How to survive a 24-hour layover in Tokyo

So you’re flying via Tokyo and on arrival at Narita Airport, find your onward flight canceled/rescheduled and yourself with some 12-24 hours to burn. Or maybe you already had a big transit window scheduled into your travel plans, and were anyway toying with the idea of schlepping it to central Tokyo.

I found myself in the former situation this week, and the paucity of good guidance on the internet on executing a successful mini transit in Tokyo for foreigners with nil (or near-nil) knowledge of the Japanese language led me to write this primer-of-sorts.

Arrival at Narita Airport

So, like me, you clamber out of your 13-hour flight, and as you emerge from the aerobridge into the terminal building proper, you’re greeted by airport/airline staff who inform you that your connecting flight, scheduled to depart in two hours, has been rescheduled to the next day. The Japanese staff apologize profusely to you for the inconvenience of it all, and offer you overnight accommodation at one of the hotels in the Narita Airport area. You’re told that your checked baggage will remain in the airport’s baggage system till you depart, so no change of clothes, no toiletries (unless you regularly fly American carriers and pack your cabin bag in anticipation of cancelations/delays/disappearing planes).

As you queue to clear passports control, you adumbrate journeying into Tokyo – separated from Narita Airport by an awe-some 90 kilometers and an even more formidable language barrier (because pretty much everyone who works at Narita Airport speaks some level of English). You’ve heard the horror stories on navigating Japan ill-prepared (Sofia Coppola created a movie to put in all in graphic perspective), and you don’t have a Lonely Planet Tokyo or Japanese phrasebook at your disposal. As a transiter, you’ve also got a ticking time limit, and you know you’ve got to hit it right if you’re going to make the monetary and psychological investment of going into Tokyo – and make it back in one piece to get your connecting flight the next day.

You’ll be in Japan over the next 16 hours. Take to its infamous capital? Go for it.

You’ll be given clear instructions on getting to your transit hotel, so follow them. This would most likely involve catching a complimentary hotel shuttle bus outside Arrivals (especially if you’re put up at one of the larger airport hotels – the JAL Nikko, Tobu, Toyoko Inn or the ANA Crowne Plaza – to name a few), and the majority of hotels are located around 10-15 minutes away from the airport.

Post-Hotel Check-in: Heading to Tokyo

Once you’ve dumped your cabin bag(s) in your room and managed to freshen-up, you’re pretty much ready to tackle Tokyo. But first, you’ll have to work out the bureaucracy of getting to Tokyo.

A first and perhaps obvious word of warning: you won’t want to simply hail a cab from the hotel to town. Because as anyone you know who’s spent some amount of time in Tokyo will tell you, the approx. ¥20-30,000 (~US$200-350) Narita-Tokyo taxi fare will flog you dead. Unless you’re staying at one of the few 5-star hotels in the Narita Airport area, you’ll need to head back to Narita Airport to catch a “limousine bus” or a train into Tokyo.

Trains, trains, trains

As a transiter, time (and perhaps $$$) is obviously of the essence. This being so, the best way to get into the city is by train, operated by two services: the JR Narita Express (N’EX) and the KEISEI Skyliner.

The Skyliner is the faster and properly non-stop service into Tokyo: a humane 45 minutes. A one-way ticket costs (as of April 2013) around ¥2500 (~US$25), and is sold at the KEISEI Skyliner counter in the Arrivals Hall of Terminal 2. The only snag is that while the Skyliner is a non-stop service, it doesn’t go into dead-central Tokyo – it will conclude at Nippori and neighboring Ueno, both in Tokyo’s northeast. To reach staple Tokyo landmarks like Shinjuku, Shibuya or Akihabara from either Nippori or Ueno, you will need to transfer onto Tokyo’s busy circular commuter line, the Yamanote Line (all 5 stations are served by the mighty Yamanote – how convenient.). Don’t worry at this stage about needing a separate ticket for the Yamanote Line – you will likely have been issued two ticket pieces as part of your Skyliner fare: a larger “Liner Ticket” for the Skyliner, and a smaller ticket written in only Japanese. This smaller ticket is an ordinary rail ticket – it’s what you’d feed into the ticket turnstile at Nippori/Ueno to get to the Yamanote platforms from the Skytrain platforms. However, it will expire after your first Yamanote Line trip, so you’ll have to negotiate a Japanese ticket machine on your subsequent trips (this can be obviated by purchasing a Suica Card – see below).

