This was the first time in five years that I was leaving home with my wife to go on vacation. There had been many vacations together in the mean time, but I was on assignment in the Far East and home meant a different place for us. One of the perks had been for my wife to fly business at my company's expense to join me, accumulating airmiles and securing FB Gold status. Now was the time to use both before they all expired.
I had agreed to participate to a questionnaire on AF's website when I booked these tickets. My screenshots are unfortunately all in French, so I'll only post two of them. AF tries hard to have good answers : you can answer to a number of statements of the website's qualities :
I entirely agree I fully agree (in French too, it seems the same as the above) I rather agree I neither agree nor disagree I disagree
The purpose is obvious: if you give a visual medium opinion, you rather agree, and you have only one Disagree choice vs. three Agree ones.
The purpose of our trip was to participate to a cultural event (O-Bon and festivals) AND visit friends AND visit a city (Tokyo) AND have a rather cultural vacation, but AF strangely does not envisage a multipurpose trip.
No matter the purpose of our trip, we needed to reach the airport. Paris taxis do not have a frequent rider scheme, and much to my wife's dismay, we took the infamous RER-B train to the airport. At Chatelet Les Halles station here, frequent users know that there is a much more convenient gate for the handicapped on the far left, much more convenient that the ordinary ones on the right when you have bulky luggage (there is no signage for them).
RER-B was never meant to be customer-friendly. The reason passengers take the stairs on the right at CDG-2 station is that the escalators on the left are not escalating anything.
Having lugged your 19.9 kg suitcase up the stairs, there comes the turnstile game. Nobody at SNCF (French National Railways) which operates this end of the line imagined that the future users would have more luggage than the commuters who use the other stations every working day, and the turnstiles are newcomer- and 158 cm cumulated dimensions luggage- unfriendly. It does not take many people to create a jam, with the help of a malfunctioning turnstile.
Of course, if you look at the station from overhead, it looks nice. Less glass overhead and more escalators would have been better, from my point of view.
The first Saturday of August is always rated Black or Red in traffic jam predictions, and it was busy at CDG too. But a glance at the BPs that I had downloaded and printed the day before was enough for the agent orienteering the passengers reaching Terminal 2E's economy luggage drop area to tell me :
- You are FB Gold, sir. You have access to the Business / Elite counters; I suggest that you go to Counters 6 and 7, you will be processed much faster.
Well, no, I am not FB Gold, I am proud FB Ivory status holder, because I very seldom flew back to Europe while in Asia. But we were flying on FB award tickets, from my wife's account, and she was FB Gold. Curiously, it was her FB number and status which appeared on both BPs.
It was indeed less crowded at Counters 6, but not very efficient.
The line does not seem very long at the lugagge drop, but it made agonizingly slow progress, because J/Elite travellers on THE major vacation departure day of the year have even more luggage than the others. One such traveller's piece luggage was apparently rejected for excessive weight, brought back, and he had to shift some items into another piece. They are much less lenient on the 32kg max weight of each piece of luggage than in TPE.
It took us all of fifteen minutes later to dispose of our priority tagged luggage.
For immigration control, Mrs Marathon took the Priority lanes, and I took the much faster fingerprint reading automatic controls. My wife has an old non-biometric passport, and never bothered to register to have access to these automated lanes, because she was flying business each time anyway. The staff at the security check was courteous (they seem to have significantly improved in this regard in CDG in the past five years, from my infrequent experience).
Then came the people mover to the newest extension of CDG-2E, known to insiders and FReporters as S4. To ordinary passengers, it is simply gates Mxx, but that was very good news when I discovered on the displays that we would be boarding at Gate M44, not a Gate L-something.
At the far end of this duty free luxury goods shopping mall that you have to go through to reach the gates lies the latest CDG AF lounge, which ushered AF's hub lounges in the 21st century (the first decade of it, it is still a far cry from flagship lounges of its competitors).
And since Mrs Marathon is FB Gold and can invite a guest in the lounge, SHE invited ME in that lounge that she had never seen so far, having unfortunately departed from Gates L each previous time.
