This past April, I got to experience Japan Airlines First Class on my way to Tokyo. It was an incredible experience, to say the least! The seat, the service, the food, and the drinks were all the best I’ve ever experienced on an airplane. Making it even sweeter was the fact that I booked this flight using airline miles.
How I booked the flight
Japan Airlines is a part of the oneworld alliance which includes American Airlines. So I was able to book this flight using AAdvantage miles. When I originally booked this flight in October 2015, it only cost 62,500 AAdvantage miles + $5.60 in taxes/fees (one way) to book the Chicago O’Hare to Tokyo Narita segment as well as my connecting flight from Columbus to Chicago O’Hare, all in first class.
Unfortunately, American Airlines has since devalued their award chart a bit, so this exact itinerary would cost 80,000 AAdvantage miles (one way) today. Even so, 80k miles for international first class is really good considering Delta charges 80k miles minimum one way for their DeltaOne (aka business class) seats from the U.S. to Japan!
If you happen to have 80k AAdvantage miles already and want to book this flight, you can’t do it directly from American Airline’s website. You will need to look up award seat availability for the JAL flight you want on either Japan Airline’s website or British Airway’s website, and call American Airlines to have them create the award booking for you.
Looking up the cost of this exact same itinerary on Google Flights for the same weekend next year shows that the cash cost of the flight is in the 6-figure range!
The Ground Experience
My flight from Columbus to Chicago arrived on time, and I had a little bit of time to kill. My least favorite thing about O’Hare is how you have to leave the secure zone and re-do TSA security when moving terminals. Fortunately, Japan Airlines flies out of American Airline’s Terminal 3, and that was where my inbound flight from Columbus arrived.
First class passengers on Japan Airlines gets access to American Airline’s Flagship Lounge (i.e. First Class lounge). This one in O’Hare unfortunately is tiny, cramped, and didn’t have much of a selection when it comes to food and drinks. It’s a perfectly fine lounge to pass time if you’re a connecting passenger. But if you are originating in Chicago, you should not bother showing up early at the airport just to experience the lounge.
American Airlines Flagship Lounge Chicago O’Hare
Boarding the Flight
Japan Airlines currently flies their Boeing 777-300ER between Tokyo and Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles, New York JFK and San Francisco. They also fly from Tokyo to Boston, Dallas, and San Diego but those flights are on a Boeing 787. JAL’s 787’s do not have a first class cabin, so you need to find flights on their 777-300ER’s if you want to experience JAL’s first class!
This particular flight was operated on their Kei Nishikori decor “Jet Kei.” Unlike ANA’s Star Wars jets however, there were nothing different about the aircraft other than the face of the Japanese tennis star being painted on the fuselage.
The first class cabin has 8 seats, with seats set up in a 1/2/1 distribution across 2 rows. I had selected seat 2K, which is a window seat. The seat was seriously spacious, comfortable, and came with a huge-for-an-airplane 24″ TV screen.
The lead flight attendant came over to introduce herself to me, as well as the other flight attendant that was assigned to first class. Due to the American Airlines flight from Chicago to Tokyo that day being cancelled, it looked like a bunch passengers from the AA flight got rebooked to the JAL flight, and all 8 seats in first class were occupied. Even so, a 4:1 ratio for passenger/flight attendant is pretty amazing.
I was served a pre-departure glass of champagne and given a hot towel.
I was then given a set of pajamas to change into, so I headed to the lavatory to change. While I didn’t take any pictures of the lavatory, I was amazed to find that instead of the standard paper towels, they had stocked the bathroom with hand-rolled cloth towels. Upon stepping out of the lavatory, one of the flight attendants was waiting to take my street cloth and hang them up in the closet for me. There was also an in-flight amenity kit containing Shiseido products that I forgot to take a picture of. I do recall that my kit had some male-specific toiletry items, so it would appear that JAL hands out these kits based on the gender of their passengers.
Our flight departed right on time, and I settled in for what I could already tell was going to be an amazing flight.
The view out of my window on take off, looking out over downtown Chicago and Lake Michigan
The In-Flight Experience
Upon reaching cruising altitude, the flight attendant came by with the drink and meal menus. If you’re flying Japan Airlines in any class of service, they publish online their route-specific in-flight menus 3 months ahead of time!
You can look it up yourself here –> https://www.jal.co.jp/en/inter/service/
Japan Airlines First Class Drink Menu
Japan Airlines First Class Food Menu
In my opinion, the stars of the drink menu were the Champagne Salon 2004 Blanc de Blancs (retails for over $300 per bottle on the ground), and Suntory Hibiki 17 years blended whisky (extremely rare outside of Japan, Dekanta is currently selling it online for $350/bottle!)
My meal service started with a glass of Salon with some appetizers. I believe they were mozzarella + mushroom and a cracker with shaved parmesan & caviar.
Since this was a flight out of the U.S. with the catering being done in Chicago, I opted for the Western Menu instead of the Japanese Menu. I figured a Chicago-based chef would do a better job with steak than Japanese kaiseki menu. However, the flight attendant proactively brought over some Japanese appetizers anyways. I later realized that this was the salmon/sea urchin/squid dish listed under the a la carte section of the menu.
