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A Japan Airlines first class award seemed like the perfect way to use my Alaska Airlines miles to get back to the US after a recent trip to Asia. The Pros: Personalized service, fantastic bedding and delicious food. The Cons: The seats are starting to look and feel outdated.
Japan Airlines’ first-class product is among the best in the world, thanks not only to the actual seats themselves but also the onboard service and amenities. Imagine my excitement when I was recently able to book an award in JAL first class using miles at the end of a trip to Asia in October.
You can find JAL’s flagship first-class seats only aboard its fleet of 13 Boeing 777-300ERs, but not its other aircraft such as the Boeing 787-8 or 787-9. Because of the limited number of these jets the airline has, at time of writing the seats are only on a handful of routes from Tokyo Narita (NRT) and Tokyo Haneda (HND) to Chicago O’Hare (ORD), London Heathrow (LHR), Los Angeles (LAX) New York (JFK), Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) and San Francisco (SFO). Luckily, I’m based in LA, so I could fly one home from Tokyo.
I’d been wanting to fly JAL first for years now, so when I was pondering ways to get back to the US, finding an award on the airline was top in my mind. I have more American AAdvantage and Alaska Mileage Plan miles stockpiled than I do with other airline mileage programs, so I concentrated on the ways I could leverage those two programs for my needs.
I ended my trip in Shanghai, which presented a few different opportunities, both on JAL and other airlines. Here is a table with a short version of my mileage options.
|Miles||American Airlines||Cathay Pacific||Japan Airlines|
|Alaska Mileage Plan||Business: 55,000
|American AAdvantage||Business: 70,000
If I wanted to fly nonstop from Shanghai Pudong (PVG), I found award availability in business class on American Airlines aboard a 787-8 (the aircraft does not have a first-class cabin). American would have charged me 70,000 miles, while Alaska would have required 55,000 miles.
I also could have flown home on Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong (HKG). Searching on BritishAirways.com, I found phenomenal business-class award availability the first week of October — several seats on up to four flights per day on many days. That was a good possibility to have in my back pocket, and would have cost me 70,000 American miles or just 50,000 Alaska miles — a relative deal.
I tried looking for Cathay first-class space since it is another truly phenomenal way to fly, but kept coming up empty on the three possible days I could fly, even close in. If I’d found an award, it would have required 70,000 Alaska miles or a whopping 110,000 American miles.
Instead, I refocused my search for awards on Japan Airlines. I love the airline’s business class, but I had my heart on a first-class award so I could try something new. While American would have charged me the same 70,000 or 110,000 miles for business or first class, respectively, Alaska’s pricing is a bit different. It publishes separate award charts for each partner. So instead of the 50,000 to 70,000 miles I would have needed for business or first on Cathay, I would need 65,000 to 75,000 for business or first on JAL. While business class would not have been worth it for an extra 15,000 miles, I was willing to pay the 5,000-mile premium for first class.
Alaska’s website is also one of the best places for searching Japan Airlines award space, since you can narrow down your search to specific airlines and see availability for a week at a time compared to the clunky British Airways day-by-day display.
I found business-class awards on four out of the seven days of the week I was looking to fly, but no first-class awards. Curious, I decided to look closer to the date I was searching, and I found first-class awards tended to open up two weeks in advance and be more available on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.
I decided to book a business-class award on the day I wanted as a backup, and bided my time until a first-class award might open up. I was flexible and could fly on either the Thursday or Friday of the week I was traveling. I was also hopeful because I could see that there were five free first-class seats on Thursday and three on Friday, according to Expert Flyer.
Sure enough, two weeks before I wanted to fly, at 6:00pm, two first-class awards opened up on the Thursday that I could fly. Though I could have changed my ticket online, I decided not to take any chances, and called Alaska Mileage Plan directly to see if they could change my ticket for me. The agent was friendly but nervous because he said they had trouble interfacing with JAL on awards and he didn’t want my original award to cancel out. I told him not to worry about it because there were still awards available and I could always rebook if I needed to (or fly American or Cathay). He put me on hold, then came back a few minutes later saying that he’d been able to confirm the award for me and deduct the additional miles from my account, and no further taxes or fees were required. Phew!
