I was buzzing with excitement as we prepared to board our flight from Tokyo Narita to Chicago O’Hare. This was going to be my first time on Japan Airlines First Class and my second time flying First Class in general, and it promised to be an unforgettable occasion.
Immediately upon boarding I was greeted by the flight attendants who would be working the First Class cabin for the flight. I was shown to Seat 1G; the flight attendant also expressed her delight as I eagerly snapped some photographs of the cabin, and even offered to take some photos for me later on.
She also asked if this was my first time in JAL First, presumably so that the crew could deliver a flawless first impression, which they certainly did.
JAL First Class has a total of eight seats, arranged across two rows in a 1-2-1 configuration. The window seats are ideal for solo travellers, while the aisle seats in the centre could be a good choice for couples, since the partition between the two seats can easily be raised and lowered. On this flight, Jessica and I selected Seats 1D and 1G, the two centre seats in the first row.
While the airline’s business class seats reflect a forward-thinking design, the First Class cabin’s finishes are more old-school in their elegance. Known as JAL Suites, the individual seats are adorned in fine leather and woodgrain panelling, while the floor is decked out in a soft carpet with an ornate marbled pattern.
I sat down and took note of a few things that immediately caught my eye: the gorgeous 23’’ entertainment screen, the polished wood countertop running along the entire length of the suite, and of course the incredible amount of space you have.
As I was exploring the intricacies of the seat design, the flight attendant came by to offer me some Delamotte as my welcome champagne, making sure to allow me to examine the bottle before pouring a glass in front of my eyes. While Delamotte is served on the ground as a welcome drink, the in-flight champagne is a much fancier variety – more details on this to follow.
Looking back at the seat itself, a unique feature of JAL’s First Class product is the ottoman at the end of each suite, which forms part of your bed when the seat is put into lie-flat mode, but can also serve as a buddy seat that allows you to dine together with a fellow passenger. As you can see, the ottoman comes with its own seatbelt for this specific purpose.
There's a good amount of storage space under the ottoman where you can stow a small carry-on item, such as a backpack or a purse.
While it may seem fairly minor, I really appreciated the thin wooden countertop that spanned the length of the First Class suite. That’s because rectangular suites can often suffer from a lack of surface space, and during First Class flights I tend to leave a lot of items out and about – my camera, phone, books, bottled water, the in-flight menu, and various cords and chargers are all typically kept within arm’s reach, to name a few.
Parts of the wooden countertop are actually hollowed-out storage compartments, where you can store things like reading material, tablets, phones, and glasses.
The seat controls and LCD entertainment controls are located in this area as well, and there's even a mini mirror on one of the storage hatches that lets you have a quick primp.
If you're seated in one of the aisle seats, you'll also have a button allowing you to raise or lower the privacy partition running along the centre of the cabin. These buttons are located on the far side of the suite, meaning that you might have to get out of your seat to use it.
Up on the walls of the suite, you’ll find the twin reading lights on either side and the headphone jack. Overall, for a relatively standard First Class seat design, I thought Japan Airlines did a fine job balancing style and ergonomics.
The tray table pushes out from the very end of your suite. In my opinion this is is where the seat design has a minor drawback, primarily since you have to get out of your seat to bring the table towards you.
We finished up our photoshoot just as the boarding process reached its completion 😄
Six out of eight seats in First Class were filled, and the remaining passengers all seemed like important Japanese businessmen. In particular, the guy sitting in the window seat across from Jessica seemed like an extremely notable VIP, since the flight attendants were bowing profusely whenever they approached him.
The pre-departure rituals were in swift procession, with the crew members handing out the in-flight pajamas, slippers, and blankets. The pajamas came in a two-tone greyish-greenish colour combination, and were some of the most comfortable airline pajamas I've ever encountered.
To me, the true mark of a high-quality set of airline pajamas is how often you end up continuing to use them when you're at home, and I do indeed still use my JAL pajamas all the time.
