For the second meal I decide to go with the onion and chicken curry with rice. For dessert I have a plate of fresh fruit.
I spend the rest of the flight looking out the window and admiring that lovely wing and engine. I think I’m in love…!
About 50 minutes out of London the captain comes on the blower to inform us that it’s quite windy in London and that we should expect quite some turbulence on the approach. He also says that we should be arriving in Heathrow at about 15h03. I’m a bit skeptical about this, mainly because by the time we make landfall somewhere over the Thames estuary, we’re still cruising at 25’000 feet. And indeed, eventually we end up doing three or four loops in a holding pattern over London City before we’re finally cleared for the approach.
Whilst in the holding we even end up flying in formation with a British Airways A 321, a Germanwings A 319 and a PIA B 777-200. It’s quite impressive to watch really. Especially the British Airways A 321 seems so near.
My first decent air to air picture…
While we hold the cabin crew pass through the cabin offering cold green tea.
When eventually we are cleared to land, we’re treated to a beautiful approach, right over the West End, with Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace clearly visible.
Transfer in London Heathrow
JAL uses Terminal 3 in London Heathrow. Evidently British Airways have dramatically scaled back their operation over the Christmas and New Year period. My flight from Tokyo arrives in Heathrow at 15:30. Even so there are no more connections to Amsterdam today. So I shall be spending the night at the Heathrow Sofitel, which is connected to Terminal 5 via a footbridge. To access the footbridge walk to the north end of the terminal and take the last exit, where there is a lift taking you up to bridge level.
The most convenient way to transfer landside between terminals in Heathrow is to use the Heathrow Express, which is free for transferring passengers. The trains are sufficiently frequent and the journey between Heathrow Central and Heathrow Terminal 5 only takes about five minutes to complete.
You can also transfer airside between Terminals 3 and 5 by using the complimentary shuttle bus, even if you’re planning to exit in Terminal 5. This is the easier option because you won’t have to walk so far. The shuttle will drop you off at arrivals in Terminal 5. From there you can either head one floor up to security and departures beyond, or you can simply queue up for immigration on the arrivals level.
All this doesn’t work in the opposite direction though.
In Tokyo I spend my last night in Japan at the Century Southern Tower Hotel in Shinjuku, which is in walking distance of the railway station and actually overlooks the railway tracks.
Shinjuku is a convenient location because it is one of the few stations in central Tokyo with a direct Narita Express service to the airport (the other stations are Tokyo Station, Shibuya and Shinagawa). Trains from Shinjuku are, however, less frequent than they are from Tokyo Station. The journey from Shinjuku to Narita takes approximately one hour and 25 minutes and costs 3110 Yen, including a seat reservation. There are also standing tickets available for when the Narita Express is fully booked, which cost 510 Yen less. Note though, that even if the train leaves with empty seats after all, holders of a standing ticket may not avail themselves of the empty seats. And the staff actually enforce this policy.
The booking for this flight was made through the British Airways website, the flight was booked as a code-share service with a BA flight number. Subsequently I receive a notification on my BA app once check-in opens 23 hours prior to departure. All things considered though, this is rather pointless. Being only a BA code-share flight operated by JAL, I cannot check-in with my iPhone. Fortunately, I figured this might happen and made a quick phone call to BA once the ticket had been issued to select a seat.
JAL and their Oneworld partners call Narita’s Terminal 2 home. The check-in counters for JAL Business Class are on row K.
Oneworld status card holders may also check-in at the JAL Global Club counters on row L. The queue there is shorter…
There is a dedicated Fast Track for Business Class passengers.
The Japan Airlines Sakura Lounge
The southern JAL Sakura lounge is situated near gate 61 and spreads over two floors. Access to the lounge is on the upper level. This is also where JAL has a ‘dining bar’ with restaurant style seating that serves hot and cold dishes. The lounging area is one floor down.
The lower floor is spacious, with comfortable seats and some really excellent views of the ramp and traffic arriving on runway 34 Right.
