After a week long journey around Japan's southern island paradise of Okinawa, I found myself back in Narita airport saddened at the fact I was heading home. Downing my last Kirin beer in an airport restaurant, I knew I had one piece of Japan left to discover: Japan Airlines Premium Economy. Would the hosties be donned in silk kimonos serving me heated sake? Would dinner include plane-portions of sashimi and salted edamame beans to nibble? Join me as I say goodbye to my new favourite country and test ride the JAL Premium Economy service:
Route: Tokyo Narita to Sydney
Aircraft: JL 771 - 777-200ER
Flight Time: 9 hours 30 minutes
Class: Premium Economy
Lounge: Sakura Lounge at Tokyo Narita. Walking through the oversized double doors the din from the surrounding airport terminal disappears and I enter a haven of tranquillity. Soft piano music plays in the background. Décor is quite neutral - pale timber, white, pastel green, slate and stainless steel. The retro decor resembles a set piece from You Only Live Twice, the 1967 Bond movie set in Japan.
The central staircase leads my eye up to the elaborate chandelier that hangs over the top. The main dining area is located upstairs, with just a smaller snack bar down on the lower floor. The upstairs is pretty packed, so could be tough to find a spot to sit. The food selection is great, with both western and Japanese options available.
I've booked in for a free massage at 4:45. There's a waiting list so it's best to get in and make your reservation as soon as you arrive. Same goes for the shower facilities downstairs. If you miss out on the free massage service, the massage chairs are actually really amazing. If only I could squeeze one into my luggage...
Punctuality: Our flight departed on schedule.
Seat breakdown: Getting into the nitty-gritty, here's what you need to know about the Premium Economy Seat. At 18" wide, the premium economy seat is slightly wider than the 17.5" standard economy. The Sky Shell Seat design manages to include several extra features such as leg support and a footrest, plus additional storage spaces for water bottles and drinks. One of the big pluses of the seat design is the ability to recline your seat without it encroaching on the space of the person behind. Seating is in a 2-4-2 configuration.
In-flight entertainment: This flight is equipped with the JAL Entertainment Network (JEN), offering movies, TV shows and audio in a variety of languages. The Magic III video player had a couple of hiccups at times, with the occasional movie starting with a pixelated rectangle appearing across the screen. After restarting the film it plays fine. The 9 inch monitor is a little smaller than other premium economy offerings, but the picture quality is good and the controller is really responsive - handy when playing games. There's also a useful USB outlet if you need to charge your phone.
Service: Service was a definite stand out of the flight. Though not dressed in silk kimonos like I'd imagined, staff were more than happy to accommodate any request and even in the wee hours of the morning they remained helpful and attentive. Instead of providing each passenger with a toiletries bag the flight attendants walked through with a basket of ear plugs, toothbrushes and eye masks so you could pick and choose - a good way to reduce waste.
Food and beverages: Dinner is served shortly after takeoff. I choose the seafood dish option, which comprises of scallops, fish, rice and vegetables. It comes with a small salad, a simple noodle dish and fresh cut fruit. It's not sashimi, but the meal more than satisfies my hunger pangs. Premium Economy has an expanded bar selection, which includes Spanish Baron Maime wines and Japanese Shochu.
Breakfast consists of an Italian pastry, coleslaw salad and fruit juice, plus a Toronama Donut by Love Sweets Antique. At first I assumed it was a regular donut, but its actually a frozen yoghurt dessert. It has an unusual texture that melts in your mouth, and is absolutely divine. The pastry is a little dry and could do with a bit of jam or butter, but is still tasty. More than offering just tea or coffee, miso soup is also available. When in Japan...
Baggage allowance: The baggage allowance is the same as standard economy, with two pieces up to 23kg each, which should be more than enough even if you've got stuck into a bit of souvenir shopping during your stay.
Summary: Having never flown with JAL before I wasn't sure what to expect. I'd heard varied reports, but never judge a book by its cover. They may not have the newest planes in the market, but their service and in-flight experience more than make up for it. The new JAL Sky Premium Economy cabin is rolling out across much of the fleet, and should bring the experience to an even greater level. I'd definitely recommend JAL to anyone who wants their Japanese cultural experience to begin as soon as they take off from Sydney, rather than wait 10 hours before arriving in Tokyo.
The writer travelled as a guest of Japan Airlines.
If You Go
Flight frequency: Japan Airlines operate daily flights between Sydney and Tokyo.