Lastly, I checked out the Porsche Design amenity kit, which was waiting for us at our seat when we boarded. It consisted of ear plugs, tissue, a dental kit, an eye mask, a moisture mask, a comb, and various balms and creams.
While this is already quite an impressively stocked amenity kit, the real amenities wouldn't be delivered until later on in the flight as we were getting ready to sleep – again, more details on that when the time comes. One thing's for sure, Japan Airlines certainly likes to mix things up a bit and do things differently from their competition.
Our takeoff roll was relatively smooth, and the captain came on the PA to announce a flying time of 11 hours and 30 minutes. When you're flying First Class, it always comes as a slight disappointment when your flying time is cut shorter than the scheduled flight time, but that simply means you've got to try a bit harder to savour the occasion.
About 20 minutes after we reached cruising altitude, it was time to break bread. I didn't know it was coming, but I was about to encounter by far the most magnificent airline meal of my life. Get ready for a deluge of food photos!
The drinks menu was presented first, and read as follows. Note that this flight was on January 3, which was right before Japan Airlines made the switch from Salon to Cristal as their in-flight champagne. Make no mistake about the fact that both champagnes are splendid in their own right; however, Salon is marginally more expensive, so I was naturally delighted to get to try it right before it was discontinued.
The meal service began with a glass of that delightful Salon, paired with an amuse bouche of seared prosciutto, goose liver, and mashed peas topped with gold leaf. A pure show of decadence to kick things off, which I quite enjoyed.
The food menu was presented at the same time as the amuse bouche. Interestingly, the two amuse bouche courses seemed to be entirely "off-menu", so their descriptions are purely down to my taste buds.
As a reminder, Japan Airlines styles its menus as BEDD, which stands for "bed, dining, delicious, and dream, to subtly remind passengers ... that they can transform their seats into snug beds after a satisfying repast." Lovely!
The full menu read as follows:
Of course, to fully maximize our JAL First experience, I went ahead and selected the Japanese meal, while Jessica – for whom things like sea urchin and herring roe aren't the most appealing – opted for the Western option.
At this point I decided to move over to Jessica's buddy seat in order to dine with her face-to-face. While a great idea in principle, the reality is that the tray table is a bit small for both people's meals to be fully served at the same time. Meanwhile, if you're sitting in the buddy seat, your back is up against the entertainment screen, which gives you very little room to maneuver.
So in all likelihood, you'd be much more comfortable dining separately in your own respective suites. But it was worth it for the novelty!
The next course – amuse bouche the second – came presented in an absolutely bewildering fashion. A small glass of steamed egg, topped with chopped coriander leaves, and a vial of seasoning that you were supposed to squeeze into the concoction. What?!
Jessica's Western meal began with a small collection of items from the breadbasket, together with some butter, olive oil, and salt and pepper. The tiny sprinkle of peppercorns on a bed of salt crystals doesn't seem particularly practical, although the presentation was certainly exquisite.
While the crew members did their best to coordinate serving both our meals course-by-course, it was understandably a little difficult to get things to line up exactly between the Japanese and Western menus, so the food started to arrive in a slightly disjointed fashion. Jessica and I didn't care, since we both wanted to try a little bit of everything, anyway.
Case in point, the main course of my Japanese kaiseki meal arrived at nearly the same time as the appetizer of the Western meal – caviar. It made for a satisfying clash of flavours that I can't say I minded too much.
Let's have a proper look at five snack-sized dishes that kicked off the Japanese meal. From the top clockwise, we have egg cake, herring roe & poached winter vegetables, yuba in egg tofu topped with sea urchin in a cold starch sauce, Spanish mackerel & turnip, and stewed bimeiton pork.
I sampled my way around the tray, giving each morsel the attention they deserved. The herring roe had a distinct crunchy texture and much less of a fishy taste than I was expecting, the sea urchin melted in my mouth instantly, and the bimeiton pork – a particularly soft and rich variety of pork from Ibaraki Prefecture – was delightfully fragrant and flavourful.
