Japan can be a big country to get around despite the amazing Shinkansen national rail system. That is why, unless you have lots of time, from Tokyo to Hokkaido is best done by air. A typical train journey can take six hours or more, so flying is the way forward if you’re in a rush or time is tight.
In June 2023 I was headed to Asahikawa Hokkaido for a short weekend trip, and tried two competing airlines for this domestic economy journey. On the way from Tokyo, I took Air DO, an ANA partner, which codeshares with Star Alliance carriers. On the return leg, I took Japan Airlines JAL, a Oneworld member.
About Asahikawa Hokkaido Japan
Asahikawa is a city located in the center of Hokkaido, Japan, and is one of the island’s largest cities. It also has the entire country’s coldest climate and some very unique landscapes such as the Blue Pond and the Lavender Fields of Biei.
The city has two mascots, Yukkirin (a strong but kind snow giraffe) and Asappy (a mixture of a harbor seal and a polar bear). These mascots are seen throughout the city and also in various places at the airport.
Here are some things to do and see near Asahikawa:
- Asahikawa Winter Festival: for visits during the winter months, the Asahikawa Winter Festival features incredible snow and ice sculptures, as well as an ice skating rink.
- Asahikawa Ramen Village: Hokkaido is famous for its ramen, and Asahikawa has its own unique style. You can try various ramen dishes at Ramen Village, a collection of ramen restaurants.
- Otokoyama Sake Brewery: Take a tour of this sake brewery to learn about the sake-making process and sample some of their products.
- Daisetsuzan National Park: This park is nearby and offers fantastic hiking and outdoor activities. You can explore its stunning landscapes, hot springs, and wildlife.
- Furano and Biei: These nearby towns are known for their beautiful landscapes, especially in the summer when the lavender fields are in full bloom. In the winter, they offer skiing and snowboarding opportunities. My June 2023 trip was focused on Furano and Biei, and included trips to the lavender fields and the famous Blue Pond.
- Hot Springs (Onsen): Hokkaido is known for its natural hot springs. On my June 2023 trip I tried three local Onsen Hotels and Spas in this area – the Hotel Furano La Terre and Onsen Spa; the Hotel Tefu Tefu; and finally the Yumoto Shirogane Onsen Spa at the Shirogane Onsen.
- Sounkyo Gorge: Located about an hour from Asahikawa, this gorge is famous for its dramatic cliffs and waterfalls. It’s especially beautiful during the autumn foliage season.
- Fresh Local Cuisine: Hokkaido has the best and freshest food in Japan. Be sure to try local Hokkaido cuisine including fresh seafood, dairy products, and delicious Hokkaido potatoes.
Air DO from Tokyo to Asahikawa
Air DO is a primarily domestic Japanese carrier based out of Hokkaido. The airline operates mainly out of Sapporo and Hakodate, with another hub in Ashikawara, the center of Hokkaido.
Air DO has a very cute Bear Mascot and some very interesting paint schemes as well. It is also an ANA partner and codeshare with Star Alliance.
Booking Air DO Economy Ticket
Booking was very straightforward on the airline’s English-language site. I booked two people on a Friday morning flight for the weekend. The premium travel window set me back 60,340Y/~$410.
The Ground Experience
We arrived by bus to Tokyo Haneda’s Terminal 2.
At Tokyo Haneda Terminal 2, Air DO uses ANA counters.
Air DO Check-In Process
The Check-In process was a breeze with automated check-in and baggage drop. However, while this looked very modern and cool, I found this extremely confusing as a foreigner since it required using the link in the email confirmation.
This resulted in chaos since you cannot switch to English, which is tied to an Apple wallet. It’s supremely confusing.
At check-in, you use a QR code to acquire boarding passes. The machine scanned and auto-issued after asking us to confirm seats. This flight was full, so there were no other options.
Haneda Terminal 2 Transit & Boarding
Domestic security at Haneda Terminal 2 is very fast. Travelers can also bring liquids through, which most Western travelers are not used to. This means you can get a coffee and carry it through security.
We entered the queue pretty late, at 10:45 or so; we were through by 10:55. It took another ten minutes to walk to the gate. If you are traveling from the Domestic side of Haneda T2, there are more services and amenities before security, so it is worth heading there early.
Air Do Boarding
Unusually, the flight was delayed by around 10 minutes. However, boarding began at 11:10 for an 11:25 a.m. departure. Starting with Seniors, Children and Families, and Pregnant Women, then Groups 1 and 2.
