The world’s biggest seafood market at Tsukiji, the world’s busiest train station in Shinjuku, and a collection of impressive zen gardens in the middle of the city, Tokyo — my favorite place for a layover — has it all. To me, the food scene in Tokyo is unparalleled, from fine dining and top-grade toro sashimi, to a dozen chicken skewers at an izakya and a satisfying bowl of ramen, there is something for everybody here.
The city is a main hub for many airlines, included Japan Airlines, ANA, and United, so your travels in and out of Asia may take you through this amazing city. Whether your layover lasts for 3 hours or a full day, the 7 pro tips below will help you get the most out of your experience.
1) Getting into Tokyo? 40 minutes from Haneda and 70 minutes from Narita.
Tokyo has two airports: Haneda (HND) is closer to the heart of Tokyo, while Narita (NRT) is further away. Trains from Haneda cost 600 yen and take 40 minutes to downtown, while getting from Narita to the city center can take 1.5 hours and 1,000 – 2,500 yen one-way, depending on the type of train.
Most of the time we may not have a choice of airport, as the itinerary is largely dictated by the airlines. For most travelers, chances are we will be flying through Narita, which has a significantly higher volume of international flights.
At the end of the day, though, both airports are fairly similar. As long as you figure out a general plan for the layover and budget the right amount of transportation time to and from the city, you will be fine.
40 minutes from Haneda Airport to Tokyo
70+ minutes from Narita Airport to Tokyo
2) If you want to experience the capsule hotel at the airport, reserve in advance
A capsule hotel is a unique Japanese hotel that features a large array of mini sleeping pods within a facility that provides basic services. There is a 24-hour capsule hotel called Nine hours located at Narita Airport that prices rooms at 4,900 yen a day or 1,500 yen per hour (yes you can!). You can drop off your bag, take a nap and take a shower before getting into the city or catching the next flight. Availability does vary, so booking in advance on their website is a good idea to avoid disappointment.
Nine hours pricing
Nine hours sleeping pods
3) If you only have a few hours at Narita airport, pay a quick visit to city of Narita
If getting into Tokyo is too much work or the layover is too short, the city of Narita is great alternative. Only a quick 15-minute train ride away, Narita is a peaceful city with a beautiful park, Japanese Buddhist temples and a few streets for dining and shopping. We had some really good food in Narita, including ramen at Miyamoto (a 24-hour ramen shop right outside of Narita train station that we were so thrilled to see when it was cold and raining at 7am) and unajyu (eel over rice) at Kawatoyo Honten (where you can see the staff cut and grill the eel right at the front of the store).
To get from Narita Airport to Narita city by train, follow the signs for “railroad” and take the Keisei line. Narita City is only a couple of stops away.
Follow the blue sign (Keisei Main Line) to get to Narita
The fall colors reflected on the water were absolutely stunning (my favorite picture!)
4) If you want to join a free tour at Narita, check out Narita Transit Program
If you happen to arrive at Narita Airport in the morning, another option is to join a free tour to Narita City led by Japanese volunteer tour guides, who would show you around and offer cultural insights. Narita Transit Program is offered by Narita airport, as a courtesy for transit customers to experience Japan even with a short amount of time.
The Narita Transit Program information counter is located in Narita Airport’s arrival area, which means you do have to go through customs to enter into Japan. Make sure your passport / visa would allow you to do that. Tours begin running at 9am at the earliest and must end by 2pm. The tours are complimentary, but you pay for your own transportation (200 yen one-way) and food / shopping. The volunteer tour guides are obligated to bring you back to the airport.
Narita city at 8am, when shops are getting ready for a rainy day
5) If you have luggage but don’t have a hotel, check it at an airport locker
Narita airport has multiple self-service luggage lockers that easily found on the airport map. Lockers come in various sizes and cost between 400 – 600 yen for a one-time use. As a reference, A 500-yen locker can comfortably fit two carry-on luggage.
Once you put the luggage into the desired locker, follow the instructions on the screen (available in English). Confirm the box number, pay with coins or bills and you will receive a passcode that will be used to retrieve your luggage. Then you are good to go!
6) Not sure where to start in Tokyo? Start with Shinjuku.
Tokyo is huge, so realistically you can only explore a couple of neighborhoods (or known as “ward”). If this is your first time in Japan, Shinjuku is a classic spot to go to, with tons of shops, bars and restaurants. Be forewarned that you are bound to feel lost for a moment in the dizzying train station with dozens of train lines and exits!
Shinjuku’s skyscraper district is home to Japan’s tallest buildings, including the towers of Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office, which has an observation deck at one of top floors that are open to public access (until 11pm on most days) for free.
My favorite spot in Shinjuku is Omoide Yokocho, also known as Memory Lane or Piss Alley, as businessmen used to get drunk and pee on the street back in the days (don’t worry, it is all very clean today, just like everywhere else in Japan). The collection of izakaya bars and restaurants in the cramped alley are best known for yakitori (“chicken skewers” but all sorts of meat are available) and cheap drinks, and where you can get cozy with local Japanese and tourists alike.
Inside a cozy izakaya
7) Get to know the subway system, and see if a 1-day pass makes sense for you
Tokyo’s subway network is sophisticated, but can be confusing. The main Tokyo subway system is run by two operators: Toei (which runs four lines) and Tokyo Metro (which runs nine lines). If you look at the subway map in English, the operators are denoted in the legend. These two operators require different single-use ticket, which means that a journey that overlaps between the two lines would need two tickets. The easiest workaround for this is to stick with lines run by one operator for any single journey. Each single ride on the subway (distance based) costs on average 250 yen per adult.
If you expect to ride the subway for more than 3 times, you should consider buying a 1-day pass, which costs 600 yen (only good on Tokyo Metro lines) or 1,000 yen (good for both Tokyo Metro and Toei lines so you don’t have to worry about which lines you can’t take).
I highly recommend carrying a physical subway map (available at any train station), which would it easy follow the various lines as you go about exploring the city. Google Maps also works well in Tokyo, so you can save routes offline in advance if you don’t want to access the Internet with roaming.
Keep in mind that subways don’t run all night; a taxi may be the only option available when you are drunk at 2am.
Legend shows the subway lines operated by Toei and Tokyo Metro
Tokyo is an exciting place to explore. I highly recommend taking advantage of the variety of services provided at the airports, including luggage locker, free transit tour and capsule hotels, that would make your layover a smooth experience. It is a good idea to get a basic understanding of the transportation system in advance, so you won’t be too lost (which can also be part of the fun, though). If you are going to Tokyo, explore, appreciate and eat a lot!
Have you had a layover experience in Tokyo? What other tips would you add to this list?