When traveling to a city that has two large airports, you might wonder if one is significantly better than the other before you commit to flying to either of them. You probably won’t choose your holiday destination based on its airport alone, but that doesn’t mean you can’t choose the best one available in your chosen country.
Both Haneda and Narita airports have been firm fixtures in Japan’s capital city for decades, and their air traffic combined make Tokyo the third-busiest airport system in the world after New York and London. If you’re planning your first trip to Japan, you might be worried about choosing the “wrong” airport. Which Tokyo airport is the best? And should you factor in where you’re staying, or where you’re flying from?
Let’s take a look at the history of these two fantastic airports, and at some of the factors, you should consider before choosing which one to fly to.
What is now referred to as Narita Airport by most people in Japan and internationally has actually gone through several different names – originally New Tokyo International Airport, then Tokyo Narita Airport, and finally its current official name – Narita International Airport. But if you’re stuck in central Tokyo and ask for directions to Narita – don’t worry, everyone will know what you mean.
Narita might not be quite as busy as its sister airport Haneda, but it does serve around 50% of the entire country’s international passenger traffic, and 60% of Japan’s international air cargo traffic. With its success and popularity today, you might be surprised to learn that when the Japanese government announced their plans to build Narita they were met with extreme opposition.
Before Narita was built, Haneda served as Tokyo’s main international airport. As the jet engine became a more common means of transportation in the early 1960s though, capacity and noise problems made Haneda problematic for the densely populated area surrounding it, and so the Japanese Transport Ministry began to research possible locations for a new airport to be built. Because of the discreet way the Japanese government chose the land and announced the project, it was assumed that they were hiding it from the community. This led the socialist movement that was strong in Japan at the time to stage riots throughout Tokyo.
The protests did have a large impact on the project, and the actions of the protesters led to severe delays throughout Narita’s construction. Protesting even led to the death of two people, but ultimately did not stop the airport from being built. The first terminal and runway were built, and the Narita Airport opened on the 20th of May 1978.
Since then Narita has been a thriving hub of activity and travel, and roughly half of all international passengers traveling to Japan pass through Narita, even if they aren’t visiting Tokyo at all. Despite its rocky start, Narita is often considered as one of the top 10 airports in the world, but then again…so is Haneda.
Since the Japanese clearly love things with multiple names (see above), Haneda’s official name is Tokyo International Airport, which is interesting considering it mainly serves domestic flights within Japan. Haneda first opened in 1931, although it did not resemble the busy international airport it is today – then it was just 300-meters of reclaimed land, a very small terminal, and two small hangars. It was used heavily during WWII for military transport services and flight services for the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service.
Following the construction of the first passenger terminal in 1955, Japan began to see far more domestic and international travelers. The number of visitors increased dramatically as Japan built the Tokyo monorail in anticipation of the 1964 Olympics. As the jet aircraft became common, and the introduction of the Boeing 747 made air travel much more accessible, it became clear that Haneda’s facilities could not handle the increase of passengers. The Japanese government briefly considered adding a third runway to Haneda (which in 2010 was also completed), but instead decided to build an entirely new airport – Narita.
Modern-day Haneda is the second busiest airport in Asia, and it serves almost every domestic flight into Tokyo, so if you’re traveling within Japan during your stay it’s likely this is where you’ll land and leave from. Located only 14 kilometers from Tokyo station, it’s definitely cheaper and quicker to get there from Haneda too. Of course, Haneda has its downsides too – being the second busiest airport in Asia means it can get pretty hectic and busy, especially by Japan’s standards. There are expansion plans to increase the airport’s capacity in time for the 2020 Olympics, but at the time of writing this article, the COVID-19 pandemic is in full swing, so construction has been delayed indefinitely.
Narita VS Haneda – who would win the battle?
Like I said at the beginning of this article unless you’re an airport otaku (the Japanese word for nerd) you’re probably not going to pick a country based solely on seeing the airport. But, if you’ve decided you want to visit Tokyo, you’ll definitely want to choose the best of everything for your trip, right? To help you choose which of Tokyo’s airports will be best for your traveling needs, we’re going to look at everything each of them has to offer, topic by topic, the pros, and the cons.
Location, location, location
Tokyo is such a massive city that you can’t really pinpoint a central location – with 14 districts and excellent transport options, you don’t really need to. But, depending on where you’re traveling from, the last thing you want after a 15+ hour flight is to have to spend another couple of hours getting to your accommodation, so for argument’s and jetlag’s sake let’s imagine Tokyo station as the central point.
Haneda airport is located 14 kilometers from Tokyo station, and it has excellent transport links. Despite its close proximity to the center, you’ll still have to make a transfer, as there’s no direct line. This can take between 30-40 minutes, depending on the time – i.e. how busy it is. At peak travel times, it could even take up to an hour. You could cut the journey in half if you drive or take a taxi, but most travelers (and residents) in Japan avoid taxis as they can be a very expensive way to get around. As an example, at the time of writing this article a twenty-minute taxi journey from Haneda Airport to Tokyo station could cost you around $80.
