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Review: Japan Airlines 737-800 Business Class — Tokyo to Shanghai

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Jetting to and from Japan from northeast Asia? TPG Special Correspondent John Walton says Konnichiwa to Japan Airlines’ business-class product and suggests you consider spending Avios to book this flight. (All photos are by the author).

Japan is usually a big bucket list item for many travelers, but with more US carriers starting to use smaller planes for nonstop flights to Asia, lots of deals for travel are passing by this beautiful country. If you’ve managed to snag a great deal to a nearby Asian destination like Korea, China or Taiwan, you should definitely consider taking JAL’s business class as an inexpensive option — and one that’s much more comfortable in the pointy end of a 737-800 than you might expect — to reach the Land of the Rising Sun.

Booking

At just 15,000 Avios in business or 7,500 in economy, plus a £27 (~$39) fee whichever class you take, JAL is a good deal for the three-hour flight between Tokyo (NRT) and Shanghai (PVG) that I needed to take in order to connect to a cheap long-haul redemption back to London.

Across my regional JAL flights over the last few years, Avios availability has been wide open, with four seats available on most flights even as close as a week out, making JAL the perfect last-minute redemption companion to an affordable China flight without dealing with the visa stopover (where you’ll also need to book a flight to a third country). Plus, Japan is a delightful place to visit, especially in the spring and autumn months.

JAL flies its 737 and 767 aircraft on routes like Tokyo-Shanghai, but I recommend picking the smaller 737-800 if you can — the seats are noticeably larger and the service is more attentive than what you’ll find on the 767.

Airport and Check-In

There are several options to get to Narita (NRT) from various parts of Tokyo. I usually take the Narita Express, but if I can avoid transiting in Tokyo Station itself, I do — it’s very busy and finding the step-free routes between various platforms can be tricky, so try going through any of the other central Tokyo stops instead.

NRT Terminals 1 and 2 have their own train stations and it’s a quick escalator ride up to the departures floor. JAL has a clearly-marked business-class check-in island where no fewer than seven people were stationed to help a lone customer (me). Clearly, midday on a Wednesday is not a peak hour for JAL flyers.

The check-in process itself was swift besides the fact that the agents had seemingly never encountered someone transiting through Shanghai without a visa, but after about five minutes of phone calls they managed to get it all in place. Unfortunately, they messed something up in the system, which meant that I got stuck for an hour in Shanghai passport control because my details hadn’t been sent in advance. Security, on the other hand, was nice and easy with no line, clear signage and helpful staffers. Eat your heart out, TSA!

The Lounge

JAL’s revamped Sakura Lounge is located immediately opposite where you exit security.

Don't miss the rather understated entrance to the JAL lounge complex.
Don’t miss the rather understated entrance to the JAL lounge complex.

It feels a lot like the old lounge, but is better put together and features more power sockets than you can shake a stick at.

Most Sakura Lounge seats have their own AC outlet.
Most Sakura Lounge seats have their own AC outlet.

The food and beverage options have been improved slightly as well.

The upstairs dining zone in the lounge is well stocked with remarkably delicious options.
The upstairs dining zone in the lounge is well stocked with remarkably delicious options.

The Sakura lounge was quite spacious and wasn’t crowded at all, so I had plenty of room to spread out.

The downstairs section of the Sakura lounge contains the bar area.
The downstairs section of the Sakura lounge contains the bar area.

Several soothing massage chairs were also available, great for relaxing in before or after a long flight.

Terrible dilemma: Sake or massage chair (or one, then the other).
Terrible dilemma: Sake or massage chair (or one, then the other).

If it strikes you as odd that the signature dish in the Sakura Lounge is curry and rice — or, Kare Raisu in Japanese — it shouldn’t. This is a weekday dinner staple of many Japanese families and JAL’s is just as soul-foody as dinner with the Yamadas. Also delicious was the creamy crab and spinach fusilli I sampled a few hours later and I heard people raving about the tempura-don vegetables. There’s also a salad bar, together with a little section of frequently refreshed shrimp sushi and pastries.

If you haven't tried Japanese curry-rice during your trip, the Sakura lounge is the perfect chance.
If you haven’t tried Japanese curry-rice during your trip, the Sakura lounge is the perfect chance.

There’s no Champagne in this lounge, but the staff will deliver you a glass of an anonymous sparkling rosé if you ask (though they couldn’t tell me what it was). Your best bet is either the magical beer machines or one of the tempting sakes on offer — when in Rome, after all!

Joan in the JAL lounge was delicious.
Joan, in the JAL lounge, was delicious.

If you prefer something soft, head for the four types of juices or the JAL Sky Time Kiwi-flavored drink that’s strangely delicious, or Pocari Sweat, an oddly named drink that’s refreshing like Gatorade. There’s also the tea version of a Nespresso machine, which offers both Japanese and Western style teas, together with a coffee machine.

Cabin and Seat

I boarded relatively late in the game, headed straight through the business-class line and walked onto the plane.