Amazingly, boarding was done and completed right on time at 11:25 a.m. It worked so fast and took less than ten minutes in total.
The Air DO B767-300 Cabin and Seats
Air Do operates single-class aircraft. There is no Premium Economy or Business Class seating on this aircraft. The carrier uses Recaro Slimline seats, similar to Alaska Airlines and United Airlines, in a 2-3-2 configuration, which is pretty standard for Boeing 763s. The cabin features fabric seat covers with grey carpets and blue seats.
Air DO Seat 31E
It is no secret that I am no fan of the Recaro Slimline seats. I find them too skinny with little to no padding and very uncomfortable, and these were no different. Although a document storage pouch was at the front, no In-Flight Entertainment TV screen existed. In fact, there were very few TV displays in the aisles.
The side of the seat featured a small coat hook. There was also a tray table with a glass/cup hole for stability.
The seats feature one USB port by the footwell in the middle seat area. In addition, each seat has a radio with a standard 3.5m audio jack. The radio has nine audio channels. Oddly looking up, I notice no air vents while there are reading lights!
The window seats are the best option here. They have a much larger configuration of seat well due to the seat base structure and combined storage space between two seats. The center seats are much more limited.
If you are looking to book an Air Do flight, try and avoid seats B, C, and F. All these seem to have equipment boxes, which block foot space and reduce the area for your baggage.
The Inflight Entertainment & Wi-Fi
There is no Wi-Fi on the aircraft per se. While there is a network you can connect to, it only provides access to an IFE system on your personal device. There is no actual internet.
The In-Flight Entertainment system is very limited; a few sections of videos, TV series, books, and magazines exist. However, there are only six or seven choices in each category, and all the ones I saw were in Japanese.
Air DO Flight
The crew was very friendly and efficient, although only Japanese was spoken. We were soon ready for takeoff, and TV displays showed the view from the front of the plane (at the front wheel well level. Before departure, the flight attendant walked around offering headphones.
Air DO Meal Service
The service was very brief and basic, with only liquids served. I chose the onion soup and a hot coffee. The soup was excellent and delicious, and the coffee was strong and tasty! Both were served in small cups.
Interestingly, there was no trash collection service before landing. Everything was left behind for someone else to clear up once everyone deplaned.
Interestingly, despite not sitting in an emergency exit row before landing, I was approached and asked to stow my under-seat bag in the overhead bins. The flight attendant took care of this, so it was fine. I wasn’t asked to do this on the Japan Airlines flight.
Landing and Arrival
If I had to use one word to describe the landing, it would be “Intense.” There was lots of turbulence, although I learned that is mainly just how Hokkaido weather is.
Once on the ground, we pulled up Japan Airlines 767-300, similar to what we’ll take on the return trip.
We deplaned quickly, although not as fast as boarding, and were soon out of this tiny airport. A bus and taxi service at the terminal and a train station is nearby. However, you need to take a taxi to the station.
Japan Airlines Return from Asahikawa to Tokyo
Japan Air Lines operates the same aircraft type on this route as Air DO, a B767-300. However, that is where the similarity ends – JAL operates two class service with proper business class seats and service albeit expedited.
Booking Japan Airlines
The JAL tickets were a little cheaper than the Air DO ticket since it was a daytime flight on a Monday, well outside any premium travel windows. The fare for two people was 51,780Y /~$351.
Ashahikawa Ground Experience
The Ashahikawa is small, like Paraguay’s Asuncion ASU, but is very efficient. It had lots of stores before the security screen.
Although a small airport, the security screening process was very efficient, and I found it to be quick and seamless.
JAL Check-In & Boarding
Check-in is done in person at the counters, although your baggage is X-rayed and tagged in advance. The agents were very friendly, and I could have printed my boarding pass as well at the check-in desk.
Boarding the JAL flight was less efficient than the Air DO experience. It was very congested since we were in group four. While the process was efficient to a degree, it felt more rushed and not relatively as smooth as the Air Do flight.
JAL B767-300 Cabin and Seats
JAL offers a two-class cabin on this route, with business class configured in a 2-2-2 layout. While the economy cabin layout is very similar to Air, DO in a 2-3-2 configuration.
The cabin features leather seats with a warm/dark tone (Black carpets with white and red spots, black seats, and red seatbelts).
JAL Seat 20A
It is a night and day difference between the JAL and Air Do seats. The JAL seats are leather and well-padded. They are not quite a slim line; these were actually far more comfortable than the Recaro seats. They had sufficient padding and were good for sleep.
