Itinerary: Japan’s Golden Route in Fall

This is the flagship trip of 2023, perhaps of many years to come. After many months grinding away at work and travel hacking, this highly anticipated trip will be the result of all of that hard work.

As with so many other travellers, we decided to go to Japan after it reopened its borders in Q1 of 2023. I’ve been to Japan once for a very short period of time, whereas this will be Kelly’s first time in the land of the Rising Sun. This is our Japan Golden Route itinerary.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple main pagota with autumn leaves in the foreground


Our overall itinerary consisted of 14 days, we’ll spend 4 nights in Tokyo, one in Yokohama, 2 in Hakone, 2 in Nara, and 5 in Kyoto.

While we’re there we have some things we wanted to check off our list. Our main priority was to take advantage of the amazing variety of food options in Japan:

  • Dine at our first Michelin 3 star restaurant
  • Try Michelin starred ramen
  • Try Michelin starred unagi
  • Try Michelin starred tempura
  • Try kaitensushi (bullet train sushi/conveyer belt sushi)
  • Try Japanese treats, specifically matcha
  • Try Kobe beef
  • Try konbini food
  • Try Coco Ichibanya
  • Try Ichiran
  • Visit the Cup Noodle Museum and make our own Cup Noodle flavour
  • Attend a cooking class

And the non-food related goals:

  • Visit teamLabs Osaka
  • Visit the Osaka aquarium to see Yuki the Seal!
  • Visit Fushimi Inari shrine
  • Visit Kiyomizu-dera Temple
  • Camera gear haul
  • Uniqlo haul

Yes, we’re missing out on a ton of famous attractions, temples, and food options but we wanted to take it relatively easy and felt like these goals were good to have as a start. If we felt up to it, we can take on things on an ad hoc basis.

This is all the more reason to go back to Japan, there’s still so much more to see, eat, and enjoy.


One of the main reasons we decided to go to Japan is that I managed to snag 2 seats from San Francisco (SFO)–Tokyo Haneda (HND) in ANA “The Suite” First Class for both me and Kelly on the same flight both going there and coming back.

First Class bed onboard ANA during the day

AC225 YYC–YVR on 3 October

AC564 YYR–SFO on 5 October

NH107 SFO–HND on 6 October

On the way back, it’ll mostly be a mirrored version of the flights there, NH from HND–SFO, then UA from SFO–YVR.

NH108 HND–SFO on 21 October

UA460 SFO–YVR on 21 October

AC202 YVR–YYC on 22 October

This stroke of luck occurred in Q1 of 2023 when ANA’s schedule for the winter opened and they released multiple seats per flight per day in business and First Class.

In addition to effectively booking 4 seats, from SFO–HND in First Class, I was also able to tack on a positioning flight to and from Vancouver (YVR). Not only was this useful to us as we needed to get back to Canada, it lowered the price of the redemption due to the classic effect of hidden city ticketing (except we aren’t trying to skip the last leg).

In terms of cost, these tickets cost us 88,400 Aeroplan points per person, per way and around $122 (CAD) in taxes and fees. In total, 353,600 Aeroplan points and $488 (CAD). Sure this sounds like a lot and it is, but given the cash rates of these flights coming in at basically $20,000 (CAD) per person per way, we got more than outsized value for this redemption. This would be our first time in First Class, and we couldn’t wait to experience one of the best First Class hard products out there.

ANA First Class Google Flights screenshot
ANA First Class points redemption

Leading up to the date of departure, there were a plethora of schedule changes with us getting rebooked onto AC J, being rebooked in NH PY, and even a automatic booking that fell well below the minimum connection time at SFO. It goes without saying, this caused a lot of stress but fortunately for us, the Aeroplan agents on the phone were able to sort all of the issues and were even gracious enough to put us on a UA codeshare due to an unprotected flight the next day. For this, we’re extremely grateful.

It’s worth noting that the SFO–HND flight operated by ANA is an overnight departure and thus, you’re subject to a much less extravagant service onboard with a reduced meal service. Moreover, there won’t be Hibiki 21 onboard, only Hibiki 17 – neither of us drink anyway, so this wasn’t really a big deal.

On the other hand, while these flights aren’t as desirable as the daytime JFK–HND flight where they serve caviar and Hibiki 21, we felt like this overnight departure out of SFO would work pretty well for our jet lag. Perhaps it was just a coping mechanism for not getting the JFK route.

We take off at 1:20 PST, have a quick bite onboard and get some rest. We’re scheduled to land at 4:30 JST. With a whole day ahead of us, we’ll be free to drop off our bags at the hotel and go out exploring the megapolis that is Tokyo. As long as we didn’t nap, we should be able to pass out in the evening and wake up the next day feeling mostly normal – that was the theory anyway.


Along with the flights, we’ve been busy accruing Marriott Bonvoy points since we had our eye on one very special property along our Golden Route.