While I would have been happy to fly on that Thursday, Friday would have been better, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to check the following day and see if more first-class awards had opened up. As it happens, they did. This time it was around 4:00pm when I did a quick search on my Alaska Airlines app.
I called Mileage Plan back and the agent was again reluctant to try changing the award, saying he had tried to do this for another customer recently and both awards had been canceled out. I nearly had to beg him to even try, but I suggested a workaround to make him more comfortable. I asked him to book an all-new award for me, since I had enough miles in my account to do so. Then once that was confirmed, he could cancel the first reservation. He agreed to do that and within five minutes, my new award was booked and the old one was canceled. I checked later that day to make sure my new reservation had stuck and all the information was correct, and everything seemed fine from there. I was set to fly.
I would be flying from Shanghai to Tokyo in business class aboard a 787-8 with the regional business-class seats and then from Tokyo to Los Angeles in first.
I used my Chase Sapphire Reserve to pay the taxes and fees — I earned three Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on those.
Just out of curiosity, I looked up what a comparable ticket purchased outright from Japan Airlines would have cost, and it came to nearly $6,400.
I thought that might have been because it was a one-way, but when I looked up round-trips, they were well over $12,000, so I think this was an accurate price and meant I was getting around 8.5 cents per Alaska mile I had redeemed.
Airport and Lounge
I arrived at Tokyo Narita from Shanghai at 1:00pm at the gate next to the one from which I would be departing. I had a four-hour layover, so rather than going straight to the lounge, I walked around the terminal looking at luxury shops for a while.
There are actually two JAL lounges in the two wings of this terminal, but I went to the one near my departure gate.
The main entrance was for the Sakura Lounge for passengers in business class.
But if you turned to the left, there was a separate check-in for the first-class area.
Guests flying in first class, or who were oneworld Emerald or Sapphire, could use this lounge, as could Japan Airlines JMB Diamond or JGC Premier elites.
Past the desk was a luggage room.
Finally, the main lounge itself: There was a darker area with armchairs, low tables and side tables with power plugs.
Nearby was a business center with desks and a printer.
My favorite feature from this part of the lounge was the individual booths for visitors who wanted to talk on their cell phones. You were asked not to do so in the main lounge, and attendants (politely) enforced this policy, which I was glad to see, because it made for a quieter ambience than you get in most lounges.
There was also a smoking room with an automatic door in the corner.
Along the windows leading into the main part of the lounge were more armchairs and low tables.
There were two separate dining areas of tables with banquettes along the windows.
I had a nice view of the 787-8 on which I’d arrived.
There was a self-serve food area and bar here with a selection of premium spirits including three types of Japanese whiskey.
There was also a smaller self-serve bar back toward the smoking room with a coffee machine and a beer tap.
The food options included lots of small plates such as omelets, bowls for udon noodles and miso soup, cheese plates and more. I skipped these, however, because I was waiting for the sushi bar to open.
That’s right, the lounge had a sushi bar with a weekly rotating selection of nigiri, which you can look at in advance here. The bar was open from 7:30am to 12:30pm and from 3:00pm to 8:00pm. As you can see from the sign, you could only get three pieces at a time, but you could come back as many times as you liked.
I just went for the standard selection of three kinds of sushi: maguro (tuna), salmon and tamago (omelet). All were fresh and delicious. The chef was friendly and suggested I come back when I was done.
I also sampled the three sakes that were on ice at the bar — but not too much, because I wanted to be fresh for my flight. I ate a few more pieces of sushi then took a stroll over to the Sakura Lounge side of the complex.
This lounge was much bigger, since it has to accommodate a lot more passengers. You had to go downstairs to get to the main portion of it.
