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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.