The Narita Express is just as nifty as the Skyliner – if a little busier on-board. That’s because unlike the Skyliner, the N’EX isn’t a non-stop service – it calls at three towns en route to Tokyo: Narita, Yotsukaido and Chiba – making for a 55-minute journey (slightly longer at peak times). All three are major Tokyo satellite towns, so the train can get pretty packed at peak times. But like the Skyliner, you’ll be assigned a seat on your ticket anyway, so fear not. The obvious advantage over the Skyliner is that it calls at both Tokyo station (Tokyo’s de jure main station) and Shinjuku station (Tokyo’s de facto main station). Fares vary: a straightforward one-way ride to Shinjuku costs around ¥3,000 (~US$30), and unlike the Skyliner, you’ll have to buy this from the JR (Japan Railways) ticketing area below Terminal 2’s Arrival Hall (all trains depart from this level, so you’ll have to head down there anyway). If you plan to do any amount of station-hopping once in central Tokyo though, you can combine an N’EX ticket with a Suica Card (a refillable pre-pay card that Tokyoites use for a mind-boggling array of transactions, including commuting). For ¥5,500, JR will sell you an N’EX ticket and a Suica Card with ¥2,000 pre-filled. Ask for this combination at the large JR ticket counter – it’s only available to foreign visitors, so you’ll have to produce your passport.

An N’EX-related tip: there are two classes of travel, the self-explanatory Ordinary Cars and the premium Green Cars. So long as Ordinary Car seats are still available, there is no compelling reason to opt for a more expensive (at least ¥2,000 more) Green Car ticket. If your sales assistant speaks no or dead-rudimentary English, you can head off a potential error by saying “Goo-reen” while shaking your head vigorously to imply negation.

“Limousine Bus”

If  you have 1.5-2 hours (add 20-30 minutes at peak times) to shed or are just way too intimidated by the operational intricacies of the Japanese train system (which won’t help since you’ll need to get rather intimate with it once in Tokyo – even intra-city taxi travel will dent your wallet), you can opt for the self-styled ‘Friendly Airport Limousine’ coach service. FAL’s biggest advantage over its train competitors is that it’s idiot-proof. You simply purchase a ¥3,000 one-way ticket to Shinjuku in central Tokyo at the FAL counter in the Terminal 2 Arrivals Hall (it’s right beside the KEISEI Skyliner counter), you board the coach outside the Arrival Hall doors, boom, done. Once in Tokyo, the coach will likely call at several large hotels before eventually depositing you at Shinjuku train station. Again, the FAL option is a time guzzler, and I don’t recommend it over the speedier train options. On the other hand, the FAL may be one of your only means of getting back to the Narita Airport area if you plan on staying in central Tokyo past 9.00pm – this is what happened to me (see below).

In Tokyo

You’ve made it alive to Tokyo. Go on, pat yourself on the back.

However you choose to get into Tokyo, at some point in the journey you should try to review the contemporary artistic masterpiece that is the “Tokyo Subway Route Map”. Try to get an A4-sized English language copy at Narita Airport or download it into your phone – you will absolutely need to refer to it on-the-go, and Japanese versions of the Map posted up in stations can cause you some angst. If you have a vague idea of things you’d like to do in Tokyo, make a list of the places/attractions/etc that you’d like to check out, and if possible, link them to a station on the Subway Map. If time is an issue, you may want to do yourself a favor by sticking to places that lie on the Yamanote Line (as opposed to the sprawling Tokyo Metro with its 13 or so lines). This will allow you to make a clean(er) getaway on the Narita Express from Shinjuku/Tokyo stations or on the Skyliner from Nippori/Uedo stations. Go ahead and venture into the Metro’s labyrinthian innards, but just remember that you absolutely do not want to miss those last few evening trains heading back to Narita Airport (see below).

