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|WHERE'S JOHNNY JET? L.A. to Japan|
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December 7, 2005
RECOMMENDED BOOKS & MOVIES
|Konichiwa! Last week (link to archive) we left off from France, Ireland, New York City and Los Angeles. That was all in the matter of 3 days -- no wonder I was jet-lagged. As you can see from the greeting, I’m now in the Far East on another overseas adventure. Yeah, baby!
PACKING FOR JAPAN
I was invited by JAL (Japan Airlines) to test out their new business class seats, and do a "Memoirs of a Geisha" (best selling book, now a movie) tour. I wasn’t going to turn that down, so the first thing I did was order a copy of that popular 1997 book and get a Japanese cell phone. I needed the phone because Japan uses a different network than most of the world. Luckily, I’m in good with my boys from Cellular Abroad. They set me up with a new phone (rental cost: $49 for 1 week, $69 for 2; purchase price: $299). It was easy to use, and calling home cost less than 59 cents a minute (calls within Japan were 80 cents a minute). Even better: All incoming calls were free! This was a prepaid system, meaning there are no contracts to sign and no surprise bills to come home to. To find more about a phone for Japan or any other foreign country, click here Cellular Abroad or call 800-287-3020. Tell them JohnnyJet sent you, and get $10 off.
I guaranteed a parking spot online (here’s the link), then drove to Park One (LAX’s closest off-airport parking lot). I valet parked because I thought I was running late -- it was 11:30 a.m., and my flight was leaving at 1:05 pm. But when I arrived at the International Terminal I was surprised how short the JAL line was. It wasn’t because I was late, either; in fact, a flight to Osaka was departing after the Tokyo one, so customers were still arriving. The economy line was only 5 people deep and there was no one in the Business Class (they call it Executive Class) line.
JAPAN AIRLINES (JAL)
The agent was friendly, and I was seriously at the counter for no more than 45 seconds (that’s why there was no line). She looked at my passport, I gave her my American Airlines advantage number (for miles), and she handed me my boarding pass. FYI: JAL and American have a code share, and JAL is currently seeking membership into the Oneworld Alliance. If they succeed, as seems likely, passengers will be able to get miles on any partner airline -- Aer Lingus, American, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, LAN and Qantas -- while flying on JAL. Security wasn’t long either; it took only 10 minutes to clear. Of course, I didn’t check a bag. If I did, I would’ve had to wait in the really long TSA (Transportation Security Administration) checked bag line. It’s great the TSA screens all passengers’ luggage for explosives, but they should be doing it for cargo as well. They don’t -- but that’s a whole other story.
An Executive Class ticket gave me a free pass into JAL’s club lounge. At LAX, they share it with Lufthansa. The lounge is a nice oasis from the uncomfortable seats at the hectic gate area, but it’s small and there are some rules. After I poured myself a cold glass of guava juice and grabbed some snacks I got kicked out for talking on my cell. Actually, the agent was very pleasant and I felt bad that I didn’t see the small "no-cell phone" sign while signing in (I was distracted by the blonde behind the desk). I wasn’t upset though, because I’m all for the rule. Most people lack basic cell phone etiquette (having their phone on vibrate, and talking softly). Don’t you feel sorry for people who seem like they’re trying to talk to someone in China through a tin can on a string?
Boarding was quick, and when I stepped into the jumbo 747-400 recently renovated with JAL’s new Executive Class seats, I knew I made the right decision (going through Tokyo, rather than taking JAL’s nonstop flight to Osaka). I was headed to Osaka, but that plane had not yet been refitted with the new seats and entertainment system (target date for completion has not been set).
EXECUTIVE CLASS SEATS
The new "shell flat seats" are plush. They look like space capsules, but they have plenty of legroom. That’s because they’re built in such a way that the back doesn’t come down on the passenger behind you. Instead they slide down (for a better view, check out this 3D JAL website). One reason I wanted to be on the plane with the new seats is that they have an electric outlet for laptops. I thought I would work during most of the 11-hour, 15-minute flight, but boy was I wrong. I didn’t open my laptop once. But I’m sure that happens to others too. After all, the seats are really comfortable, and each has its very own phat 10.4-inch video screen with audio/video on demand.
The in-flight entertainment system not only had the live flight tracker, but something I’d never seen before: on-board cameras! One camera faced out; the other pointed down. On takeoff and landing the live videos are displayed on the big screen in each cabin. It feels like passengers are the pilots (at least it did for me). After takeoff passengers can view either camera anytime, on the individual monitors. That’s key. Because we were flying west it never got dark, and after dinner everyone put their window shades down. Instead of leaning over my seatmate, lifting up the shade and filling the cabin with bright light, I just flipped the channel on my remote for a better view.
The system also offers 20 music channels, a bunch of video games and 17 movies – enough to keep anyone busy. I watched two movies ("Bewitched" and "Crash"); then I used my handy little snakelike reading light to read Memoirs of a Geisha without distracting anyone around me. Not that they would have been distracted -- after the meal service, flight attendants came around with a tray full of eye masks, ear plugs, moisturizing face masks (I hadn’t seen one before, so of course had to put one on), and toothbrushes. They also gave us sweatshirts to wear under the comfy, cozy blankets.
