REVIEW: Japan Airlines First Class Chicago - Tokyo
Japan Airlines Flight 9 - Chicago O'Hare (ORD) to Tokyo Narita (NRT)
Boeing 777-300ER, First Class, Seat 2A
American Airlines recently went through a rather painful devaluation to their award chart, but this trip was planned back in the "good ole days" when first class award tickets were relatively inexpensive. My fiance (Zach) was graduating from the University of Chicago with his MBA and I wanted to celebrate with a big trip. After a bit of back and forth on potential destinations, he decided on a three stop trip to Southeast Asia - Siem Reap in Cambodia for a jaunt through Angkor Wat, a few days in Vientiane in Laos for an exploration along the Mekong, and ending everything in the tropical paradise of Bali, Indonesia. With the destinations selected my focus shifted entirely to securing our flight and hotels, which ended up being relatively easy to do.
Our first leg - Japan Airline first class from our home base in Chicago to my birth place - Tokyo, Japan!
Back a few years ago JL operated out of Terminal 5 at ORD, which is where most international carriers depart. With such large operations at ORD, both American and United have had some of their airline partners co-locate into their home terminals to create a more seamless outbound connection process. Japan Airlines is one of the few oneworld alliance carriers (along with AirBerlin and Iberia, Qatar launched service from AA's terminal but moved to T5 after a few months) that moved their flights to AA's T3.
A few hours before the flight JL sets up their check-in counters near American's international departure desks. Some of the folks working the check-in desk are Americans without bilingual abilities but there are a few Japanese-speaking staff as well. My mother actually used to work for JL at ORD providing translation services and working with premium cabin passengers, though she's since moved on to other things.
Check-in was fairly smooth except for the agent having some concerns about our lack of a return flight. Due to our three country itinerary I ended up booking our flights as two reservations, so she only saw us arriving into Kuala Lumpur on a one way ticket. Once we produced our itineraries showing that we were leaving within the allowable visitation time for Americans in Malaysia, we were issued our tickets and our luggage was checked in without any further delay.
For our cabin baggage, the agent pulled out tags that she tied to each bag that noted we were first class passengers and even wrote our seat numbers by hand on each one. I've flown in JL's economy and business cabin multiple times and never had my cabin baggage tagged, so I think this is unique for first class.
Once we had our luggage tagged the agent walked out from behind the desk and escorted us through the security line. American has a Flagship Check-In facility that has passengers exit check-in at the front of the premium passenger security line but Japan Airlines passengers are not able to access it, hence the escort. We were brought to the expedited security line and moved through in less than five minutes. Once we were on the other side the agent asked if we knew where the lounge was located and when I affirmed that I did and didn't need to be taken there, she bid us a good flight and let us know she would see us at the gate. If I hadn't known, she would have walked us there of course.
JL uses AA's lounges for passengers on their flights out of ORD - the Admirals Club for business and the Flagship Lounge for first class. We hustled our way down to the Flagship lounge, which was convenient as the JL flight departs from the gate next door. American's Flagship lounge is a nice place to relax but overall pretty underwhelming as a first class lounge when compared to the offerings of other airlines across the globe. Which is why I'm not going to elaborate on our time there - it was all rather blasé and there are literally hundreds of reviews of this mediocre space available online.
Since the Flagship and Admirals function as official lounge spaces for Japan Airlines (not just elite status access), the staff do make announcements for the JL flight and we were soon notified that boarding was starting for our trip to Tokyo. We gathered up our bags, with first class tags dangling, and made our way to the gate.
The tags seemed to work some magic as Japan Airlines staff identified us almost immediately and escorted us over to the side of the boarding lanes where we joined a few Japanese business men in suits waiting to board. After a short few minutes of waiting the agents started scanning our boarding passes and sending us down the jet bridge toward the plane. At the door we were greeted by two flight attendants at the door, one of which was the customer service manager. They bowed as we approached and upon taking our boarding passes in hand escorted my partner and I to our seats - 2A & 2D. 2A was my seat, against the window. 2D was Zach's seat, an interior seat with aisle access.
