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.

 
 
 
 

What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.

 

That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.


All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.