Flight du jour:
Chicago (ORD) to Tokyo (NRT)
September 6, 2015
Departs: 12:35 PM
Arrives: (Next Day) 3:35 PM
Duration: 13 Hours 15 Minutes
I love JAL first class. After the mediocrity that is domestic first class on American Airlines, what a lovely feeling it is to get settled into my JAL first class suite.
When boarding it is common for first class passengers to board through one door while the rest of the plane boards through the other. This time everyone boarded through the same door and first class passengers broke left, everyone else broke right. We were lucky enough to get the window seats on the right hand side of the plane; seats 1K and 2K, and were escorted there by one of the very friendly flight attendants who would be making the next 13+ hours a really wonderful experience.
JAL’s first class seats are 33 inches wide and fold flat into a 78.5 inch long bed with a mattress pad for extra comfort. The seat has lots of controls to help you get the seat setup just right and the controls are fairly intuitive. With the full size pillows that they provide, you can generally get quite comfortable.
I might like Cathay’s seat a bit better, because the back of the seat goes higher, giving more neck support, but both products are excellent. In terms of appearance, JAL’s seats seem like they are meant to look as though they should be occupied by a Japanese guy smoking a cigar and drinking scotch, perhaps while berating his employees on speaker-phone. They definitely have a “big boss” look about them and considering that they retail for over $20,000 for a round-trip flight, it’s probably an appropriate aesthetic.
The first class cabin is a good size. Eight seats are arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, with retractable privacy barriers between the two middle seats. Everyone has direct aisle access, and each window seat gets 3-4 windows all to themselves.
One thing that JAL first clearly rocks at is storage space. Each passenger gets their own full-size overhead bin as well as plenty of storage in the panel next to their seat. Pro-tip; don’t forget your ipad in the surprisingly deep storage compartment in the side panel.
This flight had brand-spanking new Bose noise cancelling headphones. I find that the peace and quiet afforded by good noise-canceling headphones makes the flight much more enjoyable. It took me a second to find the headphone jack as it is a little hidden and resides under the reading light.
I love reading foreign newspapers on international flights. They always have the most interesting articles.
There were slippers waiting for me at my seat and there is a special little shoe compartment under the bench opposite to my seat where you can stow your kicks for the flight. It’s great having slippers so you don’t have to put your shoes on when you head to the rest room.
Speaking of rest rooms, the Japanese bidet system in the first class bathroom is awesome.
JAL keeps the champagne flowing in the first class cabin from the moment you board the aircraft until just before landing. They brought over a hot towel and a glass of Champagne Salon 2002 just as I was settling into my seat. Champagne Salon is my favorite champagne by far and it is one of the many aspects of the JAL first experience that I look forward to.
I finished up my initial glass of champagne and they took my glass and wet towel away and we were off! The takeoff was smooth and once we reached cruising altitude the first class cabin attendant came over to take our drink orders. I told her that we would like to dine together and so she set up our table and soon returned with our drinks as well as our amenity kits.
In addition to the unisex Loewe amenity kit, they also bring you a men’s or women’s care kit.
The Amenity kit included:
- Eye Mask
- Dental kit
- Face mask
- Agua De Loewe perfume/cologne
- Agua De Loewe lip balm
- Agua De Loewe Revitalizing towel
- Folding comb and brush combo
The face mask is something that I have never used before, but this time I gave it a shot. What a difference it makes! Instead of feeling like a piece of beef jerky upon landing from having spent 14 hours in the moisture-free cabin, the face mask completely eliminated the dryness that I usually feel. Never again will I pass up using the face mask while sleeping on the plane and I would go as far as to say that this tiny little piece of fabric secured over your face will make one of the biggest differences for how you feel after an ultra-long haul flight (next to sleep of course). Even if you are stuck in coach, do yourself a favor and bring a face mask along with you.
Now on to the main event! While I thoroughly enjoy champagne Salon and nothing goes better with caviar, I do love wine an inordinate amount. So each flight I look forward to working my way through the wine list. On the ground, such behavior is prohibitively expensive. But that’s the joy of flying first class, your not on the ground and at this exclusive restaurant they won’t be bringing you a bill.
The Royal Blue Tea served in JAL First is something unique to JAL first class as far as I know. It is smooth, delicious and comes in a wine bottle. I highly recommend it.
One of my favorite treats in JAL first class is the Graham’s tawny 30 year port. I tried it on our previous trip in JAL first and it was like liquid heaven. So imagine my dismay when I learned that they had neglected to load any onto the flight in Chicago! Clearly, the cabin crew has yet to try it, otherwise they would have triple-checked to make sure that it was on board. You could be forgiven for pulling away from the gate without half the passengers on-board, but leaving without ensuring that the port is secured is borderline criminal.
Now on to the food. While 13 hours in the air won’t put this flight within the top 10 for longest flights in the world, it is still plenty of time in the air. This makes the ability to dine across from your traveling companion one of my favorite perks that JAL offers to their first class passengers. Spending 3 to 4 hours of the flight drinking and dining together makes the flight much more enjoyable and the time just fly by.
The Western dinner options for this flight looked quite good and I was happy to see that several of the options didn’t involve fish/seafood.
The Japanese menu is rather impressive as well and includes 14 different items in addition to rice.
Before the meal festivities began they brought out an amuse bouche with three options to enjoy. I enjoyed the one involving the prosciutto. If you are into fish I think that the smoked fish with caviar and creme fraiche topping would be a hit. The third option is a mystery, both in its ingredients and in its appeal.