The Japan Airlines first class cabin is only two rows of four seats each. Seat assignments can be made online, though JL does block seats 1A & 1K for passenger who have paid for their ticket with cash. If no one has selected those seats by check-in time, the agents can assign you to those seats, no problem.
The Japan Airlines first class cabin are open suites, meaning that there is a shell around the seat but it does not come with the ability to close a door and enclose itself like products on other carriers like Singapore Airlines, Etihad, or JL's rival and main competitor - All Nippon Airways. Interestingly my fiance and I will be taking ANA's flight out of ORD to Tokyo when we leave on our honeymoon. Despite not being quite as private and enclosed as other offerings, I really like JL's first class seat. The shells are a light beige while the seats themselves are a dark chocolate brown leather. The table and storage spaces along the seat were a reddish faux wood.
The seat itself is quite comfortable and wide. A full-size memory foam pillow was already placed on it. Like many first class seats, a separate foot rest was attached to the seat's shell with its own seat belt as it doubled as a seat for a dining companion. If you hit turbulence, your dining companion simply straps the seat belt on and you continue dining like happy clams, safe and snug.
I looked over at Zach and saw that he was settling into his seat quite happily. He doesn't get to travel as often as I do and when he does it's usually in economy, so this first class adventure was going to be a nice trip for him. His only other premium cabin experience prior to this was flying with me from ORD to Delhi, India on American's old angled lie-flat business class.
Leg room is clearly not an issue in these seats. Even if you're well over 6 feet tall you have ample room to stretch out. The seat itself is fully mobile, with two separate control panels to adjust the seat's features. On one panel you can press buttons to convert the seat into pre-selected positions labeled upright (landing), relax (lounging), and bed (fully flat).
The second panel featured a diagram of the seat with directional buttons allowing you to adjust the seat to your own personal preference, just in case the pre-set options were not to your liking.
Pretty much the entire side panel between the seat and the window/wall was designated as storage space, either for your personal items or for controllers for the in-flight entertainment (IFE). Within hand's reach was a small compartment with a touchscreen controller and a little bit of space available to store something small. Closer to the shoulder area was a larger compartment for storage with another controller inside. It was much deeper than the other compartment, containing netting to keep looser items from shifting about.
Next to the television screen was another small storage area. A small button on the front of the raised section popped open a drawer by the table. Next to the compartment was a small storage area which had a plastic wrapped pair of slippers placed inside of it.
On the left hand side of the seat's shell was a small reading light with a Bose headset hanging from it. This was a nice touch as many airlines offer headsets to premium cabin passengers but most are not as high quality as Bose. On the right hand side of the seat's shell was another reading light. Both lights were strength-controlled so that you could intensify or lessen the amount of illumination provided.
Overall, I'm a big fan of JL's first class seat. As I mentioned before, even though it's not fully enclosed the seat itself is quite spacious and comfortable. It does a really great job of making storage space available to the passenger, which is something I think is often overlooked. Sure, there's storage space on other carriers, but it isn't really placed in convenient and thoughtful ways. The color scheme of chocolate leather, bright wood, and red carpet works well and has a hint of elegance. The seat itself is more than comfortable with nice padding and contouring.
Having taken full stock of our seats and settled in a bit, a flight attendant approached us to offer a choice of pre-departure beverage. Glasses of champagne, water, and orange juice were presented to us on a tray. Zach selected the champagne and being a non-drinker I went with the orange juice.
As we sipped on our drinks the cabin began to fill up with passengers and it appeared we'd have a full house in first class on our flight to NRT today - the two of us and six Japanese business men. FAs flitted about the cabin with smiles on their faces helping to put away suit coats. As we had no suit coats the FAs brought us some blankets.
Another FA swung by as we were settling the blankets into storage and offered us our choice of pajamas for the flight. JL's first class offering includes soft, cotton pants and shirts for passengers. The pants include pockets and the shirts have a zipper on the collar that allows you to open it to the top of your chest, which can come in handy as Japan Airlines (and most other Asian airlines) keep cabin temperatures higher than on US carriers. JL's iconic tsurumaru logo sits on the left breast.
