"Allow up to an hour for customs and immigration and to exit the airport after landing," says Tokyo's Tim Hornyak, author of several apposite Lonely Planet guidebooks. Add city train travel – and the need to return to the airport two hours before your connecting flight departs – and an 11-hour layover shrinks to just six hours.
But that's enough for an adventure – especially if you hop the fastest route to the city. "The Narita Express train is the easiest option. It takes about an hour to reach Tokyo Station, which is a large rail hub connecting to the rest of the city."
Avoid the temptation for aimless wandering or a frantic grand tour, though. The trick, says Hornyak, is to limit yourself to a couple of hotspots.
"Try Shibuya Crossing in the early evening for the Blade Runner-esque scene; the Harajuku district for the Meiji Shrine, plus shopping on Omotesando and Takeshita-dori streets; the Ginza district for Mitsukoshi department store's basement food shops and the sushi restaurant Kyubey; or the Ueno district for the park, museums and huge Ameyoko market."
Wherever you choose, understanding Tokyo's labyrinthine transit system is vital.
"Study the rail and subway network before arriving to know which lines and stations to use. Once you're in the city, buy a refundable Pasmo or Suica stored-value card at station vending machines (press 'English' on the touchscreen), charge it with several thousand yen and wave it over the sensor at wicket gates.
"If your smartphone works here, Google Maps will save you from getting lost, while hyperdia.com plots the quickest rail and subway routes," he adds.
But if negotiating megacity transit seems daunting, Sydney-based travel blogger Jayne Gorman (girltweetsworld.com) discovered an alternative on her Japan visit. "Tokyo is a long way to go on a short layover. However, Narita City offers a compact taste of Japan just 10 minutes from the airport."
The logistics are simple. "Depart the baggage hall and head straight to the information desk for details on things to see and do in Narita and instructions for getting there – local trains depart from just below the arrivals hall. There are also lockers nearby for leaving bulky items at the airport."
Narita City, she adds, is an accessible cultural immersion for first-timers. "From the train station, head to Omotesando Street for shops, restaurants and the Narita Tourist Pavilion – they provide area information and have traditional performances and demonstrations."
Must-sees include the centuries-old Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, grilled unagi eel sold on the streets and Miyoshiya. "It's a tranquil tea garden serving giant piles of flavoured shaved ice," says Gorman, adding that since ATMs seem scarce in Narita, withdrawing cash at the airport is a good idea.
But if you just can't resist Tokyo's neon-twinkling siren song, there's also a way to do the capital without the headache of finding your own way around.
Local tour guide Chie Yamamoto (toursbylocals.com/TokyoDayTrip) can meet you at Narita Airport, escort you onto the train and take you – via subway – on a stress-free Tokyo exploration. Tours last as long as eight hours and cost $330 for as many as six people.
Itineraries can be tailored but some locations are ever-popular. "One is Tsukiji fish market, where you'll see many kinds of food as well as fish and seashells in a vibrant atmosphere. Also, Asakusa has Tokyo's oldest temple and is popular for souvenirs," says Yamamoto, adding that washi paper and yukata cloth top the shopping lists of many layover visitors.
Most are also keen to eat, compensating for lame airline meals with ramen noodles or okonomiyaki pancakes at backstreet restaurants only locals know about. Between bites, participants pepper her with questions. "They always ask 'Why is there no litter on the streets or in the subway in Tokyo?'" And what's the answer? "Ask me when you come here!" she replies.
OUR READERS WRITE
- I would definitely be eating for nine out of those 11 hours: sukiyaki, kaiseki, okonomiyaki, hiroshimayaki, sushi, sashimi – and wash it all down with some umeshu. @elisabetheats
- When I landed in Narita, I did two things: caught up on sleep in the day hotel and picked up Tokyo Bananas – a Japanese sweet that has always been a hit with my kids. @GridStoneMktg
- Focus on Narita and nearby Sakura. Narita has a massive temple complex (Narita-san), great shopping and a number of restaurants. Sakura is home to the National Museum of Japanese History, located in the middle of a nice city park. @travisbelrose
- Take an easy 10-minute train ride out the front door of Narita (Tokyo) Airport and visit the lovely town of Narita; Tokyo’s too far and stressful! I spent several relaxing hours on my 10-hour layover enjoying the stunning gardens, temples and friendly Japanese people. Kerri Ward
- I recommend Naritasan Shinsho-ji Temple, 30 minutes from the airport via train. @PeggyCoonley
- Go to Narita for the eel master eateries, great temple and a botanical garden. @reidontravel
- Take the speedy Narita Express into Tokyo Station. From there, Tokyo is your oyster: Shibuya and Shinjuku are fun. Otherwise, Narita is a cute town to navigate if Tokyo is too daunting of a trek. @Chiqee
- Spa and okonomayaki @dobbernation
- Yoshinoya [a Japanese restaurant chain]! Quick and yummy to maximize your layover time @johnbollwit
- I learned from my seven-hour layover after a nine-hour flight and awaiting another nine-hour flight: shower, eat, yoga and walk @laurakfee
- Tokyo central station hooks you up to 11 tube lines to many a city destination listed in the tour guides. Unique electronics shopping: Electric City. Everybody probably should see the Ginza. But consider the alternative Shinjuku at night – more dazzling, outrageous, artsy. Ken Collier
- I spent my time by venturing into Narita town near the airport. You can get there on the local train that leaves from the lowest floor of Terminal One. A very kind lady at the ticket counter helped me buy a round-trip ticket. The town is only two stops from the airport. Elizabeth Tumasonis
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