A SAMPLE KOREA/JAPAN TRIP ITINERARY

    

16 minute read

8 min read | Redacted by Joanna Lin

3-second preview: Korean shrines and fortresses, what CNN calls the “most outrageous spa”, and unforgettable Japanese Bars. 

Note: all hotels (except for the Aloft in Seoul), and flights, were funded through credit card points and mile maximization. For details on how this 100k value trip was funded, see the end of this blog or our founder Q&A.

 

Day 1 & 2: JFK → Seoul, Korea

We started our Korea & Japan trip by flying out of JFK airport on Korean Air’s First Class on 10/27/17. 

    • Points Pro-Tip: Korean Air’s Skypass miles are now much more difficult tOur founder Taylor lounging in the o earn as they are no longer transfer partners with Chase Ultimate Rewards. Skypass is, however, still partnering with Marriott, and it’s possible to earn Skypass miles directly via their credit cards with US Bank. At the time of booking roundtrip cost in first-class from the USA to Japan were 160k miles and $120 in taxes for off-peak dates. This included 1 stopover, 1 long layover both in Seoul, and an open jaw (we flew JFK-ICN, GMP-HND, then KIX-ICN-JFK).
 

After a 14 hour flight, we landed in a sleepy Seoul at 5 am.

 

Day 3: 1st full day in Seoul

Our first stop from there was the check-in at the Gangnam Aloft hotel.

  • Points Pro-Tip: Since the Aloft was on the cheaper side ($70 for a double), we paid in cash and saved our points. (Aloft was a category 3 Marriott hotel, costing 17.5k Marriott points). It’s a great hotel choice for the price and is close to lots of bars and restaurants in the area.

From there, we made a quick stop to Bukhansan National Park—and arrived just in time to see the first rays of sunshine peek out from the mountain ridges. For a Seoul sunrise viewing, the park is a pretty unbeatable spot.

A sunrise view of the Bukhansan National Park

 

Afterward, we went for an early lunch at Gwangjang Market. The food at the market is as varied as it is delicious: from Korean fried pancakes made of seafood, meat, and veggies, to the phenomenal kimchi, and it’s near the Jongmyo Shrine too.

Jongmyo Shrine is the oldest preserved Royal Confucian shrine and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It can only be seen via a scheduled group tour (we took an english one). The roughly 1-hour tour was very informative, and the grounds and buildings definitely live up to its label as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

From there we walked north to the Gahoe-Dong district to see the traditional houses, grabbed a snack in a converted café to have a coffee, and a few beers. It’s a really cool area to walk around, and most of the houses are free to enter. 

 

Day 4 - A Fortress & Palace

Today we took a half-day trip South to Suwon to see the famed Hwaseong Fortress. Walking from around the fortress walls, it took us a little over an hour at a steady walking pace to see the entire fortress (of course, stopping to take in the sights and snap some photos that you can see here). 

An incredible close-up photograph of Korea's historical architecture style.

Stopping by the Gyeongbokgung Palace, it cost 3000 won to enter and is honestly a massive tourist trap of a compound. The beautiful views of the Bukhansan national park are about the only thing worth seeing. The palace was rebuilt in 1990 and is very sterile. Unless you feel compelled to check it out I would give it a pass. The courtyard is free, so you can get a great view from outside.

 

Day 5 - Fall in Seoul

We originally wanted to take a tour of the infamous Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, that separates North and South Korea. As President Trump coincidentally was there at the same time, we weren’t able to go.

  • Travel Pro-Tip: As an FYI though, you need to book these weeks in advance. And if you go, I would definitely allow a whole day to take an organized tour of Panmunjeom, the joint security area of the DMZ where North and South Korean forces stand face-to-face. 

Instead, we took a day trip to Seoraksan Mountains via a private taxi and stopped at Nami Island on the way. I cannot recommend this enough. As we were here on 10/31, the foliage was perfect for both Nami and the Seoraksan Mountains. Nami is a breathtaking island in the middle of a river with a lot of art installations, fun café’s, and performing art centers. The taxi cost approx. $400 for the whole day in a car that can fit up to 4 people.

The beautiful fall foliage and autumnal colors of the Seoraksan Mountains hikeA Buddha statue by the Seoraksan MountainsThe beautiful Seoraksan mountains as seen from the hiking trail  above

 

Arriving back at our hotel by 6 pm, we decided on Mingles for dinner. Located in Gangnam, it’s a one-star Michelin restaurant that specializes in modern Korean fare (costing around $120/person for the tasting menu). We loved it, and I cannot recommend the local alcohol paring enough: the sojus were amazing. 

 

Day 6 & 7 - Busan & Spa Land

We took the Korean high-speed rail, KTX, from Seoul to Busan because it was much cheaper, faster, and easier than flying. We hopped in a taxi and headed straight to the Park Hyatt Busan (at the time of booking the Park Hyatt was a category 4 hotel, which allowed me to use my free annual night with my Chase Hyatt credit card) to check-in. From there, we spent 2 days in Busan, Korea, and went for a long walk along Haeundae Beach, while grabbing some drinks at one of the many bars on the main street. 

Taylor and his buddies enjoying an incredible dinnerA close up of some phenomenal Korean sushi

 

At the recommendation of the hotel, we decided to try out Korean sushi at Haeun Maru. This restaurant was a truly phenomenal local experience. We were brought multiple tables full of food when we ordered the sashimi menu. Forewarning, there are a lot of exotic options served, like wiggling octopi’s legs, so be prepared. 

The next day, we went to Spa Land, one of the highest-rated Korean spas in the area. It’s about a 15-minute walk from the hotel. Entrance is around 14k won, or $12, with a 4 hour limit on stays. This place is huge. There are 2 separate areas for males and females which include the changing rooms, showers, and hot/cold baths. The coed space has an outdoor relaxation foot bath area, along with many day beds, cold and hot rooms, and various relaxing rooms. Check out this special CNN feature article.