At the base of the stairs was a side spur with seating along the windows with its own limited buffet and another smoking room.
In the main part of the lounge were a few more seating areas and a bar.
The restaurant was up the stairs with private tables and longer communal ones.
The buffet was much the same as in the first-class lounge.
By this time, the first-class lounge was getting crowded as folks filtered in for the evening flights to the US. I asked about taking a shower and was informed that there were quite a few guests ahead of me, but was given a beeper to let me know if a shower suite became ready.
It was odd because the shower attendant was so apologetic even though it was no big deal. Less than 10 minutes later, I was buzzed. So I’m not sure if she gave me priority or not, but I was happy to have a chance to clean up before my flight.
Each suite opened with an electronic key card.
The walls and floor were made of black stone, and there was a toilet and a small wooden bench to set my belongings.
The shower itself was stocked with shampoo, body wash and conditioner, and had overhead, handheld and side shower heads. I walked out of there feeling fresh.
About 45 minutes before my flight, I headed down to the boarding area to try to be among the first passengers on the plane so I could take some photos. I have to admit that I thought more of the passengers in the lounge would be in first class with me, but they must have had access because of elite status.
Since my plane had been sitting on the tarmac, I had taken a moment to look up its tail number: JA742J. According to FlightAware, it had arrived from New York (JFK), though it had also recently operated routes to Chicago and Los Angeles. According to AirFleets, this particular plane was delivered in September 2009 and went into service that December.
When I got to the gate, passengers were mostly sitting around the boarding area, but I walked over to stand in the dedicated first-class line.
A gate agent came over to ask if I were in first class, and when I told her yes, she took my boarding pass and passport to verify and check me in then said I could have a seat and she would come get me when boarding started. I told her I didn’t mind waiting, and she seemed confused but left me alone. Once people saw me standing there, passengers in the other cabins started lining up, too. At 4:55pm, five minutes before general boarding was scheduled, the gate agents started checking in people who needed assistance and families with small children. Then about two minutes later, they let me board.
I veered left to enter the first-class cabin through a dedicated jet bridge. Over nearly the entire course of boarding, I had the whole cabin to myself without other passengers walking through until the very end, when I think they just started sending everyone down whichever jet bridge was convenient.
I was greeted by name by two flight attendants and the purser waiting at the door, and directed to my seat. As I snapped a few photos, I learned I would be one of only two passengers in first class this flight.
Cabin and Seat
A quick note on seating before I get to the good stuff. When I booked my award, all the single seats in the cabin were already taken, according to JAL’s seat-selection tool. Seats 2A and 2K were shown as occupied on both JAL and Expert Flyer, and JAL had blocked 1A and 1K before the day of the flight. But Expert Flyer showed those as being unoccupied, at least. I decided to try to game it by not selecting any seat ahead of time, since I figured an airline agent would assign one of the single seats to someone without an advanced seat assignment.
Curious, though, I called JAL to see if a phone agent would be able to assign 1A or 1K, but the one I spoke to said that they’re assigned the day of the flight and that I should check at the lounge when I got to Tokyo (not even when I boarded my first flight from Shanghai to Tokyo). In the meantime, all but one of the center seats were showing as open, so I figured I might have a shot at having two seats to myself, which didn’t seem like a bad alternative.
When I arrived in Shanghai for my first flight, however, the check-in agent there automatically assigned me 2K. After finding out that there would be only two passengers total when I boarded, I was even more confused about how JAL’s seat selection worked.
The first-class cabin consisted of just eight seats arranged in two rows of four each. The layout was 1–2–1.
The seat width between armrests was 23 inches, while in bed mode it was 33 inches wide and 78.5 inches long.
The center seats had retractable metallic privacy partitions.
The major physical component of each was a brown leather armchair.
Across from it, under the in-flight entertainment screen, was a long, flat ottoman that turned into the foot of the bed when you reclined your seat. You could also have a second person sit here (there was a seatbelt) and share a meal with them.
