This post is a little lengthy. I think the level of detail will be helpful to many, but if you’re in a hurry you can click here to download the bullet points. There are also a number of important disclaimers at the end of this post; please read them and don’t blame me if you miss a flight by copying me.
Every time I have a layover long enough to leave an airport and see the local town, I make an effort to do so, whether it’s just long enough to get a coffee in Amsterdam and turn right back around, or a few hours to explore Frankfurt, visit friends in Paris or London, check out Istanbul, or admire the windows of Bad Wimpfen. If I can leave an airport to have some fun, I do it.
So when I ended up with a flight home from Bangladesh via Tokyo Narita airport in Japan, with 9 hours and 45 minutes between landing and taking off, the first thing I did was start googling how to get out of the airport and make the most of my day. I’d never been to Japan before, knew next to nothing about it, but so many friends had told me amazing things that I couldn’t pass up this short chance to get a little glimpse of it.
Initially, I thought I would only have time to visit Narita, the town in which the airport is actually located, well over 70km away from Tokyo, because this is the advice that most commonly comes up on TripAdvisor and other online fora. Everyone seems to say that Tokyo is so far away, it’s not worth the trip if you’re not staying longer. However, on a whim I decided to see if a quick trip to Tokyo might actually be possible within my short timeframe. This was a rare time that Google was less helpful than usual, and I found myself only semi-confident that I would succeed, but I did it anyways. Now, having been to Tokyo and enjoyed it immensely, I felt it could be helpful if I share what I learned so the next person searching online will be able to make a more informed decision.
Getting out of Tokyo Narita Airport and storing luggage for the day
On 18 May 2018, the Thai Airways Airbus A330 descended to Tokyo Narita Airport through thick, dark, low clouds that nearly touched the runway in the cool morning hours. The landing gear hit the tarmac at 06:20 and the plane arrived at the gate at 06:34. Google Maps had told me that I could catch a 07:26 train into Tokyo, or another one about an hour later. With an afternoon flight boarding at 16:05, I had already decided that I should be back at the airport to clear customs and security one hour beforehand, so about 15:00 (3pm for those of you who don’t like 24-hour time). Narita terminal 1 is an old and relatively small airport (with bizarrely low ceilings), so I knew my walk from security to any international departure gate wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes.
The plan I made before arriving was to leave my carry-on bag at a left luggage storage facility in the international departures area before going through immigration – I figured this would allow me to get back into the airport with just my pocket contents, possibly shortening the security screening and allowing me to walk much faster through the airport. The internet told me that a QL Liner left luggage facility exists in international departures, open from 06:30. As I followed the signs from the gate to customs it became clear that I would have to go out of my way to get to the departures area, and my number one focus was to hustle through the airport as fast as I could to catch the 07:26 train, so I cancelled that plan and hoped I wouldn’t have to lug my backpack all around Tokyo.
I needn’t have worried.
At that early hour, even though I was at the back of the plane, it took only a few minutes on a series of moving sidewalks to reach the immigration area. I handed over my passport and arrival information forms. The immigration officer asked no questions; she just smiled and had a quick look at my passport. A machine with a very cheerfully colourful screen instructed me to place both index fingers on a pair of fingerprint scanners, then the camera took a quick photo of my face. The officer stuck a little visa sticker in my passport and that was that. You can read more details on the arrivals procedure and how to complete the forms here: https://myjapantips.com/2014/11/04/so-youve-landed-in-japan-customs-and-immigration/
I then walked down a short escalator to the baggage carousels. With no luggage to collect, I did a u-turn to head toward the exit. At the exit, I had to show my passport to a customs officer standing by one of those steel surfaces for bag searches; he took the customs declaration form and asked where I had travelled from (Bangladesh), why I had come to Japan (for a short tourist visit), how long I would stay (until the same afternoon), and several times whether I had any luggage to collect. His English wasn’t perfect so I’m not sure if he was asking whether I had checked luggage to collect at the carrousel (no) or if I had checked luggage that was still somewhere in the airport (yes). I just said my backpack was the only bag I was taking with me, which was the truth, and he returned my passport and said goodbye.
