I spent nine hours in Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, and it was brilliant

The Edo-Koji shopping area in the international terminal at Haneda Airport. Image: Toshinori Baba/Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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.

Eddie Robson is a scriptwriter and novelist, whose work includes the Guardian’s first podcast drama Adulting. He tweets as @EddieRobson.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.