Airports are a guilty pleasure of mine. I feel like I should dislike them for being soulless and environmentally unfriendly, but instead I love their weird atmosphere, their odd sense of detachment.
Airports often have little in common with the cities they serve: instead they have far more in common with other airports. Once, thanks to the incompetence of United Airlines, I spent an unscheduled half hour at LAX and saw literally nothing to indicate I was in Los Angeles. I could have been anywhere.
So yes, I enjoy airports. But even so, nine hours at an airport is longer than I’d generally choose to spend.
I’d been visiting Japan with my family, taking in Tokyo, Kyoto and finally Nagoya, where my wife was giving a paper at a university conference. We had to check out of our hotel in Nagoya at 11am and our flight went from Tokyo at 11:50pm. We could have hung out in Nagoya for a few hours, but who can relax when you’re two hundred miles away from the airport? What if the trains screw up? (The trains in Japan never screw up.)
So we headed straight to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, and got there a little after half past two. How were we going to keep two children, aged seven and ten, occupied for nine hours?
In fact, it was easy – because Haneda Airport is the best airport I’ve ever been to. First of all, it contradicted what I’ve always said about airports all being the same. More than any city I’ve ever been to, Tokyo loves to celebrate its history and modernity equally, and this is reflected perfectly in the airport’s time-killing area, which is located above the check-in desks and takes the form of a small theme-park rendition of the city.
The first level, Edo Market, is an imitation of the old town, back before it was the capital, and before it was Tokyo. This is where you find restaurants offering traditional Tokyo cuisine (and pizza), alongside shops selling traditional sweets, cakes and so on.
Most of these are made with green tea. Nothing prepared me for just how much stuff in Japan is green tea flavoured. Think of all the chocolate flavour foods in the UK, then imagine doing a find-and-replace for green tea, and you’re getting there.
The second level, Tokyo Pop Town, is divided into two sides – the Hot Zone, and the Cool Zone. The Cool Zone has a small branch of Don Quijote, a popular pile-em-high department store in Japan – the closest parallel I can think of is Trago Mills, only they’re open 24 hours and carry a lot more Pokémon merchandise. The previous day I’d spent nearly £40 on Japanese Kit Kats at one of their Nagoya stores (current limited edition flavours include apple, purple sweet potato and wasabi), and while I was filling out the paperwork at the tax-free counter their jingle lodged itself in my head and has still not left.
My wife had decided we still didn’t have enough Kit Kats, so we took this opportunity to buy another thirty quid’s worth. The Cool Zone also boasts the Planetarium Starry Cafe, which claims to be the world’s first planetarium at an airport. I have no reason to disbelieve this. “Please enjoy meals with watching 40,000,000 stars which is a non-daily sense of reality,” says its website, entirely accurately.
Even better is the Hot Zone, an area selling toys and character merchandise, mostly for properties originating in Japan. As well as the inevitable Hello Kitty outlet, there’s a shop devoted to a cartoon seal called Sirotan, which my seven-year-old is now obsessed with, but never mind that – the main toy shop houses the biggest Scalextric track I’ve ever seen. It’s the kind of thing you dreamed about as a kid. It has ten lanes – yes, ten lanes – and you can pay 200 yen (about £1.30) for a five-minute go on it.
You can play on the biggest Scalextric I've ever used, for example. pic.twitter.com/scQbBdRG5L
— Eddie Robson (@EddieRobson) January 14, 2018
Younger kids get a magnetised car that stays on the track however fast you go, but your correspondent had to use his skill and judgement on the corners. Accordingly, my car flew off at least a dozen times (there’s a vicious hairpin halfway round), but luckily there are staff whose main job is to put your car back on the track for you, so you don’t have to waste your precious racing time doing it yourself. I could easily have spent half an hour, and a lot more than 200 yen, just doing this.
Beyond this there are flight simulators (also 200 yen for five minutes) and, if you need to go somewhere more restful, a huge observation deck.
Having finally exhausted the shops, we went down to the courtyard cafe for green tea ice cream and a green tea latte: a small sign reassured us that the courtyard isn’t just for patrons of the cafe, it’s for everyone.
This minor gesture summed up how pleasurable the whole airport was: its commercial zone was as slickly designed as anywhere I’ve been, but here was a sign saying you don’t have to buy anything, you can just sit down and wait. So we took our time and played some card games. without worrying about being chased out.
When we finally got around to checking in at 8:15, I was actually disappointed to go through the gates. Apparently there’s stuff we didn’t even see, like a mini replica of the Nihonbashi Bridge. Next time I’ll be sure to schedule more than nine hours.