I spend four blissful days in the Niseko-Hirafu region of Hokkaido. The area is well known for its excellent winter sports facilities. And indeed, the place really is lovely and I even manage to get some skiing done in truly excellent conditions. But alas, all good things must come to an end and so it’s time for me to start the long journey home. Today I will travel by train from Niseko to Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport and then from there with Japan Airlines to Haneda. The day after I will be flying on from Narita to Frankfurt with ANA and then eventually to Basel with Lufthansa on 1 January 2013 – my first flight in the new year!
From: Sapporo New Chitose Airport
To: Tokyo Haneda
Airlines: Japan Airlines
Cabin: First Class
Seat: 2H, aisle
Getting to the Airport
I leave the Kimamaya Hotel in Niseko at 10:15. The journey by taxi to the railway station at Kutchan takes roughly 10 minutes to complete. From Kutchan I catch the 11:00 local train to Otaru. The journey takes one hour and 19 minutes to complete and unfortunately it’s standing room only all the way to Otaru.
From Otaru I catch the rapid train that runs via the city of Sapporo to the airport. I have a reserved seat, but only until Sapporo. Between there and the airport there were already no more reserved seats to be had by the time I purchased my ticket in Kutchan. Fortunately, a lot of passengers leave the train at Sapporo and I quickly find a seat in one of the non-reserved carriages. The journey from the city to the airport is 36 minutes by rapid train.
I arrive at the airport at 13:46, just over three hours before my departure to Haneda. I have a booking in Business Class today. Check-in at the self-service machine won’t work because I didn’t book the ticket through Japan Airlines directly. So I head for one of the many counters marked ‘ticketing & check-in’.
I don’t read Japanese at all, but from one of the roll-up posters near the row of counters it looks as though I may upgrade to domestic First Class for as little as 8000 Yen. I ask at the counter and indeed the young lady confirms that seats are available for an upgrade to First for the afore mentioned amount. Excellent!
After all that I’m feeling peckish, it’s been a while since breakfast, so I head upstairs to the third floor again and treat myself to another Onigiri and a bowl of excellent Udon noodles with radish and ginger.
Here are a few shots I took from the observation deck by the food court.
The Japan Airlines Sakura Lounge
With that taken care of, it’s time to go downstairs again to the departures level and head through security. Passengers in First Class have their own dedicated security lane, which they share with JAL’s top tier frequent flyers. From security there is a direct access to the Sakura Lounge. Essentially it’s a Business Class lounge. However there is a separate room that is dedicated to First Class and Premier members. But it’s rather small and so I decide to stay in the general Business Class section of the lounge.
The lounge is moderately stocked, like most Japanese lounges, and includes another one of those soft drink dispenser machines.
Boarding for my flight starts at 16:50, 10 minutes before departure and I’m thinking this will never work. But I underestimate Japanese efficiency and team spirit and indeed, within 10 minutes Japan Airlines manages to board an entire B777-200 and make sure everybody is seated with their belongings stowed away properly.
Perhaps just to explain: if I’m not mistaken, in a normal domestic configuration Japan Airlines has a 3 – 3 – 3 seating arrangement in Economy and a 2 – 4 – 2 arrangement in Business Class. Apart from the slightly wider seat and marginally better pitch, service in Business Class is not really much different to Economy. In domestic First Class however, seating is in a 2 – 2 – 2 configuration with wide leather seats in cream coloured leather. The cabin looks well maintained. The interior design is perhaps more a question of personal gusto. Japan Airlines went with a style that I’m not too partial of personally. For some reason it reminds me a lot of the style you find in the States in many of the larger hotel chains.
Nonetheless, the seat is comfortable enough and certainly beats the Business Class alternative. On a side note, the controls of the seat work mechanically, rather than electrically.
The cabin crew up front consists of three females. One of them notices that I speak German and strikes up a conversation. Apparently she’s studying German at University to become a teacher. She says she’s spent two months in Tübingen in Germany and I am amazed by just how good her German is! After all, it’s not the easiest language to learn, with its complex system of declensions etc.
When I arrive at the seat, I find a menu has already been placed at my seat. As it turns out though, the menu is only available in Japanese. But the crew go out of their way to translate and explain to me what the individual items are. And even once the tray arrives, they repeatedly stop to ask if I’m okay with the Japanese food and if I’m enjoying my meal. I do actually!
There is also a little gift bag at my seat. Inside it is something wrapped in foil that goes by the name of ‘Bonbon Fromage’. There is also some sort of drink that turns into jelly when you shake it. Both sound absolutely revolting actually and I manage to resist the temptation of trying them out of curiosity.
Other than that, there are also earphones and a pair of slippers and even a blanket in every seat – all this for a flight of eighty minutes!
As we start to push back, one of the crew comes by distributing warm towels.
When the meal arrives I am really quite impressed by the variety and quality of the food. More importantly, it strikes me that the chopsticks Japan Airlines use up front are of much better quality than the ones I was given in First Class on Lufthansa, which looked as though they’d come straight from a cheap Chinese take away.
After the meal my tray is removed immediately and I am asked if I would like a tea or coffee. I ask for a coffee, which is brought to me straight away, just as the aircraft starts shaking violently with the turbulence. I end up spilling half the coffee before even having had the chance to have a sip. One of the flight attendant sees this and immediately whisks away my cup – only to bring me a fresh one with a paper doily on the saucer in case of further turbulence.
To end the meal there is another towel.
A short while later we start our descent into Haneda. By now it’s started raining heavily and the violent shaking increases. It’s so bad you can actually hear the wind outside over the sound of the engines. Fortunately as we start our final approach the wind dies down and we land in the middle of a severe downpour. Such weather is really quite unusual for this time of the year in the Tokyo area, and in the many years I’ve been coming here, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.
Once we’re at the gate I bid the crew good bye. The German student flight attendant thanks me for having been able to have a chat in German and wishes me a safe onward journey.
Getting into Town
From Haneda I catch the monorail to Hamamatsucho, the terminus station. From here I connect onto the Yamanote Line which takes me to Shinjuku where my hotel is. I like Shinjuku because it’s lively and the hotel is rather central. Shinjuku is also one of the stops at which the Narita Express stops, so I won’t have to wake up too early the next morning for my 12h00 departure to Frankfurt.
The Japanese transport system is excellent and truly integrates all sorts of transport vehicle! I think JAL has a very good product with its domestic First Class that certainly sets them apart from the competition. I’m just not quite sure how sound it is as a business proposition – but time will tell.
Niseko was, as I mentioned already, a lot of fun and the skiing there is really excellent. It’s also interesting to note that the place has a very international feel to it but still manages to retain its obviously very Japanese roots. I think I’ll end here with a few images from Niseko.