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Private seat, delicious food and excellent service
Many IFE troubles and poor Wi-Fi performance
Since starting at TPG almost three years ago, I’ve heard great things about Japan Airlines, specifically its business-class product. The airline flies to several cities in the US, and I finally got the chance to fly it when we set out to determine the world’s best business-class product for the TPG Awards. The nominees included Korean Air and Japan Airlines. I flew Korean Air to Shanghai, and found great one-way fares from Shanghai back to New York via Tokyo on Japan Airlines. My flight with Korean was very good, though I didn’t think I got a taste of the best that Apex suites had to offer, so I was very much looking forward to my JAL flight.
We got a decent deal on the one-way flight from Shanghai (PVG) to New York-JFK via Tokyo (NRT) — $1,870 total in business class. When we booked, there was no award availability for the date I needed to travel, and a below-$2,000 business-class ticket is a pretty good price, so we booked right away with the Platinum Card® from American Express to earn 5x points on the purchase. In this case, we earned a total of 9,350 Membership Rewards points, worth $178 by TPG‘s current valuations.
Since this was a revenue flight, I was able to earn miles. I credited the flight to my American Airlines AAdvantage account, earning a total of 11,797 Elite Qualifying Miles, 1,967 Elite Qualifying Dollars and 8,712 redeemable AAdvantage miles.
If you’re looking to use miles for a trip like this, you can use your AAdvantage miles, though you’ll have to call to book your ticket. If there’s space, you’ll be able to book a one-way ticket for 70,000 AAdvantage miles plus any applicable taxes and fees. Based on my flight, this is a phenomenal way to spend your hard-earned miles.
My journey began at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport. I arrived with plenty of time before my flight, and I’m glad I did, because the security line was long and disorderly.
Check-in, though, was a great experience. I wasn’t able to select my seat online or through JAL’s app, so I was nervous that I’d be stuck in a middle seat again like I had on my Korean Air flight to Asia. But the check-in agent told me — without having to be asked — that she was looking for an available window seat that she could move me to. There was one left, and she moved me to it before anyone else had the chance to steal it.
Feeling victorious with my window-seat boarding pass, I patiently made my way through the long security line and was on my way to an extremely underwhelming lounge that JAL contracted with in Shanghai. I stayed there for just under an hour and then excitedly made my way to the gate, ready to bring my journey home.
I had a quick flight on a regionally-configured Boeing 787, and before I knew it, I was at Narita Airport near Tokyo, making my way through immigration and on to the Sakura Lounge in Terminal 2, ready to enjoy a six-hour layover before my long-haul flight back to New York.
Overall, I was impressed by the Sakura Lounge. First, it was positively massive. There was a plethora of seats spread across two levels. I loved the color scheme of the lounge, too. I could tell it wasn’t brand-new, but it was without a doubt timeless and had aged well.
I did a bit of exploring before I headed upstairs to get something to eat. The main floor was primarily dedicated to seating but also featured private spaces for working and taking calls, private rooms that featured massage chairs (which, unfortunately, were occupied every time I checked), several shower suites and a few places to get snacks and beverages.
The upper level was where the majority of the food and beverage offerings were. One of my favorite parts was the machine that poured you the perfect beer. I could have watched that process a hundred times over — though that probably would have ended poorly.
In addition to beer, there were several other beverages on offer. All the typical soft drinks were there, and the lounge offered a self-serve bar with a variety of liquor as well as another self-serve area that featured wine and sake, of course.
All of the food was fresh and delicious. There were several cold salads and wraps and some hot options too, including a delightful beef curry, fried chicken nuggets and shumai. I had a couple of plates of food (OK, maybe a few more) because I was in the lounge for about six hours, which meant I got to try pretty much everything.
I spent the majority of my time working and gazing at planes out the window, once again in awe of the feat of commercial aviation.
If I could raise one complaint with this lounge, it’s that it got too crowded (these photos were taken before the lounge filled up), which frankly surprised me given just how large the space was. I had to make a few phone calls, and by the time I got around to making them, I had to leave the lounge entirely because, one, every private phone room was taken and, two, you weren’t supposed to talk on the phone while in the lounge. I totally understand the no-phone rule, but it was mildly annoying to have to leave altogether every time I had to talk. The lesson here (and everywhere?): Don’t procrastinate!