A little snack before the meal. I find natto to be an acquired taste that I have yet to fully acquire (though I do eat it on occasion while in Japan). On the other hand, the lotus, beet and sweet potato chips were yummy.
There was a lot of seafood action happening with the hors d’oeuvres but I gave them a shot anyhow. I tried the Cauliflower veloute with black truffle nantua and bay scallops(not really my thing), scampe escabeche with spiced greek yoghurt (swing and a miss) and brioche egg custard with sauteed foie gras, fig jam and balsamic vinegar (I found the seared foie gras to be unpleasantly chewy and the rest of the dish to be mediocre). So the Western option for hors d’oeuvres wasn’t my favorite.
Em enjoyed her hors d’ouevres; minced duck cake, grilled black cod “saikyo Miso” flavored crab meat rolled with radish, Prawn pumpkin and spinach dressed with tofu sauce, poached mushroom and spinach, warm Conger eel “sushi”.
The lobster soup with mushrooms was very light and also a hit.
Now for someone who doesn’t like fish or seafood much (yet spends 9 months a year traveling in Asia), it strikes me as odd that I enjoy caviar so much. I had yet to even taste caviar until the first time I traveled in Cathay Pacific first class (the taxes and fees I paid on that ticket were less than cost of the jar of caviar I ate) and I was shocked at its unique deliciousness. I hope caviar is my gateway dish into liking fish and seafood more broadly, as it seems like half the cuisine in the world involves fish to some extent and I do feel that I am missing out on a ton of good food because of my aversion.
But enough about me, back to the caviar! The caviar service this time was much improved from the last time I flew JAL first. While previously it was served with a ceviche, proving too fishy for my liking, this time it was served with the classic accompaniments (red onions, chives, egg, blini, boiled potato, lemon wedge and creme fraiche). It was delightful. There is a certain complex earthiness to caviar that is unlike any other food I have tasted and I always look forward to a little caviar before my meal on my first class flights.
The next round for Em involved stuffed shiitake mushroom/shrimp with sesame soy jelly, herring roe/salmon and egg yolk “sushi” style and miso-marinated zucchini. She commented that the herring roe was the most insanely strong fish flavor she had ever encountered and the texture was somewhat more coarse than expected. Other than that, this course was not remarkable.
Em went with the Japanese main which was the simmered eel served with vegetables and ordered the miso soup and steamed rice as well. She said it was delicious.
The Western main that I went with was the veal and it was incredibly tender and delicious. The vegetables and the potatoes au gratin made an excellent pairing to the veal and I would have been extremely pleased with this meal on the ground, and was doubly so having it in the sky.
The dessert was mango mousse and it was almost like a light mango cheesecake. It was excellent. Sweet, but not overly so and very light on the tongue. The mint reduction, and fresh mint leaf complimented the mango flavor perfectly. Very nice.
The Japanese sweets were slightly more paradoxical. The light, perfumey flavor and the mochi-like texture were alright, but not my favorite. Em is a big fan of mochi, a Japanese sweet, and enjoyed the Japanese dessert.
Just in case you got thirsty on your way to the rest room, they provided more nibbles and a night cap adjacent to the galley.
Personally, I prefer my desserts to be liquid and alcoholic in nature. The only thing that wasn’t spectacular on this flight was that they forgot to load the Graham’s 30 year tawny port!
Anyhow, they brought us some Baileys and truffles which were tasty, but not the exquisite treat that I had been looking forward to.
After dinner it was time to get comfortable and ready for bed. While I was in the bathroom grooming my mustache they made my seat into a bed and put down the mattress pad and comforter. They are the only airline that I know that has an Airweave dual firmness mattress pad on their flights. One side of the mattress pad is firm while the other provides a softer sleeping surface, making for a more customized snoozefest.
I woke up with about an hour and a half left to go before our landing in Tokyo. Just enough time for a little something to eat prior to landing. I ordered the “Healthy Ramen Noodles” and they were indeed “persist of good taste” just as the menu had promised.
We touched down at Narita airport smoothly and taxied to our gate and we were through immigration and on our way to our hotel in no time. Sadly, there is no arrival lounge at Narita, so there is no opportunity to freshen up prior to heading to the hotel, which isn’t a huge deal, but it is something to note if you are planning on heading out immediately after landing.
I love the landing time for this flight, 3:35 PM, as it means that there is just enough time to head out for a couple hour walk before we grab dinner and then we just have to stay up a little longer to get a head start on punching jet lag in the face!
Food and Drink:
I find JAL has impeccable service in their first class cabin and this flight was no exception (4 ‘staches). While I find their seat and bed comfortable in general, I find Cathay’s first class seat to be more comfortable, even without the mattress pad (3 ‘staches). The food is very good in JAL first class, and their caviar service is greatly improved since my last flight, if I was into fish perhaps I would find the menu to be incredible (3 ‘staches). The crew was really lovely on this flight and, despite the lack of quality port, we had an excellent journey overall and would fly JAL first again without hesitation (3.5 ‘staches).
I look forward to my two additional trips in JAL first class this coming year and am a little saddened that the American Airlines devaluation will make this particular reward redemption very expensive. I guess I will just have to give Korean, Singapore and Emirates first class a shot, as all 3 of those options will be similarly priced, if not cheaper, post AA devaluation.
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