An airport doesn’t always provide a good introduction to a country, but it can often be a good start. Airports are good places to test the system and find its breaking points. If the customs guy waives you through without a glance and the immigration guy hands your passport back without looking at it, you know that the place is pretty laid-back. If a dozen guys are prowling around the arrivals lounge bothering you about a taxi or changing money, you also know that the system is pretty loose, but not in the way you usually want.
In Japan, there are no breaking points in the system, at least not for foreigners. Tokyo’s Narita (NRT) airport is one of the best displays of a transportation hub that reflects the stereotypes we often have about a national culture. Narita is at once disorienting and welcoming, albeit from a distance that always lets you know you are a foreigner.
Confession: I haven’t actually spent much time in Japan. In fact, I’ve spent very little, but I’ve spent plenty of time schlepping around NRT. I arrived on my latest trip from London this morning, and due to Heathrow’s draconian baggage rules, I was forced to check my carry-on bag yesterday afternoon when I left. I always hate checking bags for more reasons than one: aside from the obvious concerns about lost luggage, being without my stuff for a long time, and the delay in waiting at baggage claim upon arrival, checking my carry-on also means that I can’t usually use the transit area of the airport. Instead I have to clear immigration, collect the bag, and go through immigration again. That means more stamps in my passport, which I’m trying to avoid for places I’ve already been.
If it’s a new city for me, or if I know of something to do outside the airport, I don’t mind the process. But I’ve been in NRT several times, and I know there’s not much outside without taking the train a long way. Today I was more concerned with transit, so I would have preferred to skip it.
I explain to the immigration officer that I’m just collecting my bag and then checking right back in to go on to Taiwan. Could he perhaps skip the stamp in the passport? He nods, says “Okay, yes,” and then a) stamps the passport, b) puts a transit sticker on an unused page, and c) staples my departure card to one of the pages. Exactly the opposite of what I asked for, but he gave me a big smile and a little bow when he finished. I thank him and move on; what else can I do?
There’s Starbucks in the departure hall, along with a New York Style Bagels place, and even Tully’s, another coffee shop chain from my home city. But make no mistake: Japan is far from being Western. Very few people speak English, even in the airports. The friendliness is more professional than genuine, although I realize that judgment can also be a bit superficial.
What I do enjoy about NRT is the efficiency. Even in the airport, I’m impressed – and often amused – by the Japanese way of life. The restrooms are all individual cubicles, and you get into and out of one by pressing a green button by the door. At customs, there is a sign that directs all passengers traveling with marijuana to please check in over at desk #8. Pornography is illegal in Japan, another sign informs the traveler, so please stop by desk #6 if you have any of that.
When I make my way from Arrivals to Departures and walk past the Starbucks, I come to Star Alliance Central Station, my designated check-in center. That’s what I call it, anyway. Star Alliance seems oddly like a family to me, and in NRT they’ve done a smart thing and put all of the member airlines together in one huge check-in area. I feel strangely at home as I walk past the rows and rows of check-in desks for all of “my” airlines: Singapore, ANA, Thai, SAS, Austrian, Lufthansa, Asiana, and United. I remember all the flights I have taken with each airline and run through any upcoming itineraries. I even think in my head: this is where the Star Alliance family hangs out.
After checking-in, I’m hanging out too, which is what I always end up doing here. I have six hours until boarding time, no local currency to buy anything, and nothing much to do. I feel comfortable in this world of micro-Tokyo, but aside from the familiarity of Star Alliance Central Station, I certainly don’t feel close to “home.” For that I’ll have to go on to Taipei, then to Seoul, and then to Seattle via Vancouver a few days from now.
Image: astrid westvang