Getting a taste of Japan in JAL business class from Tokyo to Chicago
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I’ve flown Japan Airlines business class several times over the years, and each time it’s blown me away. The dining is incredible and service is always top-notch. To me, it’s the epitome of Japanese service in all the best ways.
I last flew the airline in 2019 and had an excellent experience that I was eager to revisit. I finally got the chance last month on a trip back home from Indonesia. The award space wasn’t perfect, but I could get from Jakarta to Chicago via Tokyo using miles. I booked it and eagerly awaited my flight.
Due to Japan’s COVID-19 restrictions, I couldn’t leave the airport in Tokyo. But my flight from Tokyo to Chicago and the lounge experience there gave me a dose of Japanese culture that I’ve been missing since my last trip to the country.
Here’s a bit about my experience flying Japan Airlines — JAL for short — business class in 2022. Spoiler alert: It was fantastic.
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I redeemed American Airlines AAdvantage miles for my award ticket. My entire booking — Jakarta Soekarno-Hatta International Airport (CGK) to New York’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA) via Tokyo’s Narita International Airport (NRT) and Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD) — cost 70,000 miles and just over $50 in taxes and fees.
I booked a second ticket for my partner for 90,000 Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, which I transferred from American Express Membership Rewards. Taxes and fees were higher on this award, at roughly $200 one-way.
I paid the taxes and fees with The Platinum Card® from American Express to earn 5 points per dollar on airfare when purchased through Amex Travel or directly with an airline (on up to $500,000 per calendar year). However, you might also consider booking with something like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card for increased travel protections like trip delay insurance.
To my surprise, transiting at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport from my flight from Jakarta to my long-haul let to Chicago was very easy, despite Japan’s current border restrictions. All I had to do was clear security and make my way toward the airline’s lounge.
On the way, I couldn’t help but notice how empty Narita was. Shops were closed with the exception of a duty-free store, and there were barely any passengers in the terminal. This is likely due to continued entry restrictions and the fact that only a handful of international flights were departing the airport when I transited. Regardless, it felt like a time warp back to March 2020.
I walked through the terminal to what I thought would be JAL’s business-class lounge. Upon arriving at the entrance, I was met with a pleasant surprise: the business-class lounge was closed, but the first-class lounge was open. So, I made my way to the desk, checked in and headed to the elevator that would take me up to the lounge.
In contrast to the rest of the airport, everything here seemed like business as usual. The dining room was surprisingly crowded, with full food and drink service. Near the entrance to the dining room was a self-serve bar with Champagnes, wine and liquor as well as tea, coffee and soda machines. There was also a refrigerator stocked with various Japanese beers like Asahi, Kirin and others toward the back of the lounge.
The lounge itself was large and offered a variety of seating options. The decor was uninspired and felt like a generic office space, though it still felt like a nice enough place to eat and drink while awaiting your next flight. I liked how the dining area wrapped around the center of the lounge, and despite it being a relatively small space, it kept up with current demand and I found a seat without issue.
You can order food using a QR code on any of the dining room tables. The first class lounge has a wide variety of food, but I chose a few nigiri that looked interesting. All of the food my partner and I ordered was delicious, and for a second it felt like I was out at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo. This is something I’ve longed to do since the pandemic began, and made me even more excited for Japan to eventually reopen its borders.
After indulging in a beer, coffee and club soda — what a combo, right? — I made my way to the gate. The boarding process was the same as I remembered from my last JAL flight in early 2019, and everything went off without a hitch. I boarded quickly and was soon walking down the jet bridge for my flight to Chicago.
One interesting thing happened during the boarding process, however. When I scanned my boarding pass at the gate, it said I was ineligible for boarding. After a momentary panic, a gate agent approached me and said the alert was because I had left my hat on my flight from Jakarta to Tokyo. She returned my hat and I was quickly on the flight.
To me, this was nothing short of amazing. Sure, people leave things on planes daily. But having it returned is a rarity, and I highly doubt I would get a lost hat back if I left it on a connecting flight with any U.S. carriers. This speaks to JAL’s top-notch service, which continued throughout the rest of my journey.
Cabin and seat
JAL’s Boeing 777-300ER business-class cabin is configured in a 2-3-2 configuration, with the middle seats in that three-seat center section slightly staggered to the front of the two aisle seats on either side for added privacy. It also leaves room for a little path between the front of the adjoining seats and the back of the preceding row, so even middle-seat flyers have direct aisle access. I booked tickets close to the departure date, so my partner and I were in the middle section. Thankfully, one of the seats was empty for our journey so we had a block of three seats to ourselves.
All seats have a privacy divider, but as TPG Senior Reporter Zach Griff noted in his 2019 review, the middle seats still felt pretty exposed to the rest of the cabin. Thankfully, this didn’t affect us as my partner had an empty aisle seat next to her. The aisle seats also felt quite exposed, but it didn’t bother me, as I slept through most of the flight.
The first time I flew the airline’s 777-300ER, I was worried about how narrow the seats were. Frankly, they look like coffins in photos on JAL’s website. However, they are actually 25.5 inches wide, so they’re perfectly comfortable even for a larger 6’1″ person like myself. There’s plenty of room to rest, whether sitting or lying down. The bed is 75 inches long when in the bed position, so some of the taller flyers out there might have to scrunch a bit, though that wasn’t necessary for me.
My aisle seat had a storage cubby I used to hold my phone, wallet and passports throughout the flight. It was also large enough to house my iPad and closed 13-inch MacBook Air when I wasn’t using them, saving me a trip to the overhead bin when it was time to sleep.
