Airline: Japan Airlines
Flight Number: JL719
Aircraft: Boeing 747-446
Seat: 02C (First Class)
Distance: 3324 miles
Duration: 6hrs 15mins
Photo © Dimitri Steendijk
Photo © Manas Barooah
As Narita is closer to Hawaii than Tokyo itself it seemed a good option with a morning departure to stay near the airport. As with most airports the hotels aren't worth getting excited about so I let my Hilton HHonors status sway me into their 'Narita' property around ten minutes from the airport. As expected the hotel was completely un-noteworthy except for the rather good view of aircraft landing and departing from 16R and the quite good health club. Interesting to note that runway view is considered an upgrade here!
The 8.45am shuttle dropped us off (after the pointless passport check, anyone know how effective this is?) a short walk from Zone L where JAL's First Class check-in desks are found. There was not one other person checking in and so we had about ten roaming staff members to assist us with our bags, it all felt a little over the top
JAL First Class check-in area
My wife was feeling rather unwell so with boarding passes in hand we went down several flights of stairs into the dungeon of the airport and to the in house clinic. As she needed to meet with a professional I decided to go airside and we agreed to meet in the lounge.
Although the staff at check-in didn't tell us about it I walked right past the entrance to Fast-Track security, it was rather secluded away with lots of nice dark wood and staff to ease one's passage to immigration, neither of which had any line at all.
At this point I looked up a map of the terminal to find out where JAL's lounges were but I couldn't see them. I was ready to ask someone when I looked up and about ten feet from me were gold letters forming a sign about six feet tall letting me know I was in the right spot
I checked in at the main desk and was then escorted to the First Class desk which was about fifteen feet away and was dealt with there too. An unfamiliar lounge, particularly First Class lounges, can be a little bewildering but JAL had installed plasma screens with maps of the lounge indicating what all the little nooks and crannies were. Nice idea I noticed a Relaxation Corner labelled on there advertising massages and thought I'd at least go and ask what they offer. It seemed even one hour from boarding they were able to fit me in whenever I wanted so signed myself up for an upper body treatment...Beat that Elemis!
I took a seat in the lounge and started up my computer to upload some photos to the internet. The lounge itself was a rather nice place, lots of dark wood some lighter areas near the windows with good views of the apron and some more secluded spots. It felt a bit like the new Concorde Room in Terminal 5 but with different soft furnishings.
JAL First Class lounge at Narita
Other nifty touches included the massaging recliner chairs which seemed a big hit and the beer machines which at 9.30am, weren't. The food on offer didn't seem to be too bad, quite a mix of western but mainly Japanese items, plus of course the full bar...
One thing I hadn't seen before at many lounges was the sheer amount of airline staff that were milling about. Not be confused with the catering staff who seemed to be getting and delivering food these pink suited, ear piece toting people appeared to be sorting any problems and answering questions passengers had in an almost concierge like manner. Indeed I was asked a couple of times (by name and my boarding pass was hidden!) if everything was OK, if anything else could be done to make my stay more enjoyable. Top notch
Five minutes before my appointment (and around 45mins since I first got to the lounge) my wife still hadn't arrived so I did my best to explain the situation to one of the First Class lounge receptionists. She agreed to relay a message on to my wife that I'd be going to the gate once my appointment was over. I was met at the Relaxation Corner by a rather polite Japanese man for my upper body treatment and we did our best to work with the language barrier to explain how to get started, which parts of my back hurt etc. He was a little rough and at times I was audibly groaning but it did the job of easing the pains of carrying luggage around for almost a month and I felt much better for it.
As I left the lounge the receptionist told me my wife had arrived and that she was getting a foot massage. An appointment? Ten minutes before boarding starts!? Amazing! I asked the receptionist to tell my wife I'll be in the lounge waiting for her once her appointment is done.
At just shy of 10.40am my wife appeared and we headed down to gate 66 at the end of the concourse for our flight. We dropped down a level to find the flight on final boarding but still managed to win a couple of minutes using the priority line which seemed to be open to anyone in premium cabin or with oneworld status.
We were welcomed onboard and took our seats and were greeted almost immediately by one of the flight attendants. We asked if we were able to get sleeper suits on this dayflight and the assurance in her reply gave me a good signal that the service on this flight was going to right all the wrongs of the previous experience. When the sleeper suits were brought to our seats we were escorted to the bathrooms and shown the drop down floor mats to stand on so we didn't need to put our feet on the remains of evaporated urine The same flight attendant was waiting for us with hangers when we exited the bathroom, and once I'd taken a seat she brought an item back to me that had fallen out of my jeans and presented it as if it was a precious family heirloom...in fact it was a folded and battered map of the Tokyo metro system! Of note was the business class seats that I'd seen on the trip to the toilet. They appeared at a glance to be brown and rather new unlike ours in the front cabin. This begged the question, if the business class seat was new why wasn't the Skysleeper replaced with the Skysleeper Solo as well?
