Almost all international flights heading to Japan land at Narita International Airport, which, unfortunately, is an hour away from the actual city of Tokyo. Hence, layovers and flight delays can often times be both a blessing and a burden when it comes to traveling to this imperial Japanese city. The good news is that the area is jam-packed with lots of attractions clustered super close together so you can see a lot even in a little bit of time. The bad news is that if you really only happen to have a few hours, you’ll likely have to stay put in Narita City after factoring in time spent going through customs, then immigration, and for checking into that next flight.
The duration of even the longest of layovers can significantly shrink -- so instead of winging it before your impending departure, try making a plan by choosing only the hottest spots to explore and by making sure you fully understand Tokyo’s intricate transit system. Also make sure to make the most out of your time in the Land of the Rising by speeding through those subways as quickly as possible. Try putting about 2,000-3,000 Yen ($20-$30) on a stored-value transit card (which can be purchased at any station vending machine) so you’ll be able to whiz through those busy stations. Maybe even try scheduling a private or group half-day tour in Tokyo to better maximize your limited amount of time. No matter what you choose to do or where you choose to go, a bustling city of ultramodern neon-lit skyscrapers and anime shops mixed in with traditional cherry blossom trees and temples awaits. Here are eight things to do on a layover in Tokyo.
Things To Do On Your Next Tokyo Layover
1. Chill out at Traveler’s Lounge Rassurants or someplace else within the actual airport.
Though not the most exciting or unique of options, it’s actually the most practical-- not to mention the most budget friendly, especially if you’ve only got yourself a couple of hours. Don’t feel like heading out of the airport but are in desperate need of rest and relaxation? Stay at any of the several lovely airport lounges, which typically have no time limit, so you can go in and out whenever you please for shopping or dining purposes. Plus, there’s tons of free coffee and tea always available. Narita Airport even offers a 50% discount on the usage of Rassurants, so you can enjoy it all for just half the regular price (i.e. only 500 yen!). Similar discount coupons are also available for the airport’s shower rooms, which regularly cost 1,030 yen for thirty minutes.
Additional ‘day rooms’ with beds and showers are also scattered on site. You will be able to nap in utter comfort without paying for a whole day at one of the Narita Airport Hotels, which by the way, are another great option if you do want a full night of sleep before that next flight. All Narita hotels even include a complementary Shuttle Bus to and from the airport.
2. Venture through the little town of Narita.
If your layover is at least four hours and you’ve got the necessary documents to enter Japan, it would be wise to get out and explore the surrounding town of Narita. No, it’s certainly not Tokyo (and is an hour or so train ride from the actual city), but it’s worth giving at least a try—it’s so close to the airport, and since most tourists don’t include Narita as part of their travel itinerary, it is the ultimate chance for you to be spontaneous on your trip by going slightly off the beaten path.
Narita City is also just an awesome cultural experience in itself for first-time visitors to Japan. From the train station, head to Omotesando Street for shops, restaurants, and the Narita Tourist Pavilion, which provides area information and often features traditional performances and demonstrations. What’s more is that the city operates a special tour bus specifically with Narita Airport layovers in mind. Hop on board a retro bright red and green bus at the JR Narita station to tour the idyllic streets surrounding the station. You are likely to see local housewives shopping for traditional Japanese goods in the open air market, as well as inside the various traditional Japanese ceramic shops, basket-shops, sushi restaurants, and more.
3. Shop till you drop over at Omotesando.
Don’t skip the various 100 YEN Stores on Omotesando Street (the main street) where you can buy chopsticks, rice bowls, and other cute Japanese souvenirs for just about a buck each. It’s the equivalent of the 99 Cents Discount store in Japan, and like the American version, it’s great for those on a tight budget. There are also quite a few excellent bakeries in and around town selling delectable Japanese desserts and cakes for those craving something sweet.
Narita's Omotesando -- a.k.a. the most famous main shopping street-- literally means “front road” and stretches about 800 meters long all the way to the Naritasan Shinshoji. As you take a stroll down the worn-out roadway, you’ll be taken back in time to an ancient town that has a centuries old history of welcoming visitors from other lands. Keep up with Japanese tradition all the way down to Narita’s infamous Buddhist temple by eating, buying souvenirs, and being greeted by kimono-wearing proprietors along this more than lively street. If you’re lucky, you might just even catch a street festival in action!
