Trip report: Cathay Pacific HKG-HND, Japan Airlines HND-FUK

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My second home is Japan, where I lived for many years. Although Japan is relatively close to Hong Kong, it is difficult to go there for the weekend, unlike say, Bangkok or Singapore. The flight times make it virtually impossible to leave on a Friday evening and return on a Sunday evening, which is so frustrating because I can do on many other routes. As a result, Christmas in Japan has become a thing, and this year we spent the long(ish) Christmas break in Kyushu. Unfortunately, since Japan is a very popular destination for Hong Kong people, the fares reflect this. For Christmas, fares on budget airlines such as Vanilla Air, Peach or HK Express were at least HKD5000 before any of the add-ons such as luggage, while full-service Cathay Pacific was a whopping HKD9000 in economy and with restrictive dates which would cut short the trip. Fortunately, I managed to find a fare with JAL which would have me in premium economy on the way back to HKG, and a codeshare on Cathay Pacific to HND. A little backtracking involving domestic flights with JAL would be required, as Tokyo wasn’t in my sights but the fares made economic sense.

CX has many fans, including many Hong Kong people I know who won’t fly any other airline. I get that one’s flag carrier can instill a bit of pride and all that, but when you’re blindingly paying double out of the mistaken belief that CX is the only carrier to provide instant noodles and staff who speak your language, well you’re an idiot. I’ve flown in economy, premium economy and business on Cathay, but unfortunately my experiences have been average at best, and at worst have involved being stranded in Doha on the way back from Oman… but that’s another story, which I might detail one of these days! On this trip, the recurring theme with CX was “sorry we don’t have any”, and a stark contrast to the experience on JAL, where nothing was too much trouble.

I took a cab to the airport and arrived at the airport at about 06:30, with plenty of time to spare for breakfast. The Marco Polo Club queue was actually quite long, so I went over to the online check-in bag drop area, which didn’t require any queuing. The check-in clerk did her job but that was about it – no smile or any pleasantries, but this is kind of perfunctory interaction is common in HKG, where many people have a deeper relationship with their mobile phone than actual people. Besides, it was early in the morning on Christmas day and everyone was going travelling while she was working – I guess I can’t blame her for her lack of cheer. Security was quick and, as a resident of Hong Kong, I breezed through the automatic immigration gates – I always think of this meme when I do this!

After getting distracted at Coach offering a rare sale (woohoo, new handbag!), I jumped on the train to the more distant gates, mine being gate 64. Finally, at about 8:20, boarding commenced. Since it was Christmas day, crew members were wearing Santa hats and a Christmas wreath was decorating the cabin. It appeared to be a full flight – unsurprising at this time of year.

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Can you see the Christmas wreath?

Although headphones were placed in the seat pocket, conspicuous in their absence were menus, pillows and blankets. Having recently flown in economy on SQ down to SIN in October where these were all provided, a comparable distance and also a daytime flight, I was surprised there weren’t any on Cathay.

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At least entertainment is gate-to-gate on CX’s B777-300

Crew handed out Japanese customs forms before take-off, but again something was missing – the immigration forms.

After the seatbelt signs were switched off, I spied a couple of pax asking for pillows or blankets. “Hmm, so we’re supposed to ask for them? Strange,” I thought. I asked flight attendant for a pillow and a blanket and was told they didn’t have any left. I was disappointed, to say the least. First, I was apparently flying a full-service airline and secondly, hadn’t they considered the route? Sleeping on the bus or train is normal in this part of the world, let alone on a four-hour international flight. I daresay most passengers on such a route expect pillows and blankets to make the trip (and sleep) more comfortable. On many Japan routes, slippers are also provided along with the pillows and blankets. Yet on this CX flight, it seemed it was “first come, first served” and I’d missed my chance. To the crew member’s credit, later he did give me a pillow, but accompanied with a stern caveat: “I just want you to know that this is our very last pillow”. Feeling like a child being scolded, I wasn’t sure how to respond. Was he trying to deter me from asking for another pillow? Was I expected to thank him profusely?

