The Japanese are getting it right

Image of Tyler Brûlé

It warms the soul to know there are still a few mysteries out there on the great, wide-open plains of consumerism. One of my favourites is how the Japanese make boarding aircraft, large and small, completely painless and why other carriers are incapable of doing the same.

On Saturday morning I arrived at Tokyo Haneda’s terminal two and made my way to check-in. All cities and transport ministries developing new airports should follow the long and shallow design model rather than narrow and deep. It’s much more pleasant to have a short walk to the check-in desk, multiple security screening areas with the gates directly behind, instead of bottlenecks and endless concourses.

As I breezed through security and made my way to the gate for the flight to Okinawa, I took up a front-row seat to watch the ANA staff call the flight and to marvel at the passengers streaming on board as if they were riding the subway.

Some might argue it all works because 98 per cent of people travelling are Japanese and know all the codes about behaviour and conduct on public/private transport. Others might look at a mixture of hardware and technology to find clues for the speedy boarding. In Japan, for example, airlines will usually use two air bridges when possible rather than squeezing everyone through one door. Carriers also have a different system for processing people’s boarding cards that are only now being taken up in the west.

In practice, it’s a combination of all these things, coupled with the fact that Japanese female flight attendants (male Japanese cabin crew are about as rare as well-behaved children on a flight to Palma or Miami) are only too willing to lift heavy bags into bins, hang coats, find space for precious foodstuffs and do whatever it takes to ensure boarding is stress-free and that people take their seats swiftly.

It remains to be seen what impact the low-cost carrier model will have on the virtual ANA-JAL duopoly, though any dramatic impact will probably be mitigated by the fact that ANA has stakes in Peach and the Japanese arm of AirAsia while JAL has a chunk of Jetstar Japan. I’m all for more competition, as long as they continue to pass out the perfectly stacked bento boxes and pour miso soup or chowder once you’ve levelled off over the Pacific.

Somehow the Japanese legacy carriers get it just right on the service side – thoughtful catering, a good selection of drinks, an oshibori (hand towel) and slippers. So far they’ve resisted installing televisions at every seat. As they love to crank the heat up in confined environments in Japan, this doesn’t really matter, as most people are in a coma well before the aircraft reaches its cruising altitude.

Two hours and 30 minutes later we lined up for our approach to Naha and touched down among the F-15 fighter jets, anti-submarine aircraft and bulky choppers that share the airfield with commercial operators. On the highway, the brutal architecture of Naha swept by and we made our way to a small neighbourhood of former US service family homes in Ginowan. Up a flight of stairs and through an overgrown garden, we entered a yard and then a white, boxy bungalow that’s become one of the tastiest, cosiest, funkiest places for lunch in this stretch of the Pacific.

Staffed by cool guys and girls in crocheted hats, hemp trousers, smock tops, linen aprons and baked-potato style footwear, Ploughman’s is the kind of set-up that makes you question everything you’re doing in life. It makes you wonder why you are not just kicking back, running a great little restaurant where your only worry would be figuring out how to out-funk your colleagues in the sartorial stakes each morning.

Back in the Toyota Alphard, we made our way to Nago, turned off the perfectly maintained motorway and, after a few kilometres, swung through the gates of the new Ritz-Carlton (a rebadged golf hotel), not quite sure what to expect for the next five nights. In general, golf resorts are always a bit of a turn-off but I liked the look of the hotel interiors when I saw some previews in the Japanese press and, in desperate need of some sun and warmth, I booked.

While it has certainly been muggy here, the views across the bay haven’t featured a shimmering, dancing sea of coral reefs – save for one day. It hasn’t really mattered, though, as the hotel has managed to get pretty much everything right: superb staff, excellent food, well-designed rooms, good pool set-up and cosy bar.

No doubt there are fine resorts all over the region but there’s something good happening in Okinawa in the form of a booming craft culture, great cuisine and, if you keep a sharp lookout, amazing vintage finds from the US bases. There’s also the added bonus of Patriot missile batteries along the road to keep young Mr Kim from spoiling the party.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

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