My trip to Thailand on November 1, 2021 coincided with the first day of Thailand’s effort to open to the world under the new Thailand Pass no-quarantine program. Even though the trip involved a lot of unknowns, one guarantee was that the flight in first class on the Japan Airlines flight from Chicago to Tokyo would be an amazing experience. Having been 18 months since my last trans-Pacific flight, this one flight promised to make the whole trip worthwhile.

Booking The Flights

It took 180,000 American Airlines frequent flyer miles to book the flights for this trip on the American Airlines website. The miles were good for domestic first class on American Airlines from Charlotte, NC to Chicago, IL; Japan Airlines first class from Chicago, IL to Tokyo, Japan and business class from Tokyo to Bangkok, Thailand; Japan Airlines business class from Bangkok to Tokyo and Tokyo to New York; and American Airlines domestic first class from New York to Charlotte.

Downgrading the flight to Tokyo from first class to business class would have saved 40,000 miles. Using the extra miles was more than worth it for the first-class experience. There is a big difference between first class and business class just as there is a big difference between business class and economy.

180,000 airline miles sounds like a lot. It is a total that is easily reachable when you consider that there are at least 34 different ways to acquire American Airlines miles including sign-up bonuses for and spend on American Airlines personal and small-business credit cards from Citibank and Barclays, hotel stays, dinning out and food delivery, purchases through the American Airlines eShopping portal, car rentals, and probably the least productive methods, buying miles from American or actually flying American or one of its partner airlines. These days, calling airline miles “frequent flyer miles” is a misnomer.

Japan Airlines Flight 8009 Chicago, IL (ORD) To Tokyo, Japan (NRT)

Flight Dates:  November 1 and 2, 2021

Equipment:  Boeing 777-300ER

Great Circle Distance:  6,274mi (10,097km, 5,452nm)

Scheduled Flight Time:  13hours and 35 minutes

Class of Service:  International First Class!!! ๐Ÿ˜

As reported previously, I missed the original flight from Charlotte to Chicago and was fortunate to be rebooked on the next flight. That flight arrived at ORD Terminal 3 Gate H5 at just after 10:00. JL Flight 8009 was departing from Terminal 3 Gate K19 at 11:20. It was only a 10-minute walk to Gate K19 via the connecting corridor between the H and K Gates. American Airlines has a very nice Flagship Lounge located on the connecting corridor that Japan Airlines uses for first and business class passengers, but there was no time to stop and it was closed because of the pandemic anyway.

Covid travel restrictions place extra burdens on airline personnel. At check in and before boarding, they must verify that each passenger has satisfied all of the travel requirements imposed by their ultimate destination. In addition to their other duties, the Japan Airlines gate agents checked my passport and copies of my Thailand Certificate of Entry, Vaccine Certificate, and negative PCR Covid-19 test and helped me download the Thailand+ app, which Thai authorities want tourists to have on their phones. The agents accomplished all of the passenger checks and started boarding the flight on time 10:50.

Japan Airlines 777-300ER

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Japan Airlines 777-300ER from ORD Gate K19

I had great expectations for this flight in first class, but flying on Japan Airlines’ 777-300ERs with only 244 seats total is an delightful experience in every class of service.

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Economy class enjoys an “undensified” 3-3-3 arrangement with about 33.5 inches (85cm) of pitch (room between rows) and seats that are 19 inches (48cm) wide!  Most other airlines cram in 10 seats per row in coach with a very noticeable reduction in seat width and also seat pitch.

First Class Cabin And Seat

On this aircraft, Japan Airlines has nice touches for each cabin but saves the best for first – first class that is.

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First class consists of eight JAL Suites arranged 1-2-1. As would be expected, each suite has direct access to an aisle and a seat that converts to a flat bed with a maximum width of 33 inches (84cm) and a maximum length of 78 inches (199cm).

I selected Suite 2K for this flight. It is a window suite on the starboard (right) side in the second row. As a right-handed person, I usually choose seats on the right side of the plane because they normally have seat and audio/visual controls and a writing surface on the right. That is the case with Suite 2K.

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Suite 2K

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This seat is essentially the same as the first-class seat I enjoyed in 2015 on another Japan Airlines flight. It bothered me not in the least that this is not the newest first class seat in the sky or that it doesn’t have a door. In fact, I like the classic looks, features, and comfort of this suite just fine.

