Spa at 35,000 feet: A review of Japan Airlines in first class from New York to Tokyo
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During the COVID-19 crisis, our team has temporarily ceased taking review trips. However, we have resumed the publication of new, previously unpublished flight, hotel and lounge reviews, from trips taken before the lockdown. To help keep you entertained — and maybe inspire you — we are also republishing a selection of our most popular reviews from 2019 and 2020, including the one below, which was originally published in August 2019. We hope this will help you choose once we’re all ready to start booking trips again.
Note that according to Japan Airlines, flights between New York and Tokyo are suspended for the entire month of May 2020, during which the airline will operate a limited schedule to the U.S. serving only Chicago and Los Angeles. This review has been edited from the original to reflect that Japan Airlines no longer serves Tokyo’s Narita airport from New York, but only Haneda — and that the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo have been postponed to 2021.
There are a few things in life I know to be true: I probably wouldn’t exist without coffee, any pizza is a personal pizza if you believe in yourself, and flying Japan Airlines in first class was one of the most amazing things to ever happen to me.
(Yes, even more so than Cathay Pacific.)
The service was truly top-notch, the seat was comfortable and spacious, and there was enough food to feed a small army. In short, I felt like royalty, and 12 and a half hours weren’t enough.
Let me start off by saying that booking JAL F using miles is a steal. Why, you ask? Well, let’s consider the fact that a one-way ticket from New York to Tokyo – Haneda (HND) starts at at least $13,000. As you might imagine, booking the cash price was out of the question — and that’s exactly where Alaska Airlines came into play.
Alaska Airlines MileagePlan miles are some of the most valuable miles you can earn. Granted, they’re not as easy to earn as some of the other transferable currencies, but there are often buy-miles promotions that allow you to stock up on miles at a reasonable price. Typically, we don’t advise buying miles, since the value you get out of them isn’t worth it, but if you have a specific redemption in mind, like we did, then go for it.
After a couple of hours of searching on Alaska’s website, I found a date with first-class availability between New York and Tokyo that worked with my schedule so we booked the ticket for 70,000 miles and $18. According to our latest valuations, Alaska miles are worth 1.8 cents a pop, making those 70,000 miles worth about $1,260. Which means you could spend $13,000 or you could, you know, not. Like I said, a steal.
The check-in experience was seamless, and that’s saying something considering JAL departs from Terminal 1 at JFK. Things just worked. I was the only person in line, and the agent was nice and very efficient.
She tagged my luggage to Tokyo and told me that I had access to the Lufthansa first-class lounge a few steps from security. I, being the neurotic person I am, already knew this, as I had researched extensively, but alas.
Now before you get all excited, this was not the Lufthansa first-class terminal of lore at Frankfurt Airport. Instead, it was a two-floor space, one for business and one for first class, with mediocre food and drinks.
As a first-class passenger, I had access to both sections, but I stayed in the first-class section. It was pretty empty when I got there around 9am, and stayed that way until around 10:30am. The bar didn’t open until 10.
The hot bar had scrambled and hard-boiled eggs, turkey bacon and lo mein. Interesting choices, huh?
They also had fruit, veggies, cheese and pretzel rolls.
I ended up having scrambled eggs and turkey bacon, which were exactly what you’d expect. I didn’t want to fill up too much, either, since I knew I’d be eating nonstop for the next week.
That said, this candy bar was pretty tempting.
Before I went to head to my gate, I decided to stop by the business-class lounge downstairs to see what they offered.
Interestingly enough, it seemed the business-class section actually had more options to eat, though it was definitely more crowded.
They even had bacon!
There was a selection of fruits and yogurt, too.
Boarding was a breeze. There was a small case of gate lice, as to be expected, but everyone was orderly and waited in the appropriate lines.
Boarding was on time and began at 11:10am, and by 11:12am, I was on my way to my
Cabin and Seat
The 777-300ER is a fixture of JAL’s long-haul fleet — the airline currently has 13 of them, and 4 of the non-ER 777-300.
The first-class cabin is arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration with plenty of privacy. Not as much privacy as you’ll find in an Emirates first-class suite, but enough that you won’t really see the person next to you unless you go out of your way to do so.
Yeah, I wasn’t kidding when I said it’s a throne. It even smelled fresh and clean, like a spa … but more on that later.