After my six hours were up, it was time to head to my gate, where boarding was orderly and began right on time. I rushed to the front of the business-class line, thinking that I’d be the first business-class passenger to board. However, I neglected to account for the fact that they would be boarding not only first-class passengers but also JAL and Oneworld elites, even though this was printed right in front of me on the boarding information sign. (It was a long day, OK?) This meant that the business-class cabin was already more than half full — a bummer for taking photos.
Cabin and Seat
Though Korean Air’s business-class cabin on the 787-9 felt small to me, JAL’s on the 77W — that’s how the 777-300ER is known under the International Air Transport Association’s coding system — felt large, probably because of the 2-3-2 configuration. On paper, 2-3-2 sounds like an outdated, subpar business-class product, but since the airline picked Apex suites for its biz product, the configuration provided plenty of space and privacy, even with a third seat in the middle section.
I made my way to Seat 9K, and was very impressed with it.
To reach it, I had to pass through a narrow gap that gave me access to the aisle. It was admittedly a bit tight, but I enjoyed this, as it made my seat feel removed from the rest of the cabin.
Compared to my middle seat on Korean, this one was phenomenally private. I’m a big fan of the staggered Apex suite configuration, as it allows for high density but provides passengers with their own spaces. I already had to strain to look back at my seatmate, but a divider between the two seats made things even more private.
I was also a fan of the earth tones in the cabin, which matched the experience I had in the Sakura Lounge. Plus, the suede lining the inside of the suite added to the premium feel.
When the seat was reclined all the way, I found it to be supremely comfortable. In fact, I was able to sleep for about seven hours, which I’m pretty sure is close to my all-time record for sleeping on a plane. The pillow was also fantastic and probably a deciding factor in my great success in sleeping.
The seat controls were conveniently located, though I did notice signs of wear and tear on the trim in this area. Nothing major, but I could tell this wasn’t a brand-new bird. In fact, its tail code JA732J revealed that it was the first 777-300ER built, back in 2003.
Overall, I found the hard product on my flight to be excellent. Unlike Korean Air, there weren’t really any bad options for seats, since even middle seats in the middle section were staggered and as a result also very private.
Amenities and IFE
Waiting for me at my seat were a pillow, blanket, a pair of slippers, noise-canceling headphones and a dining menu.
After I settled into my seat, a flight attendant gave me an Etro-branded amenity kit. I wasn’t a big fan of the design of the bag, but I was of its contents. Even though it was on the lighter side in terms of number of amenities, everything was of high quality, and I appreciated having a stick of lip balm, as my lips often get very dry after several hours of airplane air beating down on them. Also inside were a set of earplugs, a face mask, an eye mask, tissues and a dental kit.
I put my slippers on right away and once again thanked my lucky stars for them — I may sound like a broken record, but I really enjoy plane slippers. The flight attendant offered me a cardigan but no pajama pants. I declined, since I was wearing a T-shirt and was comfortable, and didn’t want to get too hot with a heavier shirt.
The noise-canceling headphones also worked great — when I got to use them.
I had issues with the inflight entertainment on my flight. Things started out just fine, but as I was settling into the flight, I noticed that my IFE system wasn’t behaving correctly. I pressed my call button, and a flight attendant appeared in a matter of seconds. She said she’d reset the system, which seemed to work at first, but as soon as I took the wired remote out from the seat, it shut down and began to reset again. It did this many times over, until I was finally able to keep the system working long enough to get a movie started. Once it started, I didn’t touch a thing until it was over.
I forgot about my IFE problems while I snoozed, but when we got close to landing, I decided I wanted to take a look at the inflight maps. Then I quickly remembered the glitchiness. Eventually, I was able to keep the system working long enough to pull up a map view, but once again didn’t touch anything until we landed.
No other passengers seemed to be having problems, so I chalked it up as a fluke. The flight attendants apologized profusely, and I wasn’t too bothered, since I ended up sleeping for so much of the flight. Had I planned to stay awake or had trouble sleeping, however, it would have been a major problem, for sure.
