There are very few emotions one can experience in life that match the excitement of an impending vacation. There’s something deep within me that peaks at the onset of a new journey. After weeks of planning and preparation, it all became real on the day of our departure. Julia and I had been planning this Japan trip for months, and the time to travel had finally arrived. My excitement usually wanes a bit when I finally get to the airport and remember that I have to fly on an airline from the United States. Anyone who has flown on a major airline from the US will know that service and passenger experience are dead last on the list of things these companies care about. Luckily, we made a different decision this time, and bought tickets on Japan Airlines. From the moment we checked in at the ticket gate, I knew this was going to be an incredible experience.
We departed LAX at 13:30 on a Thursday and would arrive in Osaka at 17:50 on Friday. I’ve been on some pretty long flights in my life, but this journey of 12+ hours was going to be a real test of my endurance. Fortunately, Japan Airlines flies this route with a fleet of the Boeing 787 Dreamliners. The Dreamliner is the perfect plane for long flights, as it has a 2x4x2 seat configuration, large electronically dimmed windows, and individual passenger entertainment. I was able to watch the new Star Wars and Hunger Games movies on the flight to Osaka, which helped make time fly by.
The food on Japan Airlines was one of the biggest improvements over the other airlines I’ve flown on in the past. I’m so used to being treated like cattle when flying economy, but the flight attendants for Japan Airlines treated all of us like we were flying first class. For one of the first times in my life, I was actually enjoying a long flight! Our first meal, lunch, was served a few hours after take off. Our smaller second meal, dinner, was served a few hours before landing. In between that, the attendants came by with coffee and tea, and invited passengers to meet them at the center island by the restroom in the plane if we needed any other drinks.
One final thing I’ll mention about the Boeing Dreamliner and Japan Airlines is the great bathroom situation. This is one area I was a bit worried about for a 12 hour flight, as that many people using small bathrooms can get a bit gross on longer flights. To my surprise this wasn’t the case at all. There are four large bathrooms located right in the middle of the economy section on the 787, and they stayed clean throughout. Japan Airlines provides toothbrushes and makes sure the soaps and cleaning supplies are always in full stock.
We landed in Osaka just shy of 18:00, and made our way through customs and into Terminal 1 of Kansai Airport. Julia and I decided on getting a Japan Rail Pass for our time in Japan. The JR pass allows for unlimited travel within a 7, 14, or 21 day period, depending on which one you choose. You have to buy your JR Pass before arriving to Japan, as they are only sold to non-Japanese tourists. Our first order of business was to visit the Japan Rail ticket office to get our vouchers activated. The JR Ticket office is right outside of Teriminal 1 in Kansai airport. You can get a standard JR Pass or a Green Car (First Class) JR Pass. We opted for the Green Car passes.
After activating our JR Pass, we needed to get to our homebase of Kyoto, where we would be starting our trip. There is an express train that leaves directly from Kansai Airport and arrives in Kyoto called the Airport Express Haruka. This train takes 75 minutes from Kansai to Kyoto and leaves every 30 minutes. The entrance to the JR platform is right outside of the JR Ticket Office.
We arrived in Kyoto just after 21:00, and although our bodies and minds were tired, the excitement of a new adventure kept us going. I had read and seen a lot of great things about Kyoto Station…but to see it in person was a very different experience. The scale and grandeur was a spectacle.
We had planned on making the short 1.5 km walk from Kyoto Station to our ryokan when we arrived, but we hadn’t planned on it raining. Luckily, we were able to find two cheap umbrellas at a convenience store in Kyoto Station for 500 yen and made our way outside to catch a taxi. We had only just arrived in Japan, but I had the feeling we were on the cusp of something extraordinary. After months of planning and waiting, the time for exploring Japan was finally at my fingertips.