It must’ve been literally only about ten steps from this officer’s station to the Terminal 1 landside arrivals area where people wait to welcome their arriving family, friends, and clients. Off to my left I could see the words visitor service centre in huge letters.
Walking in that direction, there were bus service counters along the right-hand side of the hall and on the left-hand side a left luggage service called Green Port Agency Company Ltd. The gentleman working there was so incredibly happy to see me, it really started my day off well! He was very quick to accept my backpack and give me a claim tag to collect my bag in the afternoon and wish me well on my way.
Getting cash at Tokyo Narita Airport
Online searches had led me to believe that shops and the travel centre in Narita airport would all be closed until 08:30, but everything I needed was either automated or open already by 07:00. I guess I was reading the wrong internet.
From the left luggage office, I walked to the visitor service centre area just a few steps away. There I found a bunch of ATMs, including one from 7-11 (which all good trivia players know originated in Japan) which clearly indicated it was compatible with foreign cards with the Plus logo, Visa, MasterCard, American Express, UCB, etc. I took out a bunch of cash which, much to my surprise, was disbursed in 10,000 yen notes (10,000 JPY was about 90 USD / 120 CAD / 78 EUR at the time).
Buying a local data SIM at Tokyo Narita Airport to use phone data in Tokyo
These large denomination notes turned out to be a problem, because my next step was to buy a data SIM card from a vending machine so I could use data to navigate Tokyo and make the most of my time. The SIM vending machines are located just after the ATMs, as you walk toward the airport trains. The U-Mobile machine selling the cheaper SIM for 2500 yen for 7-days with 2GB data only accepted cash and only up to 1000 yen notes. Lesson learned: Try asking the ATM for either 9000, 19000, or 29000 yen and it will hopefully then give you some 1000 notes in the mix.
The second, more expensive SIM vending machine from NTT accepts only credit cards, so I used my MasterCard and coughed up almost 3800 yen for a 7-day data SIM with 2GB data. Yes that’s a lot of money, but to be honest it was still worth it. My Hong Kong layover adventure in April was severely hampered by an inability to look up information and directions on the fly; I cursed myself for forgetting to buy a SIM and an Octopus pass at the Hong Kong airport (both of which ended up costing me dearly in wasted time finding my way, and waiting in the non-Octopus queue for the Victoria Peak tram) and this time in Tokyo I refused to repeat that mistake. Note that you can only buy a data SIM from a machine – a full-feature SIM with phone call capabilities requires a more complicated registration process, but you can use a data SIM to make calls by Skype, WhatsApp, Signal, Facetime, etc so this shouldn’t be a problem for most people.
In my rush, however, I failed to take note of the obvious instruction on the vending machine to activate my SIM. It appears from the huge arrow sign in my photo above that this can be done on the touch screen, though I’m not 100% certain. More on this process below.
Buying a train ticket from Narita Airport to Tokyo
SIM in hand, I continued walking just a few more steps and saw the “Skyliner and Keisei information center” with 3 staff sitting behind the counter and plenty of English signage. They answered my questions, gave me some advice, and sold me a Keisei Skyliner same-day return ticket with free 24-hour subway ticket, as well as a Pasmo card. It’s important to tell them if you’re returning the same day or later, as it’s much cheaper to return the same day. I didn’t need the free subway pass but I knew I needed a Pasmo card, which is just a preloaded transit card (like Oyster in London, Compass in Vancouver, Octopus in Hong Kong, Presto in Toronto). Train stations in Tokyo can be crazy busy so trying to pay each time for trains during the day would be confusing and time-consuming, while the prepaid card just needs to be tapped on entry and exit.
There are actually a total of 10 different prepaid transit card types in Japan from different transit companies, which are now largely compatible with each other. Pasmo is what the visitor info centre was selling, and it worked for everything I needed. The other main card in Tokyo is called Suica and that would’ve worked for me as well. More info on the different cards here: https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2359_003.html. You can actually even use these cards as cash debit cards to pay for stuff at some shops like 7-11, and if you’re done with the card you can return it to an appropriate transit service desk (like the one in Narita Airport) to get your remaining balance back in cash.
Warning: there’s no wifi on the train! Activate your SIM before departing.
