The main focus of this trip is a Japan Airlines flight from Osaka Kansai to London Heathrow, but I have taken the liberty of including the rail portion of the trip as a precursor to the flight, mainly because it is such an integral part of any air trip in Japan and also because it is kind of interesting. I have never written a trip report before, so apologies in advance for any shortcomings.
17 July 2002
Hamamatsu City – Kyoto City via Kodama Shinkansen
Kodama 493 – Originating Shizuoka City, Bound for Shin-Osaka Station
Car 8, Seat 8D.
As my JAL flight was due to depart from Osaka Kansai at 11:55, I found myself climbing out of bed at 05:30 in order to get ready to be onboard the 06:30 Shinkansen, downline towards Osaka. As a brief aside, the Shinkansen is the famed Japanese “Bullet Train”, running pretty much the length of Japan from Hakata in the south (on Kyushu) to Aomori in the north (northern Honshu Island). For those people not living in Tokyo, Osaka or Nagoya (perhaps Hiroshima as well), using the Shinkansen to get to an airport served by international flights is a necessity.
As Hamamatsu is notionally part of Kanto, the north-eastern plain surrounding Tokyo, there is more frequent service upline towards Tokyo than downline towards Osaka. As a result of the scarcity of trains going downline, I had to take the very first Kodama Express of the day, making for a longer trip. There are three types of Shinkansen, the Kodama, which stops at every Shinkansen station, the faster Hikari Express, which stops at only limited major stations enroute and finally, the Nozomi, which runs pretty much big city to big city with no stops. The time difference over a long trip can amount to as much as 45 minutes or an hour, and in my case, made for a long train trip on top of an already long day.
Anyway, I arrived at Hamamatsu station at 06:10, good and early for Kodama 493, stopping to buy an “eki-ben” lunch box on the way through the station. As I was travelling with baggage, I had purchased a reserved seat, fortunately in the “Green Car”, the first class car on the Shinkansen. The platform for the upline train to Tokyo was already crowded, with another Kodama service loading people, but the downline train was less crowded at this early hour. The day was already warming as I waited for the train to arrive and at about 06:25, people began to line up at the designated entry spots on the platform (the train always stops in exactly the same spot, allowing the car numbers to be painted on the platform and lines to be formed). The lines for the non-reserved cars were getting rather long now, but for reserved seats, there was almost no one. The train finally arrived and I said good-bye to my wife and got into Car 8, the only passenger there.
The train pulled away from Hamamatsu Station exactly on time and we proceeded southeast, stopping at all the following stations: Toyohashi, Mikawa-Anjo, Nagoya where one more business traveller boarded the train, and Gifu-Hashima, Maibara before arriving at Kyoto Station.
The train finally arrived at Kyoto Station at 08:07 and I grabbed my rollaway and carry-on and went to look for the Haruka Express platform. As any of you who have been there know, Kyoto Station is very large, especially since the recent renovation, so it took a few minutes to figure out where to go. Fortunately, I had 30 minutes to connect so I had the luxury of wandering the station a bit, making my way through the growing morning commuter crowds. Although I do speak and read Japanese, all major stations in Japan have Roman lettering, so I do not think it would be too difficult for foreign travellers to find their way around. I moved through the concourse, bought a Japan Times (the major English language newspaper in Japan) to read while I waited and made my way to Platform 33 to wait for Haruka Express 13 bound for Kansai International Airport.
Kyoto City – Kansai International Airport via JR West Haruka Express Train
Haruka 13 – Originating Kyoto bound for Kansai International Airport, Car 4, Seat 4D.
The Haruka Express is a special airport service run by JR West, originating in Kyoto, stopping in Shin-Osaka and Tennoji before continuing to the airport. It is a limited express, not as fast as the Shinkansen and using regular tracks (as opposed to the wider gauge Shinkansen tracks) but running at fairly high speed. Total travel time from Kyoto to Kansai was 75 minutes. As I sat and waited on the platform, a major rainstorm broke, cooling the muggy air. Japan was hit, unusually, by two early typhoons during the previous week and the massive rain was the remnants to Typhoon 7. Haruka Express 13 arrived at 08:20 and I walked the platform for a while before boarding. My fellow travellers began to gather, many families with children as school just got out for summer holidays in Japan, as well as some honeymooners and businessmen.
Haruka Express 13 pulled away exactly on time at 08:46, with about a 30% load factor, bound for Shin-Osaka. When we stopped at Osaka, the car filled up completely, this time with more families and foreigners as well, all bound for Kansai. We continued our snaking journey eastward out of Osaka and cleared the outskirts of the city quickly. Proceeding east under overcast skies, I soon began to wonder when we would make the right turn on to the bridge out to Kansai airport. All A-net readers are probably aware, but Kansai International Airport was built on a manmade island off Osaka, necessitating a massive rail and traffic bridge. About 15 minutes before scheduled arrival time, the train slowed, switched tracks and we suddenly turned right onto the bridge to the airport.
