Angela and I recently returned from a trip to South Korea and Japan. This was our first time in South Korea, and we confined ourselves to Seoul, but still managed to take in a lot of information about Korea, its long history, and its culture. We visited several museums and enjoyed the touchstone foods of the city.
This was a return trip to Japan, but our first since the very beginning of 2020 when we visited right before the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic kicked into high gear. We spent much less time being culture vultures during this trip, and instead wandered the streets enjoying delicious food and moments of idyllic pleasure that can only come from being unrestrained by a schedule.
As far as things go, this was a fairly straightforward trip to plan. I booked everything far in advance and, other than slight schedule modifications by the airlines, there was nothing changed between when I booked and when we traveled.
With looming devaluations (which have since come to pass), I prioritized using our Alaska MileagePlan miles over the course of the last year. When flying to Japan, they are by far the best currency to use as long as you’re able to locate Japan Airlines availability.
- Angela and Nicholas
- 120,0000 Alaska MileagePlan Miles + 118.67USD per person
- LAS-SFO on AS Y
- SFO-HND on JL J
- HND-GMP on JL J
- GMP-HND on JL J
- KIX-LAX on JL J
- LAX-LAS on AS Y
- 120,0000 Alaska MileagePlan Miles + 118.67USD per person
For our lodgings on this trip, I decided to splurge a bit. I booked the Four Seasons Seoul for two reasons. First, it was reasonably priced as far as Four Seasons properties go, similar to the cost of the Four Seasons Sydney that we stayed at in 2022. Second, it was perfectly located for the things we wanted to do in Seoul.
In Tokyo, I opted for Hotel Gajoen so we could hang out in a new part of the mega-city and experience a different type of stay than the last few times we’ve visited. In Kyoto, I was able to book the Park Hyatt before it increased in category, locking in a very low rate for a very nice property.
- One room for four nights at the Four Season Hotel Seoul for 374.72USD per night, inclusive of taxes and fees, through the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts program
- One room for two nights at the Hotel Gajoen Tokyo for 30,000 World of Hyatt points per night
- One room for three nights at the Park Hyatt Kyoto for 25,000 World of Hyatt points per night
- 10,300KRW per person for two people for K-ETA fees so we could enter Korea
- 8,500JPY per person for two people for a sushi making class in Kyoto with Atelier Sushi
- 12,500JPY per person for two people for a Gion culture and food night tour with Pinpoint Traveler
- 99.00USD per person for two people for a Seoul food tour with Gastro Tour Seoul
February 6, 2023
After dropping Fitz off at boarding, we drove to the airport, cleared security, and walked directly to our gate. Flying in economy from Las Vegas to west coast gateways is relatively pleasant, given the short duration of the flights, and this time was no different. Once we arrived in San Francisco, we left the secured area to check in at the JL desk before heading through security and to the Sakura Lounge.
The lounge was small, quiet, and had a somewhat mediocre selection of food and drinks. Everything is served by staff, even water, which I feel is likely a holdover from the last few years of the pandemic era. Angela and I both availed ourselves of grilled beef before heading to board. On the way to our gate, I captured this shot showing a variety of aircraft livery.
Our flight boarded exactly on-time, as is normal with JL, and we discovered there were only four other people flying in the forward business class cabin with us.
I love the 2-3-2 seat layout that JL used on this plane. The window seats do not have a ton of storage space, but I love the wide footwell and the fact that I can place my backpack under it for easy accessibility during the flight.
As always, the JL service was a delight and the meal was very good. After dinner, Angela and I both got as much sleep as we could.
We arrived in Tokyo in the afternoon and, after going through transfer security, walked directly to our gate because we had a somewhat tight connection. Once there, we waited about half an hour before boarding opened and then we were on our way to Seoul. The flight from Tokyo to Seoul is short so we enjoyed the meal on this flight, but consciously chose to stay awake so that we could start acclimating to the new time zone.