By the way, since my last visit to Tokyo in August the monorail connecting the main terminal with the satellite has been replaced with a covered moving walkway.
As far as food and drinks are concerned though, all you get on the lower level are Japanese crackers, sweet biscuits and drinks.
All in all it’s a nice lounge, but strangely it has the feel and vibe of a hotel lobby…
Boarding is scheduled to start at 11:15 for the 11:45 departure. But there appears to be some hold up today while they finish preparing the cabin, so the gate agent makes an announcement to apologize for the ensuing delay.
Eventually, at 11:18 – I check the time – boarding begins with a staggering, unforgivable delay of three minutes. As one of the gate agents makes his announcement that boarding has commenced, the others (yes, there is a total of four agents processing this flight) bow politely.
We push back more or less on time. Once the tug has been disconnected and the gear pin removed, the three ground staff who pushed us back give us a nice send off – first the bow and then the wave. It’ just so sophisticated.
There’s quite a queue for departure today, but it moves quickly and once the Thai Airbus A340-600 ahead of us has finally, miraculously managed to get off the ground, it’s our turn.
The main Business Class cabin on the JAL Boeing B 777-300ER is located right behind the L2 door. There is a further, single row of Business Class located forward of the L2 door, right behind the First Class cabin. The total number of seats in Business Class is 49 on this bird, with seven seats in the forward cabin and 42 in the main cabin.
The seat is very comfortable and spacious. JAL has obviously also put a lot of effort into making the seat as private as possible:
The partitions between seats are quite high. In fact, if you’re sitting by the window you are barely visible from the aisle.
There is a divider between seats as well. Although to be honest I’m not quite sure about the etiquette and protocol regarding this matter. Do I just raise the divider? Should I ask the lady on the aisle seat first? Should I wait for her to make the first move? Fortunately, the lady on the aisle seat is Japanese, so I figure any affront committed on my part could easily be put down to a cultural misunderstanding. So I push the divider to raise the divider, to which the lady nods and says ‘origato’, thank you.
The seats are also slightly staggered.
One thing worth noting is that there is slightly less storage space on the window seats. All the other seats have a small alcove in the side of the seat in which to place small items like a book or a Mac Book Air during the flight. However, this is not the case on the window seats. Personally though, this is just a minor issue. The seat’s strong selling points really are the privacy and direct access to the aisle for every passenger.
To navigate your way through the IFE, there is a remote control with a large touch screen, which also functions as a track pad to move the arrow around the big screen. Tapping once on the respective icon selects the medium of choice. Theoretically you can also use the remote control to order food throughout the flight, once the main meal service has been completed. On both the outbound and the inbound though, this feature was inoperative.
The selection of films is somewhat limited and dated (The Devil Wears Prada, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory – need I say more?).
JAL provides every passenger with a thin duvet style blanket and a Tempur pillow, which adjusts to the shape of the head to support the neck. It’s an extremely comfortable pillow. There is also a futon available for every passenger. Slippers are also provided.
JAL does not provide vanity kits in Business Class. But the crew pass through the cabin with a selection of eye shades, ear plugs, dental kits and facial masks during the flight.
A peculiarity of Japanese carriers is the provision of cardigans in Business Class, which are normally distributed before departure. JAL will even allow you to keep the cardigan, whereas ANA actually asks for it back at the end of the flight. In case you were wondering, last year I ‘accidentally’ forgot to give my ANA cardigan back at the end of the flight. Once I got home and realised the mistake, I figured I might as well keep it and give it a good wash before using it again. If you chance to end up with an ANA cardigan too, whatever you do, just don’t wash it! By the time I took it out of the washing machine I think it would probably have been a tight fit even for a four-year old kid with a tremendously slender build! I have yet to experimented with the behaviour of the JAL cardigan in warm water.
No drinks are served while the aircraft is on the ground. The welcome drink – orange juice or champagne – is served after take-off. This strikes me a bit odd, as shortly after the welcome drinks service, the meal service begins with an amuse bouche and a further drinks service.