The famed Korean Spa Land and its huge lobby entrance

images via CNN

 

Day 8 - Tokyo Pro Tips

We then flew from Gimpo Airport (GMP) to Haneda (HND) and landed around 11 am. I chose these airports as they are centrally located, and saved us a lot of commuting. 

  • Travel Pro Tip: To eat at the top restaurants in Japan you need to make reservations approx. 3 months in advance. The best way to do this is to ask your hotel concierge to make them for you, as they have the connections. That being the case, the most famous sushi restaurants are basically impossible to get into even if you have the concierge try. Also, the concierge will generally only help you book reservations for the nights you are staying with them. They can potentially help you with a day before or after your stay as well, but they will not help you beyond that.

From there, we visited the Imperial Palace in Chiyoda and decided to walk around the beautifully landscaped area. The palace was built in 1888 and destroyed during WWII and rebuilt in the same style.

We also stopped by Akihabara, the famous electronics, anime, and manga district. This area is super interesting and filled with tons of unique experiences for those that are looking for one. 

Japan's famed Akihabara electronics, anime, and manga district

For dinner, we ate at Narisawa, a spectacular 2 Michelin star restaurant that focuses on seasonality and Japanese culture. I cannot recommend this restaurant enough. It’s truly a once in a lifetime experience. I don’t want to go into any more detail as it’s best to experience this meal in person. 

 

Day 9 - Tokyo urban jungles and the best bar

After enjoying the gorgeous Hamarikyu Gardens (former imperial gardens) and the Japanese sweets tea-ceremony there, we walked through the urban Aoyama. I cannot recommend simply walking around enjoying these areas enough. There are so many unique and amazing things to see. Case in point: we found ourselves walking through Cat Street, a cool pedestrian shopping street, completely by accident. 

From there, we got lucky enough to get some drinks at Bar High Five. It’s one of the best bars in the world and was ranked 12th on The World’s 50 Best Bars list in 2016. The concierge correctly recommended we arrive as close to the opening time of 5 pm as possible, as the bar is small and fills up quickly.

I cannot understate how amazing our experience was: even our 2 hours there felt too short. We all ordered multiple rounds of different cocktails and they all stunned us. The most remarkable part of the experience was when Hidetsugu Ueno, the head mixologist, and owner, overheard us discussing the famed ‘ice diamond’. We all watched in awe as he explained in perfect English how he gets the ice cubes to form flawlessly, while simultaneously carving the famed hand-carved, 8-sided "ice diamond." Before leaving, Ueno made all of us look at the logo of Bar High Five through the whisky and ice diamond; it was crystal clear. Ueno the chief mixologist and owner of the Bar High Five in Japan(image of Ueno himself from Drink Magazine Asia)

Later that night (around 2 am), we went to check out Golden Gai, the famous tiny drinking dens. Everyone has to walk through these tiny alleyways and pop into seemingly impossibly small bars. I recommend sticking to the beer and sake. Golden Gai was one of the coolest areas we visited, and we enjoyed it so much that we went back the next night. 

                               the alleyways of Japan at nightJapan's Golden Gai, a tiny drinking den



How We Did It (the technicals): 

This was only the first half of our Korea Japan trip extravaganza. However, the trip was the “play hard” reward after a credit card “plan hard” phase that began all the way in January that year. You can also see our founder Q&A.

I had to start so early because I needed to map out the exact credit cards each person needed to get to make sure we could maximize our luxury while minimizing ours out of pocket dollar cost. Overall each of us four had to open around 4 or 5 new credit cards and had to spend approximately $20,000 in minimum spend (was just our normal spend over the following 6 months) to achieve all the signup bonuses. When it was all said and done the total cash value of the trip was over $25,000 per person. 

This experience was the start of the Card Curator journey: when I realized you can truly fund unforgettable trips of substance, all through credit card maximization. I took matters into my own hands and designed the Card Curator app to maximize your card rewards and minimize the decision-making stress. 

If you are curious about the details: I have attached our night stays, and the payment method (free nights, cash, or points), along with the associated cost. 

Date

Location

Hotel Brand

Payment

10/27/17

Airplane

Korean Air

Miles

10/28/17

Airplane

Korean Air

Miles

10/29/17

Seoul

Aloft

Cash

10/30/17

Seoul

Aloft

Cash

10/31/17

Seoul

Aloft

Cash

11/1/17

Busan

Park Hyatt

Night/Points

11/2/17

Seoul

Aloft

Cash

11/3/17

Tokyo

Conrad

Night

11/4/17

Tokyo

Conrad

Night

11/5/17

Tokyo

Park Hyatt

Night

11/6/17

Hakone

Hyatt Regency

Night

11/7/17

Osaka

Ritz / InterContinental

Points

11/8/17

Osaka

Ritz / InterContinental

Points

11/9/17

Kyoto

Hyatt Regency

Night

11/10/17

Kyoto

Ryokan

Cash

11/11/17

Osaka

Conrad

Points

11/12/17

Fly home

   

Cost in Miles / Points / Cash

SPG

6 Nights

Cash

Aloft

Hyatt

2 Nights

1 + 15k

Park

SPG

2 Nights

Cash

Aloft

Hilton 

6 Nights

2 Nights + 380k

Conrad

Hyatt

2 Nights

2 Nights

Regency

SPG

4 Nights

67k 

Ritz

IC

2 Nights

Night +50k

IC

IC/SPG

2 Nights

100k / 34k

IC / Ritz

Hyatt

4 Nights

4 Nights

Regency

SPG

2 Nights

34k

Ritz

 

Written by Joanna Lin

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