Next up were some Japanese rice crackers and dried squid jerky. Typically I eat these with sake, but I guess whatever goes when you’re drinking expensive champagne?
And then my actual “Western” meal started. First with some bread and then a plate of smoked tuna and white asparagus veloute soup.
Next up was the caviar course. Some airlines just sprinkles some caviar over whatever appetizer dish they serve. Japan Airlines gives you an entire jar of caviar!
Next up was my main course of US prime filet of beef with chimichurri sauce. I opted to switch my drink from champagne to a red Bordeaux wine from Chateau de Fieuzal. This bottle apparently retails for $60/bottle on the ground.
The flight attendant then asked me if I’m full yet. I’m a big eater, so I said I can eat a little more… so then she brought over a large cheese plate.
At this point, I’m completely stuffed. But we all have a secondary stomach for dessert, right? So I ordered the cappuccino mousse and a cup of cafe latte.
The flight attendant then asked me if I’d like to have my seat made into a bed, so I obliged. The seat lies flat, and then the flight attendant places a foam mattress over the seat and then makes the bed with a sheet, pillow, and blanket. They will also ask if you want the soft foam mattress or the firm foam mattress. I requested the firm mattress.
Before lying down to sleep, I realized that I hadn’t tried the Suntory Hibiki 17 years whisky yet, so I placed an order for one through the handy-dandy remote control. JAL’s entertainment remote not only controls the entertainment monitor, but also lets you order drinks and foods remotely through a smartphone-like interface.
I speak Japanese fluently, so communicating with the flight attendants wouldn’t be an issue for me. I’ve heard that the Japanese flight attendants speak English adequately. However, being able to order everything “online” certainly makes it easier to make sure that your order is conveyed accurately!
I realize scotch whisky purists might bristle at the idea of adding more than a drop of water, much less multiple ice cubes, into their scotch whisky. Japanese whisky on the other hand are designed to be served on ice… So my Hibiki 17 on the rocks was pretty fantastic. I also tried the Chivas Regal 21 on this flight (neat, not on the rocks), but found the Hibiki to be far superior.
I laid down for what I planned to be a 4-hour nap but woke up only 2 hours later. This is where I encountered my one and only problem with Japan Airlines– they keep their cabin way too warm! In combination with their long-sleeve long-pants pajamas, I could not get comfortable enough to go back to sleep. So I figured I’d watch some movies and rehydrate myself. I’d read about the Royal Blue Tea – Queen of Blue previously, and wanted to try what might be one of the fanciest iced tea in the world. It’s basically a hand-picked, hand-brewed tea that comes in a wine bottle. At $40/bottle, it’s a pretty hefty amount for iced tea!
The tea was delicious, and I may or may not have drank a bottle and a half…
As we were approaching the halfway point through the flight, I decided to get back on the remote control and order some mid-flight snacks as well as a drink.
The flight attendant had earlier inquired whether I wanted to purchase a bottle of Mori Izo shochu (rice vodka) as apparently it’s an in-flight duty free item exclusively available to JAL first class and business class passengers. I figured I’d try a glass of it before deciding to actually order it or not. It turned out to be amazing, so I ordered a bottle for my mother (who is a fan of shochu.) I paid ~$35 for it on board, but I later learned that this shochu is limited production and you need to enter a lottery to buy it in Japan. Secondary market prices of this shochu is apparently $160-ish. I also just noticed that the New York Times wrote a story about this shochu back in 2006!
My mid-flight “snacks” consisted of yakitori, tekka-don (tuna sashimi over a bowl of rice), and curry. There are some overlaps on the a la carte menu between business class and first class– the curry is also available in business class.
As you might have noticed already, I can eat a lot.
During one of my trips to the lavatory, I also noticed that they had set up a snack bar area where you could serve yourself some snacks or some more of that Hibiki 17 whisky. As much as I would have loved to drink that entire bottle of Hibiki, I wanted to arrive in Japan healthy and not suffering from acute alcoholic hepatitis. So I grabbed a bottle of water instead.
A little bit later in the flight, I was offered some coffee, and I gratefully accepted. Even plain black coffee is presented so fancily! I really need to see if I can buy one of those JAL First Class coffee mugs on Ebay or something…
About an hour and a half out of Narita, we were served our pre-arrival meal. I opted for the Japanese option this time around since it just appealed to me more than the Western option.
Upon finishing my last meal on board, I changed out of my pajamas and watched Star Wars Episode VII on my entertainment monitor.
The flight arrived right on time at Tokyo Narita Airport. Being one of the first ones off the aircraft and having a Japanese passport, I was through Japanese immigrations & customs, and on a Keisei Skyliner train headed for Tokyo within 30 minutes.
Japan Airlines first class is mind-blowing. There are just so many good things to say about it. While not very many of us have $10k to blow on airfare, many of us do have 80k AAdvantage miles to use. Given the recent changes to American Airlines’ award chart, I would argue that JAL First Class might be the best way to use your AA miles.
I am scheduled to fly All Nippon Airway (ANA) first class to Tokyo later this month, and can’t wait to see how the other (supposedly higher ranked) Japanese airline compares in first class!