There was enough room to stow a bag under there, too, which was convenient if you didn’t want to have to keep getting up to grab your belongings out of the overhead bins.
The console next to the seat — it was by the windows on the side seats and in the center on the middle seats — contained two storage cubbies.
One was large enough for a laptop case or briefcase, and was where the old IFE remote was. Next to that was a smaller one for stowing personal belongings like my phone and wallet.
Another small cubby contained a mirror and a newer remote with a touchscreen interface that you could use to control the big screen or watch different content altogether.
The side of the console also held the seat controls, including one with three present positions and a stop button.
Another panel had controls for the individual sections of the seat, lumbar support and a massage function.
Finally, there was another cubby at the far end of the seat near the entertainment monitor that contained both a power plug and a USB port.
Why it was there, I’m not sure. It seemed like an ergonomic oversight, since you would have to plug your devices in there then get up to get them if you wanted to unplug, or use your phone while it was plugged in. Perhaps it was meant to keep the cords out of the main seat space, and the designers figured people would use the table as a desk then push it away, but it didn’t make a lot of sense to me.
Speaking of the table, it stowed under the entertainment monitor, but unlatched and slid toward the seat, where I could set it in a variety of positions depending on what was comfortable. I liked its dark wood finish. I noticed a lot of dark browns, tans and taupes in the leather, and wood-grained paneling. The palette was meant to evoke the serenity of a forest.
Because there were just two other passengers, I asked if I could have another seat made into my bed after takeoff. I didn’t plan to sleep immediately, but wanted to take photos while the cabin was still light. After all, I wanted to maximize my time in first class, and I wasn’t going to skip a meal!
The flight attendants said no problem, and while they were getting meal service ready, one of them turned down 2G for me.
The airline provided a double-sided Airweave mattress, and the flight attendant asked me if I wanted the firm or soft side up. I opted for soft. She made the bed up with a light duvet and an additional pillow besides the Airweave S-Line already sitting on the seat.
I was tired after a whirlwind trip and a long day of travel, but I have to say that this was still one of the best slumbers I’ve had on a plane. I only had about five or six hours to rest, but almost as soon as I lay down, I was out cold, and only woke up 80 minutes before landing when the cabin crew made an announcement that duty free would be closing and meal service would be starting.
JAL’s first-class seats each had their own 23-inch touchscreen entertainment monitors, though in reality they were too far away from the seat to for me comfortably use the touchscreen function.
As I mentioned, the remote control for it was stowed in the side console and had a touchscreen display as well.
Passengers were provided with Bose Quiet Comfort 25 noise-canceling headphones.
The entertainment selection was OK, with over 100 movies, though not so many new releases, and some really dated TV shows like Sex and the City.
Before the flight, one of the attendants came by to give me a voucher for complimentary in-flight Wi-Fi, available on some of JAL’s long-haul fleet.
Otherwise, it would have cost $18 for the flight, or $16.80 on a JAL credit card.
The Wi-Fi was slow, though, and barely worked even for email, so I didn’t end up using it much, and was thankful I hadn’t paid for it.
At the time I flew, JAL was handing out red Porsche Design hard-sided amenity kits.
Inside were an eye mask, tissues, a brush-comb combo, a dental hygiene kit, earplugs, lip balm, scented facial mist and hand and body cream.
They also handed out separate Shiseido skincare boxes containing cleansing foam, hydrating lotion and Total Revitalizer face cream.
The final amenity was a set of pajamas. The top was light gray, and the pants were a darker gray. I got a medium pair, but they were almost too big for me. I thought they were comfortable, but they were not as lightweight as some other airlines provide, so if you tend to run warm, you might be better off wearing a T-shirt and shorts.
The first-class cabin had two dedicated lavatories at the front of the cabin, so I always had one to use. The flight attendants kept them spotless and stocked with toothbrushes and mouthwash.