I boarded the 07:26 Keisei Skyliner express train about 10 minutes before departure, and congratulated myself on being so efficient in getting from the plane to the train in so little time without any running involved. I connected to the free wifi, sent a few WhatsApp messages, checked email, and then we pulled away from the station. As I was sitting comfortably in my seat, the wifi suddenly disappeared! Every frequent traveller knows that modern airport express trains all around the world generally have free, if substandard, wifi. Well, despite signs everywhere about the free Keisei WiFi, it turns out it’s only in the stations – so if the train is between stations you’re out of luck. My plan to use the train ride to research my morning activities and plan a walk in the gardens was shut down.
You might be thinking, “Why not just use data with my new SIM, if there was no wifi”. Well, your data SIM won’t even let you connect to the provider’s website for activation – you need a wifi connection to go to their website to activate the SIM. Even before I discovered this issue, I faced the challenge of not having anything with which to eject my existing SIM from my phone. I used to always carry a paperclip with me but had recently lost it in Bangladesh and forgot to get a new one. A local passenger on the train was kind enough to lend me a safety pin, so that problem was quickly solved.
In case you’re worried about phone compatibility with Japan’s networks: your phone needs to be compatible with at least one of the Japanese mobile frequency bands, but these days pretty much all smartphones are. My phone is an ancient 2014 LG Nexus 5 and it worked just fine. There were two instruction leaflets with my SIM. One explained how to set the APN, but in my case the network broadcasted those settings to my phone automatically so they were already correctly set when I checked. The small print on the second leaflet had one important instruction hidden around the halfway point: the website address to register the SIM online before it can be used.
So if you’re sitting on the train with a non-activated SIM, get that done quickly before departure. If you don’t have time, don’t worry too much: the same free wifi network exists at the other stations, so if you get off at Nippori or Ueno station you can connect to the wifi there and activate your SIM. I got off at Nippori station to switch to a local train for Harajuku, the part of town I decided to explore (tip: on the Keisei Skyliner, the TV screen gives very clear instructions in English for how to transfer to the local trains with your Skyliner ticket and Pasmo card). I connected to wifi and began the registration process but my onward JR Yamanote Line train was about to leave so I left the wifi coverage area to jump on the train. I could’ve/should’ve just caught the next one 5 minutes later but I didn’t know they were so frequent because I was too tired to come to the realisation that I could just google it now that I had wifi to do so… So I hopped on the train for the 25-minute ride, annoyed that I still had no access to data to see what restaurants would be open for breakfast, or how to get to the local parks and gardens for a morning walk.
Instead of getting off at Harajuku station as planned, I got off one stop early at Yoyogi because I wanted to visit Yoyogi Park, not realising that there’s no entrance to the park near the station of the same name. There was no free wifi in this station, but five minutes into my walk from the station I managed to find a very slow free public wifi connection. I managed to activate my SIM, and from then on it was smooth sailing with Google Maps directions and searches for restaurants, cafés, things to do, etc.
Adventures on foot in Harajuku
Despite the dark clouds when we landed, by the time I was walking from Yoyogi station it was so bright and sunny I was dripping sweat. I took a long walk through Yoyogi Park, then walked through …. to Omotesandō where I found breakfast and coffee. If you’re a coffee drinker and you get a chance to visit the tiny little Koffee Mameya, you won’t be disappointed – they have beans from some of the world’s best roasters, and the baristas will let you sample several before deciding what to buy. You can get whole beans to take home, or a full-sized coffee to drink in Tokyo.
Next, I headed to Hedgehog Cafe Harry for a pretty cute experience feeding a pair of cuddly animals. You can even pay to adopt one and take it home. Elsewhere in Tokyo there are similar “cafes” with cats, rabbits, otters, and even owls!
Once I got bored of holding sleepy hedgehogs, I walked a few blocks to Harajuku Gyozarou (alternatively spelled Gyozaro or Gyoza Lou) for a cheap but delicious lunch.
After eating a plate of hot gyoza, I spent some time walking through the little side streets of Harajuku filled with modern Japanese fashion and ended up picking up a pair of Onitsuka Tiger shoes.
I also had some more coffee at a little van converted into a mobile cafe, before walking back to Harajuku station in the bright sunshine to catch the JR Yamanote line back to Nippori.