A long corridor to reach the welcome (a.k.a. dragons) counter. It took longer for me to be accepted, maybe because of my real status.
The S4 AF lounge has already been described in other FRs, in French, at much more length than I shall, because we did not have that much time left until boarding would start at 12:45.
The food offering is dismal in AF's other CDG lounges, and this one is much better.
The cheese selection is disappointing in a country which prides itself in its 400+ different cheeses, but then, the hot meals would also shame any French cook or gastronomy magazine.
I did not try this simmering tomato and coconut curry sauce, but it very much seemed like plain hot water.
Where is the meat? ran a famous US presidential campaign TV ad some decades ago. Well, it is there, but I have much better at home any working day, even though working days are not when we spend time cooking.
Noodles of a rather tasteless and sticky kind.
I am a teetotaller, so I won't comment on the spirits. There was beer and wine too, but again, I did not have that much time.
The coffee is standard, but OK
My selection, but you can't see the meat and vegetables under the noodles that came as a bulky unseparable chunk. The trays are not very large, but nevertheless convenient. At least when they are available, because they came on short supply when Mrs Marathon arrived there.
I later took a piece of this chocolate and red berries cake
OK, now, where do I eat all that? Not here, because there are no power plugs close to these seemingly plane spotter friendly chairs. There is a café-like area further inside too, but it offers no view and no power.
The Type E/F plugs here are difficult to discover. Why didn't they place them at the extremity of these thin tables ?
It is not the only furnishing mistake. These reasonably comfortable are bolted securely to the floor and cannot turn around. That makes is equally uncomfortable to chat with your business or life partner (in the background left) or eat your food (in the background right).
Next task was to connect to the internet for the traditional corporate screenshot. The obvious idea was to use my own laptop, but no matter if I used an old Internet Explorer version or an up-to-date Firefox version, I never reached the login page. I had excellent wifi reception and zero internet access.
Where else could I try ? Not on this tablets: these are digital news and magazines.
Not in this business area either, because although there are computers
… all users receive more or less the same message. Actually, there was a sign mentioning that, but it was unclear if one or all of these computers' internet access was down.
Ask the customer service staff? Well, there is none.
I asked the staff at the welcome counter, but I did not have my laptop with me and could not show them that no, I could not reach neither AF lounge network nor Orange login pages. But then I thought about my brand new smartphone, that I used so far like my previous dumbphone. No, it is not made by some California fruit producer, it is a Taiwanese look alike (the price was not look alike, though).
A small step for Flight Report, a giant leap for me ! this picture records my first attempt at surfing on the net with a phone :)
Not much time for plane spotting : a Cityjet Avro
A jumble of Hop!, AF and unidentified tails in the distance
An AZ A321
How about the toilets ? Clean. I did not search for the showers, but I know they exist.
The unusual feature is this yellow box for disposing of syringes. You do not need to be in a hospital or to be a drug addict to need an injection at regular intervals: diabetes sufferers do too.
A brief look at the newspapers and magazines stand.
It was time to leave, with no time to try the showers (Area 9), the skin care services (Area 10) and the relaxation area (Area 5).
Approaching the M gates of Terminal 2E
And the star of the day : F-HPJH, that the captain was to announce proudly to be the newest A380 in AF's fleet.
The body is so huge that the wings seem slightly undersize, compared to other aircraft.
There was a long line but orderly line to board the plane, but again, Mrs Marathon's status provided us Priority lane access.
The A380 from the jet bridge
Yes, these reactors are HUGE!
A small part of the main deck (all economy)
I had carefully chosen our seats when booking these award tickets some six months earlier : I wanted a left window (good lighting above Europe, at the cost of bad lighting reaching Japan) and avoid the overwing seats at all costs, because the wing goes up so much that it blocks all the view from the main deck (Upper deck window seats were already booked full).