Soon enough the plane fully loaded and the doors were closed. A full boat as noted before in first class, and from what I could tell it was a similar situation in business and economy class. As we taxied out to our runway the FAs made their way up and down the aisles collecting glasses and answering questions from the businessmen, whom seemed to be quite needy compared to Zach and I. I almost felt bad for the crew as it seemed they wouldn't be able to get everything done before take off with someone stopping them ever two steps.
Unlike some other major US airports, ORD rarely has much of a wait for take off and that day was no exception. We took off heading west and north, aiming toward Alaska before we'd arch down over Russia's Asian frontier and into Japan. The journey would take us over 12 hours though, so let's head back to the service inside the plane.
As is my standard after take off, I started to play around with the seat and entertainment features. The table for the seat isn't hidden away like many other seats, it hovers above the foot rest area. As you can see in the above picture, the table is movable by releasing a grip on the front right side. It runs on a track along the length of the seat, so the passenger can move the table to their preferred distance. Unlike many other seats which have fixed locations and distances from the passenger, this table is flexible and adjustable. The trade off is that the table does float out in the open when not in use, however, it's quite far from you when seated and the space between the foot rest and the table is quite large so I actually didn't find this to be a "downside" at all.
Japan Airlines provides quite a bit of handheld reading material for passengers. From left to right in the picture above - JAL Shop (duty free shopping), Skyward (JL's in-flight magazine), JAL Mooove (in-flight entertainment guide), Safety guide, JL's in-flight wifi guide, and an air sickness bag.
Once we reached cruising altitude, the FAs came by to drop off an oshibori - a hot towel. While many airlines offer hot towels prior to meal service, the Japanese traditionally receive hot towels at restaurants before meals and thus have a specific name for the offering.
The FAs also dropped off the menus for today's flight, which I will now post in photos below. Let's start with the beverage list:
Wonderfully detailed menu that was largely wasted on me because I'm a non-drinker. The last two pages were all I needed. Actually, I really didn't even need that because any time I'm on Japan Airlines I'm pretty much only drinking one of two things - JL's original yuzu juice beverage (Sky Time) or if I'm lucky enough to be in first class, I'm drinking Royal Blue Tea's "Queen of Blue".
Queen of Blue is a unique tea that's created in small batches from hand-picked leaves only harvested in the summer. While it's not as expensive as the Salon champagne on offer, the tea is fancy enough to be bottled and served in wine glasses. It retails for about $40 USD per bottle at the lowest level of quality. As a fan of tea, I can tell you I'm a believer in this product. I could do without the wine bottle and fancy pouring but the flavor is definitely one I enjoy. I've tried to purchase it online for home consumption but sadly they don't seem to ship outside of Japan, Singapore, or Taiwan.
Sky Time is JL's signature yuzu-flavored juice. Yuzu is a citrus fruit popular in East Asia. It's light, freshing, and in typical Japanese fashion the juice is not overloaded with sugar. It's my go-to drink when I'm not in first class on Japan Airlines.
I decided to start my meal with a glass of Sky Time, which the FA brought to me along with a small plate of hors d'oeuvres. The plate consisted of puff pastry with cream cheese and chive, stuffed endive, marinated olive and tomato, and a slice of grilled eggplant with a cherry tomato. A good start to the flight!
Now to select my meal......
Japan Airlines has a set menu for the first meal on a long haul flight but after that all meal service in business and first class is a la carte. This means that after your first meal, anything else you want to eat you simply request off the menu throughout the flight. In business class, you can order food through the in-flight entertainment system. In first class, the FAs make themselves available quite readily so you simply stop one in the aisle and let them know what you'd like. I actually like this service style as it allows you to dine at your leisure and skip a meal easily if you want to sleep at the end of the flight.
The main meal came in two tracks - Japanese or Western. While the western menu looked appetizing, on a Japanese airline the Japanese meal is where it's at. Bring me the kaiseki!