I liked the toilets that flushed with automatic sensors so you didn’t have to touch anything. There were also bidet functions, though I don’t know why anyone would use those in an airplane lavatory.
Food and Beverage
After I took my seat, the purser came by offering me champagne or orange juice. It was champagne for me, but I asked for water as well, which she brought back immediately. I didn’t have long to enjoy them, though, because she took them back as soon as we pulled away from the gate. She did give me the menu and wine list to peruse, though.
We were cleared for takeoff right at 6:00pm. It was a bumpy ride up above the cloud line, but then it smoothed out, and the cabin crew started preparing for meal service.
JAL’s first-class food and beverage program is called BEDD, confusingly enough. The airline bills it as a “flying restaurant” and a “sky auberge,” and partners with lauded Japanese chefs like Seiji Yamamoto of Ryugin, Yosuke Suga of SUGALABO, Hiroki Yoshitake of SOLA and Shinichi Sato of Passage 53, depending on the route.
The menu on my flight included full Japanese and Western meals as well as à la carte and lighter options. The number of choices was truly overwhelming. I decided to go with the Japanese menu by Yamamoto, though I mixed and matched with a few items from the Western side, which came courtesy of Suga on this flight.
The meal began with an amuse bouche of soft yuba with fresh sea urchin, vinegar jelly and an aspic of crabmeat.
After that, I had the Japanese starter of five small bites: egg cake, hairy crab meat with apple vinegar, simmered Pacific saury with pickled plum, shiitake and maitake mushrooms with pine nuts, and simmered soy with Asian clam.
All were savory and tasty, especially the crab and mushroom dishes. I loved that they paid attention to detail like putting autumn leaves on the tray to set the tone, though I could have done without the Japanese toothpick flag.
Next, I had a clear seafood broth with scallop, shimeji mushrooms and shiitake dumpling.
I skipped over to the Western side of the menu at this point so I could have the caviar course with egg-yolk cream and a crispy rice wafer. This decadent dish went perfectly with the Salon 2006 champagne they served on board (more on that below). Out of curiosity, I looked up the caviar JAL used and found it was packaged by a Korean company called UMAC, though the caviar was farm-raised in Germany.
Then it was back to the Japanese menu for a fish course: prawn and abalone with Japanese ginger and salted kelp accompanied by a cold, steamed egg custard with sea urchin and smoked potato. Oh, and more caviar.
Next up was the wagyu beef fillet with matsutake mushrooms and a soft-cooked egg that the flight attendant suggested I stir in with the beef along with dried shrimp. I felt my cholesterol shoot up about 20 points with this dish, but the meat was so tender and rich I didn’t even care. There were also sides of miso soup, white rice and various pickled vegetables, which were a nice umami counterpoint to the fattiness of the meat.
The flight attendants asked if I needed a break after that, but I powered through since I wanted to get some sleep as soon as possible, and I finished up with a trio of desserts: a creamy pudding served in a jar; satsuma orange, Japanese pear and sudachi-citrus sorbet with osmanthus wine jelly; and Japanese-style baked pistachio cake, a specialty of Yamamoto’s restaurant.
All three were satisfying and rich without being too sweet. To end, I was given a chocolate truffle, though I kept it for later.
In case you are interested, the Western side of the menu included additional dishes such as: curry-flavored eggplant velouté with slow-cooked egg; Niçoise salad with Pacific saury confit; wagyu beef fillet with tender pumpkin étuvé.; fricassee of chicken and seasonal muhrooms in a vin jaune sauce; blue lobster with sauce Américaine, chestnut and celeriac; an assortment of artisanal breads; tarte Tatin; and (on request) a dainagon adzuki-bean financier.
The airline’s wine program was overseen by Motohiro Okoshi, wine director at SUGALABO.