Once we arrived in South Korea, I found that they expected a health declaration to have been completed before landing. Because we had not done so and didn’t have an electronic record available, we had to fill out paper declarations before passing through immigration and customs. Once we cleared that hurdle we tried to locate an ATM to retrieve some cash for our stay but were unsuccessful in finding one that worked with my Schwab debit card. Reluctantly, we walked out to the taxi stand and found someone who would take us to our hotel.
The taxi ride was very interesting. While I showed the driver the address in Korean, he did not recognize it and asked that we repeatedly shout the name of the hotel into his navigation system. The language barrier was very real during this taxi ride, but we eventually got where we needed to be and were able to use Google Pay to settle our fare.
Our check-in experience at the Four Seasons was excellent. The benefits provided to us by booking through Fine Hotels & Resorts was clearly explained and we were given a slightly upgraded room compared to what I had originally booked. The room itself was in perfect condition, had an excellent layout, and possessed every amenity we desired. The lights were well-labeled, too, which we always appreciate.
After unpacking, we took a shower before enjoying the delightful cake that the property provided as a welcome amenity. Shortly thereafter, we were able to go to sleep and fully tune our bodies to the new time zone.
We were delighted to find that the breakfast at the Four Seasons Seoul was varied and delicious with something for everyone. While Angela and I primarily ate various Asian dishes at breakfast, there were plenty of western options along with your typical buffet items like cheeses, meats, and breads. Interestingly, the dining area is on top of an excavated historical site and the hotel provides a guide to the area as well as some glassed sections in the flooring so that you can see old foundations and artifacts.
After breakfast, we headed off in search of an ATM that would work. After twenty minutes of wandering around, I was able to find a bank that accepted my debit card and dispensed cash. After that, we figured out how to use the public transit system and we were good to go for the rest of the trip. The Seoul Metro was a delight to ride around the city and tickets are cheap.
Our first stop was the National Museum of Korea where we spent six hours enjoying the exhibited artifacts. In lieu of explaining our visit in detail, I’m including a selection of photos showing some of the most interesting items.
After leaving the museum, we returned to the hotel via the metro. Once there, I went to the gym while Angela took a well-deserved bath. The gym at the Four Seasons Seoul was excellent, with two full squat racks and a huge variety of strength training and cardio equipment.
We stopped to look at a couple of statues in Gwanghwamun Square on the way back to the hotel.
For dinner, we decided to stay in and order room service to use up our property credit provided as part of our FHR booking. We ordered a couple of Caesar salads, some Korean fried chicken, and a burger. Each dish was quite delicious, and we were happy for the ability to stay in for the night given how tired we were.
After another delicious breakfast, featuring some awesome latte art, we walked to Gyeongbokgung Palace.
We arrived at the palace at 0900 and there was no one else inside at all. It was like we had our own private tour of one of the most interesting places in Seoul. Of course, the reason for this might have been because the temperature was 22F, a distinctly unpleasant experience for us.
After wandering the grounds of the palace, we visited the National Palace Museum, home to a number of very cool artifacts.
We departed the museum at 1215 and took the metro to Seoul Station where we met Veronica from Gastro Tour Seoul to spend the next several hours eating a variety of traditional Korean dishes.
Our first stop was a small food stall in a very narrow alleway. There, we ate a set menu of knife cut noodle soup, cold noodle soup, and bibimbap with kimchi. Before we sat down to eat our tour guide told us to let her know if anything was too spicy so she could adjust the tour. To us, none of the food we ate during our time in Korea was particularly spicy even though people kept acting like it was. It was a little confusing.
After filling up at our first stop, we wandered through Namdaemun Market, including the black market portion. We were surprised to see a large number of Kirkland branded items from Costco.
After the brief market interlude, it was back to eating. We stopped and had a pair of Korean doughnuts, one savory and one sweet. Both were delicious.
We continued to wander through the market before stopping at a fishcake stall where we enjoyed fishcake on a stick and drank some fish broth. We sprayed soy sauce on to the fishcake using a spray bottle, which I found quite amusing.
Our next meal was Korean fried chicken and a local beer for Angela. The chicken was delicious and Angela enjoyed her beverage.
After a brief stop at a shopping mall and a tour through the many food shops, we headed to Chinatown where we enjoyed seafood soup and black bean noodles.