For the unfamiliar, a kaiseki meal is a traditional Japanese multi-course dining experience that utilizes traditional cooking techniques. Generally it's quite beautifully presented with a heavy focus on seasonal foods.
After placing my order the FA stopped by with a few more plates of appetizers. Some Japanese crackers (senbei) as well as a colorful dish with three small bites of vinegared seafood and mushrooms. These were a nice transition from the previous appetizer, directing the palette away from the US and toward Japan.
The first course was the zatsuki, a small dish with shrimp, scallop, and yam with a miso sauce.
Kaiseki meals feature many small dishes, so almost everything you get is nothing more than one or two bites at most. Which is fine, because it's beautifully presented and sublimely flavored.
I finally polished off my glass of Sky Time and noticed that even the tiny glasses for non-alcoholic beverages and water are etched with JL's name. I switched my drink over to the Queen of Blue tea, a much better fit to the complex, high-brow meal coming my way.
Now it was time for a few more dishes from the FA - the kobachi, tsubo, shiizakana, and mukouzuke portions listed on the menu. They were served together as they were packed in a beautiful lacquered box with a sheet of gold and green paper wrapped around it all tied off with a golden string. Placed on a black tray with a pair of chopsticks on a stone holder and a small dish of soy sauce, it struck a memorable pose.
It was a bit of a process removing the string and the paper, but that just helped the anticipation build! Once unbound the box unfolded into two trays of food.
From left to right on the top box: simmered spring vegetables, soybean milk tofu with sea urchin & soy sauce, and simmered beef with potato sauce. From left to right on the bottom box: wakame seaweed with young sardines and grated radish, squid sushi with mashed potato, a duck roll with welsh onion, and simmered Greenland halibut, and finally a white meat fish served sashimi-style.
The small size of the dishes start to make sense when you realize just how many you're going to get. I happily picked around at the offering for a good 10-15 minutes. Quite a few amazingly nuanced flavors going on in this little wooden box, while there were admittedly a few duds in my opinion. Everything can't be a winner with so many choices! Stand outs for me included the soybean milk tofu and the duck roll.
The FA noticed I had stopped picking at my offerings and asked if she might take the tray away and bring out the next selection of offerings. It was hard to believe there was still more to come but I wasn't full just yet. Bring on the food!
A few minutes later I was presented with the dainomono, hanmono, and soup courses. While much of the kaiseki meal consists of small plates, the dainomono course serves almost like an entree - a slightly more substantial portion than the other dishes.
The dainomono was a miso-grilled filet of sablefish and grilled beef filets. Both were quite tender and flavorful. The slices of mushroom were a nice addition. The soup was a bit mild, though I wouldn't go so far as to say bland. The shrimp "mousse" added a nice bit of texture and ended up being what I felt made the dish worthwhile. Rice was offered in two varieties - plain or steamed with chicken and burdock root. I'm an old school Japanese guy so it's always plain rice for me with just about everything. Even my Panda Express orders are with white rice, which I will deny ever eating. Forget I even mentioned it!
For dessert I skipped the wagashi course of the kaiseki meal and instead asked for the offering from the western menu, an orange curacao cake. It was dusted with coffee powder and accentuated with vanilla ice cream, strawberry sauce, and fresh strawberries. A great end to an excellent meal!
The friendly FAs cleared my dishes and asked me if I wanted any hot tea or coffee. I'm generally a tea kind of guy but for some reason coffee sounded excellent. It's served in a cute cup with a high handle. I love that they serve the cream and sugar on the side instead of adding it for you.
With the meal service over, the FAs made their way up and down the aisles handing out bottles of water and the amenity kits. Normally amenity kits are passed out to passengers prior to take off, but not so in Japan Airlines first class. First class amenities for men included a cloth bag stuffed with goodies from Spanish luxury brand Loewe, a case of men's cosmetic products from Japanese brand Shiseido, and a cotton Japan Airlines branded handkerchief that was made in the tsunami-impacted Tohoku region as a way to bring investment and industry back to the area.
The Shiseido kit included a revitalizing lotion, a hydration lotion (which was more of a liquid), and a cleansing foam.