Getting back to Tokyo Narita Airport
At Nippori station, I showed my open return train ticket to a guy in a booth, so that he could issue me the real ticket with my seat number on it. Within 10 minutes of starting the Keisei Skyliner journey from Nippori back to Narita Airport, thick ash-coloured clouds appeared ahead and it suddenly looked like most of the year in Vancouver: grey and threatening rain. Just my luck that I had a full day of warm sunshine for my adventure.
On arriving back at the airport at 15:01, I walked the short distance past the ATMs back to the left luggage desk to retrieve my carry-on backpack. It only cost me around 320 yen for the day’s storage.
From the luggage storage, it was a short walk to the escalators up to 4th floor departures lobby. On arriving at the top of the escalator, I walked straight through the check-in concourse to the opposite side of the large hall where there’s a big departures sign. There was a huge crowd people lined up to clear security but, with the same efficiency I noticed throughout the day in Tokyo, the queue was processed very quickly. It took only about 5 minutes to clear security. Next, I went to the immigration area where I was again processed very quickly.
By 15:32 I was already in the duty-free shops area, and by 15:40 I was sitting in the KAL lounge using my Priority Pass. Food options there were very limited compared to other Priority Pass lounges in other airports, but I had one of each of the sticky rice snacks: sea cabbage, vegetable, and sweet chicken which were pretty good. It only took me 5 minutes to walk to my gate in good time for the 16:05 scheduled boarding time.
I could’ve actually arrived half an hour later than I did and still walked onto the plane without breaking a sweat.
So despite having only 9 hours and 45 minutes from landing to takeoff, 1 hour 30 minutes travel time to Tokyo, and the same to return to the airport, I was still easily able to spend a solid 5 hours and 30 minutes exploring the Harajuku area without feeling particularly rushed.
If you’re making plans to visit Tokyo or any other city on a same-day layover, please bear in mind that I’m 185cm / 6’1″ and walk quite quickly, so if you’re a slow walker you may need to add a little more time to get around. I also have a high risk tolerance for arriving at the last minute for flights – if you’re the kind of person who arrives at the airport 3 hours before your flight, or you frequently end up getting extra attention from customs or airport security, then plan your trip carefully.
Before trying to exit the airport in Japan or any other country, make sure that you’ll be permitted to do so by the local government. Depending on the passport you hold, and the country you’re visiting, you may need a visa before arrival. In the case of Japan, I knew beforehand that I could show up unannounced with my Canadian passport and receive a 90-day tourist visa on arrival just by filling out the regular arrivals card provided by the airline on the flight. Some countries require additional forms, payment, or an advance application. Unfortunately, all nationalities are not treated equally and you may simply find that you can’t leave the airport at all. In the case of the UK, citizens of many countries discover too late that they are not even be able to transit through a UK airport without getting a transit visa in advance. For more info specific to Japan, see https://www.mofa.go.jp/j_info/visit/visa/short/novisa.html
Check whether your arriving and departing flights are both at the same terminal. I arrived at Narita Terminal 1 and departed from Narita Terminal 1, but if I had to switch to Terminals 2-3 there would’ve been a shuttle bus involved, requiring more time. Switching terminals at some airports, like Dubai DXB, Lost Angeles LAX, London LHR and others can take over an hour, especially if you’re not familiar with those airport layouts. One Tokyo-specific problem is that some people don’t notice that one flight arrives at Tokyo Narita and the next departs from Tokyo Haneda or vice versa, so pay careful attention when booking your trip. It’s also common to find yourself in need of a shuttle transfer between the two major Paris airports: Roissy Charles de Gaulle CDG and Orly ORY.
Also note that I was already checked in for my next flight as I was on a single booking from Dhaka to Bangkok to Tokyo to Vancouver; the airline assumes that passengers stay in the transit airports so luggage is transferred to the next plane and passengers just need to be at the gate in time for boarding. If you buy a separate ticket to get to a country and another one to leave that country just a few hours later, which is a very risky thing to do, you’ll likely have to collect your luggage and check in again for your next flight (the risk is that your arriving flight is delayed and, since you’re on unconnected bookings, if you miss your next flight then the airline can make you pay for a new ticket).