Narita • busy, but fun
There can be few airports with such a chequered history as Narita international. Trouble began before it was even built when a bitter and increasingly violent dispute arose in the early 1970s between farmers and the Japanese government over the land chosen for the airport’s location.
The issue was still unsolved by the time Narita finally opened in 1978. Just days before the first flights were due to take off political activists stormed the airport and wrecked the control tower. The airport maintains a tight security operation to this day.
Problems of a less controversial nature still dog the airport. As the country’s main international gateway, Narita’s compact infrastructure simply isn’t up to the job of handling the 33 million passengers who pass through each year. Airlines argue with each other over the insufficient amount of flight slots available, forcing Japan’s aviation authorities to ration them like food coupons.
Then there is the thorny question of Narita’s considerable distance from Tokyo, currently an hour away on the fastest train available and much longer on the city’s congested roads. Other passenger grumbles include the lack of both adequate seating in the airport and pedestrian access between the two terminals. A shuttle bus service is used to ferry people between the two buildings instead.
Happily, things will get better soon. Tokyo Haneda, the capital’s domestic airport, is set to take pressure off Narita later this year when it opens a giant new terminal, allowing more international services to operate from it. A new high-speed train service is also set to operate from Narita’s Terminal 2 from early 2010, which will whizz passengers into downtown Tokyo in just over 30 minutes.
On the shopping front the last three years have witnessed some major improvements at both terminals. For instance, in Terminal 1 (which is used by Star Alliance airlines) the Nakamise shopping mall opened its doors in 2006. Located after security control in the South Wing, it features 36 shops and includes luxury fashion houses with a special and long-standing place in Japanese shopper’s heart such as Cartier, Bulgari, Hermès, Coach and Salvatore Ferragamo.
A year later Terminal 2, which is dominated by Japan Airlines, went one better, opening its own new shopping mall, Fifth Avenue, which boasts the only Gucci and Burberry airport stores in Japan. It also features a branch of Japan’s famous Takashimaya department store, which sells a wide range of fashion accessories.
Impressive stuff, but for those with shallower pockets it is reassuring to know there are plenty of less expensive, but just as enticing places to shop at Narita, which offer overseas travellers a great range of gifts and souvenirs. A good example is Fukujen in Terminal 1, which celebrates Japan’s 200 year-old tea-making culture with a superb selection of beautifully packaged teas.
If you are feeling brave, why not steer clear of the usual international confectionery brands jostling for space in the airport’s duty-free shops and head for Ginza Akebono, also located in Terminal 1, which is dedicated to Japan’s weird and wonderful sweets and snacks? Anyone for bean-jam filled wafers with sweet chestnuts or jellied bean paste?
A better-known Japanese retail brand is Uniqlo, the country’s leading clothing retailer and a fairly common sight on High Streets across Asia, Europe and the US. If you are a fan of their no-nonsense minimalist fashions, good quality and appealing prices troop to their stunning black-and-white outlet on the third floor of Terminal 2.
Back in Terminal 1 taxfreetravel is also a fan of the recently opened and very trendy Graniph T-shirt shop. It sells a winning mixture of contemporary Japanese and Western style printed t-shirts, which are constantly updated as new designs are released and old ones phased out. Expect to pay about ¥2,500 (£15.60) for a t-shirt.
If all the shopping is tiring you out, seek out the relative calm and peace of the Hokusai Plaza in Terminal 1, which is named after a famous Japanese painter, whose striking woodblock prints adorn the walls. Here you’ll find the quirky Nippon Origami Museum, where you can watch traditional displays of origami and even have a go yourself. If you struggle to make a paper aeroplane fly, here is your chance to make up for lost time.
As everyone knows, shopping makes you hungry and besides the usual international fast food choices, Narita offers a plethora of local Japanese and Asian dining options, from lightening quick sushi conveyor belts to proper sit-down restaurants. For those carnivores with a big appetite our pick of the bunch is Tonkatsu Inaba Wako in Terminal 2, which specialises in deep-fried pork cutlet served with rice and cabbage.
Sushi lovers waiting for their flight in Terminal 1 should make a beeline for Sushi Kyotatsu on the third floor. Frequent flyers who know their sushi consistently give this sit-down restaurant the thumbs up and being the only sushi joint airside in the terminal, it is literally the travellers last chance to eat the country’s most famous style of cuisine before heading home.
This guide to Narita wouldn’t be complete without mentioning another Terminal 1 outlet of special interest to general hypochondriacs and any traveller worried about the poor quality of cabin air. Before climbing onboard that 15-hour flight back home why not stop off at the Oxygen Bar for a quick blast of the good stuff? Prices start at ¥600 (£3.74) for a ten minute stint.