4. Get in tune with Japanese culture.
Even if you don’t step out of the actual airport or have that long of a layover, there are plenty of chances to catch a glimpse of true Japanese culture-- thanks to the airport management team’s continued initiative to hold performances, workshops, and demonstrations within the airport. Free events occur on a monthly basis.
From koto (Japanese zither) performances, tea ceremonies, calligraphy workshops, and a Kabuki exhibit, to ninja meet-and-greets, hydrangea exhibitions, food replica making workshops, and a traditional Japanese culture corner, there is all too much to see and do. Unfortunately, for those staying in the airport later into the night, these performances don’t run into the evening-- so make sure to catch them while the sun’s out and about.
5. Catch some zzzz’s in a capsule hotel.
The trend of minimalist accommodations such as capsule hotels all started out in Japan. So why not go crazy by staying in a nice space featuring stacks of pods (“capsules”) for rooms within the Narita Airport? Nine Hours, located in Terminal 2, has overnight rates that start at 3,900 yen, with variations depending on the season and day. You can purchase other various capsule rooms on an hourly basis, for 1,500 yen for the first hour and 500 yen per additional hour (the rate already covers shower room and amenities usage).
Though these pod-like rooms have primarily been used by salarymen in the past, spontaneous tourists have also come to appreciate this much cheaper stay option—not to mention the novelty of staying in something way more unique and futuristic than a boring old hotel. Try it out. It’s bound to rock your world.
6. Chow down like a local.
Sometimes the most fabulous way to experience a city is by living like a local. And what better way to live like a local than with some good Japanese food-- and tons of it! Eat your way through the city with sushi and sashimi dishes galore, as well as other favorites such as okonomiyaki, a grilled cabbage pancake with various savory fillings, and sukiyaki, a Japanese hot pot style soup dish. Must-haves also include the freshly grilled unagi eel sold on the backstreets and the giant heaps of flavored shaved ice served over at the tranquil tea garden in Miyoshiya.
Seriously, savoring all that local grub should definitely compensate for all those airline meals you’ve had to endure thus far. So slurp through a steaming bowl of ramen noodles at a nearby restaurant while bombarding your new Japanese-speaking friends with questions about culture and history in between bites. Think endless kaiseki and hiroshimayaki—also make sure to wash it down with some umeshu, sake, or high end green tea. Just remember to leave those shoes at the door before kneeling at the low tables to finally dig into that appetizer of prawn tempura and wasabi peas!
7. Visit a historic temple.
At the bottom of the hill on Omote-Sando-- about ten minutes on foot from the train station-- sits the sprawling Buddhist temple Naritasan Shinshoji. It is over one thousand years old and has over forty acres of lush land dotted with Edo-era pagodas, historic 18th to 20th century buildings, as well as a Great Main Hall (Hondo) featuring a central temple image of the deity Fudomyo (God of fire), which is said to have been carved in 810AD by the great Kobo Daishi himself.
Be sure to check out the daily Goma fire ritual, which is performed several times by priests with votive sticks. There’s even an onsite museum of calligraphy, not to mention the ever so large Naritasan Park behind the main hall, where you can enjoy tons of peace and quiet while admiring three surrounding ponds and an array of blossoming trees. Get in one with yourself and with nature by relaxing with magnificent plum and cherry blossoms trees in the spring and gorgeous color-changing maple trees in the fall. The ducks gliding around in the crystal clear waters further complete this heavenly, truly unforgettable atmosphere.
8. Live and learn over in nearby Sakura.
It’s home to the National Museum of Japanese History, which is located in the middle of a nice city park and houses loads of national treasures. Known in Japanese as Rekihaku, the culture-filled space was founded in 1981 as an inter-university research consortium, and opened in 1983. Today, it continues to offer curious travelers of all sorts with numerous collections focused on the history, archaeology, and folklore of ancient Japan. Check it out.
This article was written by Pamela Chan.