As we went around the Japanese tray in circles, we simultaneously took to the caviar course. Never mind that only one of us had ordered the Western meal – the flight attendants came with two plates of caviar without us even asking.
The caviar was salty, but not overpowering. On this flight, it was accompanied by egg yolk cream with chopped onions and chives as well as a thin crispy rice wafer.
The blue lobster and cauliflower salad from the Western menu was the next course to arrive. To be honest, it was getting kind of difficult to keep track of all these dishes, especially with several glasses of free-flowing Salon in my system. I just sort of started eating whatever was put in front of me, which if you ask me is exactly what a First Class meal service should be all about.
Not to be outdone, it was then the Japanese meal's turn to dazzle. The owan dish was served – a soup-type appetizer literally meaning "bowled dish" – and consisted of Japanese soup with steamed prawn cake and grated turnip, topped with another gold leaf.
At this point, the meal service was about an hour old, and we were still just getting into the thick of things. Jessica and I decided to mix it up a bit and switch from the Salon to the Kokuryu sake, which was served together with three more dishes: the two seafood dishes from the Japanese menu, plus the Western main course of scallop and risotto.
The seafood dishes consisted of kelp-flavoured scallop and northern shrimp (with another small dollop of caviar on the side), and snow crab with black vinegar jelly. I absolutely love fancy seafood and took to these dishes with according enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, Jessica's scallops were cooked to perfection, although the sauce was a little too complex for both of our tastes.
And the food just kept on coming. Then it was time for the dainomono – literally "elevated dish", referring to its exceptional quality – which was a beef fillet sukiyaki topped with a runny slow-cooked egg.
It was an impossibly tender cut of beef, served alongside steamed rice and a miso soup that went slightly overboard with the seaweed.
On the ground, I usually skip dessert if I'm eating at a fancy establishment, both because I tend to be quite full and I don't want to run up the bill too much.
On a First Class flight over the Pacific, at the tail end of an extraordinary gastronomic experience, somehow neither of those reasons seemed compelling. And so dessert was served.
Jessica's Western dessert was something called a Mont Blanc – an absolutely gorgeous swirl of chestnut flavoured ice cream housed in a chocolate hard-shell. These fancy flights keep teaching me about new kinds of desserts, that's for sure.
That rings doubly true for my Japanese dessert, which like the rest of the meal was presented as a multi-dish tray. There was a tub of teasingly bittersweet Roppongi pudding, a baked pistachio cake... and that thing in the corner that looks like a bird's nest full of eggs? That's orange compote jelly with caramel ice cream. Who thinks of these things?
A brief word on the service throughout the flight. It's easy to praise the service when you're being pampered with plate after plate of gourmet food, but in this case I genuinely thought the service was excellent. That's because the crew paid a great deal of attention to all the little things throughout the meal and indeed the rest of the flight – for example, never letting our drinks remain empty, asking us if we wanted our desserts served together given that Jessica's had been prepared before mine, etc.
Finally, a full two and a half hours after my first glass of Salon was poured, I had a cappuccino to top off the meal. This had been a veritable feast.
A meal like that is naturally followed by a barnstorming visit to the restroom, and I took the opportunity to change into my pajamas as well. The flight attendant asked if I'd like her to make my bed. Since I usually like to limit my sleeping time on First Class flights, I told her yes I wanted to sleep but to wake me up in four hours.
The First Class restroom had plenty of space to maneuver in, as well as a changing deck and a fitting floor that ensured comfort and cleanliness as you were getting changed.
I went back to my seat to find it nicely put together into an inviting bed. Before I slept, the crew came by to hand out some more goodies, including some haute-couture cosmetics: a Clé de Peau beauty mask for Jessica, a Shiseido men's skincare kit for myself (consisting of face wash, moisturizer, and toner), plus a box of Jean-Paul Hévin macarons for each of us.