Before the meal service, crew members offered drinks from a tray – juices or beer. I wanted water, but the Pillow Incident still fresh in my mind, I didn’t ask for an alternative choice of beverage and instead waited for water to come with the meal, as it usually does. Soon enough, special meals were handed out. The lack of menus, while conspicuous given they had made an appearance on a recent flight to Australia, didn’t really affect me as I receive my usual choice of an Indian Vegetarian meal. On this day, it featured vada, upma, idli and sambhar, with a decent coconut chutney. It was quite tasty – CX’s Indian Vegetarian meals ex-HKG are good in economy, even better in business. The plastic cutlery is always a disappointment, though. As for the regular meal choices, one was congee, but I don’t know the other choice, as those around me just went for the former.

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Not bad!

After the meal service, coffee and tea were being served. I asked for some Chinese tea. “We are serving black tea,” said the flight attendant.
“Do you have any Chinese tea?” (Is it unreasonable to ask for this, on a Hong Kong airline? I’ve been offered it countless times on CX)
“You’ll have to wait until later. I’ll bring it to you.”
“OK, fine. Thank you.”
Later, he came with the Chinese tea, and asked if I wanted milk with it. I may be a gweilo, but if I wanted tea with milk I wouldn’t have asked for the Chinese stuff.

Although I’d originally planned to have a nap on the flight, given that I’d stayed up way too late doing last minute packing, I was tempted by the IFE. I find CX entertainment leans a bit too much towards Chinese tastes for a supposedly international airline, but there are some decent enough movies and full TV series in English and other languages. It’s no Emirates’ ICE or Singapore Airlines’ KrisWorld, though. However, I do have CX to be thankful to for featuring a live concert of the late, great Amy Winehouse. I’d never seen this one before and it still sends chills up my spine, especially her performance of “Me and Mr Jones”. Wow. I just kept rewinding and listening to it.

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Approaching a place very dear to my heart – Kyushu. We would later be flying back down here from HND.

As we were now beginning to fly over my beloved Kyushu, my thoughts drifted to the immigration formalities. We’d previously been given a Japanese customs form, which I filled in. I asked a flight attendant who was walking by for an immigration form. “Sorry, we don’t have any immigration forms. We only had enough for some economy passengers.” No pillows, no blankets, no menus, and now no immigration cards. Actually, the lack of immigration cards is a recurring issue with CX, in my experience, and I politely told him so. On my last three CX flights I’d had to spend more time queuing up at immigration after locating and completing immigration cards that weren’t available on board. Every so often such things happen, but this seems to happen so much for me on CX. It must be a problem for cabin crew, too, as he seemed genuinely regretful. “This is an ongoing problem and thank you for bringing it to my attention. If you don’t mind, I will raise your concerns with my supervisor so that we can do something about it in the future.” Great, but I was still facing a huge queue at immigration just because I was seated at the back of the bus.

As with the pillows, a little while later another cabin crew member handed out immigration cards that had magically materialised. I’m glad that we got them in the end, but it would be nice if they were just given out, without so much hassle.

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Ugh, finally!

Finally, time to land. What a great view as we prepared for landing.

As we disembarked, crew were talking to each other and didn’t farewell the pax. A fitting end to a mediocre flight. I was glad this was the only CX-operated part of the trip, and that all other flights would be with JAL. Thanks to getting immigration cards on board, iImmigration was swift and my interaction with the friendly immigration agent was the first of many great moments of the trip.
“I notice you don’t have many blank pages left in your passport but it expires in 5 years. Would you mind if I put the sticker on a blank page?”
“Oh, thank you for asking. I’m trying to conserve blank pages. Would you mind putting it on this page instead?”
“Sure. Welcome to Japan.”
Welcome to Japan, indeed. Such friendliness and attention to detail.

