Many of us business travelers tend to stick with one air carrier as much as possible to accrue mileage and maintain a level of elite status. However, loyalty to one airline can cause some unintended consequences. At one time or another, we find ourselves on a long airport layover somewhere across the world. During a layover, we often don’t have the time nor energy to really explore what our options are for a 7-8-hour time period. Many of us decide to sit at the airport business lounge or club, indulge in free drinks and snacks, walk up and down the terminal exploring overpriced souvenir shops or just binge watch 20 episodes of our favorite Netflix show. However, there are alternatives to this routine, which are much healthier and frankly much more fun.
Here are a few ideas of what to do with 7-8 hours to burn in Tokyo, Japan.
I travel on business to Asia frequently and often pack several destinations and business activities on the same trip to justify the relatively high costs of travel. I normally use San Francisco as my home base, and Tokyo or Singapore as my international “base” to which I anchor my trips to Asia. Then I use one of the alliance partner airlines (Star Alliance, Sky Team or One World) to get to my destination elsewhere in Asia in a most efficient way. This means I either fly into Tokyo-Narita or Tokyo – Haneda Airports. For this post, I will focus on advice or a layover at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport.
First, get a boarding pass for the follow-on flight. This will make your logistics much smoother. If you are flying in premium class (business or first class) and have bulky carry-on luggage you likely have access to one of the airline business lounges such as United Club, Delta Sky Club, ANA lounge or Japan Airlines Sakura Lounge. Go to one of these lounges and store your carry-on bag there (most of the lounges have luggage storage rack). If you can’t access the lounge, you can use one of the public luggage storage places at Narita airport. Then go though immigration line (which is super efficient and relatively fast), exchange U.S. currency for Japanese Yen at one of the currency exchange shops and head out to Narita City for a short excursion. Narita is not far from the airport and you can explore this city in a short 4-5 hours of time.
Narita Area Map
How to get there?
Once you clear customs and immigration, go to the B1F Rail Station and take the Keisei Line Limited Express towards Keisei-Ueno to Narita City. The trains are very efficient, clean and extremely punctual. I have actually witnessed a train slowing down just short of the station so that it could come to the physical stop at the station within 10 seconds of the scheduled time. The cost of a train ticket is very reasonable ($4 one way) and will get you to Narita City in 15 minutes. If you prefer, taxis are available at a rate of approximately $40 one way and will get you to your destination in about 20 minutes. While I recommend the trains, there are a few things to prepare for: First, the train station is a 15 – 20 minutes walk from the airport but it can be confusing as multiple train lines are there. Second, most Japanese don’t speak English so ask for directions to the Narita City Train Station at the airport information booth before leaving the airport. Most of the large signs are in English as well as Japanese which is helpful to guide you along. Once on-board the train ride is exactly 15 minutes long.
- See the sights. Once you have arrived in Narita, walk along is its store-lined approach, the Omotesando street and you will get a sense what old Japan looked like before industrialization. The street runs all the way to a Centuries-old Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, a Buddhist complex with gilded pagodas and tranquil gardens. The complex features a 10th-century temple & a colorful 3-story pagoda with free guided walking tours. The scenery is remarkable. . It feels like being in an Akira Kurosawa’s samurai movie set except it’s the real thing. If you are into fitness, I would recommend to pack a small back pack with a change of clothes and go for a jog in the temple gardens around the temple pond, but make sure you check the weather first.
Historic Omotesando Street
Naritasan Shinshoji Temple
- Take a bath like a local. After sightseeing at the temple and its medieval streets or going for a jog in its park, you can relax in an authentic Japanese hot spring bath or onsen. This is especially nice if its winter and it’s cold outside as all of the bath houses in Narita City area have an outdoor hot spring bath area. A word of warning: The onsen bath setting is a large, gender-segregated spring bath and it is common for clients to lounge in undergarments or in the nude (with exception of a small towel the size of a wash cloth). If you have a tattoo (which is visible) you might be asked to leave. The Japanese have an aversion to tattoos which stems from the fact that in Japan, taboos are associated with organized crime groups known as “Yakuza”. If you have a small tattoo that is not readily visible, just cover it up as you walk the spa grounds. Below are 3 options close to Narita City that offer a variety of services such as massage, meditation, reflexology etc. I preferred Hana No Yo Spring as it is fairly close to Narita City train station and it is a community bath that caters to locals. Most of the time I’m the only foreigner there and yes, I do get the occasional stare.
Outdoor Bath Area at Hana No Yu Spring
The price for basic access to the spa grounds and facilities is about ¥850 (USD $9.00) but massages and tea can cost extra.
3. Refuel. After shopping and a spa experience, you will probably be thinking about food. Tell the bath attendant to call you a taxi and then take a 5 min ride back to Narita City center. There you can now indulge on some local food and drinks. You will definitely find a variety of sushi restaurants to choose from but also worth considering is that Narita City is actually well known for Unagi – a grilled Japanese freshwater eel which is absolutely delicious. (Since this post was created, I have learned that Japanese eel is getting eaten into extinction, so you may want to consider a more sustainable option.)
If you would like to try Unagi, consider Kawatoyo Narita restaurant, which has been serving this delicious dish more than 100 years. It is a relatively small but well known restaurant. I also recommend Izakaya Restaurant which has a variety of local food and yes, fresh sushi.
A Japanese Classic – Sushi Dinner
If you are in Narita City after 4PM, you can also look at the following watering holes which are favorites of airline pilots, travelers and visitors. There you can also get a “burger and a beer” if you prefer western cuisine.
Jet Lag Club – This is one of the airline pilots’ favorite hangout. I would describe this as a fun, dive bar.
The Barge Inn – This place is legendary as it was founded by Richard Branson, the owner of Virgin Atlantic. It’s a nice English pub to hang out in and they usually have live music and a great beer selection.
If you want to get a few Japanese specialty item, there are plenty of small shops along the Omotesando street. Here, you can get authentic souvenirs and more. If you are looking for a shopping center, just walk down the street from Narita Train Station and visit Aeon Town Mall which is an easy walk from the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple at the end of the Omotesando street. This shopping center has everything from kitchen knives to clothes which are of excellent quality and reasonable price.
Now that you have enriched your mind and body, re-evaluate your timeline and determine how much more time you have. When its time to head back to Narita airport, simply go to the Narita City train station and take the same train back. If you have a “sweet tooth” like myself you can have a tasty donut at station while you wait for your train, which will be on time – guaranteed. As you wait for the train you can get a quick pick-me-up in form of a can of hot coffee from Georgia Coffee Company which is sold in vending machines across Japan. I actually like it better than Starbucks. Trust me it’s good. My favorite is the Emerald Mountain Blend. Then simply board the train, retrieve your stored luggage and proceed to immigration line, which is usually very efficient. I normally don’t have to wait more than 5 minutes. If you have premium status, you use the premium security lines which takes no more that 5 minutes. Hit your airline’s business lounge for a quick “pop” and off you go to your destination.
If you are forced to stay overnight, I would recommend the Radisson Hotel Narita which is relatively close to the airport, has a nice airport shuttle and a bus line to down-town Tokyo which is inexpensive and very efficient. Bonus: The hotel is next to a nice American-style sports bar (Super Stars Sports Bar) and also a nice park where you can go for a jog in the morning before a long flight.
Note about the author: Karl Crnkovich in an international business expert and supply chain professional with over 20 years of experience. During the course of his career, he visited over 50 countries on 6 continents. Currently, he servers as a Managing Director of Fontana Global Associates – a supply chain advisory firm which provides clients with cost effective, tailor made global supply chain solutions and advice.
See more at http://www.fontanaglobal.com/