I go for the plum wine.
There is a choice between a Japanese meal and a Western menu with two choices for the main course. Perhaps just a word of warning at this point: the Japanese food we get on flights to Japan originating in Europe is not quite the same as the Japanese food loaded on flight from Japan back to Europe. The European variety of Japanese is a bit less hardcore, shall we say. Furthermore, Japan Airlines’ take on Western cuisine places the emphasis on using delicacies with a decidedly French flavour. So all things considered, you may end up – like me on today’s flight – in a bit of a quandary. The idea of steamed anglerfish liver, more cod roe or more sashimi – all of which are part of the Japanese meal – isn’t that appealing to me.
Similarly, I’ve never been very fond of foie gras or duck confit – which are on the Western menu – either. Fortunately, JAL has an extensive selection of other meals on offer that you can order throughout the flight, once the main meal service is over, so as not to cause too much of a disruption.
And this is what I do on today’s flight. I just want something simple, so I go for the pasta in tomato sauce and a selection of Japanese cheese with bread. Both dishes are very tasty and hit the spot nicely.
For dessert I have a delectable creation which is advertised on the menu as ‘Espuma of Coffee & Jean-Paul Hévin’s Macaron Miel‘in. And this really is absolutely divine! Essentially it’s a coffee flan with a base of crunchy biscuit and nuts. Inside the flan are hollow balls of chocolate filled with liquid coffee. On top of the flan is the macaron, which is filled with honey that oozes all over the place the moment you take a bite. And on top of the macaron is a thin sheet of chocolate. Heaven!
I leave it here for the time being. I’m posting this just under three hours out of London. I shall upload the rest and finish this report after we land.
I awake again just under two hours out of Tokyo to this magnificent view.
The Second Service
For the second service there is either a Japanese meal or a western meal. However, passengers also have the possibility to choose from a large selection of other dishes that they can put together individually. I decide to go with the JAL trademark Tokyo Curry Lab vegetable curry and a plate fruit. The curry is delicious and the fruit have remained surprisingly juicy. I finish off the meal with a cup of coffee. Coffee incidentally, is something JAL do really well.
We’ve now left the mainland behind us. As I write we’re crossing the sea towards Japan, only one hour left to go. I think I’ll leave it here for this post, which I’m also delivering from on board the flight.
Expect the next installment shortly, but not from Tokyo.
Let me take you briefly, if I may, on a trip down memory lane. In December of 2002 I travelled to Japan for the very first time. I flew in Swiss International Air Lines Business Class on the mighty MD-11. The company had only just started operations earlier that same year in the wake of Swissair’s collapse; and even though Swiss International Air Lines promised and hoped to be an entirely different animal, traces of its predecessor remained. There was the aircraft’s livery for one – a somewhat slipshod and cheap affair that served its purpose rather badly. In fact the only thing that belied the aircraft’s previous operator was a decal with ‘SWISS’ titles which had been hurriedly plastered over those of the airline that lay in ruins by then, and which had a tendency to come undone after only a few flights.
And then there was also the cabin and the table linen, which still proudly bore the logo of what had once been the ‘world’s most refreshing airline’.
You cannot step in the same river twice – I know. But for reasons I have never been fully able to understand myself, I have kept returning to Japan ever since that first visit. My yearly trip at the end of the year to the Land of the Rising Sun has become something of a ritual that needs to be adhered to meticulously, almost religiously.
And so I bring to a trip report covering my sixteenth journey to Japan.
Airline: Japan Airlines Aircraft: Boeing B 777-300ER Cabin: Business Class Seat: 9K, window From: London Heathrow’s T5 To: Tokyo’s Narita Date: 27 December 2013 Departure: 19:00 Arrival: 16:00
Transfer in London Heathrow
The shuttle bus for Terminal 3 is just arriving as I get off the escalators. It’s not very full. The journey time from Terminal 5 to Terminal 3 is indicated as 10 minutes. But that’s about as far as my luck goes. I get off the bus at T3 and head upstairs for security. Now I’m standing in the queue behind some guy transferring from an Air Canada flight, apparently. Some people really should not be allowed to travel, honestly. It takes him an eternity to get his act together and finally place all his necessary items on the conveyor belt for the x-ray machine. Why on earth put your hair gel in one bag and your toothpaste in another in a different piece of luggage?