Popular (objectively defined) places of interest that lie on the Yamanote Line:

  • Shinjuku Dori (station: Shinjuku)
  • Akihabara Electric Town (station: Akihabara)
  • Shibuya’s Hachiko pedestrian crossing (station: Shibuya)
  • Imperial Palace and gardens (station: Tokyo)
  • Meiji
  • All things Harajuku (station: Harajuku)

Those that require transferring onto the Tokyo Metro and/or third party lines:

  • Asakusa’s Senso-ji shrine (station: Asakusa – Metro, Ginza Line)
  • Ginza Dori
  • Roppongi Hills
  • Tokyo Skytree
  • Odaiba

Returning to Narita

Okay, this is perhaps the single most important rule on doing a day trip into Tokyo while on a short transit, and I nearly spectacularly fell foul of it during my own foray: plan your return to Narita well in advance. Again: plan your return to Narita in advance.

Unlike New York’s JFK airport or London’s Heathrow, Narita Airport isn’t integrated into Tokyo’s mainstream rail transit system. Rather, it’s served by dedicated services (the N’EX, Skyliner, etc), which means different first- and last-train regimes apply. All you need to know is that while the N’EX, Skyliner and FAL run Narita Airport–>Tokyo services until around 10.30pm, their Tokyo–>Narita Airport services end much earlier. As at April 2013, the N’EX’s last service to Narita Airport departs Shinjuku station at 19:40 (Tokyo station at 20:00). The Skyliner’s last train to Narita leaves Ueno at 17:45 (!!) and Nippori at 17:50 (as at April 2013, the Skyliner runs what it calls a “Limited Train” from Ueno/Nippori that departs at 21:40 – however, this was published in its paper timetable obtainable from the Skyliner counter at Narita and does not appear on its online timetable. Clarify and double-clarify this ahead of time if you plan to rely on this service). And the FAL’s last service from Shinjuku train station to Narita Airport leaves

During my own transit, I recklessly failed to check these ‘last train’ times ahead of time, and while tucking into dinner at a central Tokyo location at around 8.00pm, I consulted my iPhone to check train departure times for Narita – only to discover, to my horror, that pretty much all the last trains and FAL’s last bus had already left. I bolted for Shinjuku station (arriving there at 9.00pm) in the wild hope that the Narita Express was still running outside its published timetable times (who was I kidding? This was Japan.). I got to the N’EX platform to discover that it was – only not to Narita Airport. It appears that after the 19:40 last service to Narita Airport, the eponymous Narita Express runs local services to a number of destinations other than Narita Airport. So when I asked a JR platform attendant, in audible near-desperation, if the train on the platform was going to “Narita Kuko (i.e. “Narita Airport” – I thank the slew of Japanese announcements on my earlier Japan Airlines flight), he could only manage a heavily-accented “Narita finish” in reply. It was also then that I discovered that the Skyliner was running its “Limited Train” to Narita at 9.40pm – but there was no way I was going to make it across Tokyo to Ueno in under 15 minutes.

So what happens if you find yourself in a similar, totally unenviable, position? Don’t start running to an ATM to withdraw half your bank account for a taxi ride to Narita (I admit I was contemplating it at some point) – there is still hope yet.

The apparent Skyliner 21:40 “Limited” aside (again, carefully check ahead if you plan to use it), the only mode of transport to Narita Airport that leaves Tokyo after 8.30pm and that won’t reduce you to penury in one fell swoop is the FAL’s “Midnight Service” departing Shinjuku train station at 1.30am (and reaching Narita’s Terminal 2 at 3.30am). Although you pay the fare (¥2,000 as at April 2013) on boarding, you must reserve a seat ahead of travel. To do this in English (because phone reservations can only be done in Japanese), you will need to physically go to the FAL ticketing counter at Shinjuku station (it shuts at 11.00pm) and give your particulars in order to secure a seat. The FAL counter is located at the street level near Shinjuku station’s West Exit No.23 bus stop (this is also where the bus will leave from at 1.30am). From the train platforms, exit the turnstiles and follow the signs to “West Exit”. At the West Exit (which isn’t a single exit per se, but rather a series of numbered staircases 1-15 that lead up to the street level), look for staircase no.3 – this will take you up to FAL’s bus stop no.23. When you emerge at the street level, make an immediate U-turn and walk in the opposite direction – around the corner of the building. Keep walking until you see bus stop 23

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