Bags took forever to come out, but when it finally did, it was time to jump on the Keikyu line into Ginza, for a night in Tokyo before the next flight to Fukuoka. I’ll focus more on the trip itself later, but for now, let’s move on to the domestic flight to FUK: JL311.

HND was very busy on the morning we arrived for the flight to FUK. This is peak season in Japan, when many companies close for the year and people take leave. The check-in area was very busy but orderly, and JAL staff were helping the queues move quickly and smoothly. Staff were also frequently on the lookout for anyone travelling on particular flights which were due to close soon. JAL have self-service kiosks where you print your luggage tag before moving on to the desk. Not having the reservation number handy, I did the entire check-in procedure at the desk. JAL offer wider “J-class” seats for an extra 1,000 yen, but unfortunately it was a full flight and no seats were available. The check-in agent gave us the option of a window seat, which was nice.

With check-in done, it was time to explore the domestic terminal, which had undergone a renovation since I had last gone through there many years ago, and eat a delicious Japanese breakfast.

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This food makes me indescribably happy! And this is at an airport – it’s impossible to have a crap meal in Japan.
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Our ride for today, a B767-300ER
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Boarding our flight to FUK

The purser, dressed in a white jacket, greeted all passengers as they boarded. When she saw me, she switched to English. “Good morning.”
I automatically greeted her back in Japanese, and we laughed, and I added “Good morning, too” in English.
“Where are you from?”
We had a quick chat and then she welcomed me on board, and told me how to reach my seat.
What a warm welcome!

JAL’s new domestic product is wonderful. As you board, you see the beautiful single row of first class, which I wasn’t able to take a photo of. This was followed by J-class and finally, our cabin – economy.

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Attention to detail (not a thing one sees in Hong Kong!) – these baggage handlers were so careful with the luggage

Perhaps someone can fill me in, but I believe this is in relation to the national response after the March 11 tsunami and Fukushima disaster. “Ganbarou Nippon” translates to something like “let’s go, Japan”, “do your best, Japan” etc. I think in the west “pray for Japan” was the sentiment that went around.

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No departure would be complete without the ground crew waving and bowing. I absolutely LOVE this about flying in Japan.

We take off at 09:28. Announcements are bilingual, and as my companion and I appear to be the only non-Japanese on this flight, I do wonder if the announcements are always bilingual, or if this is strictly for our benefit?   I remember years ago on a domestic flight the announcements were only in Japanese. On our flight, WIFI was available for a charge. Call me old-fashioned, but as I fly for leisure I like the idea of not being contactable up in the air. Do my friends and family really need to see a picture taken that very second from up in the clouds? No, I don’t think so. I can go without messaging and emailing for a few hours, too. I’m on holiday. I understand that business flyers and even many leisure flyers may have other ideas, but no thank you.

Although it was economically the best option, landing in Tokyo and an early flight out to Fukuoka meant I was really tired, so I nodded off. Unfortunately it was quite bumpy so I was woken up a lot. Above HIJ, the captain greeted us, said it was now 6 degrees in Fukuoka and that we would begin our descent in about 20 minutes. Again, the captain’s message was both in English and Japanese, though he did pause for a bit in English when it came to saying numbers
Here we are, just around HIJ:

 

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The quiet, calm cabin prepared for landing:

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Hello, Fukuoka! My old home.

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Aside from its memorable IATA code, FUK is also notable for its proximity to the city centre. It’s only 250yen or so on the subway downtown, and takes barely 10 minutes. If only all trips from airports were that cheap and quick. There was a building with a neon sign on it in my old street, so I would often be able to spot my neighbourhood as we were coming in to land. We landed with profuse apologies for landing a whole 8 minutes late due to strong winds!

With warm farewells from the cabin attendants (what a contrast to Cathay), we disembarked at Gate 7. Luggage was quickly available.

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Stay tuned for details of a very special part of Kyushu!

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