For me, this small gesture represented a seamless continuation of the crew's excellent service during the meal, and played a big role in elevating the JAL First experience from great to amazing. The crew could've easily just distributed the premium amenities before takeoff and the macarons immediately after the meal service; instead, they thoughtfully presented them at the most opportune time during the flight.
Reclining back, the thick, plush mattress pad made for a heavenly surface on which to get some rest, and I was fast asleep within minutes.
I was awoken four hours later as promised. I had barely slept on the overnight flight that had brought us to Tokyo, although ultimately my body was still on Asia time, so it was easy enough to remain awake and enjoy the rest of the flight, starting with the award-winning Hévin macarons. I also ordered some sencha (Japanese green tea) to go along with my snack, which came in a beautifully designed mug.
When it comes to in-flight wifi, Japan Airlines is the gold standard among its peers, since it provides free unlimited wifi to First Class passengers. You are given a wifi access card with a special code that you enter on the landing page, allowing you to connect to the service for free. While I understand the challenges associated with limited bandwidth on an airplane, I do think free wifi ought to be a minimum expectation of First Class.
If you're travelling in another class of service, the wifi only costs US$18.80 for the whole flight, which is still very worthwhile. Moreover, the wifi connection was adequately fast, although like many in-flight wifi services, the connection would drop every now and then and you'd have to reconnect.
I spent the next couple of hours getting some work done on my computer, before deciding to order some udon noodles from the à la carte menu. The gargantuan feast I had enjoyed at the beginning of the flight wasn't going to stop me from trying as many things on the menu as possible!
The noodles were a little excessively salty, but udon noodles has always been one of my favourite dishes, so I didn't mind too much. To balance out the flavour, I tried the other Japanese tea on the drink menu – the houji-cha, a roasted green tea that was very calming.
I was impressed when the flight attendant proactively asked Jessica if she wanted some noodles as well – another indicator of the excellent service onboard this flight.
Another hour or so passed before it was time for the pre-arrival meal. I spent most of this time slowly sipping my tea while relaxing in my seat, enjoying the ambience of the First Class cabin while occasionally grinning from ear to ear, and just relishing in the fact that the magic of Miles & Points can unlock truly special experiences like these. This hobby can sometimes take up a lot of our time and effort, but it's a feeling of profound satisfaction when it all comes together in the end.
Now for the pre-arrival meal. I can't really tell you if it was supposed to be breakfast, lunch, or dinner, but it was excellent nonetheless. I persisted with the Japanese option, and was treated to a scrumptious dish of roasted duck with boiled egg and rice; accompanying it was a soup consisting of Welsh onion julienne and pickled plum.
The unforgettable food and drink experience onboard this flight came to an end with a tastefully presented fruit plate.
We had to circle a few times over Chicago due to the inclement weather, so I played an arcade game to pass the time. While the 23'' entertainment screen makes for pleasant viewing, the process of navigating the system itself is done on the LCD controller, and the screen remains black until you launch some form of programming.
Eventually, we made a smooth landing in O'Hare Airport, bringing to an end our time in JAL First Class and indeed our long-awaited Bali adventure. One wistful look back at the cabin later, it was time to head back out into freezing cold North America and catch our connecting flight back to Toronto.
It's hard to imagine a better way to travel than Japan Airlines First Class. The leather seats are beautifully designed and harken back to the "good old days of flying", while the service is warm, attentive, and personalized. But the true wow-factor is the extraordinary food and drink onboard the flight, which attained perfection in both quality and quantity. From the exquisite caviar course to the multi-course gastronomic adventure through Japan, the meal truly redefined in-flight dining for me and will live long in the memory.
Best of all, starting at just 75,000 Alaska miles one-way between North America and Asia, this is an experience that's well within reach for anyone hoping to attain it. I, for one, am already eagerly looking forward to the next time I'm able to step into the airborne sanctuary that is Japan Airlines First Class.