In the back of the seat in front of you, there is the standard magazine pouch with document storage, Wi-Fi info, JAL Shop, JAL Global Wallet, and Skyward Magazine (in English and Japanese).
Like Air DO, there are no In-Flight Entertainment TV screens and a few displays in the Aisles.
The tray table swivel doubles as a coat hook, and the table itself has a with glass/cup inset for stability.
This time around, the footwells have 2 USB ports per seat. there is 1x USB A available, and 1x USB C available. Also, a radio uses a standard audio jack, although this one only has two audio channels.
The seats have equipment boxes but a very skinny slimline version. Does not block foot space—sufficient suitcase storage.
One thing to note is that on the Window side, the USB port host base does fall directly in front of your left leg, which eats into the available foot space and suitcase storage space. I don’t think two under-seat bags can fit here, which is possible on Air DO. I also noticed this USB port host base is also in the middle seats, blocking some space.
However, the Window seats again have a much larger configuration of seat well due to the seat base structure combined storage space between two seats. Center seats are much more limited.
Yet again, there were no overhead vents in the console above, only reading lights.
The overall experience was a little more refined on JAL than on Air DO, even though no headphones were offered. First, the TV displays a map of the flight, routing, and remaining journey time. Secondly, announcements were made in Japanese and English, while Air DO was only in Japanese.
JAL Inflight Entertainment & Wi-Fi
While there are no IFE screens in the seat in front of you, you can still access the IFE system on your device by logging onto the Wi-Fi network.
The list of options is more extensive than that provided by Air DO and includes several dozen TV programs on JAL Entertainment online; I counted 76 TV series offered. Also, there are children’s programs, documentaries, and Japan Airlines technical and flight documentaries.
Things are much poorer in terms of the audio offering, and I could only find one.
Unlike Air DO, JAL does have full working Wi-Fi with Internet on its flights. I found it easy to connect to, only needing to enter an email address. I did this once, and it connected. The Wi-Fi connection options are available in English or Japanese.
JAL Meal Service
Similar to the Air DO service, the JAL offering was liquids only. However, the overall service was slightly more relaxed since this was a mixed-cabin flight.
A menu was presented by the flight attendant that had seven options. I chose Beef Consume, Japan Airlines’ custom “Sky Time Peach & Grape Mix,” and Hot Coffee. The Beef Consume Soup was hot and delicious, the coffee was robust, and I really like the Sky Time drink (which I’m familiar with from my other international Japan Airlines flights.
The flight was served from a cart with two flight attendants per aisle. And both the coffee and the consume were served in small cups with lids. Unlike the Air Do flight, there were two mid-flight trash collection services.
Arrival At Tokyo
Landing preparations were announced with about 25 minutes of flight time left. Unlike Hokkaido, the landing from the Southeast was very smooth, with little to no turbulence. The approach had some great views of the west of Haneda.
We touched down at 11:40 and were at the gate by 11:50 in Haneda Terminal 1. Sadly, the baggage claim left a lot to be desired. Many different baggage claim operations were going on, and our belt was crowded. Things were made worse since our bag was also the last one out.
Overall, both Air DO and Japan Airlines are good options to travel between Tokyo Haneda and Asahikawa Hokkaido, mainly offering the same experience on the B767-300 but with an edge to Japan Airlines. Granted, it’s more expensive and less available, but the product is better overall. I was also totally fine with Air DO and wouldn’t hesitate to use them again in a pinch.
If I were to do this again, I’d probably pick Japan Airlines and credit my flight to either of its Oneworld partners, Alaska Airlines or American Airlines.
Pros of Air DO:
- Cheaper flights
- Discounted early bookings
- More flights available.
Cons of Air DO:
- Japanese Language Only
- Cannot change flights without canceling (fee involved).
- Less under-seat storage, congested footwell.
- Fewer charging ports.
- Delicious soups on both (Onion Soup on Air DO, Beef Consume on Japan Airlines)
- Neither airline has actual power ports for a standard plug.
- Neither airline has seatback IFE.
Pros of Japan Airlines:
- Better product in economy. Way more comfortable seats.
- Business Class available.
- Multiple cancellation and changeable options.
- Has Wi-Fi
- Multiple charging ports (2x versus 1x on Air DO)
Cons of Japan Airlines:
- Fewer flights (sold out quicker)
- Generally, it is more expensive than Air DO.