Saturday, October 14, 2006

Japan - Flight Report (or, Getting There and Back)

So now that I'm home, I've been wondering where to start with all my Japan-related musings and I figure the beginning is probably as good a place as any.

We flew Japan Airlines (JAL) this time, a first for us. Between my wife and I, we've now tried every major carrier that flies from JFK to Narita plus one that's discontinued service by now, so I can speak from some experience on which airlines to choose from and which to avoid. We've flown United, American, Northwest, JAL and ANA, and the pretty clear winners are the last two in that list.

The flight from New York to Japan can approach 14 hours. So you want to be comfortable, and service matters. I don't think it's really any big secret that the Japanese excel in areas like punctuality and attention to detail, but for some reason most Americans flying to Japan continue to choose US-based airlines. Maybe it's simply for familiarity's sake, or maybe, as in my case on earlier flights, there wasn't really a choice involved at all. But as far as I'm concerned, flying JAL or ANA brings you to Japan 14 hours earlier than you'd be there otherwise. On a vacation, it's almost like getting a day extension (ok, not really).

We've flown ANA in the past mainly because they usually cost a little less. Now, though, they're more popular than JAL as JAL has had their share of recent problems... including some pretty public safety issues (no accidents, but a few incidents, including at least one case of sabotage by a disgruntled employee). So the two airlines are more competitive on price at the moment, and I figured JAL's safety issues were more than likely overblown and were behind them in any case. Plus, we went for a package deal through JALPAK, the JAL-affiliated travel agency that really got us some cheap rates on the flight and hotels, and had everything set up for us in advance.

JAL is the only airline still flying 747's from New York to Tokyo. ANA switched to 777's a year or so ago; the US carriers switched before that. JAL's planes are always clean and immaculately kept, both interior and exterior. The aircraft they seem to use between New York and Narita have an odd layout, with more than half the plane dedicated to business class. Even so, on neither the flight out nor the return trip was economy class completely full - probably just because of the days we were flying and the season. It made it easy to get some good seats. One tip: always request an exit row when you check in. The worst they can say is it's not available, but we managed to get one on two of our three flights. (This is why you check in 3 hours early!) Here is what an exit row looks like when you're sitting in one - quite a bit different from your standard economy seat:

In both directions, our plane boarded late but left basically on-time and arrived early. I know JAL has been a little slack with their on-time performance and it's another reason ANA has the overseas market lead right now, so we weren't surprised at the late boarding. But overseas airlines are a lot less militant about in-cabin safety, probably because of a lower risk of litigation - so on every Japan-based flight I've taken, the aircraft has left the gate with passengers still walking the aisles. You never see that on a US airline. It does make for a lot quicker boarding, though - about 10 minutes both ways this time.

JAL feeds their economy passengers three times - lunch, breakfast and a snack.

The food is actually pretty typical airline food for the most part, and not all that good, but they do provide little Japanese touches here and there like a set of Japanese pickled vegetables and, with one meal I had, a Japanese-style custard dessert styled to look like a fried egg. Their meal choices are ostensibly "western" or "Japanese", although it's hard to really discern the difference when one meal is pasta with salmon cream sauce (pictured below) and the other is braised beef and egg noodles. (ANA has the same western/Japanese choices, though their meals are a lot more distinct - they offer things like cold soba noodles in a soy-based sauce, for example.)

I will say that the breakfast we had on the way back was probably the best airline breakfast I have ever had, and was bigger than any of the other meals as well. (I actually walked off the plane feeling full!) It also had some original touches - who has ever heard of a "tea" flavored croissant?

In between meals, JAL's flight attendants walk around the cabin at least once per hour with water, tea and juice, and they offer three full drink services in addition (to go with the meals and snack). They also provide a bottle of water at the beginning of the flight for you to nurse throughout. There's certainly no lack of service, but then that's what I'd expect from a Japanese airline. It's also kind of cute how the flight attendants actually change uniforms depending on what they're doing - on takeoff and landing they're in full dress, with smart skirts, jackets and hats (hats are a lost art in the United States, but are still worn in Japan), but while serving meals they switch to more of a waitress costume, losing the jacket and hat and donning a full apron in their place. The flight attendant profession in Japan has not lost its status as a service profession, as it has here. Japanese flight attendants know they are there to make passengers feel comfortable and satisfied, not just to act as in-flight police and public safety officers.

As for in-flight entertainment, JAL offers personal LCD screens at every seat - yes, including the exit rows, which have screens on arms that swing up from below. They have 13 or so movies constantly running, a selection of a few crappy games (including a Tetris knockoff), various music channels, an external camera channel so you can watch the clouds go by, and a GPS channel so you can see where you are in the world. All of this is controlled with a handheld controller. It's not as good as what ANA offers - which is on-demand, so you can start movies when you want to - but it's decent enough. The movies are mostly American, though the selection is actually pretty varied - everything from "The Da Vinci Code" to "An Inconvenient Truth" to Hitchcock's "The Birds".

Flying into Narita airport is not always pleasant, no matter what airline you fly. For one thing, the two terminals are, like most Japanese buildings, barely air conditioned. The Japanese just do not like air conditioning very much (even JAL's planes are kept pretty hot), and they seem to have perfected a system whereby the air is cooled but the humidity retained. It seems to defy the laws of physics. Anyway, even in October, Narita airport can feel muggy. It also usually takes about 30 minutes (or more) to make it through customs - with only two terminals, you're talking a lot of passengers getting funnelled through the same customs area. So there's quite a lot of standing around in somewhat tropical conditions.

Narita airport used to be called "New Tokyo International Airport at Narita". They weren't kidding anybody with that name. Now it's officially just "Narita Airport". This airport is probably 50 miles from Tokyo as the crow flies, in a small town (Narita), and on the highway it's even further. "Luckily", going in this time we were connecting through to Osaka-Itami, so we didn't need to deal with transportation to Tokyo. Unfortunately, we did need to deal with another flight - after already spending 14 hours in the air! The Tokyo-Osaka corridor is one of the busiest in the world, and while most of the flights run between Haneda and Itami, there are still a lot of connections (like ours) made through Narita. So JAL still operates both 777's and 747's on this short domestic route, and I got my first 777 ride.

The flight from Narita to Osaka only takes about 50 minutes, so it's basically just up and down. Once we arrived at Itami airport, we faced another hour-long bus ride to Kyoto, our final destination. A large city of 1.5 million people, Kyoto nevertheless does not have its own airport, relying instead on neighboring Osaka and the incredible Japanese rail system. (More on Kyoto's amazing and controversial train station building in another post.) We finally arrived at the New Miyako hotel at around 10PM Japan time - more than 24 hours after we'd started the day in New York.

More coming soon!


  1. Anonymous9:59 AM

    I like to read your blog on the Japan trip, but find the reverse chronogical arrangement difficult and troublesome to read.

  2. Well, it is a blog... and blogs are inherently reverse-chronological. Nothing I can really do to change that... the whole idea is you see the most recent post first.


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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