Japan's front door: efficient, and welcoming; a showcase for culture and commerce.
As your flight crosses the shoreline on approach to NRT, immediately you know something is different. The farms and houses below you are precisely arranged. The streets and highways look as if they were just installed, without potholes or patches. Everything is ... so geometric and, well, clean. The sensation continues as you land and taxi to your gate. The ground workers shuttle about in immaculate jumpsuits. No trash blowing around, no decaying concrete, no abandoned airplanes or rusting vehicles. The carts and trucks are arranged-just-so, in a way that you can intuitively sense is both practiced and engineered for precision.
The staff you encounter in the terminal, from security to shopkeepers, are real people; professional but genuine. Whether you're coming to Japan to visit, or just passing through, it's clear that everyone at Narita understands their role as ambassadors for their entire country.
Tokyo has been the logical and traditional landing point for flights from North America since the end of WWII; it's the first major city on the Great Circle Route and as such was the fastest way to Asia. Northwest Airlines pioneered the route up through the Yukon and Alaska, then down along the Aleutian Islands, and helped set up the Japanese air system after the war.
While today's efficient aircraft allow carriers to bypass Japan for nonstops to China, Korea, and beyond, there is still plenty of demand for travel to Japan itself - and many connecting opportunities to destinations throughout East and Southeast Asia.
Currently Tokyo-Narita is linked nonstop to 18 airports in Canada and the US 50 states, with up to 47 flights *per day*, and 9 carriers competing for passenger business. NRT is a hub location for the three big airline alliances:
- Star Alliance, with ANA-All Nippon, United, and Air Canada
- oneworld, with Japan Airlines and American
- Skyteam, with Delta, China Airlines, and Korean Air
Hawaiian Air, not linked to an alliance, began service in Summer 2016.
Connections to other cities inside Japan are provided by ANA and Japan Airlines and their subsidiaries; however, there aren't many flights, and not many cities are covered - and those that are offered are usually on small aircraft. Most travelers will make the two-hour overland journey to Tokyo's "in-town" airport, Haneda, for domestic flights, or will opt for the many train services.
Beyond Japan, into East and Southeast Asia, the three airline alliances offer broad connecting options with even more partner carriers:
- United flies to Guam and Singapore. ANA-All Nippon flies to dozens of destinations throughout the region. Their Star Alliance partners are Asiana to Korea, Air China and Shenzhen Air into the PRC, EVA Air to Taiwan, Thai Airways, and Singapore Airlines.
- Japan Airlines also connects dozens of cities; American does not fly onward from Japan. Oneworld partners are Cathay Pacific and its subsidiary Dragonair to Hong Kong, plus Malaysia Airlines.
- Delta flies to Bangkok, Manila, Palau, Saipan, Shanghai, and Singapore. Its Skyteam partners are China Eastern and China Southern to the PRC, Korean Air, China Airlines to Taiwan, Garuda Indonesia, and Vietnam Airlines.
There are also non-alliance carriers such as Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific, and Hainan Airlines serving Narita which you may connect to.
Customs Arrival and Transfer Process
International-to-international connections at NRT are simple; everyone leaving the aircraft is directed (up one floor in Terminal 1, down one floor in Terminal 2), through a simple security checkpoint and scan, and then back out to the gate area. Depending on how many flights are unloading at the same time, this can take as little as 10 minutes - they keep the lines moving!
For entering Japan, again you'll change one floor after leaving the aircraft, but instead of going through security, instead follow the signs to go to the well-staffed Immigration counters. Lines for passport checks are rarely more than 5-10 minutes. You'll go down one more floor to baggage claim; if you have nothing to declare, hand your declaration form in at the green counter and exit to the ground-transportation area in the arrival lobby.
For leaving Japan, the passport check and security scans are also very fast; 5-15 minutes for the whole process.
Navigating the Airport
Narita now has three terminals: Terminals 1 and 2 are for traditional long-haul carriers and a limited amount of domestic connecting flights: Terminal 1 is mostly for flights from the Star Alliance (United, ANA-All Nippon, Air Canada) and Skyteam (Delta, China Airlines, China Southern, China Eastern, Garuda Indonesia, Vietnam Airlines, Korean Air); while Terminal 2 is home to the oneworld alliance (American, Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific). Terminal 3 is dedicated to the low-cost budget airlines flying mostly short hops in Japan and selected Asian destinations; these flights usually don't connect with the long-haul services from North America, so we will just concentrate on Terminals 1 and 2 in this article.
On the concourse (Level 3 in both Terminals 1 and 2), you have full access to all the gate areas, restaurants, and shopping inside the security zone. This is a great opportunity to stretch your legs and get some fresh, hot food. You won’t have a lot of time to explore the place if you are connecting flights; about 80-120 minutes, but it’s enough to pick up some souvenirs and resupply your carry-on bag with bottled water and snacks. Unlike China or Hong Kong, in Japan you may definitely bring anything on board your international-bound aircraft that you have purchased inside the security zone.
Terminal 1’s layout is roughly shaped like a sideways letter “K”, with one half devoted to the SkyTeam carriers and the other to Star Alliance. Terminal 2 is made of two long parallel concourses, with a tunnel & bridge connecting them at the halfway point.
