International travel to (and from) Tokyo just got quicker and funkier
Arriving at Narita international airport and traveling by train through the concrete clutter of Tokyo’s east side, many tourists can’t help but think that Japan is a grey country with tired infrastructure.
They’ll also wonder why it seems so difficult to get to Tokyo, even after landing in Japan. Despite a recently opened high-speed airport train cutting travel times by a third, it can still take over an hour to get from Narita International Airport to central Tokyo.
The new international terminal at Haneda Airport however, opened on October 21, can get passengers from the airport to downtown Tokyo — or vice versa — in around 30 minutes, and at last gives Tokyo a funky new international gateway that enhances the city’s reputation for futuristic designs amid a proud ancient culture.
A shiny new first impression
“It’s beautiful,” says a young woman from the Shibuya area of Tokyo, joining a chorus of praise from passengers on their way to a quick holiday in Seoul. “It’s much easier to go from Shibuya to here than Narita.”
With curving lines, dazzling lights and broad views, Haneda finally puts Tokyo in a league with Shanghai and Dubai for spiffy new airports.
Haneda first opened in 1931 and the International Terminal — work on which began in May 2008 — is the airport’s third.
To picture the new Haneda International Terminal, think of Roppongi’s Tokyo Mid-Town complex.
Upon landing in Tokyo, tourists can catch a shakuhachi performance by John Kaizan Neptune or other traditional performers at a special stage above the departure level.
Or they can wander amid the blue lights, black walls, red umbrellas and glowing lanterns that conjure the brilliance of Asakusa, Akihabara and Shibuya.
Though train travel between Haneda and Narita will still take at least 90 minutes, Haneda is more convenient for passengers coming from Yokohama or from west and central Tokyo.
Haneda is 14 kilometers from Tokyo and only 20 minutes by train from the ticket gates at Shinagawa, 13 minutes from Shibuya in central Tokyo.
This compares to Narita Airport, 60 kilometers away, to which the fastest Sky Access train takes 36 minutes from stations in Tokyo’s eastern side (Ueno and Nippori), themselves a further 30 minutes from downtown Shibuya and Shinjuku.
“Haneda used to be a place for coming and going, it was nothing special,” says Keiko Takemaru, a Tokyo housewife visiting the airport with her friend. “This new terminal is very stylish. It’s a nice place to spend time if you are waiting for a flight.”
Unlike Narita International Airport, which often feels like a sprawling fortress of escalators and wings meant to confuse intruders, Haneda’s relatively small terminal is easy to navigate.
The colorful Edo Marketplace features made-in-Japan clothing shops and restaurants serving sushi, sukiyaki, tonkatsu, ramen, and kushiage at reasonable prices.
The Starry Café, a small planetarium with soothing music, is already a popular spot for romantic couples.
“It’s been very busy here since the terminal opened last weekend,” says the café’s manager Duan Ren, who came from Beijing to Japan eight year ago. “It’s like a festival. People are coming to Haneda to see what it’s like, even if they aren’t flying.”
A multilingual hub
Hoping to spark a tourism boom in Japan, the new government has encouraged a friendly and welcoming vibe. Screens display flight information in Japanese, English, Mandarin and Korean.
Security guards don’t seem to mind photographers attracted by the terminal’s clever angles and light effects. When asked how to get to the planetarium, one police officer smiles and tries out his newly learned English.
“It’s over there. Please go straight. Thank you. Have a nice day.”
Getting into central Tokyo or Yokohama is suddenly easy.
Directly outside the arrivals area, a long escalator spills directly into the ticket gates for the Keikyu line, only about 20 minutes to Shinagawa or Yokohama. The Monorail train, meanwhile, goes to Hamamatsucho, convenient for business travelers working in Marunouchi.
For now, many airlines will try to take advantage of increased demand for the much closer airport by setting higher fares at Haneda than the distant Narita. An economy round-trip from Hong Kong to Tokyo Haneda is currently priced at HK$4,320 (pre-tax) for travel in December 2010 compared to HK$3,500 (pre-tax) for Narita, according to Cathay Pacific’s online-booking website.
Many critics have blamed Japan’s high ticket prices on the government’s landing fees, which are several times higher than those at airports in London or Seoul, for example.
According to International Air Transport Association data, landing a Boeing 767 with 150 passengers will cost about ¥3,000 per passenger at Haneda, much higher than the rates of ¥1,200 at Changi in Singapore and ¥335 at Incheon outside Seoul, which has become a de facto hub for about 30 regional airports in Japan.
How the airlines will incorporate these into ticket prices may vary according to the airline.
Still, the Japanese government hopes a new “dual hub” strategy for Narita and Haneda will increase foreign arrivals by 2.2 million a year, and entice another 3.9 million Japanese to travel abroad.
The transport ministry thinks this could add ¥1 trillion per year in spending on domestic travel, hotels and dining.
“Haneda will mark its first step toward becoming a 24-hour international hub,” says Sumio Mabuchi, Japan’s transport minister, during the terminal’s official opening last weekend.
“It’s important to operate Narita and Haneda in a unified way to promote the two airports as one international hub.”
Haneda will connect with 17 foreign airports by February next year, including American Airlines to New York JFK, Delta Air Lines to Detroit and Los Angeles, British Airways to London Heathrow, Thai Airways to Bangkok Suvarnabhumi and Singapore Airlines to Singapore Changi.
Narita’s network will remain much larger: 97 foreign cities in 43 countries.
Possible awkward flight times
While flights to Asian destinations will leave between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m., planes for Europe and North America can only land or depart between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., meaning awkward arrival and departure times both in Tokyo and at the other end.
An American Airlines flight from Haneda, for example, will leave the airport at 6.40 a.m., which means waking up in Tokyo at 3 a.m. to take a taxi to reach check-in, then landing at JFK in New York at 5:15 a.m. local time, too early to check into a hotel for sleep before a meeting.
Daniel Fath, a senior consultant providing public relations support for American Airlines in Japan, says in an email that passengers can benefit twofold. “Business people, especially those in the financial industry, can complete a full day’s work in New York before hopping the evening flight back to Tokyo. Leisure travelers can enjoy a full day of shopping in Manhattan or catch connecting flights to destinations within the US, Caribbean and Central and South America.”
The reality is, for many passengers those times will mean 48 hours or more without a proper sleep — not exactly ideal for shopping or meetings. The times are much better coming back: departing after work at 6:15 p.m., and arriving in Tokyo at 10:20 p.m., in time to go to bed after an exhausting flight half-way around the world.
Otherwise, Haneda will at least be convenient for a quick weekend vacation to Hawaii, with three flights after 10:30 p.m. If Hawaii doesn’t relax you, the planetarium in the Starry Café will.
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