The Cathay Pacific Lounge
In Terminal 3 I have two lounges to choose from. Three actually, but one is the American Airlines lounge but from what I’ve heard that must be such a sad place that I don’t think I’ll even bother. Which leaves me, of course, with the British Airways lounge and the Cathay Pacific. I decide to give the latter a try.
Cathay Pacific has quite an operation here in London, with five daily departures to Hong Kong. Consequently, the lounge is rather large and also quite busy when I arrive. But about an hour later there are two flights to Hong Kong leaving in close succession and the place empties nearly completely.
This here is the noodle bar…
…where you can get one of these:
But they also have…
With forty minutes left until departure, I venture out of the lounge and head for gate 5, from where my flight will be boarding this evening. Unfortunately it’s already dark by this time, so I only manage to grab a photo of the vertical stabiliser.
Boarding begins with an invitation for First and Business Class passengers and passengers with kids. The load on tonight’s flight is quite light and boarding is soon completed. In Business Class it would appear that every passenger has a window seat.
The JAL Business Class seat is really fantastic. Not only does it offer a tremendous level of privacy, comfort and space, but with the staggered seating every passenger has direct access to the aisle, without having to endure the indignity of having to climb over his fellow passenger on the aisle.
There is also internet access available for 21 US Dollars for 24 hours, which really isn’t bad.
A pillow, blanket, earphones and slippers have already been placed at my seat. Like ANA, JAL does not offer amenity kits. Shortly before departure though, one of the flight attendants comes by with a basket full of goodies. I take the eye shades, earplugs and a toothbrush. All you need for a few hours sleep on a plane.
Departure is to the west and very powerful. As we climb out and the lights of the grand old city of London slowly vanish below, I can’t help but be amazed by the sheer size and power of those engines. To be honest I think I find it quite arousing…
The service is typically Japanese. There are also two westerners working in the Business Class cabin, an English male and a female of eastern European descent who speaks excellent English – just with a bit of an accent. Both are very friendly and obliging and go out of their way to make passengers feel comfortable. I also notice that they both appear to be fluent in Japanese.
No drinks are served while the aircraft is on the ground in Heathrow. However, once we’re airborne and the crew is released, service begins with the distribution of hot towels and a welcome drink, with a choice of either orange juice or champagne.
The meal service begins with an aperitif. I have a sherry which is served with a small bowl of warm nuts and dried berries.
Then comes the amuse bouche which is a shrimp dumpling with boiled turnip and Japanese dressing.
I decide to have the Japanese meal to get me in the right holiday spirit. The first course is a selection of nine Japanese seasonal dishes. The presentation of the food is simply amazing.
The First Course
I have, starting from top left to bottom right:
Vegetables in Japanese jelly with a sesame vinegar sauce.
Salt-steamed sea-bream with seaweed sauce.
Olive flounder sashimi.
Simmered salmon with Japanese pepper and simmered burdock.
Simmered butterfish with radish.
Lobster with sea urchin, soy sauce and miso marinated mozzarella.
Grilled sablefish with egg cake and mashed yam ball.
Taro and yuba with glutinous rice sauce.
Savoury steamed egg custard with crab meat and prawn.
The Main Course
For the main dish I have the stewed pork in soybean milk sauce, which is served with gohan (rice), Japanese pickles and miso soup.
I give the black forest mousse a miss and finish the meal with a cup of coffee and some excellent, rich cookies and chocolates.
Now let’s just see if I can upload the pictures and post this first part of the report, from 39’000 feet…
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 Aircraft: B777-200 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.