The Haruka Express struck me as much more poorly done than the comparable Narita Express in Tokyo, looking a little shabby inside and with English announcements read phonetically by train staff rather than recorded in “Western” English in Tokyo. I think that this would have made understanding details rather difficult for travellers who did not speak Japanese as the announcement was made in a heavy accent. Nonetheless, the train was on-time and reliable, so no major complaints.
Kansai International Airport – London Heathrow Airport via Japan Airlines Flight 421
Arriving at Kansai Airport station, I made sure I was one of the first off the train and set off up the escalators towards the international departure area. This necessitated a fairly long walk between terminals, allowing me the chance to both get some exercise and admire the futuristic architecture of the new airport. This airport has been both much lauded for its design and much reviled for the fact that it is now sinking into the ocean. Various reports have put the amount of subsidence under some of the terminal buildings to be as much as 18 feet (5 metres). While walking, I noticed that many of the floor tiles had cracked in a spider web pattern and wondered if this was due to subsidence.
I made my way into the departures terminal, up the escalator to the international departures area and towards the JAL economy class check in counter. After having my checked luggage inspected by security (prior to arriving at the counter itself), I had a wait of only 5 minutes before a counter opened. I asked the counter attendant if there was an emergency exit row seat available. As I was a little later than my usual check in time (it being about 10:30 by now, for an 11:55 flight), there was only one left, seat 51J. I took it, check in my rollaway bag and headed out of the check in area towards the pre-departure lounge.
My experience with airports in Japan is limited to Narita (Tokyo International), Haneda (Tokyo domestic) and Nagoya International and of course I could not resist making comparisons. My general impression was that despite being a new building and airport, Kansai was fairly dowdy and lacking amenities compared to Narita. I have always found Narita to be an easy place to kill time, with many stores and restaurants but at Kansai, this was not the case in the pre-departure area. The amenities consisted of a cheap restaurant, several foreign exchange points and a shop selling miscellaneous knick-knacks.
Being bored, I headed towards security to start my trip to the gate itself. I passed easily through security and then headed towards customs control. I have always found it slightly odd in Japan that the government feels compelled to keep track of people leaving the country, as well as entering it, but hey, if it works, I guess it’s fine. All it meant in my case was another 10 minute line and again, a lack of good English explanations. The line was full of foreigners, mostly Australians transiting through to Europe, all trying to figure out whether they needed “Foreign Disembarkation Cards” (and I do not think they did, as they did not enter Japan formally). Moving through the Customs control, my disembarkation card was taken and I entered the departure lounge area.
The first order of business was to find a quiet spot to sit and eat my lunch box, so I walked the length of the terminal area. The departure lounge again seemed rather small compared to Narita, with a few shops (mostly duty free) and a restaurant providing some basic amenities. I bought a couple of bottles of water for the flight and lunch, and sat down and ate my barbecued eel in peace. While eating, I noticed that one good feature of Kansai was the relatively prevalent internet kiosks, open for all to use. After finishing my lunch, I tried to cue up to check email, but all were being monopolized by scores of young Koreans (more on this later…..).
Giving up the email, I headed for the duty free shop, which was absolutely swarming with people buying cigarettes mostly. I bought two bottles of sake to take home and made my way towards Gate 43. Much to my surprise, the gate is only accessible by a small tram car and in such a busy international airport, it was packed. This too struck me as somewhat inefficient but perhaps it is good from a security point-of-view. After a short tram ride, I arrived at the stop that included Gate 43 and hopped off into the concourse. The space was certainly nice, with large windows overlooking each Gate and the runway, allowing good spotting. There were also more internet kiosks and I was able to check my email before wandering around to see what else was departing. It was fairly quite at that time of day, but aircraft I saw included Vietnam Airlines 767-300 bound for Ho Chi Minh (if memory serves), an Air France A340 bound for Paris, a JAL 744 bound for Paris also and JAL 421, a 744 for London Heathrow. I also saw a few KAL and Asiana flights around, undoubtedly arriving or departing for Seoul, Pusan or Cheju.