My seat, 2A, was very private, even without sliding doors. Personally, I like having a little opening in the divider, otherwise I get claustrophobic.
The seat itself measured 23 inches across and 79 inches when fully reclined.
Here’s a little video tour:
Even when the seat was fully upright, I had to stretch to touch the ottoman — and I’m about 5 feet, 7 inches. It’s that spacious.
There were a ton of storage compartments, including an ottoman where I could store two of my many bags (I have a lot of stuff, OK?).
I really appreciate when airlines are not only thoughtful about how many storage compartments they have, but when they really consider the types of items people bring with them. In typical Japanese fashion, JAL did so — and passed with flying colors.
There was another storage compartment to store more items, although it definitely could have been a little cleaner.
I also really appreciated how easy it was to move the tray table back and forth, making it far less complicated to get up to stretch or use the bathroom without feeling like you have to deconstruct the entire seat.
While it was extremely comfortable and far from a terrible way to spend 13 hours — the complete opposite, in fact — my biggest complaint was the bed itself. After I ate, the flight attendant came around to ask if I would prefer a soft or firm mattress for turndown service. She explained that the hard one is good for sleeping and the soft one is good for relaxation. I got the hard one, since I wanted to try to get some sleep.
The mattress pad itself was comfortable, but it was so weird to me that it was just that … a mattress pad. There was no cover sheet, and the mattress pad would move around, since it wasn’t secured in any way. First World problems, I know, but this flight wasn’t cheap no matter how you looked at it, so of course I wanted the best of the best. This was the biggest shortcoming of the experience.
The airline kept the cabin pretty warm throughout the flight, so I would definitely recommend wearing layers. I did end up changing into the pajamas they gave, though, and they were very comfortable — and this is coming from a person who pretty much lives in sweatpants and leggings.
The bathroom was small but immaculately maintained.
I was happy to see a serum and body emulsion. The Japanese don’t mess around with skincare.
Of course, I had to take an obligatory bathroom selfie. How’d I do, Nicky Kelvin?
An interesting nugget, by the way: I was the only woman flying in first class.
Amenities and IFE
A blanket and firm pillow were waiting for my arrival. Of course, I took my time to stretch out, get settled and explore all of the goodies. Love a good goodie.
The amenity kit was designed by Etro. I wasn’t really a fan of the print, but then again, that’s just me.
Inside, there were plenty of (you guessed it) amenities, including two different types of eye masks, earplugs, mouthwash, a brush, moisturizer, lip balm, tissues and a toothbrush.
They also offered Bose noise-cancelling headphones, which are some of the best you can find in the sky (and on the ground). They were comfy to wear, too!
But the real cherry on top was this baby:
Yup, a face mask! I usually bring my own on long-haul flights — the stale air does wonders for your skin, let me tell you — so it was exciting to see such a thoughtful amenity here. Between that and my comfortable pajamas and slippers, well, I had my own little spa in the sky.
Speaking of TV, though, the IFE system could use a little work. The screen was large but was not responsive at all.
Instead, I used the remote next to the bed. I would have done so anyway so I didn’t end up having to do sit ups every time I wanted to change the channel or adjust the volume, but it’s the thought that counts.
The movie and TV selections also struggled a bit. They had Hollywood favorites like “Green Book” and “Crazy Rich Asians” but nothing else really sounded appealing to me. I ended up watching “Bohemian Rhapsody” again and two episodes of “Sex and the City” — never mind the fact that they were the Aleksandr Petrovsky episodes, too. I mean, if you’re going to have a few random episodes, at least make sure they’re the Aidan ones.
The Wi-Fi was complimentary, although it kept cutting out — which was fine by me, since I really wanted to enjoy the flight without being glued to my phone.
My advice? Come prepared with a book … and also probably some melatonin.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
JAL’s dining service is called “BEDD Sky Auberge,” which they consider a restaurant in the sky. They offer both a Japanese menu and a Western menu. I asked for the Japanese one, obviously. To say I was excited is an understatement.
The food-and-beverage service started off with a glass of Piper-Heidsieck Champagne right after I got settled in my “throne.” It was the perfect start to my long journey and weeklong eating and drinking extravaganza.
Though we ended up taking off three minutes after noon, the rest of the service was on the slow side. By 1:20pm, I only had my appetizers … and of course, Champagne.
