March 21, 2014 6:49 pm

Great flying, wrapped up

From check-in, dapper older gentlemen in well-cut suits whisk you to, and through, security

This week marks the second instalment of my travelogue devoted to chronicling the excellent, good and very bad of travelling (eastbound) around the world in two weeks.

We pick up the trail in Tokyo (the streets of Hiroo to be precise), where the weather took a turn for the toasty last Sunday and allowed for a 5K run around the neighbourhood. Brunch was enjoyed at Beard, a restaurant mentioned on this page last week (now being visited by so many Fast Lane readers that the owner is a little bit overwhelmed by all the expats). I needed to make a brief stop to stock up on stationery before the flight so, chauffeured by my colleague Noriko, we popped into Ebisu JR station, where my week’s ranking begins:

1. Railway station rethinks. When is a rail company no longer a rail company? In the case of the very clever JR East (which runs most of the trains in and around Tokyo), it’s when running rolling stock is just one part of your business and you’re also globally recognised as a financial services solutions company (think of all those card-based payment systems you use on the rails and in convenience stores). JR East is also a shrewd landlord and retailer.

Having recently transformed a derelict set of railway arches and an abandoned station into a freestanding retail and services complex in Akihabara, JR East has also built a strong franchise with its Atré vertical mall concept: shopping centres stacked above rail stations. Rammed with all the services busy commuters and local residents could possibly want, the Atré mall idea is ripe for export and should be bolted on to Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station, London’s Paddington and Copenhagen’s Central Station.

2. The call of duty (free). I’m not the world’s biggest duty-free shopper, nor the biggest consumer of personal-care products. However, I can strongly recommend a quick detour at Narita airport duty-free for basics (eye cream and moisturiser) from Fujifilm (yes, really); and Shiseido’s almost fragrance-free products for men.

3. The good old days of aviation. If you thought the golden age of civil aviation was long gone, then it might be time to try the Japan Airlines fleet of spruced up 777-300ER aircraft flying most of the long-haul routes out of Narita and Haneda. I hadn’t flown JAL long-haul for about two years and was prepared for a nice but not particularly special flight to Los Angeles last Sunday. How wonderful to be so pleasantly surprised. From check-in (dapper older gentlemen in well-cut suits whisk you to, and through, security) to the lounge (where I had exceptional beef curry with rice) to my seat, the preflight experience was seamless and smooth.

Post take-off, the purser offered travellers a choice of four white wines (one Japanese), four reds, two champagnes and a host of sakes and shochus. The appetisers, too, were all exquisitely prepared.

The WiFi worked perfectly all the way across the Pacific, while the new seats in first and business class have been thoughtfully designed rather than pulled off the shelf.

A couple of other things that really stood out: when it was time to sleep I was asked: “Do you prefer a hard or soft mattress?” I was stunned to see a thick mattress pad pulled from the overhead bin and arranged for me.

Then, shortly before landing, I decided to pick up a few souvenirs from duty free and, rather than being asked how I’d like to pay, the first question was: “Would you like all of these gift-wrapped?” Just 15 minutes later my 10 purchases were delivered to my seat. It was as if there were a special branch of Isetan department store housed in the hold. All in, this was a truly exceptional experience that proved that there is plenty of room for quality, innovation and dignity in commercial air travel – but also that you need passionate people to deliver it.

4. Lax standards at LAX. Never has an airport had a more appropriate code. It brings to mind sloppiness – and that truly reflects the whole experience. The international terminal may have been upgraded but the welcome to the US is still the same mess it is at most ports. To be avoided at all costs.

5. Poor service in the sky. I took American Airlines’ new Airbus A321 flagship overnight service to JFK. The airline has spent heavily on this new concept (flatbeds in first and business class) but there’s little point in having the beds if the crew then congregate in galleys and talk for four hours with the lights up. An exercise in poor value for money.

Next week, the Fast Lane returns to base.

Tyler Brûlé is editor in chief of Monocle magazine

tyler.brule@ft.com

More columns at ft.com/brule

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