Seat controls are excellent. The seat can position itself in three preset positions with the touch of a button. There are also separate controls for positioning the supports for the head and neck, torso, and lower legs. The lumbar support has a massage function and can be moved forward, back, up, and down. The entire seat can be moved forward and back about three feet.

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This suite is big enough to seat two, and it does.  The large ottoman can be used as a second seat so another passenger in first class can join for dining or conversation. 

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The tray table slides forward, and the ottoman has its own seat belt.

What’s the difference, you ask, between a seat in first class and a business-class seat?  First class seats are  bigger and  fancier than seats in business class.  Having a large ottoman for resting the feet is another one of the features that distinguishes a first class seat.  In business class, most seats (although not the Apex Suites on this aircraft) require fitting your feet and lower legs into a small cubbyhole under the console of the seat in front.

First class seats also usually have oodles of secure, covered storage.  The JAL Suite excels in this regard.

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The sideboard by the window contains one small and one large, deep storage pocket.
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Additional enclosed storage is available in a compartment by the video monitor.

You can even store a back pack under the ottoman.

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Middle seats in Row 1 with privacy divider lowered.

Privacy was not an issue especially because there was only one other passenger in first class. He was sitting in Suite 1A on the opposite side of the cabin.

Departure

The head flight attendant and one dedicated to first class introduced themselves while I was settling in. They offered champagne, which I gladly accepted, and said not to hesitate to ask for anything to make the flight enjoyable.

The door closed at 11:15. Right after the door closed, the flight attendants gathered at the front of each cabin to perform their traditional bow to the passengers. On many non-Asian airlines, flight attendants act like the passengers should bow to them. Pushback from the gate occurred as scheduled at 11:20 on the dot.

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Takeoff on Runway 28R at 11:33.

Climbing out, the captain turned north to our course to Tokyo.  I glanced down and had a good view of Palwaukee Executive Airport, which was where I’d had an interesting experience on a Civil Air Patrol mission about 30 years earlier.

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Palwaukee Airport on Chicago’s northside.

Amenities

Japan Airlines first class passengers enjoy a plethora of amenities such as Bose noise-cancelling headphones, an amenity kit, a blanket for use while sitting, slippers, Shiseido personal care set, and free wifi throughout the flight.

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Bose noise-cancelling headsets.

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Airweave dual mode pillow specially designed for the JAL Sky Suite, and light blanket for sitting.

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Slippers and shoehorn

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Personal skincare kit.

The amenity kit comes with toothbrush set, mouth wash, earplugs, eye mask, hand & body cream, perfume, lip balm, brush, moisture mask, and pocket tissue.

Inflight Service

The inflight service of the Japan Airlines flight attendants along with a terrific selection of high-quality food and beverages are some of the primary reasons for Japan Airlines consistently being ranked among the top 5 airlines in the world.

The extensive menus were presented in a leather portfolio that was at the seat at boarding. The first meal service is always the largest meal, except on red-eye flights where most passengers will prefer sleep after takeoff. There were menus for a Japanese meal and a Western meal for the first meal plus menus for Japanese and Western set plates and a la carte choices for later in the flight.

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Champagne and Wine

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Japanese Sake and Sochu

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Other Alcoholic Beverages

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Non-alcoholic Beverages

I choose a Japanese meal on the Japan Airlines website shortly after booking. The rule of thumb when ordering airline meals is to go with the cuisine of the country of departure. The theory being that local caterers will do better with local dishes than recipes from a foreign country. I ignored this guideline in order to have a Japanese meal in first class. Surely the Japan Airlines caterers in Chicago would do an outstanding job with the Japanese menu, geography notwithstanding.

First Meal Service

The first meal service began with drinks. My choice was 21-year-old Chivas Regal Royal Salute to go with the appetizer.

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Chivas Regal Royal Salute

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Appetizers

I asked for Hiroki sake to accompany the Kozara.

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Kozara

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Simmered sea bass and burdock

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Crab & radish in vinegar sauce and Japanese omelet with salmon roe.

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Simmered soybeans and abalone.

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Chicken stuffed Chinese cabbage rolls with miso sauce.

Owan

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Japanese clear soup with shrimp cake and mushrooms.

I switched to Isojiman sake after the Owan course.

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Isojiman sake

Mukosuke and Azukebachi

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Kelp-marinated fluke & soy-marinated tuna sashimi and lobster with egg yolk soy sauce.