Japan Airlines offered three types of Champagne on this flight: Champagne Salon 2007, Louis Roederer Cristal 2009 and Comtes de Champagne Grands Crus Blanc de Blancs 2007.
I ordered a class of Cristal(!!!) to start. It was accompanied by prosciutto, melon and a delicious little mushroom with cheese.
I then ordered a glass of Comtes, which according to the menu, was the gold winner in the International Wine Challenge in 2019. It lived up to the title.
You know you’re going to have a good meal when the appetizers blow it out of the water. In Japanese, these small dishes are known as kozara. It consisted of … drumroll, please … a grilled flounder roll, grilled lobster with egg yolk vinegar, a Japanese omelet topped with caviar, sea bream with braised soy pulp and a fried soft-shell crab marinated in vinegar sauce. Drool.
Owan, or the bowl dish, was a clear broth with grilled sea bass and winter melon.
Next up was azukebachi, which consisted of broiled eggplant and somen noodles in Japanese broth jelly. I didn’t really like the jelly but the sashimi was incredibly fresh.
Dainomono was sukiyaki-style beefsteak. It was a little on the bland side and definitely could have been warmer. For hanmono, they offered a choice of ginger rice or steamed rice. I asked the flight attendant which one she preferred, to which she said, “I prefer the ginger, but I’ll bring both for you!” First class has its perks — and yes, she was right about the ginger rice.
Dessert, or kanmi, was black sesame pudding and black tea. I’m not a fan of jelly, so it wasn’t for me, but if you like jelly, you’d probably enjoy this quite a bit.
By this point, it was safe to say that I was sufficiently stuffed …
… which didn’t last long because after I slept for a few hours, I was ready for a snack. JAL had a pretty substantial à la carte dining menu. Get ready for this:
- Sliced duck breast rice bowl
- Japanese delicacies, including scallop with spicy cod roe, seasoned stem lettuce and soy-marinated enoki mushroom
- Assorted appetizers, including prosciutto with sesame oil and soy pulp salad
- Eggplant and mozzarella pavé with pomodoro sauce
- Vegetable curry with Hokkaido potatoes and onions
- Creamy corn soup
- Chorizo-and-Manchego cheese quesadilla
- Fresh salad
- Healthy ramen noodles from Kyushu “Kyushu Jangara” (The note said the dish was designed to utilize umami without meat.)
- Hot udon
- Cold soba
- Assorted cheeses
- Fresh fruits
- Ice cream
- A Japanese set plate consisting of:
- Grilled Spanish mackerel “Saikyo Miso” flavor
- Kobachi, or specially selected fermented soybeans
- Steamed rice
- Miso soup
- Japanese pickles
- A Western set plate consisting of:
- Beef with rice, bibimbap style
- Tomato panna cotta
Don’t worry, I’m hungry just typing that, too.
I ended up ordering soba noodles, because, one, yum and, two, like I mentioned before, the cabin was pretty hot. While they were very refreshing, it took over 20 minutes for them to be served.
About 90 minutes before landing, flight attendants came around with breakfast options. I had just woken up and wasn’t really hungry, so I just ordered green tea and fruit.
All in all, they weren’t kidding about being a restaurant in the sky.
The service was hands down the highlight of my experience on Japan Airlines (and throughout my vacation in Japan in general). From the second I got on the plane, the flight attendants had a genuine smile on their faces and attended to my every need. Once you go to Japan, you’ll understand, but the hospitality in this country is truly top-notch. This flight was no exception. When I told them this was my first time going to Japan, their faces lit up as they asked me what I was doing and if I needed any recommendations. One of the flight attendants even gave me beautiful coasters to commemorate the flight — they’re still on my desk! Minus some minor delays with some of the food, the service was nothing less than stellar.
Japan Airlines first class is one of the best ways to fly, period, not to mention a life highlight that I’ll treasure for a long time. While it wasn’t 100% perfect, nothing is, and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to kick off my weeklong solo trip to Japan. They can definitely make improvements to the ground experience, IFE, and bed, but the service was truly exceptional, and you’ll eat so much food you’ll swear you won’t be able to eat all the ramen, sushi and udon waiting for you when you land. Combine that with the fact that you can fly it for a fraction of the asking price, and you’re looking at a once-in-a-lifetime experience that is sure to exceed your expectations.
All photos by the author.
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