours later spent 2hrs queuing for the same, with no fast-track security open.
Arrival and Tokyo Narita
It had been a while since I had to complete Covid documentation and upload vaccine certificates, but the online Japanese system worked well before setting off.
On arrival there was a lot of faffing, scanning of QR codes, scanning of passports… I was thinking the process only worked well because we were the only international flight to have landed at that time. Sure enough, I read an article a few days later with the author complaining how NRT was a total disaster with 4 flights arriving at the same time and the arrival formalities taking 3-4hrs.
Thankfully we were out and on a bus to Terminal 1 within 1hr of landing. We were unable to use any of the self-service machines as our tickets had been issued by BA and we were directed to the check-in for unaccompanied minors, pets and large luggage. This moved quite slowly.
The JAL domestic business lounge has 4 showers, and it was lovely to freshen up. There is no food in these lounges, so we stocked up in the terminal and spent 5hrs watching planes from the huge windows (we built in a lot of connecting time as the international and domestic tickets were separate).
Flights to Okinawa
As advertised, JAL boarded a full A350 in 20mins and we were off to Okinawa. The plane was completely new – I’d never actually experienced new plane smell! The purser came to thank us for choosing JAL, presumably as we were the only Westerners onboard as she didn’t speak to anyone else. Service consisted of drinks, which was perfectly adequate for the c3hr flight. It was interesting to see when boarding group 1 was called about 100 people made their way onboard!
The flights came to 10k Avios + £4pp one way, which I thought was a good use of Avios as cash fares were about £120. I think @meta did point out that you can upgrade from Y to J for very little on JAL, making it a great TP earning opportunity, but my TP year was about to end, so it would have been of limited use.
The return was similarly uneventful on an older 777, although this time the captain made a point of also making all announcements in English, for our benefit, which hadn’t happened on the way out.
Okinawa Airport in Naha isn’t huge – it has services to most places in Japan plus Taiwan, South Korea and (normally) many Chinese cities.
It’s connected to the city via a handy monorail, which took us to the Mercure Naha. This was a perfectly adequate hotel for one night. As we arrived on Christmas Day we duly made our way to KFC (a Japanese tradition), but the nearby branch was takeaway only, so we enjoyed some atrocious all-you-can-eat pizza in the pizzeria attached to it. Breakfast at the Mercure was varied and had plenty of Western and Japanese options. It cost about £70pn.
We went to OTS rent-a-car the next day to pick up our little Toyota SUV – there are no global rent-a-car brands in Okinawa. I’d done their online orientation course, which teaches you how to drive a car in Japan – otherwise you have to do this at the branch. Driving there is exactly like driving a car anywhere else, but the Japanese assume every foreigner is stupid. We were duly issued with a big square magnet for the car that stated, in Japanese, inside a pink love heart “a foreigner is driving”. The whole process didn’t take longer than 20mins. Make sure to bring your IDP, which is absolutely required.
Driving in Okinawa is exceedingly easy – the roads are brilliant, signage great and speed limits super low. I think it’s really quite hard to crash there. But apparently foreigners always crash (so says the orientation manual) – let’s blame Americans not knowing how to drive on the left!
Perhaps naively I concluded my Okinawa research by establishing the weather is like the Canaries. It isn’t. It’s super varied – the week we were there was 16-20C but quite windy, so we didn’t get to wear the shorts we had packed. The week before was mid 20s, the week after it rained all week. So a bit of a gamble in winter. Summer is stifling. Shoulder seasons are meant to be ideal.
There isn’t a huge amount of ground-breaking stuff to do on Okinawa, but they do a great job bigging up and selling what they do have. Around Naha and the south we enjoyed the American Village (think High Street USA in Disneyland), Shurijo Castle (rebuilt after previously burning down in June 2019, burned down again October 2019, now being rebuilt for the seventieth time – don’t hold me to the exact numbers!), the war tunnels (the Japanese views of WW2 are pretty problematic and explanations vary between the basic English descriptions and the Japanese texts), Okinawa World (a sort of cultural theme park with extremely cool caves), the Peace Memorial Park and central Naha.
On our second stay in Naha we stayed in an extremely smart Airbnb clearly designed purely for tourists, with samurai armour in the sitting area and every mod-con imaginable. That was not cheap but it was quite fun!
Okinawa is the only place in Japan with an A&W but there are also superb quality restaurants which we greatly enjoyed. Just make sure to book, as they fill up very quickly, especially off-season when everything isn’t open.
There is also an outlet shopping centre near the airport and the prices were broadly competitive.
In northern Okinawa we visited various lighthouses, Pineapple World (a pineapple ‘theme park’ which also sells pineapple wine, sparkling wine, spirits), Kouri Island, the superb Churaumi aquarium in the Expo Park (Jurassic Park vibes) and the underwater observation tower near our hotel.
We stayed at the Best Western Kouki Beach which was about £70pn and on a beautiful beach. Shame it was cold! The rooms were large with little kitchenettes, although had seen better days. Breakfast again was very good. Various luxury hotels are also nearby.
The SUV we rented was so efficient fuel only cost USD20 for the whole week with the only service station we needed literally outside the rent-a-car returns desk. One thing about the huge amount of internal Japanese tourism is that everything is superbly set up for visitors and it really is one of the easiest places I know to travel around. Plus safe. Plus no tipping. No police asking for bribes. No one trying to scam you. So refreshing after Mexico in November!
I’ll detour here and mention the Google Translate app, which is a real gamechanger for places like Japan. We were last there in 2014 and it didn’t exist, which could be quite a challenge when visiting locations with limited English. There is virtually no English in Okinawa outside of Naha, but with the app’s live translations this was never an issue.