I made the mistake of telling the trip organizers I’m not a huge seafood fan, so they ordered me special meals. I think they were chicken (even the flight attendants weren’t sure), and they tasted very bland. On the way home I ordered off the regular menu, which has Western (choice of fish or beef) and Japanese dishes. Not only were they delicious, but the Japanese dishes were works of art. I didn’t get pictures, because I felt like a fool asking my hungry seatmate if he minded me snapping a picture before he took a bite. However, you can see JAL meals (and every other airline’s too) on AirlineMeals.net.
The flight attendants did a great job. As you will see in the video below, they don’t stop bowing. It’s amazing. Before we took off I made the mistake of going into the first class bathroom (I thought it was biz class). Holy cow! That thing was nicer than my bathrooms at home. I was sorry I didn’t bring my camera in with me. With its "architectural marble" sink and wall-to-wall mirrors, this was the nicest airplane bathroom I’ve ever been in. Though the Executive Class and economy bathrooms weren’t anything fancy, I must say JAL does a marvelous job keeping them all clean throughout the flight. I know, because I used almost every one (when I fly I drink a lot of water). I later learned there are flight attendants assigned to bathroom duty. God bless them. TIP: It’s good for passengers to get up every hour and stretch on long flights, so they don’t get DVT (deep vein thrombosis).
We arrived at Narita International airport at 4:25 p.m. the following day, 17 hours ahead of L.A. and 14 ahead of N.Y. Taxiing to the gate, I was shocked at seeing 11 United Airlines planes (4 747s). There were also a bunch of other U.S. carriers: American, Continental, Delta and Northwest. I didn’t feel like I was in another country until I got to customs (a long walk). The Japanese citizens’ line was huge. Fortunately the visitor line -- filled with a mix of North Americans, South Americans and Europeans -- was much shorter. Unfortunately, it was also way slower. To speed things up, be sure to fill out both sides of the immigration form.
TOKYO - OSAKA
I had less than two hours before my connecting flight to Osaka. I went downstairs, checked in for my domestic flight, then headed to the small Executive Class lounge. There I had some Arrowhead water (a California brand with a Japanese label), and some snacks. I have no idea what they were, but besides the one nasty wasabi pea, they were quite tasty. I was surprised that our bumpy 55-minute flight to Osaka was on a packed 747-400. That’s a jumbo jet, and my favorite plane. I didn’t think an airline would use such a big bird for a short route, but JAL does. I later learned JAL has the most 747s of any airline (104). No wonder the world's top 3 city-pairs by passengers are all in Japan: Tokyo-Sapporo (9.51 million passengers), Tokyo-Fukuoka (8.28 million), Tokyo-Osaka (7.32 million). I sat in row 55, a bulkhead near the back of the plane. Jet lag started commandeering my body, so I just sat there staring up at the big screen watching the pilot take off through the patchy clouds and over the bright lights of the city. It was a quiet flight, and everyone appeared exhausted. My head ended up leaning on the drooling, sleep-deprived Japanese woman sitting beside me.
We landed at Osaka’s Itami Airport -- the domestic airport located in the city. The international airport, Kansai, is newer but much further away: a 45-minute drive. At Arrivals I met the five people I would travel with for the next week. They were all very nice, but everyone was beat. We were stoked to find out we did not have a long drive to our hotel. In fact, it was no drive at all – just a 100-yard walk to the 3-star Osaka Airport hotel. Check-in was swift, and I almost forgot I was in Japan until I opened to the door to my tiny, smoky room designed for a toddler. The toilet was so low that getting up off that thing was not fun. I banged my head on the towel rack not once, but twice. The same went for the tub/shower -- I almost killed myself slipping in it.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
You’d think that after filling my belly with fried chicken and rice at the hotel restaurant, and going to sleep at 9:30, I would get a good night’s sleep. I even put on an eye mask and ear plugs to increase my chances. I was hoping to wake up no earlier than 5 a.m. Of course, that didn’t happen. It was a scene straight out of the movie "Lost in Translation." I woke up at 2:22 -- wide awake. I just lay there and lay there, trying to force myself to go back to sleep, but the knot on my head wouldn’t stop throbbing. After a couple of hours spent looking at the ceiling I tried logging on to the internet, only to learn the hotel didn’t have internet. An airport hotel without internet was a bad sign of things to come. That’s because in the morning I was headed out to the country. I soon got my biggest surprise: Most of Japan (except the major cities and hotels) don’t have high speed internet access. Link to Osaka Airport Hotel -- rooms start at $85 a night.
GROUND HOGS DAY
I had another scene out of a Bill Murray movie; this time it was "Groundhog Day." In the middle of the night I turned on the TV. I was amazed to see the same NFL game I was watching before leaving my house for LAX 20 hours earlier. How weird is that? I couldn’t understand the Japanese commentators, but at least I got to see who won. When that game was over I read my Memoirs of a Geisha book until it was time to head back out to the airport for another flight.
Here’s a 35 second Johnny Jet Video of my flight to Tokyo. With high-speed the video takes about 1 minute to load; with dial-up, allow up to three weeks.
Next week: the Japan tour begins. Stay tuned.
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