We wandered through Myeongdong, a thoroughly tourist-saturated area, where we grabbed one of the brown sugar discs made famous in the United States due to the success of Squid Game. Angela was disappointed to see that I immediately failed at cutting out the shape and dove right in to eating.
Finally, we found ourselves under the Myeongdong Cathedral. This area hosts a variety of shops and food vendors. Veronica took us to one of the few gelato places in Seoul. To be frank, it was fairly mediocre and not the best dish to end with, but we had a good time regardless.
When our food tour concluded, we walked back to the hotel via the Cheonggyecheon Stream.
After a brief nap, we headed to the gym to work off some of the calories we’d consumed during the day.
After breakfast, we took the metro to the Korean War Memorial. To start, we admired the large statuary and outdoor monuments. Some of them are very touching, particularly The Statue of Brothers which has a very straightforward and somewhat sad message.
From there, we moved to the large area containing examples of military hardware. There is a huge variety of aircraft, helicopters, tanks, artillery, rockets, and ships. Some of the items on display are relatively modern while others are relics of the Korean War.
From there, we passed into the Korean War Museum. It features exhibits from older Korean history (the Three Kingdoms, Goryo, Joseon, and Imperial periods) and newer Korean history (Korean War and its aftermath). The breadth of artifacts was amazing and the museum, especially the parts prior to Imperial Japanese occupation, are extremely well done. The newer Korean history section falls prey to the typical self-congratulation typical of museums like this, but still exposed a fair number of interesting items.
After the museum, we returned to our hotel and decided to order a couple of salads before falling asleep.
After a final delicious breakfast, including a seafood buffet that seems exclusive to Sundays, we packed up and took the train to Gimpo Airport. Being unfamiliar with the location, we left fairly early. This was totally unnecessary as the airport was dead in terms of passenger traffic. I think that our flight to Tokyo might have been the first departure of the day, in fact.
After checking in and clearing immigration, we proceeded to the KAL lounge. I’m assuming this is used for JL passengers given that the airlines codeshare on almost all flights between the two capitals. Again, the flight was short but pleasant. The approach to Tokyo afforded us some incredible views of the city over Tokyo Bay.
When we arrived at Haneda Airport, we each purchased a Welcome Suica card loaded with 3000JPY. We took the Tokyo Monorail to the Yamanote Line and then took the Yamanote Line to Meguro Station. From there, we walked to our hotel.
The property is beautiful, but is also very Japanese and we were a little uncomfortable initially. Also, I apparently had forgotten that I booked a room with two twin beds so Angela and I slept separately for the two nights we were in Tokyo. In the end, I don’t think she minded much as she seemed to get more rest than ever.
We stopped by the executive lounge for afternoon tea, which ended up being a variety of teas on demand as well as small snacks. After eating a few light bites, we wandered down to the library lounge and relaxed for a bit while reading about Japanese cooking and sushi-making.
We started to get hungry and decided to head to the sushi place that we’ve visited on our last couple of trips to Tokyo. When we arrived the line was so long that I knew we wouldn’t be seated for at least a couple of hours. We were too hungry to deal with both the delay and the cold, so we decided to find someplace else to eat. We settled on Tsuro Ton Tan for udon noodles. Once we arrived at the restaurant, we put ourselves on the waiting list and hung out until our number was called. There was no English at this restaurant which made waiting a little nerve-wracking (we didn’t want to miss our spot), but everything worked out in the end.
Once inside, we ordered via touchscreen. Everything was in Japanese, as expected, so we used Google Translate to figure out what we wanted.
The meal was delicious and filling. I absolutely loved dining here and plan to return in the future, although I may go to one of the other locations.
We returned to the hotel and decided to make use of the steam sauna in our room. It was very nice, especially after being cold and damp for the last couple of hours we’d spent outside.
The breakfast buffet at Hotel Gajoen was interesting and varied. There were a good selection of Japanese dishes, including sushi of the day, and a few western items. There was also a chef making a la carte items on demand, including omurice, a dish that Angela ended up loving. The only major downside is that the coffee was terrible.
