A Most Rewarding Summer of Japanese Adventures
This summer we discovered Japan, thanks in part to a partnership with the InterContinental Hotels Group. If you’ve been following our blog for a while you’ll know our travel style isn’t usually at the luxury end of the spectrum but this summer, thanks to IHG, we were able to travel through Japan as IHG Rewards Club millionaires. Back in July IHG awarded us a million rewards points and challenged us to fulfil a travel dream. So this summer we used them first to get a taste of Japan in London and then to fuel an incredible summer journey of family travel in Japan. Here’s a taste of what we got up to as a family of points millionaires, quite literally lost in translation, in a land far, far away.
Life as a millionaire
Being a millionaire takes a little getting used to. Join us most years on a summer adventure and you’d find us in a tent in a field or squeezing five people into a room for four in a budget hotel on the edge of town. So it was quite a surprise to find ourselves not just in Japan this summer but staying in iconic city centre locations, resting our heads on pure white pillows in classy IHG hotels. Talk about culture shock.
When we first talked about visiting Japan we wondered how we would ever survive a month there, not just linguistically (Japanese is said to be one of the most difficult languages for us Brits to learn) but financially. We knew accommodation would be one of our biggest expenses (assuming we could learn enough Japanese to make a booking) so you can imagine what a delight it was to discover that IHG Reward Club points can be redeemed at any IHG branded hotel worldwide, including 32 Holiday Inn, Intercontinental and Crowne Plaza hotels in Japan. Better still was the revelation that bookings could be made in English on our smartphones using an IHG app, without a Kanji in sight.
More than just hotels
The IHG Reward Club scheme is one of the biggest travel loyalty schemes in the world. Not only can you earn and redeem points by staying at IHG hotels around the globe, but you can buy flights or car hire, book yourself or friends and family on to amazing Red Letter Day experiences, or swap points for gift vouchers and treat yourself in other ways. Not being naturally profiligate millionaires, we carefully weighed up how best to invest our points for maximum experience and after spending some on our Taste of Japan in London weekend, bought the kids an i-Pod to help produce a series of videos about their adventures, and set aside the rest to book stays in great hotels in the heart of iconic Japanese cities. So what kind of an experience does a million rewards points get you in Japan? Well it goes a bit like this.. .
Family travel in Japan: out of my depth and totally at home
We begin our quest to understand Japan in Osaka, Japan’s second biggest city. It’s here I get my first taste of the Japanese city and the Japanese Crowne Plaza experience. I already know I find cities addictive and Osaka’s neon just hooks me further. Standing at an 18th floor window looking out over this orb, dressed in a pure white Japanese style dressing gown, I also immediately know I am hooked on hotel rooms booked by points. And that’s before the kids fill the room with the scent of lemon bath powder, pass me a set of eye warmers and tell me about the delights of the heated toilet seat (seriously, I do not understand why they have not taken off world-wide.) One day in and I am out of my depth and totally at home.
I expected Japan to be beautiful but didn’t expect it to make me so. But this is a country full of surprises, contradictions and incredible technology, and it wasted no time in making its mark on me. In Osaka we all literally became more attractive thanks to technology in one of the incredibly fashionable purikura photo booths. In a country that has mastered the art of cute, we didn’t just take tips from the locals, we fought them for space in a hi-tech beauty booth where without the use of make-up I got myself some kitty eyes and lost at least ten years in the right direction. On paper at least and I have the print to prove it. Worryingly I think I ended up looking a bit like ‘Hello Kitty.’ Watch the video and you’ll see what I mean…
Japanese beauty is nothing new. They have been celebrating it for centuries in the Geisha quarters of Kyoto, where young women still learn the complicated fine arts and master ‘that look’ with make up brush and hair pins. But it’s not just in Kyoto that you can get a glimpse of old Japan. Our next IHG hotel was in the centre of Kanazawa, overlooking a traditional Japanese castle and a traditional Japanese summer festival. Boy the Japanese know how to do festivals, but that’s another story. It wasn’t the festival that caught the kids imagination though as much as our visit to Shima, a 200 year old Geisha house in the old part of town, where they got a glimpse of Geisha life, and were brave enough and stayed quiet long enough to enjoy some green tea and Japanese sweets. Well, kind of…
Tokyo and crazy Japan
You can’t do Japan and not do the capital can you? Especially if you get to stay at the Tokyo Bay InterContinental. It cost us a lot of points, but it was so worth it to sit in its Emperor like high backed chairs and opulent lounge, nibbling on divine cake from glass cases stuffed with treats. This hotel has a fabulous location, with rooms overlooking the bay and the Rainbow Bridge. But even that multicoloured bridge was pale next to the subject of the children’s next video.
Tokyo’s Robot Restaurant is like nothing else you will ever have seen before, unless you are the director of Tron. Set in a small space, the evening cabaret is a catalogue of segments that grow more and more bizarre and incredible until you are surrounded by three metre high robots dancing to Gangnam Style, accompanied by clowns on roller skates and women on motorbikes. And that’s after the Kung Fu Panda has departed on a pantomime cow. Believe me, it’s unmissable. Take a look at what Cameron and Hannah made of it in this next video. And if you want a little more crazy, check out this account of the night we spent in another of Japan’s notorious themed restaurants: the prison themed Lockup. I’m not sure Hannah has recovered yet from the shock of the body falling out from behind the front door. Japan may appear polite, reserved and formal but believe me when I tell you there is another side.