The ancient looking JAL Skysleeper
The rest of post departure service and formalities were completed anticipating an on time pushback. This included the hand out of Bose headphones and the offer of newspapers, five of them in English!
I noticed that only seven of the twelve First Class seats were occupied, including only one in row 1 and 2H and 2K were both free. I checked with one of the flight attendants as I saw the jetbridges moving away from the aircraft. As I was a little optimistic and hoping for some pictures of Mount Fuji I hopped over to 2K for takeoff.
We were only five minutes late pushing back from the gate and had a bit of a taxi round to 16R. We went past another SQ A380! Having not seen an A380 in service before it was the third one I'd seen in two weeks! I think the aircraft is still a bit ugly but the height of the tail was pretty amazing, going beyond the top of the Terminal 1!
The Singapore A380 fleet that seems to be stalking me and Terminal 1
We had a bit of a line for takeoff and followed behind a 747 which was displayed on the screen ahead of us. From glancing out of the window it seemed 16R was accepting both arrivals and departures which didn't speed things up for us much. However, around twenty five minutes after pushback we were up and away, and were due for an on time arrival at Changi.
The Narita hedge
I didn't see much of Mt. Fuji on departure, you could see the very top of it but it certainly wasn't worth taking a picture of. Had we left from 34L instead it might have been a different story! Anyways, we'd been up to the fifth station a few days before and seen the top then, that was good enough for me
Passing over the coast
I went back to my seat as some quite heavy chop rocked the aircraft quite a bit, this dogged us for most of our climb up to cruise altitude. Despite that the crew braved it out and the meal service began, as before, with a glass of champagne which was followed up with a hot towel.
As I'd neglected the inflight entertainment on the outbound flight I'd chosen to give it a go on this flight. JAL have four levels of entertainment system, named Magic I to Magic IV. This aircraft had Magic II which was AVOD in First and Business Class but not in Economy, and slightly less selection in terms of films than Magics III and IV. Personally it seemed perfectly adequate and embarassingly as the flight attendants came round with a copy of the wine list they found my wife and I taking each other on on the ten pin bowling game. Before you say anything ten pin bowling is popular in Singapore and we were just practising in anticipation of our visit, honest
I flicked through the wine list and the first page was interesting, listing in the champagne category both Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 1993 and Bollinger La Grand Annee 1999. It isn't too often you see two champagne options available in the air so asked whether both were loaded, and was told that of course they were. Oops. Since we'd had the Bollinger on the BA flights we both had the Veuve Clicquot; like Cathay Pacific the bottle was presented, then poured for taste.
Glass of Veuve Clicquot and canapes
Canapes and menus were subsequently delivered signalling the beginning of the meal service proper. Menus had both western and Japanese, Kyoto to be specific, options. My wife loves Japanese food and I'd heard very good things about it so opted for it too. It was interesting as the only western passengers to go for the Japanese food whereas the other Japanese passengers all went for the western options! (Which did look excellent!)
After the first course the effects of water and bubbly were kicking in but due to the way the tables work the whole lot had to be cleared away so I could escape to the toilet. When I returned I found my blanket and seatbelt all folded! I was hoping they didn't think I'd had enough!!
The heavy chop from the beginning of the flight came back through the cabin and despite the seatbelt signs going on and the flight attendants struggling to keep balance they valiantly continued with service.
In the small dish: "Sakizuke" - Soybean Milk Custard with Steamed Sea Urchin
In the main dish: "Zensai" - Steamed Sea-bass mousse, Mixed Wheat Gluten Bread & "Shiitake" with Sesame Sauce, Conger Eel & Summer Vegetable in Japanese Jelly, Braised Shrimp, Simmered Sweet Potato and Egg Cake
Wan - Japanese Clear Soup with Pike Conger Mousse
In the back: "Nimono" - Deep-simmered Octopus & Vegetable in Sweet Soy Sauce. "Susumezakana" - Vinegared Seaweed with Yam Paste Sauce.
