First impressions All international flights leave from Terminal 2 at Narita Airport. Check-in for my 1200 departure was straightforward and, although I had a lot of hand luggage, I was not over the 10kg limit. My flight was from Gate C, which meant a short hop across the terminal on a shuttle train.
The JAL Senata lounge is well signposted when you get off the train and was only a short walk from my gate. The lounge decor is a little tired but natural light streams in from large windows that overlook the runway and there's plenty of seating, with separate areas for massage chairs and for PCs. The dedicated work area is small but with wifi throughout there's no need to sit there if you have your laptop. Reception staff will give you a Biz Portal card with access codes for a free one-day trial (the card offered on the way out gave just one hour free, courtesy of T-Mobile).
Boarding Welcome drinks weren't offered but slippers and cosy navy blue cotton jackets were handed out. There were no amenity kits, and items like toothbrushes, eyeshades and earplugs that had been handed out from a tray on the flight over (a night flight) were not offered on this daytime flight. JAL operates two-class B777s and three-class B747s between London and Tokyo. I was on the upper deck of a B747-400 where business class is in a 2-2 configuration.
Seat The shell seat is the same design as the lie-flat-style seats offered by other airlines, but JAL have chosen a dark grey, hardwearing fabric which looks very smart. The upholstery feels firm but comfortable and slightly better than others I have tried. The seat controls are straightforward and one button takes you down to 170 degrees, but you can stop it midway if you find a more comfortable angle. The seat pitch is 157cm and the width a generous 60cm. It's also nice and long at 190cm and the design includes a handy space between the seats in front for newspapers and magazines.
The flight Although we left the gate on time, we were held on the runway, which meant our departure was slightly delayed. The first round of drinks came with rice crackers and fermented soy beans, which were both delicious. Before the meal service, staff changed into natty aprons decorated with air balloons which make them look a bit like 1950s housewives. We were given a choice of Japanese or Western meals on the menu – both in two languages.
I chose the Western, which consisted of one appetiser and two main course choices. The foie gras, duck breast with chutney, marinated shrimp and onion soup appetisers all arrived on one tray, economy class-style and were rather tasteless, as was the main course of stuffed sea bass with dill fish mousse and saffron cream sauce. For dessert I went for the safe option of ice cream. The unadorned single scoop turned out to be tea flavoured and frozen solid and it went back to the cabin crew 15 minutes later, intact.
I had clearly chosen poorly because my neighbour's Japanese options – naturally the airline's specialty – looked far tastier and were wolfed down with great enthusiasm. Presentation was top notch with several rounds of beautifully laid out sushi on elaborate crockery. JAL did well in Business Traveler's wine survey, winning best cellar in first class and best sparkling in business class with their Piper Heidsieck, but their red wines also deserve a mention. The soft, fruity Jaboulet Vercherre Mercurey 2002 was particularly good on the way out, so it was a shame to find it overly chilled on this leg.
Along with several other airlines, JAL now offers wireless internet access on board which costs $9.95/£5.20 for 30 minutes or $29.95/£15.60 for the entire flight. Japan is well known for being ahead of the game in technology, so I was surprised that JAL's entertainment system was fairly standard, with 14 TV channels. Nine of these showed English language-films but there were no recent releases. More options were listed in the entertainment guide, but when I asked a member of the crew how to access them he explained that the extra channels are only available on the 747 LR/LR-SUD aircraft. On the plus side, the system did have individual controls, which allow you to stop, pause and forward/rewind at will. Screens are in the seat backs and noise reduction headphones make a huge difference to the sound quality.
Although it was only lunchtime, I was keen to sleep and managed to get very comfortable in the seat, but had to ask for an eye shade as the cabin was bathed in daylight throughout the flight as many of the passengers kept their blinds up. Bottles of water were handed out with supplies replenished on the counter next to the toilets. After a nap, I regretted not eating much of my dinner and asked for the noodle snack mentioned on the menu. Disappointingly, the Ramen de Sky was nothing more than a tiny cardboard cup of watery mush.
Arrival The advertised duration of this flight is 12 hours 30 minutes, but we landed almost an hour early at 1530. Unfortunately, due to heavy Friday afternoon traffic at eathrow, this was undone by an hour on the tarmac while we waited for our allotted parking space.
Verdict The food and entertainment options were slightly below par for a business class product, but if you choose from the Japanese menu and use the internet for entertainment, there is little to criticise.
Prices Business saver fares to Japan cost from £3,000 from the UK and $4,790 from the US (in June), subject to restrictions.