Dianomono, Hanmomo, and Tomewan 

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Grilled miso-marinated beef, warm chirashi sushi, hitomebore rice with shrimp, Japanese pickles and miso soup.

Kanmi 

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Nikaido – Apple jelly from Aomori-Morihachi – Shiba fune (ginger sugar flavor) and green tea.

Everything about the meal including the sake was outstanding, and the flight attendants served it with grace and style. I like the fact that Japanese meals often come in multiple courses and courses usually offer two or three different components. It is a great way to try many different delicacies at one sitting.

Japan Airlines Inflight Entertainment System (IFE)

After diner, I tried, without success, to find a good movie to watch. The JAL Mooove! library is woefully short on the latest movies and there isn’t much in the way of oldies and classics either. The IFE system was the biggest and only disappointment of the flight. It is puzzling. Japan Airlines could easily do much better.

I found a movie that was reasonably entertaining and watched it on the outstanding 23-inch video monitor. The Bose noise-cancelling headsets delivered excellent audio quality as would be expected.

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Bedtime

After the movie, I changed into the loungewear Japan Airlines supplies for first class passengers. and asked the attendant to make the bed.

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Japan Airlines pajamas.  JAL photo

I used to scoff at the idea of wearing pajamas on a plane — that is until I tried it for the first time several years ago. PJs make an enormous difference in onboard comfort whether sleeping, relaxing or working, but the improvement in sleep comfort is especially noticeable. I mean no one prefers sleeping in their clothes at home and a plane is no different!

I changed in the lavatory. The attendant provided hangers for my clothes and stored them in a closet. As you will later see, there is no concern about changing clothes in the bathroom because, on Japan Airlines, the facilities are always clean as a whistle.

When I emerged from the lavatory, the attendant had the bed made. Adding a mattress to the seat is another enhancement in first class that makes sleeping on a plane easy and pleasant.

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It turned out that I had two suites on this flight. With only one other passenger in first class, the attendant converted the suite across the aisle, 2G, into my bedroom. One seat for sitting and one seat for sleeping. Perfect!

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21-year Chivas for a nightcap.

Although pjs, a mattress, a comfy pillow and a warm quilt make sleeping a breeze, in first class I prefer to remain awake as much as possible to enjoy the experience. As requested, the attendant dropped by three hours later to ensure I was awake.

After waking I couldn’t resist sampling more of the delicious cuisine.

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Japanese set plate – Grilled black cod, steamed rice, miso soup, and Japanese pickles.

Later, assorted cheese, fresh fruit and ice cream and the best part, 30-year-old Graham’s Tawny port.

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Lavatories

There are two regular-sized bathrooms in the 777-300ER first-class cabin. With only two passengers in first class, there was never any waiting for a bathroom, and the flight attendants had no problem keeping them clean. A larger bathroom suitable for someone with disabilities is located in the cabin for business class.

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First class lavs are stocked with additional personal amenities.
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This is a Japanese airline so bidet functions in the first class lav are no surprise.

Wifi

First class passengers receive a card with a code for free access to the onboard wifi.

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I had difficulty connecting because the online forms for connecting were in Japanese. A flight attendant was kind enough to help but the system disconnected me whenever the computer went to sleep. I usually don’t pay for onboard internet so it was nice to be connected inflight for a change. The card saved me about $19.

Arrival

All good things come to an end, and this flight was no exception in spite of being described as a “non stop” flight (ha ha!). The captain announced our approach to Tokyo Narita International Airport (NRT) over the Pacific about 45 minutes before landing. There was some sadness while changing back to street clothes, packing up and stowing gear. It is nice to be spoiled by 12 plus hours of being pampered and wined and dined.

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Cape Inubล in Chiba Prefecture on descent to NRT.

We landed at 14:08 and parked at Gate 95 in the Terminal 2 Satellite at 14:18 on November 2, 2021.

Even though I would be taking a flight to Bangkok, Thailand and not entering Japan officially, I wondered about the Covid procedures that Japan had in store for connecting passengers.  The next post about this trip to Thailand will cover the three-hour layover at NRT and the Japan Airlines First Class Lounge.  

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Terminal 2 Satellite Gate 95.

Final Thoughts

Thanks for getting through this lengthy post.  This flight lived up to my high expectations for Japan Airlines and an international first class experience.  I wish everyone could have that experience at least once.  Which part of this flight would you have enjoyed most?