In the front: "Mukouzuke" - Boiled Fillet of Pike Conger
At the back: "Dainomono" - Simmered Spiny Lobster in Sweet Soy Sauce
In the front: Japanese Pickles, Seasoned Mixed Rice and Miso Soup
I really enjoyed the food, though my wife who eats more Japanese food than I could really appreciate it. For dessert it was back to a more western take on things, with a selection of items from a dessert trolley including cheese, fruit and various little things that looked too good to pass up. As we picked them out they were plated up and real effort went into making sure they were nicely presented making it appealing to all senses. Except perhaps hearing
Chocolate mousse pyramid with chocolate eclair freshly plated from the dessert trolley
It seemed those opting for the western courses finished much quicker than us and most of the windowshades were pulled down by the time the dessert trolley rolled back into the galley. Then we had our last 'course' of the meal service; a helping from the box of chocolates.
Finishing the meal service
Amenity kits were passed round (with separate ones for males and females) in addition to a basket where you could select various items including earplugs, toothbrushes etc.
I headed to the bathroom to brush my teeth and freshen up a little trying out one of the more unusual items for the amenity kit. JAL provide cooling gel pads for the legs in their kits; sounds a little weird but actually they are a marvellous addition! I've found (although I thought it was just me) that on flights my legs do get a little on the warm side if under pyjamas and blankets etc. I decided to give these things a whirl and they were actually rather good. They do make your legs tingle a little but if you put them above the knee the feeling is a bit odd. The sensation makes it feels as though you might have wet yourself! I might try and search these things out for future longhauls, the gel pads that is, not wetting myself
The 12 seat First Class cabin
My wife had hastily pulled out her PTV and started watching 'Vantage Point' whereas I was more keen to keep my bowling shoes on and take on the computer across a few more frames.
At least you can say I was consistent!
After I get bored with the bowling I give the AVOD system a whirl loading up 'Fool's Gold' with Matthew McConaughey and the delightful ( ) Kate Hudson. I spent the first thirty minutes of the film thinking the sound was completely buggered up, then realised I needed to use JAL's own QC2s to get the audio in the other ear...dear, oh dear. Madame Clicquot has a lot to answer for
In addition to the window shades being closed the lights were also dimmed so it was almost a nightflight. The only indication it was daylight outside was the edge of the window shades were bright beige as the sunlight tried to fight its way into the cabin. Quite why the lights needed to be dimmed I'm not sure. It's a complete dayflight without an ounce of darkness outside!
Anyways, an hour out of Singapore the lights were brought up and refreshments served with a distinct Japanese flavour. Nothing here to keep gaijin happy but I liked eel so went for that. This was followed up with ice cream from little tubs which seemed so out of character with the rest of the items served on the flight. Disappointing.
1) "Una Don" Eel Teriyaki on Steamed Rice
2) Ice cream
Another few offers for drinks were made as my wife and I opted to battle it out again on the bowling game until the crew come round to talk to us as they prepared the cabin for descent. They asked us nicely if we were on honeymoon and they said the three of them were trying to figure out what we were doing here! They were very friendly about it though and brought round a couple of origami swans for us to take away with us, which I didn't see anyone else get. I did almost prematurely kill the swans right in front of the flight attendant as I got my bag out from the overhead locker to get my passport for the immigration forms
My wife pulled up the shades in her window seat and we enjoyed the descent as we twisted and turned several times over Malaysia.
Descending into Changi once more
Thanks to the forward looking camera we were able to see when we were lined up for arrival into Changi on runway 20R at dead on 5.15pm, our scheduled arrival time.
We taxied round to gate D42 right behind a Singapore Airlines 777, it looked so close on the nosewheel camera I was half expecting us to rear end the bugger! It wasn't just the camera either, when we made several turns you could see it was only just ahead of us...
The heavy smell of jetfuel permeated through the cabin as we closed in on stand, something I'd not experienced quite like this since flying Concorde. The staff held back those in Business Class as we left from 1L and we were up into the terminal very close to immigration which was a cinch. The baggage hall was near empty and within five minutes the bags were coming through, ours were numbers one and two so it was off to catch a taxi to our hotel extremely quickly.
Verdict: JAL absolutely redeemed themselves on this flight. As I mentioned before the service was really disappointing on the SIN-NRT flight but everything that could have been fixed on this flight was and it was beyond my expectations. There were a couple of issues with the language barrier but we managed to get through the meal service without anything but the occasional glass of water going awry.
Would I fly JAL again? Based on this flight absolutely, based on my SIN-NRT flight. Eh, no. I'd be keen try their more up to date seats out too. With another trip to Japan looking likely I'd certainly look at that avenue...maybe if I could guarantee the new seats though