To start off, we’ll stay at 2 nights at the Prince Gallery Kioicho at an industry rate of $450 (CAD) a night, this was less than half of what the standard rate was. Given the hype and tourism boon Japan is experiencing, hotels were retailing at sky high prices.

Prince Gallery Kioicho Deluxe King Room bed and window overlooking the skyline.

Then we’ll move onto a more humble accommodation in the form of a local AirBnB in the Shinagawa ward for under $100 (CAD) a night.

From there, we’ll head over to Yokohama for a night to visit Chinatown, and stay at an independent hotel called The Kahala. This was a good time for us to use our American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts perk and the $200 travel credit from the American Express Platinum card. Taking the credit into account, we basically stayed here for around $50 (CAD) – not too shabby.

The Kahala hotel grand lobby with big chandeliers and couches

Following Yokohama, we’ll be hopping onto the Shinkansen and heading to Minobu station in the countryside just below Mount Fuji. It’s quite the trek and journey to get here, but I’ll tell that story in the Nishiyama Onsen review.

Nisiyama Onsen with open-air spring bath living room.

From Minobu station we’ll be picked up by the Nishiyama Onsen shuttle and driven 1 hour up the mountain to the location of the oldest hotel in the world. Being situated at the foot of Mount Fuji and being the oldest hotel in the world doesn’t come cheap, for a room with a private onsen, it was ~$900 (CAD) for 2 people.

Mount Fuji peak poking out of the clouds underneath

It’s important to point out that Japanese ryokans charge by occupancy for each room type, this is because a significant portion of the experience is from the dinner and breakfast meals.

After one night in the mountains of Yamanashi, we’ll head back down to Hakone, a region known for its amazing Japanese ryokans. Here, we’ll be staying at Yama no Chaya as a recommendation from friends. We also sprung for a room with a private onsen, since that was one of the reasons we’re here in the first place.

Living room at Yama no Chaya's Yama no Yuube room.

Yama no Chaya costs a little less than Nisiyama Onsen but still worked out to ~$840 (CAD) for 2 people.

These ryokans will take up the majority of our expenses on this trip, while the prices are steep, this isn’t something that we plan on repeating for quite a while. After all, when in Japan, it’s all about experiencing the culture and their traditions.

After two nights soaking in the onsen and sleeping on futons, we’ll hop on the Shinkansen again to train over to Kyoto. From there we’ll take a local train to Nara where we’ll stay 2 nights at the JW Marriott Nara to facilitate an early Nara Park visit.

Man surrounded by Nara Park deer holding a treat.

Not to mention, the JW Marriott Nara is another fantastic property that is raved about online and highly recommended by our friends. I very much looked forward to staying here. Once again, we used an industry rate to book this stay and it was ~$330 (CAD) a night.

JW Marriott Nara lobby and entrance with lots of sofas and a deer mural.

After visiting the deers, we’ll head over to Kyoto for the crescendo of our hotel hopping. This was by far the hotel that I was looking forward to the most. We’ll be staying 5 nights at the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto – often seen as one of the best Ritz-Carlton’s in the world.

Grand Deluxe River View room at Ritz Carlton Kyoto overlooking Kamagawa river.

Notably, they are supposed to have great Marriott Bonvoy elite recognition which is a huge plus compared to other Ritz-Carltons. The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto is situated along the Kamogawa River near the heart of downtown Kyoto, making it convenient while quiet . We booked this stay using 430,000 Marriott Bonvoy points for the 5 nights. This is a huge stash of Marriott Bonvoy points that we’ve been accruing for two years but the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto seemed like a great use of it, considering the room rates were north of $2,000 (CAD) a night.

In addition, we wanted to try Mizuki Tempura, which is located on-site. The restaurant was recently awarded one Michelin star.

You may be wondering why we didn’t split it between the Ritz-Carlton and The Mitsui Kyoto. Frankly, this is just because we wanted to take advantage of the 5th night free benefit when you book 4 nights with points. Also, we wanted to head to the tourist hotspots first thing in the morning so having a stable home base during our time in Kyoto, instead of moving hotels every 2 nights is important to us. Furthermore, the inner maximizer in me saw that the cash rate at Ritz-Carlton was almost double compared to at The Mitsui, so we’ll be getting more value out of our points there.

Hotel Mitsui courtyard with pool and seating.

The Mitsui is a super interesting property and I look forward to experiencing it the next time we have a stash of 400,000+ Marriott Bonvoy points to burn in Kyoto.


That’s the trip! We’re beyond excited for this trip and can’t wait to experience the flights, food, ryokans, onsens, and a selection of great hotels. It’ll be our collective first time in Japan and act as the highlight of 2023 for us. I’m sure there are areas of improvement, especially with all of the Japan experts out there.

If so, I’m all ears and would love to see what you would recommend. Japan is definitely a country that we’ll be visiting multiple times in the future. I hope you look forward to the reviews covering the flights, hotels, and ryokans!

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