ALEX BENASULI EMBRACES REFINED, JAPANESE-STYLE OMOTENASHI HOSPITALITY IN ANA’S 777 FIRST CLASS

For my first trip ever to Japan, I tapped into a decade-long accumulation of Star Alliance miles and booked a first-class seat on award winning All Nippon Airways (ANA). A maiden voyage to Japan would surely be enhanced if I immersed myself in the local culture and aesthetic sensibility from the first moment, which meant it had to be ANA.

For years, global travellers have lamented about the decline in air travel glamour. Long gone are the days when commercial flying feels exclusive or sophisticated. Increasingly, even business class seems to be joining economy in becoming commoditised and anodyne. Yet, flying in first still has cachet and elicits excitement even amongst the most jaded of travellers. While ANA’s premium product is not at the same level as Emirates and Singapore Airlines, it is the most stylish way to fly direct to Japan from North America and Europe.

ANA, along with all other Star Alliance carriers, depart from Heathrow’s Terminal 2. Also known as the Queen Elizabeth II Terminal, it is the newest and arguably the best of the airport’s terminals. One of the many positive attributes to Terminal 2, is that due to its modern design and cavernous proportions, it hardly ever feels crowded, even at busier times.

ANA’s first class check-in is quite literally a breeze. With two dedicated counters for eight first class seats, there’s no wait and hardly any queueing going through priority security.

Most transcontinental flights depart from Terminal 2’s satellite B concourse which can be a good fifteen-minute walk. Personally, I like the opportunity to stretch my legs and get some mild exercise before a long flight, but ANA’s first class passengers are provided with electric buggy transfers. Nothing spells indulgence more than whooshing past bedraggled passengers en route to a far-away departure gate!

ANA premium passengers have access to Singapore Airlines’ Silver Kris Lounge within which there is a separate first-class space with à la carte f&b offerings, a cocktail bar and shower rooms. In the hours leading up to ANA’s 7pm departure to Tokyo, no other flights use the lounge making it feel private and quiet. For those who like a little more action in their lounge experience, ANA’s first class passengers can also use United Airlines’ Polaris lounge which will re-open middle of this year. From both lounges the walk to the boarding gate is very short, so the transition from sipping champagne in the lounge to being received on board takes mere minutes.

The flight attendants, elegant attired in tailored suits, greet passengers with a customary deep bow and warm konichiwa (Japanese for ‘hello’). It is at this moment that I know the experience will be special.

Having never flown ANA before, I was unaccustomed to the airline’s design ethos. The interior of the first-class cabin is very bright and modern, with clean lines and almost a spartan feel. White and off-whites dominate, with bright blue carpets and seating adding splashes of colour and generous light wood paneling adding warmth. This more minimalist aesthetic is in keeping with contemporary Japanese style, that eschews clutter and encourages harmony via simplicity rather than more showy interpretations of luxury found in other parts of the globe.

First class on an ANA 777-300 ER is configured as two seats in the centre and one at each window, across the two aisles, providing direct aisle access for all. Given that there are only two rows in first, the cabin feels intimate. As I settled into window seat 1A, I knew immediately that I would be in total comfort for the next eleven hours.

ANA refers to its best seats as “First Squares”. Although not stand-alone suites in the most lavish sense, they are practically perfect self-contained individual worlds. The square cabins are lined in blond wood and have multiple compartments that house everything from hand luggage to wallets and eye glasses, in a way that makes perfect sense. Entertainment consoles and noise-cancelling headphones disappear seamlessly behind panels to create clean lines everywhere. The large, blue adjustable dining tray is the ideal size, and moves around with ease to allow for getting in and out of the seat. And white paneling broken up with horizontal detailing on outside of each cabin creates the illusion of Japanese shoji style sliding doors, behind which cleverly designed wardrobe space accommodates coats and suits.

After take-off, flight attendants change into soft pink and blue modern interpretations of kimonos. This look is fun, evokes Kawaii (the Japanese culture of youthful cuteness) and firmly positions ANA as a modern, forward-looking carrier. Although, if truth be told, the part of ANA’s first class experience I was most looking forward to was the dinner service!

Presented by ANA’s “Connoisseurs”, the airline’s first class dining and drinks offering is truly refined and unique. There is whole menu dedicated to sake, Japanese whiskey, shochu and plum wines, all from award-winning and premium distillers. Ask to see the bottles just to marvel at their beautiful labels. ANA has repeatedly won awards for its wine and champagne selection, which is curated by a panel of the planet’s leading sommeliers, and has been serving Krug since its inaugural flight in 1986. Charles Heidsieck Brut Millésimé 2006 is also poured in first.

Unless you dislike Japanese cuisine, I strongly recommend that you indulge in ANA’s original Japanese feast. This multi-course haute cuisine experience, known as kaiseki, embodies omotenashi more than almost any other element of Japanese service. Meticulously prepared and arranged small dishes are fashioned from only the freshest seasonal ingredients, rolled out in a programmed succession of courses. Served on a series of lacquered trays in individual traditional ceramic dishes – with every piece of food carefully arranged with its corresponding garnish – ANA’s first class kaiseki meal is second to none. The flavours are equally sublime. Flight attendants patiently explain the courses and the seasonality of certain items with a sense of pride. On my flight there was some excitement that kabosu were onboard. A citrus fruit related to the yuzu, kabosu is only found in the Oita Prefecture for a few weeks every autumn. Equally impressive was the Western menu, on which caviar, foie-gras and wagyu featured, all à la carte, naturally.

With the meal service behind us and more than seven hours left in the sky, it was time to have my seat prepared for sleep. The top-notch Nishikawa Sangyo bedding, complete with an “Angel Float” pillow and ultra-light comforter made from Teijin fibres, made for one of the most restful sleeps I’ve had on a long-haul flight.

Hard-shell Samsonite first class amenity kits are stocked with Ginza products (Shiseido’s premium skincare line) together with a variety of hand and face towels that form part of a traditional Japanese cleansing ritual.

Waking up to freshly brewed matcha green tea is the perfect way to begin one’s descent into Tokyo, especially if you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse of regal Mount Fuji as the plane begins its approach to the Japanese capital.

A masterclass in understated luxury and the Japanese art of omotenashi, skillfully combining slick service and sincere hospitality with attention to detail and beautiful presentation, rendered my ANA first class experience seamless from start to finish.

Haneda is much closer to Tokyo than Narita (the city’s other main international airport), allowing for more convenient access to the city centre. Fully rested, I am excited and ready for Tokyo.

Alex Benasuli travelled on All Nippon Airways in First Class from London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda in October 2018, on his own steam.