After breakfast, we took a few pictures before heading out into the city.
We spent the day wandering the streets of Tokyo. First, we walked to and through Rinshi no Mori park.
Then, we walked to Yoyogi Park, stopping at Starbucks on the way for some Japan-only drinks. Angela ordered an Earl Grey latte and I selected the chocolate fondant frappuccino. Both were absolutely delicious.
Once we finished our drinks, we continued to Yoyogi Park, briefly walking around it and enjoying some familiar sites. Once we exited, we tried a sparkling plum drink from a vending machine. It was delicious and we spent the rest of our time in Japan looking for it, but we never saw it again.
We walked to Shinjuku Gyoen Park and enjoyed a stroll through the grounds. There is a 500JPY entrance fee for the park, but I think it is certainly worth it. The park is very beautiful, even in the winter, and we enjoyed the greenhouse a lot.
For dinner, we ate at Fuunji, an extremely popular ramen shop near Shinjuku station. The dinner service starts at 1700, so we dutifully lined up at 1645 and were able to make it into the first seating.
This was our first time at a traditional ramen counter restaurant and it was interesting. I ordered the tsukemen and Angela opted for the ramen. I absolutely loved my dish, but Angela wasn’t particularly fond of it. She enjoyed her ramen, though.
We had some difficulty with the vending machine. We’d never used a machine like that before and did not understand you needed to insert cash before making your selection, so we spent a fair few minutes banging our heads against the wall until we figured it out through trial and error.
Returning to the hotel, we visited the executive lounge for drinks. We consumed a small selection of desserts. I ordered tea while Angela drank a couple of yuzu gin and tonics that she said were absolutely delicious. After ninety minutes in the lounge, we returned to the room and again availed ourselves of the steam sauna before calling it a night.
After another reasonably good breakfast, we participated in an art tour that the Hotel Gajoen runs. The tour is exclusively done in Japanese, but the hotel is kind enough to provide English printouts so non-speakers can follow along. We loved the tour and really enjoyed being able to see parts of the hotel that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to and really appreciate the beauty of the property beyond what we’d seen on the way to and from the guestrooms.
The Hotel Gajoen was the first all-in-one wedding venue in Tokyo, according to our guide, and continues to be a popular wedding venue to this day. We learned a lot about Japanese wedding customs.
After the tour, we packed and then headed to Shinagawa Station to buy some baumkuchen and verify the pricing of Shinkansen tickets.
We then returned to the hotel and checked out before taking the shuttle bus to Meguro Station. After taking the subway to Shinagawa Station, we purchased our Shinkansen tickets and then made our way to the train. The fare was 13760JPY per person on the Tokkaido-Sanyo line from Shinagawa Station to Kyoto Station, including reserved seats.
The train ride passed without any issues and once we arrived in Kyoto we took a taxi from Kyoto Station to the Park Hyatt for 1600JPY. We checked in, were offered a welcome drink, and then brought to our room. We absolutely loved our lodgings here. The room was well-appointed with ample sitting room. The bed was incredibly comfortable, and the service at the Park Hyatt was absolutely impeccable.
After unpacking, we walked to 7-Eleven to grab some dinner before returning to the hotel to eat. We enjoyed a variety of dishes before finishing off our meal with some of the baumkuchen we’d purchased earlier in the day.
We loved the breakfast at the Park Hyatt. While the buffet spread wasn’t huge, every dish was high quality and the a la carte items were delicious. On our first day, we ordered the pancakes and French toast to accompany the buffet.
We walked to the beginning of the Philosopher’s Path where it started to snow. Walking along the path itself was less exciting than I thought it would be. With all the plant-life dead or dormant, it isn’t nearly as stunning as I’m sure it is in the spring, when the cherry blossoms bloom, or the fall, when the leaves have changed color.
At the end of the path, we visited Ginkaku-ji. We found the shrine very beautiful and picturesque. The snow continued to fall as we walked around making the moment feel quite special.
We returned to the hotel via a different route.
Once there, we enjoyed a light bite in the lobby. Angela ordered a Caesar salad and some oolong tea while I chose to have a cappuccino.