I phoned my wife quickly once more to say good-bye and then headed for the gate area. The crowds had already gathered and it appeared that the flight was a full one. At about 11:20, they started boarding First, Business and JAL Global Mileage Bank elite members. Contrary to most airports, there was no announcement made over the PA, rather an attendant walked around announcing the boarding to groups of passengers and showing a sign. This was handled quite effectively, as she spoke good English and Japanese. Then, the usual JAL crush to board commenced. I find this rather strange – does anyone know why JAL doesn’t bother to board by row numbers? It just makes the boarding process to chaotic and it takes much longer than necessary because the aircraft gets jammed with people trying to stow luggage, chat and look for food.
While boarding I noticed that much of the plane was occupied with tour groups, replete with buttons, badges and the flag waving guide. The tours are mostly “otoshi-yori”, old people and they have a way of melding into a confused, chattering mass, not paying attention to any instructions or process. Needless to say, this ate up time but if you have ever been to Japan, you know that they are all over the place. I also noticed a tremendous number of South Koreans and this was borne out when I arrived at my seat, 51J. Except for the two Australians (one on each side of me), all the other passengers were Korean and it was apparently the first time they had been out of Korea and their first time on an aircraft. In short succession while boarding, the young guys behind me tried to light cigarettes and locate their “carry-on alcohol” before being quickly caught by the alert attendant. Interestingly, she provided them with what looked like nicotine sticks (looked like plastic cigarettes) and told them it would help them not smoke. After being scolded several times, the boys settled down and for the rest of the trip were pretty quiet, slowly getting soused with free beer. Apparently it is holiday season in Korea and it is somehow cheaper to connect through Japan than fly direct from Seoul to Europe.
The aircraft itself was remarkably tatty looking for a JAL bird, with particularly dirty carpets of all things. Of course, the usual pleasant cabin crew were there, and the full set of JAL blankets, pillows and magazines were waiting on our seats. I stowed as much as I could overhead and then sat down with my drinking water and a couple of books to prepare for the duration. The cabin attendants also came around with newspapers and I took the chance to grab a Financial Times, allowing me to catch up on the world of business.
We finally pushed back at around 12.20, about 25 minutes late due to both our slow boarding and according to the pilots, lack of a slot for takeoff. Taxing parallel to the active runway, we moved right to the end of the runway, before holding another 10 minutes to allow an UPS parcel 767 to depart before us. A JEX 737 (I think) of some kind touched down in front of us and then we were onto the runway for an immediate takeoff run. One of the great features of JAL is that they have forward looking cameras that they turn on for the entire flight and at takeoff, it is piped into the overhead displays (you can select it yourself on the MAGIC entertainment system for the rest of the flight). This provides much entertainment during both landing and takeoff.
After a lumbering takeoff run of almost a minute in the near 30 degree humidity, we struggled into the air and made a series of local banks and turns to the right before passing over Hiroshima and turning up for the crossing of Siberia. Going through the humidity, we got a few bumps and grinds crossing the spine of Japan and off Niigata, the attendants were actually told to take their seats for heavy turbulence, but it never materialized.
Drink service started around an hour after takeoff and was followed by meals. I did not pinch the menu, so I cannot really accurately recall what was served except that the Japanese choice was some kind of beef and the Western choice was someone’s interpretation of a Chicken Kiev on pasta with peas. As I am not eating Japanese beef at present (believing it to be quite widely contaminated with BSE), I chose the Western meal. It was adequate, can’t say much more than that.
The scheduled trip time was 12 hours, so I settled into a book for a few hours, chatted with one of my Aussie seat mates for a few hours and then slept a bit. By the time I woke up, we were nearing the coast of Sweden and I basically just watched the miles click by. I also taught myself to play Solitaire on the MAGIC system, never having played the game before. Hey, it passed the time. Just past Sweden, we received breakfast/lunch, an unappealing meal of pasta bits in gooey sauce with either meat or mushrooms in it (I am not sure which it was). Again, not great but adequate.
We did a pretty straight in approach to Heathrow, perhaps going into the pattern for a couple of minutes (don’t remember, I was pretty tired by then) and then heading straight in. One of the neat things about the camera is that you cannot really see where the airport is… all you can see is the ground getting closer and closer. We touched down right on schedule (having made up some time) and after a poor landing (second in a row on JAL flights – had a bad one in Nagoya two weeks ago), made our way to the terminal.
The rest of the process is relatively standard for Heathrow and I won’t describe it in detail. Got my bags quickly, headed to the Heathrow Express, taxi from Paddington to home. All in all, a quick and efficient trip. All in all, JAL is not the same as it was a few years ago, but is still a reliable international carrier. Flying to Japan, it's as good a bet as Virgin or BA, but only having flown BA longhaul, I cannot really compare it to Virgin. I would be curious to try ANA sometime, as it is supposed to be better than JAL now... maybe next time.
Hope you enjoyed this. Again, apologies for shortcomings and any questions are of course welcome.