We've all been there. While slogging through the internet for hours to find the best flights and hotels for our destination, we seem to hit the jackpot: a flight that is much cheaper than any other! Ah, but there’s a catch: the return flight seems to depart in the middle of the night. How are you supposed to get to the airport to catch that plane?
Don't despair! It is becoming increasingly popular in Japan to simply spend the evening in the airport terminal while waiting for that 4:00am flight. Not only do you save on the cost of an extra night in a hotel, it's also good fun and can cap off your trip to Japan with some last-minute experiences.
While much of this advice is applicable to many of Japan’s major airports, some advice will focus specifically on Haneda and Narita Airports.
Step 1: Enjoy that last, full day in Japan.
Because you’ve booked that late-night/early-morning flight, you’ve basically given yourself another full day in Japan to explore. Don’t go too far out of the city though: you’ll want to be within easy access of the airport just in case of transport delays.
In Japan, service is king, so even though you’ve already checked out of the hotel, nearly all of them offer a baggage-holding service. You may not be so lucky if you’ve been staying at, say, an Airbnb however, in which case make your way to the nearest major train station and grab a big locker to stash that suitcase into.
Step 2: Head to the airport.
Don’t leave it until the last possible train to head to the airport! Delays are always a possibility and if you miss that connection you’ll still want that backup of simply waiting for the next train.
Upon arrival at the airport, you may be lucky enough to have the option of checking in and dropping off your baggage straightaway. If not, no worries: both Narita and Haneda have areas where suitcases can be stored. There is a fee, but when you consider the cost of storing a bag against another night in pricey accommodation, it’s a pittance!
Step 3: Relax and enjoy pre-security terminal amenities.
If you’ve arrived before 8pm, most of the restaurants and shops should still be open (though many restaurants may start taking last orders). From about 10pm onwards most of the shopping and eating options close, but don’t worry! At the very least you will have a 24-hour convenience store at your disposal (Lawson in Narita T1 and T3, 7/11 at Narita T2 and an Air Lawson at Haneda International Terminal), and to be honest the convenience store is more than enough to keep you supplied with food, drinks and snacks. Find yourself an open chair (if you’re lucky you may have one near a device-charging station), login to the free wi-fi and relax!
If you’d like something a little more substantial to eat before leaving Japan, both Haneda and Narita T2 also have a 24-hour Yoshinoya, where you can order a variety of simple and classic Japanese eats, the most popular of which is the ‘Gyudon’ (beef and onion on a bed of rice).
Even if you do nothing before your flight, at least you can give yourself a pat on the back for saving yourself some money and taking advantage of the airport’s interior, sheltering from the heat/cold/rain.
Step 4: Explore!
The airport at night has much to offer besides food and chairs. Take a wander around the maze of shopping areas, even if it’s all closed up: there is something strangely relaxing about a quiet airport. You can also head up to the observation deck to look out over the airstrip, with top views of aircraft landing and taking off.
Haneda is especially worth a walk around. The shopping area overlooking the departure hall of the International Terminal is called ‘Edo Koji’, due to the shop exteriors sporting an Edo-style exterior. The wooden facades draped in red paper lanterns are more beautiful than any airport has a right to be! Make sure to walk over the wooden bridge, a replica of the original version of the historic Nihonbashi Bridge.
Step 5: Head through security stress-free.
Not only is passing through airport security in the middle of the night much quieter and quicker, it also gives you much more time in the post-security area of the airport too. Be careful, though: the shopping and features of a post-security airport terminal generally aren’t as much as pre-security. If you’re not sure, grab a map of the airport before you head through security and see if the area around your gate is worth spending a large amount of time in. Regardless, keep an eye on the bag drop area: if you notice large crowds forming and your flight isn’t too long away, it may be worth going through security now and beating the queue.
Step 6: Board!
So you’ve just spent a long, slow night in the airport. By the time you get on the plane, you’ll be tired and ready to sleep. Your flight will pass by in no time, and will shorten that dreaded period of suffering jetlag when you get home.
An overnight stay in a Japanese airport is highly recommended. Even if you’ve done it in other countries and didn’t like the experience, I strongly urge you to give it one more try. The natural Japanese penchant for service and cleanliness make for a very pleasant experience, and will leave you with a few extra yen in your pocket–to put away for your next trip to Japan!