The Loewe bag itself was really nice and actually would make for a nice catch-all bag when traveling if I wasn't such a freak about collecting airline memorabilia. Inside the kit was a variety of products including - paper, a moisture mask, a comb, eye mask, a dental kit (toothbrush and toothpaste), a packet of tissue, ear plugs (inside the black plastic egg), a small bottle of Loewe cologne, and a tube of lip balm from Parisian brand Institut Karite.
While I was busy digging through the amenity kits, Zach had already had his seat converted to a bed by one of the FAs and was sound asleep, moisture mask and eye shades on his face making him look like some Mad Max denizen. That's my guy, hands off folks! Of note though - Zach is 6'3", and as you can see fits rather comfortably into the bed. He has his legs up but that's just how he sleeps, he'd be able to stretch full out if needed.
I've reviewed JL's flights a few times in the past and have often lambasted their in-flight entertainment as one of their weakest elements. Things haven't changed over the years, nor does first class offer a better option for the IFE than business and economy like some airlines do. With this in mind, I decided my best bet was to join Zach and sleep for a bit. I asked the FA to make my seat into a bed while I stepped away to the lavatory near the front of the plane to change into my pajamas.
Our fellow first class passengers were on the same wave length as they had all also gone to bed already. The curtains were drawn separating the lighted areas by the lavatories from the passenger area, which already had its lights dimmed.
I stepped into the lavatory to change. The space provided wasn't really much more than you'd find in economy class on your standard plane, which is a bit of a let down. Still, being Japan Airlines, it was a very clean bathroom. Even though it was almost spotless, inside the lavatory was a platform which you could unhook from the wall and lower to the floor so you can change out of your clothes without putting your feet on the ground.
I quickly changed out of my clothes and into the pajamas. They'd work really well on a US-based airline but for an Asian carrier they're a bit too much as the cabins are generally warmer and this fabric isn't as breathable or airy as others I've seen. Despite the dental kit inside the amenity kits, packets of mouthwash and pre-packaged toothbrushes with paste were laid out for use.
The sink was motion-sensored which meant no need to touch anything when you're done washing your hands. You did need to touch the handle to note how hot you wanted the water to be, but that happens prior to washing. Paper towels were replaced with thinner, cotton towels.
The toilet itself is also quite nice, as it featured the much lauded, and often misunderstood Japanese bidet.
When I stepped out of the lavatory there was an FA waiting with a handful of clothing hangers who then proceeded to take my pants and shirt. She let me know that when I was ready to change back into my clothes, just let them know and they'd bring them out for me. No wrinkles on this flight.
Near the lavatory was a small snacking area set up by the crew for when you get a little peckish. A variety of small bites were laid out for passengers to pick up and take back to their seats.
Snacks for passengers included dried shrimp (with heads attached!), a variety of dried vegetables, and some high end chocolates. A bottle of wine and some hard liquor were on offer as well.
Of course the FAs had set up my seat for my slumber in this time. A duvet is laid down to compliment the blanket provided earlier. The memory foam pillow remains. A pad is laid down on the seat to make a more seamless surface, no seat bumps and creases to fall into. The pad has a firm or a soft side and the FA asks which side you prefer prior to setting up the bed.
I laid down and was able to get a good 5 hours of sleep on my first go. Very comfortably I would add, as the pad really smoothed out the normally bumpy surface. With 5 hours under my belt I ended up feeling a little peckish and stopped an FA to put in an order for a little snack.
I suppose peckish was a bit of an understatement, as I ordered quite a bit. The FA brought a oshibori along with a ginger ale for me. A few minutes later she brought me a bowl of the potage St. Germain, which is just a fancy way of saying pea soup.
The soup itself was very good, almost creamy. The croutons were nice and crunchy, and I have to admit the soup spoon presentation in the grey napkin with a ribbon was cute. Plates cleared, and on to the healthy ramen.