Wi-Fi performance started out promisingly but then really declined as the flight went on. Thankfully, I’d already gotten work done at the lounge, so I wasn’t too concerned about having a strong connection while in flight.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Japan Airlines called its inflight service (including its food-and-beverage program and its bedding products) BEDD Sky Auberge, and it was designed by a team of “top-class chefs.” After talking to other TPGers, I came in with high hopes for JAL’s food, and it definitely met my expectations. It was one of the most memorable meals I’ve had, especially in business class.
Meal service started out soon after boarding with a glass of Delamotte Blanc de Blancs N.V. Champagne served in a plastic stem glass.
For the main event, there was a choice of Japanese and Western dishes. I went with the Japanese. To start, there was a piece of sesame tofu with wasabi and a sweet corn mousse with ham and mimolette cheese — I liked the latter more, probably because I’m generally not the biggest tofu fan.
The next course was “a selection of seasonal colorful delicacies,” and included five different small dishes, all presented in one elegant dish. The dishes, from left to right, were as follows:
- Flower-shaped lotus root, simmered Pacific saury, Japanese pepper, rolled omelet and taro
- Cauliflower puree and bonito broth jelly topped with caviar
- Braised pork, sukiyaki-style carrot, slow-cooked egg, shiitake mushroom, scallions and konjac noodles
- Vinegared persimmon and vegetables dressed with sesame cream
- Tuna sashimi with grated radish citrus soy sauce
These dishes were masterfully presented, and made me forget I was on an airplane. I was familiar with some of the dishes, but there were plenty of new foods and flavors for me just in this one course. I could tell everything was of very high quality, even the plates the foods were served on.
To drink, I asked the flight attendant to pick a sake for me. I like sake, but truthfully know nothing about it, so I usually rely on the expertise of a servers. She picked a cold sake I enjoyed immensely, and it made me think I was eating in a high-end Tokyo restaurant rather than in a pod at 35,000 feet.
Up next was the main course (I think?), which consisted of pork loin cutlet with egg and deep-fried cutlassfish, served with steamed rice, miso soup and Japanese pickles. Once again, I found this food to be delicious — perfectly cooked and full of flavor. The fish was actually still crispy enough to have some bite — an impressive feat on a plane, where fried foods usually end up soggy.
For dessert, I was served a dish consisting of rice wafers served with matcha-milk-flavored white-kidney-bean jam. Until it was presented, I really didn’t know what to expect, but I found it to be quite good, and a perfect dessert for someone who doesn’t like overly sweet treats.
The next meal service could be served at any time you wanted, as long as you put in the order with at least 90 minutes left in the flight. The choices on my flight were: vegetable salad, chicken curry, fresh fettuccine, soba noodles by Tsuta (the Michelin-starred Tokyo ramen restaurant), udon noodles, a grilled-chicken-and-mushroom sandwich, a pork-cutlet sandwich and assorted cheeses.
I ordered the udon noodles, which sounded like the perfect comfort food to round out my flight. And I picked right: The noodles were absolutely fabulous and, honestly, just writing about them makes me miss them.
To finish off my meal, I went with a classic: Häagen-Dazs strawberry ice cream.
I found the service to be excellent on my flight, the only drawback being that the flight attendant didn’t offer me a mattress pad. I wouldn’t have given this a second thought, but as I was deplaning, I noticed a few pads in the overhead bins around my seat.
Other than that, the FAs went the extra mile to make sure I had a great flight. They came around often during meal service to check if I had everything I wanted, but when it was time to sleep, they weren’t intrusive in the slightest.
Plus, one FA picked out a sake for me to enjoy with my meal and did a great job at that. Although there was no bar to get drinks at midflight, the FAs set up an area at which you could help yourself to a glass of wine, water or a snack or two.
It was a pleasure to fly Japan Airlines, and I got off the plane in New York wanting to do it all over again, despite the troubles I had with my IFE system. The hard product, while not the newest in the sky, was still fantastically private and comfortable, and the soft product was tough to beat in terms of food and service.
It all felt like an authentically Japanese experience, bolstered by an incredible group of lounge attendants, gate agents and flight attendants who made sure I had a great flight. I caught myself at many times wishing that this airline had been a member of SkyTeam so that I could’ve earned miles and Medallion Qualifying Miles and Medallion Qualifying Dollars with Delta, my airline of choice. Though that last part is unlikely to ever happen, I will say that it’s likely I fly JAL again — sooner rather than later.
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