In Transit Tokyo
Touchdown Tokyo! You’ve made it… to the airport. Tokyo is serviced by two major airports: Narita (NRT) and Haneda (HND). If you’re flying into Tokyo, you’ll certainly come in to one of these two. Regardless of which you use, you’ll likely find that service is great, the space is clean, and the lines move fairly fast. At both airports, I’ve found that I can often be on my way within ½ an hour of landing, and both are directly linked to rail transit and have free wifi.
Narita handles the majority of international traffic in Japan, so there’s a good chance you’ll land here. NRT, which is actually in Chiba Prefecture, is 60-90 minutes from downtown Tokyo, so it’s imperative to plan with that in mind–you can’t just duck into the city on a short layover. The easiest way to get into town is by rail, and there are several options varying in speed and price, including the Narita Express (¥4000/$35, 66 minutes), Sky Access Express to Higashi-Ginza in south Tokyo (¥1330/$12, 62 minutes), Skyliner to Ueno in north Tokyo (¥2470/$23, 41 minutes), or regular Keisei train to Shimbashi (¥1140/$10, 90 minutes). Do keep in mind that if you have a late flight, getting in past ten or so, rail transport may be dicey, as the train system does shut down from about midnight to 4 a.m. each night, and most “last trains” that go all the way to the city leave around 11 p.m. If you do come in after the trains stop running, know that taxis are expensive and it can easily cost upwards of ¥20,000 ($177) to get into the city center. It will almost certainly be cheaper to get an airport hotel for the night and go into town in the morning.
Narita is not short on amenities. You can get your hair cut, your nails done, or buy a new pair of glasses. There are ATMs and currency changers, wifi hotspot rentals, and the excellent shopping with lots of major Japanese brands means that you don’t need to worry if you neglected to pick up gifts and souvenirs before your departure day.
One excellent service of note is takkyubin, or delivery service. You can have your luggage delivered to your hotel or your next domestic destination for less than ¥2000/$18 per piece in about a day or two. This saves your schlepping your heavy bags on the train, or lugging your skis around when you don’t need them until next week.
There are dozens of passable food options at Narita, most of them outside the security gates, with the largest number in Terminal 1. While nobody goes to the airport to eat, you won’t be left hungry, with a good mix of Japanese (udon, ramen, sushi, tempura, etc.) and foreign cuisine options. In Terminal 1, the reasonably priced Kineyamugimaru has handmade-on-site udon noodles, which you can cover with a mound of toppings of your choice. Bagel and Bagel is good for a quick, fresh sandwich or a muffin. Over at Terminal 2, there’s a branch of the revolving sushi chain Gansozushi, which has good quality for the price–only 130 yen per plate. In the last couple of years (in anticipation of the 2020 Olympics), the airport and the government have stepped up their efforts in catering to customers with special diets; restaurants now have clearly marked halal and vegetarian options.
Built for the 1964 Olympics, it has since hosted heads of state on its astonishing lot with a 400-yr-old Japanese garden on site. All that AND it’s a bargain.
Haneda handles the majority of domestic travel, though it also has quite a few international routes. Located within Tokyo proper, it takes only about 30 minutes to get to the major hubs in the city. Take the Tokyo Monorail or Keikyu Line from the airport; you’ll probably need to change to the Yamanote loop line unless you’re based in Shinagawa or Hamamatsucho.
Tip: though it’s perfectly acceptable to buy a single-use ticket, most Tokyoites use a rechargeable IC card that works across trains, subways, many buses, and even some convenience stores and vending machines. You can buy cards at marked ticket machines in the station; there is a refundable ¥500 ($5) deposit to obtain one. Both the Suica (Japan Rail branded card) and Pasmo (Tokyo Metro/subway branded card) can be used interchangeably on all Tokyo transport and across much of the rest of country as well.
Shopping is not quite as extensive as NRT, though there is some, and the time you’ll save getting to this airport means you can spend an extra hour picking up souvenirs in central Tokyo. The International Terminal boasts a few dozen serviceable restaurants and there’s no shortage of coffee and noodles. Specialty offerings (halal, vegetarian, etc.) are noticeably fewer than at NRT.
If you plan on traveling outside the metropolis, you will likely find yourself at Tokyo Station, the major train hub of the city. All of Tokyo’s shinkansen, or bullet trains, originate here, radiating north, south, and west. If at all possible, when traveling domestically, I recommend the shinkansen. Japan’s most famous transit is fast, smooth, reliable, and comfortable (with way more legroom than any coach flight). While it’s not cheap, the tickets are comparable in cost to flying, and often faster and more convenient. Most shinkansen, by the way, are covered by the Japan Rail Pass that you should buy before arriving in Japan if you’re going to be traveling much outside of Tokyo.
Tokyo Station is almost a city within itself, with a formidable number of shops and restaurants both inside and outside the ticket gates. For example, on the B1 level, you have Tokyo Character Street with lots of cute anime and manga characters; Tokyo Okashi Street with a big selection of sweets and snacks, and Tokyo Ramen Street, with eight of Tokyo’s top ramen purveyors all lined up for easy sampling. Within the ticketed area, there are still dozens of stores and restaurants where you can load up on necessities (need some Heat Tech at Uniqlo?), snacks (the New Days convenience store has you covered), and energy (like Tokyo’s favorite vegan ramen at T’s Tan Tan) before embarking on your journey. You’ll also find a dizzying array of ekiben–the special lunch boxes that are unique to each station and are practically a prerequisite when it comes to bullet train travel.
Japanese transport can be confusing with the sheer number of options, but the country’s infrastructure is truly a marvel. Whichever way you travel, you can be almost guaranteed that it will be clean, efficient, and on time.