JL's ramen on this flight was co-branded with a famous Japanese ramen chain - Kyushu Jangara. Quite famous for providing delicious noodles, I ordered them to see what the fuss was about. The co-branding itelf wasn't very odd as Japan Ailrines has a long history of partnering with popular food brands for in-flight meals. For example, JL often partners with American chicken company KFC during the holidays and offers passengers in economy class KFC meals. Many folks outside of Japan find this very puzzling because they don't realize that eating fried chicken, specifically KFC, is a Japanese holiday tradition dating back to the mid-1970s.
The ramen was labeled as "healthy" and I think that was due to the dish being vegetarian. The broth, noodles, and all the additional bits were made from vegetables only. At first I thought there was some mistake as it appeared there were pieces of grilled pork on top of the noodles, but turns out these were seitan. I thought the ramen was actually pretty good, the noodles were especially springy and chewy due to use of vegetable matter to make the dough.
I finished off the snack, now more of a meal, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a wafer. Yum!
I didn't find that I was very tired after eating and instead of going back to bed I ended up staying up and reading my Kindle for pretty much the remainder of the flight. This would end up biting me in the ass later when we got to Tokyo and I ended up being too tired to go out and have dinner at a local izakaya with Zach and his friend from college. Oh well.
As we started to reach the end of Russian air space and move over the northernmost of the Japanese islands, lights were turned on and the passengers started to stir about the cabin. As mentioned before, all dining after the first meal service is a la carte so the FAs made their way through the cabin reminding the passengers that if they wanted to have anything before landing at NRT, now was the last time they could order as no meals were served or prepared within an hour and thirty minutes of landing. Last call, kitchen closing!
Zach was awake and fully rested for a day in Tokyo. I very much was starting to feel tired but it was too late to start considering a nap. Noting how I hadn't slept much and was starting to feel tired, Zach chastised me while looking like an adorable overgrown toddler.
After the big snack earlier I wasn't too hungry, but when I calculated the time between arriving in NRT, going through immigration and customs, taking our train into the city, and then finding food, I decided I might want to get a little something into my stomach. I quickly glanced over the menu and settled on the Tokyo Curry Lab vegetable keema curry, another example of catering partnerships with popular brands.
Japan Airlines is semi-famous in the travel community for the beef curry they serve in their premium lounges, a curry which I have eaten on more than twenty occasions by my last count. As a curry connoisseur, and an eater of Japanese curry specifically for about 35 years now, I can tell you the beef curry in the lounge is pretty solid. The Tokyo Curry Lab offering was just as good, though lacking the meaty beef cubes which feature so well in the lounge variety.
Japanese curry focuses much less on being hot and more so on being spiced and flavorful. It was a good portion size to hold me over for a few hours.
My plates were cleared and I got up to change back into my normal clothes. The FAs managed to convert my bed back into a seat while I was up changing, all while handling the meal service for the other passengers flawlessly. That's one thing you can almost always count on with JL's FAs - professional, efficient service.
Before I knew it we were descending into NRT, no wait or circling this time around. Landing was smooth and we taxied to the gate which was pretty close to the customs and immigration set up at the airport. The end of a lovely flight with Japan Airlines.
This was not my first and was not my last flight with Japan Airlines in first class, though it is the first time I've written about it. It's an excellent product for people looking to get from the US to destinations in Asia in style and comfort. Food offerings are almost always excellent to good, with the service provided by the FAs being of a very high level of quality. The seat's comfort is great, with lots of space for your body as well as personal items.
It's not all rainbows and sunshine however. If you're looking for a more friendly, casual style of service this might not be the cabin for you. While this isn't always true, JL's FAs tend to be focused on a more formal style of service than many may be used to receiving from other carriers. A little less small talk, a little more bowing. Also, despite being a global carrier and English being the generally-accepted language of the travel industry, the FAs can at times struggle when working with non-Japanese speakers. This doesn't impact the quality of the service but it can make communication in some situations difficult. Keep these things in mind.
That being said, I'm still a big fan of JL's F cabin. It's definitely in my Top 5 premium cabins I've ever flown. If you're thinking of flying with Japan Airlines or have an opportunity to in the future, I highly recommend you consider doing so!