Overall, I would not recommend going to Okinawa on your first trip to Japan. It was interesting, chilled and warmer than most of the Northern hemisphere, which was the point of us going, but it can’t compare to Miyajima, Kyoto, Nara or Takayama. We don’t dive and it was too cold to snorkel – I could see how if you did the former it could be quite special.
I don’t think there is a huge amount of value in going into great detail about Tokyo as there are much better guides out there.
The Ginza Super Hotel Premium in Ginza we stayed at was also about £70pn and although the rooms were absolutely tiny it did prove amazing value given the location and how new it was. It also had a great onsen.
Tokyo over NYE was a bit dead, as expected, but we still managed to do most of what we’d planned. NYE itself was a very subdued affair in Ginza and we decided not to venture out to the more party-orientated districts.
Tsukiji fish market has now moved to what is effectively an industrial estate and it was closed the whole time we were in Tokyo, which was a shame. All the little restaurants around the old location are still there though.
I hadn’t been up Tokyo Tower before and actually really enjoyed the experience, particularly going all the way to the top.
Getting into the Royal Palace was a planning nightmare as every website said something different. In the end we worked out we could have gotten in on 2/Jan, but the queues were too long and we had a reservation at TeamLabs (see below).
Eating out proved more of a challenge as with fewer places open competition was fairly fierce. We did love a French tasting menu at L’AS as Japanese food all the time gets quite repetitive. Wagyu beef at The Innocent Carvery opposite Tokyo Station was delicious and very affordable. We did not get to use the Platinum AmEx international dining credit as Pocket Concierge was literally booked out on the days we were there.
The highlight of Tokyo this time was TeamLabs, an experiential modern art exhibition. I’d recommend booking it but not researching anything about it. It was bought as a present for us, we had no idea what to expect and loved it.
Worth mentioning that Tokyo metro / public transport doesn’t do pure contactless, but you can create a virtual Suica (smart card) in your Apple Wallet and load it with credit on your phone to just seamlessly travel around tapping your iPhone or watch. The Suica card will also work in most of Japan.
This was a real highlight for me and it’s only 2hrs from Tokyo on the shinkansen. We got the Nagano Rail Pass for about £100 which was valid for 5 days.
We stayed at the Jizokan Matsuya Ryokan near the superb Zenko-Ji Temple. The whole area around it is magical and it started snowing when we got there to add to the atmosphere. The ryokan ticks all the boxes you’d want ticking – tatami mats (but they also have real beds), 25-course (or so) meals, super lovely service… It was awfully cold in the bathroom and corridors which didn’t have heating, though. It also has an onsen. Totally worth the high room rates I’d say. Staying near the temple we also got to enjoy it at night, which was another brilliant experience.
Day two we bought the Snow Monkey Pass and took the train and local bus to see monkeys swimming in hot springs near the city. This is an absolute treat. You walk for about 30mins in a gorgeous snowy forest to reach them. Visitors are not allowed to feed or touch them, so they mostly ignore you and just do their thing (totally different to Gibraltar or most places in Thailand I’ve interacted with monkeys). We spent a good hour just watching them and taking pictures. There is a local ryokan where you can stay overnight which also has an onsen. You can bathe in this onsen with the monkeys. And their poo and pee. A friend was adamant we had to do this, but we chose not to. Everyone in the park can also see you walking into the onsen naked. The female onsen does not appear to feature monkeys. We got back to Nagano on an express bus, which was very efficient an only took about an hour. The monkeys are not far from Shiga Kogen ski resort, which is Japan’s largest and highest if that tickles your fancy.
The aforementioned Suica card works in many places, but not Nagano, where they have their own smartcard system. If you are getting a bus you need to board through the middle doors and take a ticket. When you exit you put the ticket in the machine and pay the amount due, with exact change. One of the more unusual ways of paying for a bus I’ve seen. The local train that goes up to the monkeys also doesn’t accept the Nagano Rail Pass or Suica, hence the need for the Snow Monkey Pass.
Overall we spent about £1,750pp during the two weeks (all in, except international flights) which I thought was very decent value.
There seems to be this notion that Japan is expensive, which really isn’t grounded in reality. The things you ‘need’ to do as a tourist (internal flights, trains, attraction fees) are super affordable and food and lodging can be super cheap or super expensive depending on your budget. But whatever you choose it’s unlikely to make you sick / have bedbugs!
I personally find travelling around Japan super easy, especially with Google Translate. People are always welcoming and friendly, and even if they mostly assume you are an idiot, they hide it well. This article from the departing BBC correspondent in Japan sums up the country brilliantly, I think: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-63830490
I should mention Airalo worked an absolute treat – 4G everywhere we went for USD11 per 5GB, also a major improvement to carrying a WiFi 4G dongle in 2014.
Oh, and masks are worn by almost everyone everywhere, including outside. I gather there are no specific laws demanding this, but peer pressure is strong. We generally found no one cared if you weren’t wearing one outside, but tourists not wearing them indoors would get uncomfortable looks.
@PeteM Thank you for a fascinating and informative insight into Japan – sounds like you had a great trip. It has really piqued my interest in making a trip myself, surely the ultimate accolade for any travel writing!
Thanks @PeteM, very useful info. We had a family trip to Japan booked for July 2020 which obviously didn’t happen….actually turned out to be a godsend as floods hit Japan at the time we were supposed to be there and the rains were so heavy everywhere. Looking at rebooking for 2024 but might choose March instead lol
Thank you very much for this review @PeteM. What SUV was it, please?
Thank you all, very kind! @Lady London it was a Toyota Raize.
Thx PeteM. Guessing we won’t see that in UK for a while but I will look it up
Thanks @PeteM that’s really interesting and useful – we’re in the early stages of planning a potential trip next year.
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