In search of peace
One of the benefits of the IHG Rewards Club scheme is that you can use your points at any IHG brand hotel, anywhere in the world. The IHG group includes a wide range of hotel brands, each with its own proposition and pricing point. It means you can splash out on a bit of luxury if you want, as we did in Tokyo, or eek your points out on more modest accommodation. There’s flexibility too; you can book in advance or even on the day using the smartphone app and even rewards points nights can be booked on a cancel-able rate, allowing you to change your plans up until 6pm on the night of your stay without penalty. It’s great if you like to chop and change your plans and mix things up like us. After the craziness of Tokyo we changed our plans and headed off in search of peace, looking for the bamboo grove, temple, zen garden and buddhist meditating on mountain top kind we’d see in the guidebook.
We found a different kind of peace when we ended up in Hiroshima. We stayed at the IHG Crowne Plaza which is just about as close as you can get to the awe inspiring Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. The park was conceived as a permanent reminder of the impact of war and a commitment to world peace and was established after Hiroshima became the first city in the world to suffer a nuclear attack. This act of extreme violence on an unsuspecting population is explored in a series of museums and memorials around the park. The Hiroshima of then and now made an impression on the kids, who decided to try and communicate some of its weight, significance and human stories in their next video..
Hiroshima isn’t all about the past though. It’s an impressively high tech city and home to the Mazda Motor Corporation. In many places around Japan you can organise visits to factories keen to show off their manufacturing, technological and industrial prowess. We took a tour of the Mazda car production plant in Hiroshima where we got to see their production line as part of a tour of Mazda city which has its own buses, houses, private roads, bridges and port. Then we rounded off our visit to Hiroshima with a visit to a rubbish dump. You can imagine the kids reaction when I pitched that one at them. But the Naka Incineration Plant is no ordinary rubbish dump; it’s is an innovative city waste disposal plant that is partly open to the public and is more like visiting a temple or art gallery than a municipal waste site. Best let the kids explain…
One of our biggest worries about visiting Japan was how we’d get on with the food. Not so much eating it (we tried that in London before we left), rather ordering it in a language we couldn’t speak or read. We needn’t have worried though for almost every Japanese restaurant we visited had picture menus and often life size 3D samples of menu items made out of plastic to show you exactly what’s on offer. While staying in Nagoya we visited the village of Gujo Hachiman, said to be the centre of excellence for plastic food production, and visited a shop where visitors can have a go at this unusual Japanese art. If you think it’s easy making tempura and lettuce out of wax, think again. If you want to know how it’s done or need to know how to say wax food in Japanese, check out this video.
Of course peaceful, old, traditional Japan is there.but you do have to search for it in and in between the mega-metropolises of modern Japan. When you do find it though it is everything you imagined and read about and possibly more. In some places it would be easy to overdose on temples but, visited in moderation the kids found them surprisingly interesting and interactive places to visit. A few hours drive from Nagoya we visited one of the most spectacular Buddhist sites in Japan; Okunoin, a sacred Buddhist cemetery in Koyasan and the site of the mausoleum of a revered Buddhist monk, Kobo Daishi. This monk is said to have been meditating in his mausoleum for over a thousand years in order to interpret the message of the Great Buddha for mankind. And devoted Buddhists still prepare meals for him twice a day and leave them outside his tomb to sustain him. Enough to get the kids intrigued enough to visit. We arrived late in the day as te sun was setting and took an atmospheric and spooky walk around the enormous cemetery, where the kids managed to found quite a lot to do, as they explain in this next video.
A most rewarding summer, a most rewarding scheme
When we set off on our journey around Japan we had no idea how much a part of the experience our IHG hotel stays would become and how they would shape our experience. Being points millionaires made a huge difference to where we stayed, what we saw, how well we slept and how we captured the experience. As budget travellers, we are more normally found out of town, in the sticks but this year we were able to spend 15 out of our 30 nights in Japan in IHG properties, all in amazing city centre locations. This definitely made it easier to get around, see the sights and get a feel for Japanese city culture. It also enabled us to cope with the heat, and gave us somewhere comfortable to escape and relax in the evening. The rewards points also bought us the i-Pod with which all the videos in this post were made. It’s helped us create a wonderful record of our time in Japan and engaged the children in researching, shooting, editing and producing videos that document something of their experience of a month spent exploring this most contradictory, forward thinking, modern, traditional nation. So thanks IHG, without you this might not have been possible and we may never have got ourselves Hello Kitty eyes.
More Japanese Adventures
For more on our Japanese Adventures why not check out our Week in Haiku posts. While travelling around Japan we wrote a haiku every day, capturing something of the highlights of our daily travel experiences in verse together with a brief explanation and a picture. You can find the posts here:
Haiku Travel Diary: Adventures in Japan Week 1. In which we introduce you to purikura, lantern festivals, geisha tea parties and shrine etiquette.
Adventures in Japan: Haiku Journal Week 2. Poetic musings on hiking Japanese style, cat cafes, robot love, Tokyo gold and more.
Another Week in Haiku: Adventures in Japan 3. In which we get poetic about maglev trains, participatory dance festivals, the spirit world, pumpkins and atom bombs.
Yet Another Week in Haiku: Adventures in Japan 4. On bamboo groves, industrial incineration plants, car factories, ancient Buddhist cemeteries and more.
Disclosure Note: This post is brought to you in a collaboration with IHG Rewards Club who supported our visit to Japan through their Rewards Club Scheme. The experience, views, videos and opinions expressed remain, as ever, entirely our own.