Seat 38A turned out to be slightly disappointing, because it was between two windows, which made looking outside uncomfortable (this picture was taken before the descent to destination). The front window was mostly blocked by the wing, and the rear one was too far rear.
I concur with other FRreporters in that there is an excessive distance between the inside and outside panes, thereby reducing the angle of visibility. With the wing looming in front, I had no chance to see an aircraft flying in the reverse direction – all I saw was their jet exhausts after they had passed by.
A significant plus of the A380 is that the curvature of the body provides extra space to the window seats in economy too.
The safety card, both sides
The seat pitch is OK
The wing, the tail of another AF plane, and you can barely make out China Eastern's logo on the next tail.
There is MU's 333, heading back to PVG
Start of pushback, on time
A DL 767, seen when taxiing.
Takeoff, nearly twenty minutes after pushback started.
Do you see that dark spot on the clouds, above the center right of the wing ?
It is an AF A32x
This is the best enlargement I had a minute later.
A few pictures just after take-off.
What is this airport, seen four minutes after takeoff ?
Mood lighting in bright daylight is not very useful
The headphones, with a face mask, but no ear plugs.
The IFE's screen is 17 cm wide – I am sure of that. The response time is a little sluggish, but remains acceptable.
The left side appeared not to be a good option : most of Northern Europe turned out to be cloudy. But then, it was going to be just as cloudy over the Far East.
Seat 33D is strangely missing. Anybody knows why? (I checked seatguru: there is no such missing seat in LH's A380, for instance).
On this flight, some crew members speak French, English, Japanese, Hebrew, Russian, Swedish, German and Italian. Eight languages: this may be a record as far as I remember in my flying career.
The plane may be brand new, but this trolley is not: it was manufactured in February 2009
Signature shot with apple juice
12 grams, no more ! The glass holder is convenient but…
… you have better drink some of your drink before using it, because they forgot to adapt the seats to the standard AF plastic glass.
Air to air picture of a BA aircraft.
There comes the lunch. As usual with AF, the menu is much better than the food. I KNOW I have the paper menu somewhere in my luggage; if I find it, I'll add the picture.
The Japanese / European choice is limited to the hot dish, and no matter your choice, it is chicken anyway.
The difference is that the Japanese dish stayed muuuuch too long in the oven, resulting in overcooked chicken, burnt beans and dry rice.
Miso soup served in a paper cup must have made all the Japanese passengers shudder.
My wife chose European style chicken (under a thick layer of sauce), which was correctly cooked.
There comes the bread
No waste: this may be the smallest piece of bread I ever saw.
That lunch, if correctly cooked, would have been OK. The coffee, if it had not been burnt, would have been OK too. In short, the Japanese menu was acceptable, but they destroyed what they heated.
The economy class from the rear of the aircraft
Baby care is for mothers only at AF, like in CDG, according to the pictogram
This sign on this right side of the sink requests not to dump syringes, but unlike in the lounge, there is not specific disposal box for them.
This tape sealing the overhead ventilation vent seems to be standard design: there was the same in both toilets I used on that flight.
Night view with the mood lighting
The drinks available at the rear of the aircraft
The stairs to the upper deck
Ice cream was distributed during the night. Not a very good idea: the resulting noise woke up, reducing the short duration of my sleep.
Once sleep was interrupted, what could we do? Tetris on the IFE or the smartphone, as you like.
And a decent choice of classical music, with Gabriel Fauré's Requiem and Canticle of Jean Racine
… and Mozart' Requiem. I know them by heart, but it was good listening though.
The left and right wing view in the morning, before the sun's direction precluded taking any pictures. It was all clouds below, anyway.
… and the inevitable winglet
Breakfast, with the same bad coffee because of overheating
This French made fruit preserve promises the savors of the sun, with a mix of banana and passion fruit, mentioning apple in much small type. If you care to reader the contents in even much smaller type, you find out that there is 63% of apple and only 9% of passion fruit. I am not passionate about the resulting taste: the proportion of the much cheaper apples and bananas is such that this only tasted of apples.