Aboard my flight, they were serving 2006 Salon Blanc de Blancs Le Mesnil champagne, which retails for between $400 to $650 per bottle, and 2006 Deutz Cuvee William Brut Millésime champagne, which runs from $130 to $300.
I asked the cabin manager if she could recommend one, but she smiled and said, “This is first class: We will open both for you!”
I thought the Salon was sublime, made from only chardonnay grapes and intense and full-bodied but with enough acidity to remain crisp and mouthwatering yet smooth. The Deutz was also delicious and had a rich, round feeling in the mouth with comfortingly toasty flavors.
Among the other wines on the list were: Louis Jadot 2013 Beaune Premier Cru Grèves Le Clos Blanc chardonnay from France; Yealands Estate Single Vineyard 2016 sauvignon blanc from Marlborough in New Zealand; Dürnberg Rabenstein 2015 grüner veltliner reserve from Austria; Coco Farm & Winery Kaze no Etude chardonnay from Japan; Chateau Poujeaux 2009 Moulis from Bordeaux; Vincent Girardin 2013 Savigny Les Beaune Premier Cru “Les Serpentières” pinot noir from Burgundy; Kusuda 2014 syrah from Martinborough in New Zealand (though this is normally served on the routes to Paris and London); Ch.Igai Takaha 2015 Sono pinot noir from California; and, for dessert, Graham’s 30-year tawny port.
I tried the Japanese chardonnay out of curiosity. It was not great, but still interesting to sample. With my main of wagyu beef, I couldn’t resist the red burgundy, and it went perfectly with the rich flavors of the dish. With my trio of desserts, I chose the port, a lovely balance of fruit and mellow oak.
There was also a selection of Junmai-Dai Ginjoyoshu sakes including Isojiman, Mori Izo, Dassai and Hyakunen no Kokoku. Among the spirits on offer were Chivas Regal Royal Salute 21 Years, Suntory HIbiki 17 Years and L&G Woodford Reserve, Bombay Sapphire gin, Absolut vodka, Rémy Martin VSOP cognac.
Next came the list of teas including the Queen of Blue, made from leaves handpicked once a year in the summer and then bottled like wine and served in wine glasses. There was also roasted houjicha and green sencha tea, orange pekoe Ceylon, Earl Grey and more, as well as a selection of soft drinks and juices.
As I mentioned, the flight attendants came on the PA about 80 minutes before landing to begin meal service. Personally, I could have used an extra half hour of sleep, but I reluctantly got up and went back to my original seat for breakfast.
In first class, I could have ordered anything from the à la carte menu, including steamed rice and dashi broth topped with sea bream, assorted brochettes of grilled meat, a roast-beef sandwich with wasabi mayo, and wagyu beef curry.
Instead, I opted for a bowl of udon noodles with wild greens, since I was still pretty full from dinner.
I also had a cappuccino, which tasted weak and came with a stick of cinnamon for stirring. The coffee of the month aboard my flight was San Sebastian Coffee Estate light roast from Guatemala.
After the meal, the flight attendants gave me a second pair of pajamas to take with me as a present. Then both the first-class flight attendant and the cabin manager came by my seat again to thank me for flying JAL. After that, I sat back and took in the gorgeous views of San Francisco as we flew by Santa Barbara and Malibu before we banked inland, swung around downtown LA and made our final descent into LAX.
I had looked forward to flying Japan Airlines first class for a long time, and the experience certainly didn’t disappoint. The service was flawless and formal, but with just the right touch of warmth. I really liked the Porsche Design and Shiseido amenity kits and the pajamas were very comfortable. The meal service was among the best I have ever had on a flight, and the wines (with the exception of that Japanese one) were excellent.
The seats themselves were spacious and comfortable, though I do think they were starting to show their age and it might be time for a redesign, perhaps with suites with closing doors. But overall I had a great flight and only wish it were longer so I had more time to enjoy it.
Have you ever flown in JAL’s first class aboard the 777-300ER? Tell us about your experience, below.
All photos by the author.
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