Alternately, Narita is even further out of the city – 60 kilometers to be exact. This means that unless you’re staying in the area directly around the airport itself, you’re in for a little trek. Some people choose to book a hotel in Chiba, where the airport is located, especially if they’ve had a particularly long journey or are arriving very late. It’s not somewhere you’ll want to stay for the duration of your holiday, though, not if Tokyo is what you’re wanting to see – it’s pretty far out of the city.
Hiring a car or taxi to get from Narita to Tokyo station will be too expensive for many travelers, especially those sticking to a budget, as it will take up to an hour and a half and cost around $300. But the airport does have great transportation links, and even though the journey to Tokyo station is longer than the one from Haneda, you don’t have to make any transfers. The Narita Express, which was built in 1991, services several of Tokyo’s main stations and can get you to Tokyo station in 55 minutes. You can even use your JR pass if you’ve bought one, but keep in mind that the Narita JR desk has limited opening times, so you might just have to pay for a ticket and activate your rail pass the next day.
On a personal note, I have to say that both airports are pretty easily accessible, and yet both will require you to add some extra travel time to your journey. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to/from Tokyo station to and from both of these airports, and each time the journey was relatively painless. Although after a 15-hour journey with 2 transfers, I must say that it can be stressful to have to make several transfers from Haneda station before you’ve really gotten used to Japan’s excellent but complex rail system. One bonus, however? A kind and friendly Tokyoite will be more than likely to offer assistance if you stand there looking totally lost (trust me, it happens).
One of these airports is not as international as the other…yet
Both Narita and Haneda have the world “international” in their name(s), but Narita definitely serves a wider range of international flights right now, especially from American locations. There are scheduled plans to construct larger facilities at Haneda, which primarily services domestic and shorter flights, and they hope to provide a wider range of terminals for international carriers there. Interestingly, Haneda does serve quite a wide range of European flights, but ultimately neither airport is exclusively “domestic” or “international”.
To list every flight or airline that operates out of either airport to every country would make for a very boring article; suffice it to say the airport you’ll most easily be able to travel to will depend entirely on which country, or even state you’re flying from, since not every airline is able to land at both airports. It might also depend on whether you’re trying to cut costs. For example, my first trip to Japan had 2 transfers on the way there, and one on the way back. Even though we booked with one specific airline, the providers that our airline chose for the transfers meant we flew into Haneda, and out of Narita. Direct flights were available, but only into Narita, from a city that was quite a distance from us, and for a cost of around £2000 more per person ($2500).
“Why do I need to know your old flight details?”, you might be asking, and with good reason, I might add since it’s not the most exciting of anecdotes. I’m mainly trying to illustrate that choosing the airport you prefer might just be out of your hands unless you’re willing to do a little crafty planning. If you want a direct flight, and you’re traveling from somewhere other than Asia, you’re probably not going to have as many options.
Even if you do have the option, the cost will likely play a large part in your decision. If you select direct as opposed to an indirect flight, the cost can sometimes double or even triple, making the direct option inaccessible for most travelers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. Having a layover or two can give you the chance to see some really cool places on the way to Tokyo and could mean you have more money to spend during your trip, instead of spending it before you’ve even arrived. As we’ve seen, you’ll be at no great detriment if you are forced to land in Haneda or Narita, as they’re both well-connected to the city.
Your best course of action would be to use flight comparison websites and spend a little time adjusting the destination and airlines. Try not to be too strict with your departure and return dates until you’ve really explored all the options around the general time you’ll like to be there. If you’re a seasoned traveler this information will likely be second nature to you, but for those that are new to the traveling game, this is a vital tip that could vastly improve your overall experience.
It’s the quality of the facilities, not the number of flights
And fortunately, both of Tokyo’s airports have excellent facilities (yes, the image above is really Haneda airport’s restaurant “district”). Both Haneda and Narita have first-class and business class lounges for the more high-end traveler. Many say that the airports even have a very similar aesthetic, so you won’t be missing anything spectacular if you only get to visit one and not the other.
If you really do have all the options from your take-off point, and you’re choosing an airport solely on the experience, it might interest you to know Narita’s JAL first-class lounge is renowned for the sushi station, where everything is made to order. Alternately, if you prefer made-to-order teppanyaki over sushi, Haneda’s first-class lounge has got you covered.
But what about you lowly, standard-fare travelers? I say that without any judgment – I too am a happy rider of the economy class! For us, both airports offer a fantastic array of shops and restaurants, and almost every person who has passed through either of these fine airports will tell you that both offer an incredibly enjoyable and pleasant experience.
There’s something to note if you’re a bit of a plane otaku though because Narita has more curb appeal to the plane-spotting crowd. If you spend a little time watching the planes come and go, you’ll likely see a few rare aircrafts, like the Airbus A380 (which I’m assured is pretty exciting).
Sorry, but we can’t pick a favorite
I know! What a cop-out! But this really is one of those occasions where you’re spoiled for choice. I must reiterate once more, a lot of these pros and cons will be completely irrelevant if you’re flying from an airport that has limited destination options. That really isn’t a bad thing though – both Narita and Haneda are excellent airports that regularly make the list of top-ten airports in the world.
Our verdict? Choose Haneda for ease of access to downtown Tokyo, and Narita if you don’t mind a slightly longer train journey through the city you’re about to enjoy. Better yet? Do what I did and visit both – either way, let us know what you thought in the comments!