Heaven scent for plane-spotters

Image of Tyler Brûlé

It takes a lot to get me to an airport anywhere near the requested two-hour pre-departure time, but there I was, bright and early on Wednesday morning, wandering around TIAT – the box-fresh Tokyo International Airport Terminal. While I do normally get rather excited by any new terminal that might improve the travel experience, I managed to surprise myself by bouncing out of bed and shuffling down to the car in less than 30 minutes.

For regular travellers to Tokyo, the opening of Haneda airport’s new international terminal last week is nothing short of transformational. It now makes inter-Asia day trips a viable option for anyone who wants to zip in or out of Tokyo for a round of meetings or a spot of shopping.

For decades, the Japanese government’s decision to keep all long-haul traffic confined to Narita airport (a 45-minute taxi ride from the city on a traffic-free day and more than an hour on the train) has made visiting Tokyo a chore. While domestic travellers enjoyed the perfectly positioned Haneda airport (on the harbour beside the city centre) with its 15-minute ride into town and three runways (four, as of last week), Narita gained a reputation as an expensive, time-consuming complication, limited by its restricted operating hours and runways. As of this week, it’s all changed and Tokyo has got a new weapon in its arsenal to combat the attractions of flying through Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul.

Like many things in Japan, the opening of the new terminal is not exactly straightforward. For the moment, long-haul flights are restricted to an overnight departure and arrival window while mid-haul flights can operate throughout the day. This means new long-haul routes to Paris, New York and Los Angeles push back around midnight and arrive early in the morning – a welcome alternative for passengers who now have the option of doing a full day of business in Tokyo, but not very economical for airlines who have to leave aircraft parked on the ground all day.

I pulled up at the terminal just before 6.15am and all was calm, although at the tipping point of shifting into the morning departure crush. The architects have created a soaring, open check-in concourse that’s easy to figure out and free from excessive visual clutter. Seiko’s elegant clock towers and check-in counters have luggage belts that are almost flush with the floor so there’s little lifting required.

All of these features were being documented by scores of people wielding the latest photographic gear and jotting down notes. “Inspectors working for airport authority?” I asked the check-in lady.

“No, no. They’re prane-spottas! There are so many people here who just want to see the new terminal but aren’t flying,” said the woman. “Ahhhh, plane-spotters,” I nodded. “Yes, there seem to be as many day-trippers as actual passengers.”

Feeling very much like one of these middle-aged men (there were also plenty of female plane-spotters) armed with their Lumix cameras and Rhodia notebooks, I opted to check out the shopping area rather than go straight to security. As I rode the escalator one level up, the air changed from the scent of fresh paint and plaster to the tangy notes of hinoki wood, and the white and steel surfaces were replaced by a wooden walls and black tile panels. Rather than a food court filled with standard Japanese and international fare, I found a stunning, modernist, Edo-style market village. What could have turned into a tacky pastiche of old Japan is in fact a cosy collection of laneways lined with lanterns, elegant signage and low rooflines. Behind the sliding screens and slatted wooden partitions is a mix of shops and restaurants that have been curated. Where most airports go the opposite direction by offering the instantly recognisable and predictable, the management from TIAT have pulled together a mix that’s curious and interesting in an environment that’s beautifully crafted and very Japanese.

Beyond the Edo village, plane-spotters can ascend to what has to be their version of heaven – a massive, wooden outdoor viewing platform with views across the field to the domestic terminals. As I’ve always been keen on the smell of jet fuel, I ventured outside to sit in the sun and take in the view. As a JAL 777 did a steep climb out over the harbour, I wondered how much the adjacent restaurant was paying in rent. Given the sheer number of people just milling about on a Wednesday morning at 7am, I could only imagine that the operators of the little café might well have the best little catering gig on the Pacific.

Back down on the departures level I went through security (still having teething problems) and went to the lounge. A bowl of noodles and two coffees later, I walked to the gate across the way and the aircraft boarded in that no-fuss, seamless way that only happens in Japan. Now I just need that daily flight from Heathrow on a Japanese carrier to make this a regular habit.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle


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