Moving sidewalks are deployed in several places, and they’re necessary for covering the longer distances between connecting gates. They also segregate passengers who are in a hurry, which makes all the hallways and shopping areas flow more smoothly.
Two points on the sidewalks:
In Japan, they drive on the left side of the road. So you want to take the moving sidewalk on the left side of the hallway.
The sidewalks move with a little more zip than we’re used to in America. Still a safe speed, but you need to pay attention.
If you should need to transfer between Terminal 1 and 2, shuttle buses are available inside the security zone. There is no tram system to connect the far-flung terminals and gate areas.
Family-friendly Amenities and Hidden Gems
In both terminals there are several places for toddlers to romp and burn off energy:
- Terminal 1 features a kids’ playroom between gates 26-27. Not much there in the way of equipment, but soft furniture, toys, and space for running around. There are also “kids’ parks” near gates 41 and 51.
Terminal 2 offers playrooms in the central food/shopping court of the main concourse, between gates 76-77 on the main concourse, and on the satellite between gates 81-83.
There are convenient nursing rooms for a bit of quiet and privacy:
- In Terminal 1, between gates 11-12, 21-22, 26-27, near 35, 41, 51, 52, and 57.
In Terminal 2, on the main concourse near gate 65, 76, and in the central food/shopping court; on the satellite near gate 92.
And in Terminal 1, there is a great little toy shop at the far end of the South Wing (gate 51-56 area) that specializes in Japanese anime, video game, and scale model items.
If you have enough time between flights to exit the secure zone (say a 3 hour gap - you will have to clear Japanese immigration), or have time before your flight if you've been staying in Japan, the free outdoors observation deck is extraordinary. Japanese airports are generally excellent about providing the public with great views of the action, and few airports have as diverse a mix of carriers and aircraft as Narita. Both Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 have these decks - they have plenty of seating and are a great place for a picnic, or for kids to run around a bit, too.
Unique, free cultural exhibits that kids will really enjoy include the "Kabuki Experience Gallery" in Terminal 1 near gate 27, and the Nippon Origami Museum, Terminal 1 near gate 26. Both of these galleries have plenty to look at, as well as souvenir-shopping opportunities. They're great ways to spend a half-hour.
In the “hidden gems” category, Narita has set up several out-of-the-way lounge areas with reclining seats, including the lower level beneath the gate 21-25 concourse in Terminal 1 (take the elevator down), and also beneath gates 76-77 in Terminal 2 (again, take the elevator.)
In Terminal 1, between gates 26-27, there is also a lounge area with benches, soft carpet, and indirect lighting. This area stays very calm despite the crowd moving all around it.
One can usually find unoccupied gate areas, even during the major connecting banks, by walking a few minutes - or even just around the corner.
The restrooms are plentiful, and about the cleanest places you’ve ever seen. Plenty of space in the stalls; if you need to bring your toddler in with you, she can walk around - they are that spacious. The big restrooms in the main concourses even have a few stalls set up as “squatty potties,” if you are daring enough to try.
Stalls, however, do not have shelving to keep bags up off the floor. There aren't "family restrooms" as we have them in North America - part of this is offset by how big the stalls are, and part of this is offset by the several nurseries which offer changing space for toddlers.
Uniquely. there are also "changing rooms" associated with most of the restrooms in the gate areas; these have fully-closable doors and hook space - as well as a toilet - so that travelers can change clothes after a long flight. You'll have to pay attention for the signs but this is also a kid-friendly feature.
Food and Shopping
Dining options are surprisingly not plentiful in the gate areas of either terminal. (Terminal 1’s pre-security food court is legendary, but you won’t be able to access it when connecting between flights.) Narita has replaced international chain restaurants and fast-food places in the secure zone with local vendors and a focus on local cuisine; not that that is necessarily a bad thing - Japanese food is tasty, fast, and no more expensive than Western food - grilled meats and noodle dishes are definitely familiar. Even Starbucks has been exiled to the pre-security zone; the only Western outlets remaining are the McDonald’s in Terminal 1, near gate 26, and a Tulley's Coffee in Terminal 2, near gate 62.
Shopping options are stacked toward the duty-free luxury goods / electronics / cosmetics / alcohol & tobacco categories; however there are also general giftshops in several places in each terminal that sell packaged foods, ice cream, and drinks along with souvenirs and media. Each terminal also features a decent-sized bookstore with a substantial selection of Western reading materials - AND - Japanese manga that your kids will already know about.
Be sure to stock up on "only-in-Japan" gifts and snacks for friends and family back home - such as the KitKat bars in many unique flavors!
Credit cards are happily accepted. Also, note signs in certain places for where US $ are accepted. You’ll get change in Japanese Yen - something more for your scrapbook! And you can use those coins in the many vending machines out by the gates for extra snacks and drinks for your onward flight...
Free WiFi is available across the airport! And charging points are rolled out through all the gate and walkway areas. You may also use internet kiosks scattered around the terminals (100 yen for 10 minutes) - an old-fashioned approach, but if you need to do a quick Facebook post or send an email and don't have your phone or laptop handy, it's another option.
If you’re stopping or staying in Tokyo, there is a substantial network of rail services now available to most of the city’s major rail terminals. Narita also is served by a network of frequent bus services which connect with most of the major hotels; it's about an hour into the city, plus connecting time to get to the neighborhood you want to be in.