We did not have a choice on this breakfast: my wife got apricot and apples, without any details on the contents, but we agreed that the ratio was probably much less than one apricot to one apple.
Little doubt about the nationality of the passenger in front of us: few French girls would wear such nails.
No landscape viewing opportunity on the eastern section of this flight: there was in succession a blinding sun on the left above a sea of clouds, and two much mist to make much out of the descent to Narita. A golf course in the vicinity of the airport:
Thai, Asiana and Swiss planes next to the international terminal
The next plane landing on the same runway was a Nippon Cargo B747-8F
This topiary art means Cheer up, Japan!, a message of support to all the victims of the Fukushima disaster.
For foreigners, it is simply Narita.
The Japanese drive on the left side of the road, and stand on the left side up the escalator.
There is an excellent view of the tarmac from the walkway above.
Cargo planes in the distance
A Vietnam Airlines A330
A Delta Airlines B757 (Narita is a secondary hub for DL).
Welcome to the immigration (possibly faster for foreigners than for Japanese nationals, from what I saw of the respective waiting lines).
And welcome to the luggage delivery. The priority tags on our suitcase were of no use: there was obviously no priority.
This is the end of the flight report; you can skip the ensuing tourist bonus.
An hour after landing at NRT, we were leaving the airport with a car rented for two weeks. No, I did not break this one, but it took me couple days to discover the GPS navigator's option to take the expressways. The tolls are quite expensive in Japan, but the average speed on standard roads is agonizingly low. I fortunately had my trusted although old Japan road atlas, but Mrs Marathon was strangely unable to use it.
Anyway, I eventually managed to reach the Kan'etsu tollway, no matter if the GPS kept telling me to leave it,
and reach this 10.25 km long tunnel.
国境の長いオトネルを抜けると雪国であった。 (A long tunnel between the two regions, and this was the snow country) All the Japanese and all those who learnt Japanese know the opening sentence of Snow Country, the superb novel which gave Yasunari Kawabata instant national fame, and eventually earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The train station of Echigo Yuzawa changed a lot since the time it was the first scene of his novel, but I nevertheless wanted to stop there.
The museum devoted to the novel, the author and life there one hundred years ago was a perfect introduction to two weeks of travelling in the seldom visited Tōhoku, the region north of Tōkyō. Skis changed a lot since that time.
Let's call him Mr Tanaka. Navigating to his home to the countryside was not easy, because unlike most Japanese cars' GPS, that of Nissan Rent-a-Car could not use a private home's phone number as a destination; only a business phone number would do. Mrs Marathon was again of little help : I drove to Yahiko, asked an old lady working in her vegetable plot and she told me where the neighborhood was. This was as much as the address could help, because it was only a neighborhood and a number, and not a single mailbox had any number: the mailman knows them anyway. So I asked a couple of old people in their tiny shop, then to a lady leaving her home, narrowing the location, and last to a driver, who knew Mr Tanaka and guided me to his house.
Foreigners never visit there, and few Japanese do, but the shrine is typical Japanese beauty, unspoilt by tourism.
Driving east from there went a long way to dispel the myth of Japan being an urban country. It took several hours in rural, and then deep forest landscapes. Here and there, there were roadside parking areas where you could either place a call on your cell phone…
… or put/remove chains on your tires, because they receive meters of snow in winter.
The plateau of Bandai was created by a massive volcanic eruption in 1888. The virgin mountains surrounding it are now a beautiful national park. Like many other castles in Japan, that of Aizu Wakamatsu is actually a reconstruction in concrete, but is nevertheless a beautiful sight.
The secluded valley of Tōno has many L-shaped farmer's houses with high thatched roofs. The horses' stable was on the left; humans lived in the center and right part.
There is no reason any tourist would visit Kami (加美), in a 100% rural area which really has no special attraction, but the annual matsuri (local festival) was enough of a reason to stop there (visiting friends was another good reason).