After a brief rest, we went to the gym. Honestly, it looked like the equipment had never been used. It is probably the most serene gym we’ve ever visited.
After getting our pump on, we visited the Japanese bath facilities. These are gender-segregated and require you to be nude to use them. There is a hot tub, cold tub, steam sauna, dry sauna, and showers for both men and women.
At 1700, we headed to the lobby to enjoy the champagne hour and meet up with my friend Pete. The champagne hour is complimentary for Hyatt Globalist members (which we were impostor versions of, having been booked through the Guest of Honor program). I was personally quite happy that the hotel offers a non-alcoholic substitute for teetotalers like me.
After hanging out and chatting for a while, we walked to Donguri in downtown Kyoto for okonomiyaki, a dish that we’d never had before. Once there, we ordered a couple of different okonomiyaki dishes and an order of yaki-soba. Angela and I both enjoyed a yuzu cider.
After dinner, we walked back to the hotel and got some much needed rest after a day of adventuring.
We woke up to snow falling and accumulating on the ground. It was a beautiful sight to behold as we headed to breakfast.
I enjoyed some delicious avocado toast. We had a sushi-making class to attend at 1300, so we decided to walk to a specific shrine on the way. Unfortunately, we accidentally hiked up the back of Fushimi Inari Shrine after I caused us to miss a turn somehow. After realizing our mistake, and seeing the way that we wished to continue was blocked off, we doubled back and were able to make it to our class on time.
Pete had already arrived at the class by the time we got there. We stripped off our winter gear and got to work. We had a great time making and eating sushi with our teacher. She was friendly and funny and made us all feel at ease. Angela was the best student, of course, with our teacher even saying that she must have been Japanese in a previous life.
After the class, we took the bus to Kinkaku-ji and paid to enter. The famous Golden Pavilion was exceptionally beautiful, but the place was also extremely crowded as it is very popular. We enjoyed our time at the shrine, but aren’t sure it is a must-see when you’re in Kyoto.
Before we left the area, we made sure to pick up some grilled mochi balls with sweet soy sauce. Angela really like these but I was not a fan.
We took a bus back to the hotel where we enjoyed another relaxed champagne hour before meeting up with Pete and walking to the Gion culture and food tour we had booked. We met with our guide Kevin, who happened to be the owner of the tour company, and had a great time the rest of the night. The dishes were quite good, Kevin was an excellent host, and we really enjoyed ourselves.
On the day of departure, we ate a very leisurely breakfast before taking advantage of the property’s bath house facilities one last time. We packed and took a taxi to Kyoto station for 1340JPY. From there, we took the Limited Express Haruka to KIX. We purchased our tickets at the JR West office at Kyoto Station with a credit card before heading into 7-Eleven and going on a bit of a shopping spree using our remaining Suica balance. Interestingly, our train to the airport was Hello Kitty branded.
Once we arrived at KIX, we were able to check in, clear security, and pass through immigration in forty-five minutes. We were given access to the Asuka Lounge which was reasonably nice but nothing special. As usual, we boarded exactly on time before heading home to the USA. The dinner on board this flight was absolutely delicious. I still am surprised when an airline can nail food service on a plane, so this was a real delight.
Once we arrived at LAX, we passed through immigration quickly using our Global Entry membership before heading to the American Airlines Flagship Lounge. We relaxed there for a couple of hours before continuing on to Las Vegas.
We had a delightful time in both South Korea and Japan and will certainly return to both locations. In particular, we’d love to return to Seoul during a warmer season so we can hike the nearby mountains like a local. We also want to explore other parts of South Korea that we weren’t able to during this relatively short stay. While it was a little intimidating at first given that we don’t know any Korean and definitely can’t read the signs, we figured out how to get around and do what we needed and would probably feel comfortable being a little more adventurous on our next visit.
Japan is one of my favorite places in the world and we had a great time there on this trip. Given that we’ve previously spent time at the museums and important memorials, it was a nice change of pace to be able to just wander around Tokyo and Kyoto and enjoy our time together.