JAL offers three rows of 2-2 business-class seating on its international 737-800 fleet, which are a bit on the older side. These 12 reclining seats are JAL’s Skyluxe seat product, measuring 20″ wide and pitched at a very spacious 47” — that’s nine inches more than what you’ll find in US domestic first class on most narrow-bodied aircraft.

The impressive pitch is a good ten inches above most US domestic first-class products.
The impressive pitch is a good nine inches above most US domestic first-class products.

It feels like a huge amount of room and there’s more than enough to let the window passenger pop out without disturbing the person in the aisle seat. Even with the older bins, the amount of space in each row means that’s not a problem. You have the equivalent of a full bin for every two passengers — and this is in Japan, where people don’t bring two large carry-ons with them.

JAL's four-way-adjustable recliners are exceedingly comfortable for a few hours.
JAL’s four-way-adjustable recliners are exceedingly comfortable.

In addition to miles of pitch, the seat has a really deep recline, a footrest that’s actually usable for tall people like your 6’2” author.

Even at 6'2, my feet didn't reach the seat in front of me.
Even at 6’2, my feet didn’t reach the seat in front of me.

There’s also a semi-universal outlet — it’s not square like the UK-style plug, but pretty much everything else fits — and a pair of slippers in the seat-back pocket for your use.

Amenities

The slippers JAL provided weren't suitable for my US size 13 feet.
The slippers JAL provided weren’t suitable for my US size 13 feet.

There’s no amenity kit on this three-hour flight, but the crew walked through the cabin with a basket of toothbrushes, eye masks, razors and earplugs just in case you wanted one. Mouthwash is available in small sachets in the bathroom, too. All in all, it’s a very comfortable three-hour flight.

Food and Beverage

I was delighted to find that Delamotte Champagne was an option. JAL loads two bottles for each flight, the gentleman sitting across the aisle and I discovered, finishing off the second as we reached the start of our descent into Shanghai.

A glass or two of Delamotte Champagne? Yes, please!
A glass or two of Delamotte Champagne? Yes, please!

There’s also a very missable pair of Maison Louis Latour wines available, which I’d skip in favor of the sake, or anything else really.

If you want something soft, try the JAL Skytime beverage, which is a terrifyingly fluorescent shade of greenish-yellow that is probably supposed to reflect it being allegedly kiwi flavored. It’s very thirst-quenching and not overly sweet, though.

JAL's lunch was simply delightful in appearance, variety and tasty.
JAL’s lunch was simply delightful in appearance, variety and taste.

JAL offered both a Japanese and Western meal. I’d been delighted by the seasonal Japanese meals before, so I decided to try the Western one since it’s not really Western, it’s yōshoku, Meiji Restoration-era Japanise-slash-Western-style food that’s actually pretty authentic everyday Japanese comfort food.

The hamburg steak let down the attractiveness stakes, but was absolutely delicious and super-authentic.
The hamburg steak let down the attractiveness stakes, but was absolutely delicious and super-authentic.

The shiitake mushroom consommé was rich and flavourful to start with and each morsel on the chilled appetizer plate was delicious — the tender cuttlefish and delicate crab claw were real standouts. The hamburg steak, pictured above, tasted just like other ones I’ve enjoyed when I’m invited to dine at Japanese friends’ homes. The only downside was the attractive but iceberg-heavy salad with an uninspiring vinaigrette. The rice flour roll was amazing and served piping hot to enable a good spread of delicious Hokkaido butter.

In-Flight Entertainment

Clunky, sparse IFE and crummy headphones didn't impress me much.
A clunky, sparse in-flight entertainment system and crummy headphones didn’t impress me much.

This is definitely not a trip for the in-flight entertainment crowd. JAL’s Panasonic system feels at least ten years out of date, doesn’t use a touchscreen and is very fiddly to use, especially with its small low-resolution screen. Frankly, I got better picture quality by using the screen as a rest for my iPhone.

A couple of blockbusters in low-def didn't tempt me away from my iPhone.
A couple of blockbusters in low-def didn’t tempt me away from my iPhone.

All the video content is lumped together in one section and while there were some decent blockbusters available to watch, none of them were particularly suited to the small screen — which also got in the way during the meal service. I ended up using it only to view the map, and only two of us even swung the arm out from the center armrest in the first place to use it.

Service

JAL’s flight attendants simply do not stop from boarding to touchdown. No quick-service then magazine-in-the-galley here: the purser serves business class and does it with elegance, style and care. I was addressed by name and my preferences (sparkling water with ice but no lemon) were noted and delivered every time.

Every time a glass of Champagne was poured, the crew member would present the bottle, pour, then present the bottle again — this is some serious international first-class level service..

I counted, and the crew made no fewer than six passes with the basket of hot cloth towels, scented with what might have been jasmine.

Overall Impression

For the Avios price, availability and service, I’ll pick JAL’s business-class product every time out of Tokyo. You can even mix classes, which is a real plus since the extra 7,500 Avios are worth it ex-Tokyo where the lounge is delightful, but not from Shanghai, where the lounges are uniformly terrible.

Have you ever flown in business class on JAL? Tell us about it below.

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