And there, the recent painful past of Tōhoku sprang to our faces. The song beautifully sung by this choir was no ordinary song, and it was no chance if all the assistance stood to special attention: 花は咲く(The flowers (will) bloom ) was composed in memory of the victims of the terrible 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Kami was too far inland to be hit by the tsunami, but its inhabitants, bussed by the local authorities, went to Ishinomaki on the coast to help clear the wreckage for three weeks. Our friends took us to a view point, where pictures of the coastal area as it was are displayed. The picture on the right is what we saw, two and half years later.
Some buildings seem to have to survived, but when you come close, you realize that they are nothing but empty shells.
Several hundred kilometers of coastal strip have been completely flattened, and is now razed to the ground. Here and there, inhabitants have rebuilt new houses on their land, but most of the surface is only wild weeds on concrete foundations. Thousands of people still live in temporary homes made of steel containers. They are unbaringly hot in summer, and unbaringly cold in winter.
Offices are likewise in similar temporary buildings
The tsunami warped this coastal railway line further north in Kesennuma. This is not the only rail line which has not been repaired yet.
Kesennuma was a major fishing harbor; the Kaitoku-maru #18, a 60 meter long fishing boat was washed one kilometer inland by the tsunami. Bear in mind that if this ship reached this place, that means that the water level had to be up to the flotation limit marked by the red paint on the hull. It was standing were houses used to be.
Smaller ships which had been similarly washed ashore have been either dismantled or brought back to the sea using cranes, but this 330 ton trawler is just too heavy to reach the sea again. The mayor wanted to turn it into a memorial and a tourist attraction, but a poll showed that the population overwhelmingly rejected that and wanted to remove this painful reminder of a tragedy that killed 800 and left 1,200 more missing in the town alone.
They want to struggle back to normality, and micro-businesses reopened in steel booths such as these…
… where I made a point to have dinner to spend my vacation money where it matters. You can see 90% of that restaurant, kitchen included, in that picture.
It does matter to visit Tōhoku. We were the first foreigners to visit our friends in Kami since March 2011, and we were the only guests in the ryōkan for our first night in Matsushima, even though this was the summer vacation in Japan too. Matsushima is considered by the Japanese as one of the three most beautiful landscapes in the country (the other two are Miyajima and Amanohashidate), and the number of visitors has dropped dramatically since the Fukushima disaster.
You would not believe the heartfelt gratitude for coming that some Japanese expressed to us. It went far beyond the standard customer relationship that I am used to, and some actually were not selling us a yen of services, but they were happy not be shunned by the world.
T'hoku never was a major tourist destination in Japan, for locals and foreigners alike, but tourism was a non-negligible part of the income in that sparingly populated region. Renting a car made our traveling faster and more convenient, but most of our trip could have been done by train and local buses.
Now is the time to discover a region which has much to offer, and is more welcoming than ever in a so welcoming country!
Air France Lounge - 2E, Hall M
Paris - CDG
Tokyo - NRT
The comfort of the seat is decent for a long distance flight in economy (nothing like the horrendous the 3-4-3 AF 77W layout). The extra lateral space of the window seat is voided by the fact that the window was misaligned with the seat. The FAs did their job, and nothing whatsoever extra. The IFE is too small for a movie, but the audio offering is OK for my taste. You would be ashamed to serve that food to friends for an informal dinner : the FAs on that flight should be taught the use of oven timers.
Checking in efficiency was substandard for a J/Elite counters. This was a high traffic day, and all counters were not manned. CDG's accessibility is that of the infamous RER-B line: you either dislike it or hate it. The security and immigration checks were OK.
There was no priority delivery of the luggage at NRT. Immigration took 15 minutes: not very fast, but many major airports are much worse. Accessibility (by way of rented car) was very good. The accessibility of NRT is great, except if you want to drive to the north-west, due to the lack of expressway in that direction from the airport.
Quite frankly, if I had not taken that many pictures for this FR, this flight would already be forgotten. Flying AF is a typically forgettable experience, because it is so bland and slightly below average, but not so much so that you remember it.
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