Online check-in wasn’t available because of Japan’s entry requirements around proof of vaccination. Since the country’s reopening, travelers need to spend some time getting to know the Visit Japan web system several days before their flight. Its separate QR codes function as proof of vaccination, immigration and customs forms. The authorities validate each stage online before moving on to the next, meaning everyone must check back in an hour or two to see whether the documents have been accepted. Overall, it took an afternoon (on and off) to complete all the steps, with a couple of issues needing to be resolved. Top tip: Do this on your smartphone and make a note of your login somewhere that is easy to access. At the airport, there was no line for boarding, with multilingual staff quickly scanning my Visit Japan QR vaccination code, affixing luggage tags to my bag, and issuing my boarding pass.
Slightly frustratingly, the airline did not post a 30-minute boarding delay on the airport screens, so I ended up cooling my heels at the gate. However, despite a delay in boarding, First Class had a separate boarding door, which quickly started the serenity of Japan Airlines’ First Class.
First Class on Japan Airlines—available on all its Boeing 777-300ERs, which fly long-haul routes including to the U.S. and Europe—is called the JAL Suite. Even though it doesn’t have doors, it’s still very private. I’ve flown it before and enjoy it, mainly because everything is elegantly simple, with a minimum of flashy bells and whistles.
There’s ample storage, including space for large carry-ons beneath the seat in front and large side compartments for handbags, phones and so on. It’s infinitely adjustable from fully upright to fully flat, with a great leg rest that allows you to choose a variety of positions as you nestle your way to and from Tokyo.
The large table pulls down smoothly and enables partner dining, while the fully flatbed is comfortable and features a choice of a firm or soft Airweave mattress, on which I got a good night’s sleep. The only thing to note is that the screen feels a little small compared with more modern seats, and the power socket is quite distant from the seat, so make sure to bring a longer cord.
Japanese hospitality is excellent at making one feel immediately relaxed. As I sank into my seat, the crew presented comfortable pajamas, a Zero Halliburton amenity kit, a Shiseido Men facial care kit and the First Class folio containing the menu, wine list and complimentary Wi-Fi code for the flight. (Wi-Fi verdict: acceptable—nothing to write home about, but it worked for emails and socials.)
The food and wine were exquisite. While JAL still serves the most expensive champagne in the sky, Salon, outbound from Tokyo, it varies its inbound bottles. Featured on my flight was the 2007 vintage prestige cuvée from the top-notch Billecart-Salmon champagne house, the Cuvée Nicolas François. The Taittinger Comtes de Champagne wasn’t available, but Drappier’s prestige cuvée Grande Sendrée of the 2012 vintage more than made up for it.
The rest of the extensive wine list was a joy to explore on what is now—due to the overflight ban on Russia—a delightfully long 13-plus-hour flight. I was impressed that in addition to the standard Bordeaux, JAL is working with New World wine producers Igai Takaha in California and Kusuda in New Zealand, who have Japanese connections.
Sake and shochu are, of course, also available. They pair well with the splendid eight-course kyo-kaiseki-style tasting menu—hands down the best dinner I have ever had on an airplane. Be sure to preselect the Japanese menu online before your flight to ensure that you, too, can have this joy.
But the standout on this flight was JAL’s fantastic crew, who exemplified signature Japanese omotenashi, the kind of warm, personable hospitality you would find in a traditional ryokan hotel. The service was outstanding, down to the practiced present-pour-present of the champagne and the subtle JAL logo on the glass always facing you. The side area next to the First Class door of the aircraft featured a charming and changing seasonal tablescape, with a lovely Japanese fabric cloth, pictures of Japan, and, variously, cognac with glasses, a small coffeepot, and elegant snacks.
There’s no priority arrivals lane at Tokyo Haneda, and when I arrived early in Japan’s reopening, the passport process was a bit of a line-up-and-wait affair. It was well organized, with multilingual staffers pointing you in the right direction as you first presented the vaccination QR code. The immigration QR code is at the passport desk, then the customs QR code at the new customs kiosks. From the snaking line, though, I did spot my bag pop out third onto the conveyor belt—with handles facing forwards, as is the Japanese style—although by the time I got there my bag (and all the others with First Class tags) had been taken off the belt and neatly grouped, ready to roll, for my convenience.
JAL’s First Class flies under the radar. The seat, while not a doored suite, is immensely comfortable, the food is exquisite, the beverage list impressive, the cabin crew delightful, and the overall experience an absolute joy. I would happily choose it over almost any other First Class experience.
Elegantly refined service, getting immediately into the mood of being in Japan, and great sleep
13 hours, two minutes