Beneath this cubby was an AC power outlet and USB port. Both worked fine, although the USB-A port is getting progressively more outdated as the world moves to USB-C. It also charged my iPhone 13 Pro Max quite slowly, so I plugged in my fast charger as we approached Chicago.
The seat controls were located next to the privacy divider. While the buttons are worn from years of use, they worked just fine, and I appreciated how adjustable every component of the seat was. Passengers shouldn’t have a hard time finding the configuration that’s most comfortable for them.
The cabin was warm throughout the flight, but not uncomfortable. I would have liked personal air nozzles to keep some airflow going through my seat, but thankfully I had dressed lightly and didn’t get too hot.
The tray table extended from the armrest next to the storage cubby and measured 19 inches wide and 12 inches long. This was more than adequate for my MacBook Air and working on the in-flight Wi-Fi was comfortable. The table also swiveled, so I could get out from my seat during meal service without having to juggle a tray or glasses.
The business-class lavatories were located right behind my seat, but I didn’t find their location particularly bothersome during my 12-hour flight. They were clean and stocked with toothbrushes, mouthwash and other amenities to keep you fresh in flight.
JAL’s business class product is starting to show its age — and for some, the lack of privacy in center seats might be bothersome — but I found it perfectly comfortable for the long flight from Tokyo to Chicago. I prefer the more private window seat I had for my 2019 flight, but having more seamless aisle access was a nice benefit of my center aisle seat.
Amenities and inflight entertainment
JAL’s business class seats have 23-inch entertainment monitors that are controlled by a touch-screen remote. The picture on mine was clear and the remote was responsive. Oddly, however, I could only preview titles and screen controls on the remote’s small touchscreen.
I’m not much of an inflight movie watcher, but I had a glance at the listings and found an assortment of Japanese, American and international movies and TV shows that spanned a variety of genres. It wasn’t the world’s largest selection, but it could get you through a long flight if you didn’t bring your own entertainment.
An amenity kit and slippers were provided to each passenger at the beginning of the flight. These contained lotion, eye masks and ear plugs. There was also an included moisture mask which you could place over your nose and mouth to moisten the otherwise dry cabin air, and it was more effective than I thought it would be.
The cabin crew also offered passengers cardigans, which I passed on since it was already quite warm in the cabin.
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Food and beverage
Food was the highlight of my Japan Airlines experience. It’s clear that the airline takes great care to provide excellent meal service both in flight and in the lounge, and it was just as good as I remember it being in 2019.
No pre-departure beverages were offered, but we were served a bag of chips and drink shortly after takeoff. I opted for a Japanese beer I hadn’t heard of before — a Suntory The Premium Malts — and it was delicious. It’s worth mentioning that the selection of beverages was huge. You can pick from an assortment of wines, sakes, liquors, beers and pretty much any non-alcoholic beverage you can think of.
When it was time for the first meal service, the flight attendant asked if I preferred a Japanese or Western meal. Given that I’m not planning on traveling to Japan any time soon, I went with the Japanese meal designed by Mishina Jun of famed Japanese restaurants Kagurazaka Ishikawa and Kohaku.
The first course was a massive appetizer, with various small dishes. There was everything from octopus to simmered abalone and sake-steamed scallops, and it was an excellent way to sample Japanese dishes I hadn’t tried before. Everything was really delicious; I especially enjoyed the octopus.
The main course was delicious, too. It was another sampler that included king salmon, pork cutlets, miso soup and a curry, all prepared in a way similar to what I’d expect at a high-end Japanese restaurant. I particularly enjoyed how the rice was packaged in a cube and wrapped in paper — it was just so elegant.
Finally, dessert was a Mizu Yokan, which is a sweet Japanese custard.
Throughout the flight, you can order food on the touchscreen remote. I used this to order drinks and snacks during non-meal times, and service was prompt. However, I did notice that it’s not always possible to order this way — roughly a quarter of the flight had no on-demand service. In this case, I simply rang the flight attendant button to get an extra bottle of water.
For a midflight snack, I ordered a cheese plate and green tea ice cream, which were both excellent. I did have to let the iced cream soften for a few minutes before I could eat it.
I ordered eggs Benedict for breakfast shortly before landing — and let me tell you, it was incredible. As a Benedict enthusiast, I found the poached egg was cooked perfectly and the ham was flavorful. I would have no qualms about ordering this for Sunday brunch on the ground. The accompanying bread tasted fresh, as did the tart strawberry jam.
The food was the star of the show for JAL business class. Everything was presented well and tasted great. The Japanese meal lent my experience the feeling of having made an ever-so-brief visit to Japan, and now I’m yearning even more to visit the country once its borders reopen to general tourism.
JAL’s service was great. As noted earlier, I started the flight by being reunited with the hat I left on my connecting flight from Jakarta. On my long-haul leg, the flight attendants were incredibly professional, courteous and attentive. They consistently stopped by to ask me if I needed anything, if I wanted a drink refill or if they could bring me a snack. I felt very well taken care of throughout the trip, and I am looking forward to my next experience with the airline.
Japan might not be open to tourists, but a connecting ticket on JAL was a close second. From the sushi bar at airline’s Narita airport first-class lounge to the onboard tasting menu, I felt like I was on a mini tour of Japan’s food scene. The service was friendly, the selection of drinks was top-notch and the whole experience felt polished.
The experience of transiting Narita airport was easy, despite the airport looking post-apocalyptic with very light passenger loads. Regardless, the lounge experience was great, and the onboard experience hasn’t seemed to suffer due to the pandemic. If you are flying to Asia in the near future, I can’t recommend JAL business class highly enough.
Featured photo by Andrew Kunesh/The Points Guy.
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