October 11, 2019

24 Hours at Haneda

This guide will show you how to make the most of a layover at Tokyo International Airport or otherwise just sneak in one final attraction.

A man at Tokyo International Airport (A.K.A. Haneda) looks out at the sunset and departing flights

Back in 2018, I published an article for transit tourists who endured lengthy layovers at Narita International Airport that was very well received. However, since that time, there have been some major shifts in Japan’s aviation landscape. Of these, perhaps nothing is more noteworthy than the increase in international slots at the far more convenient Tokyo International Airport (which I’ll henceforth call by the more commonly used moniker of “Haneda”). Of the 25 new daytime slots that were allocated to international carriers, half have gone to routes to and from America. As you might imagine, the recent upheavals in the airline market have heralded real change. For example, Delta is now looking to entirely pull out of Narita in a move that has significantly shaken up the industry.

With the winds of change blowing and less traffic flowing through Narita, it’s high time for me to produce a guide for travelers transiting via Haneda en route to the Asian mainland. Like with my original piece on the area around Narita, I’ll focus on things to do and see both in and around the airport. Alas, unlike with the less convenient of Tokyo’s two airports, Haneda does not yet have a program similar to the free tours provided by the folks at the Narita Airport Transit & Stay Program. This means that you’re going to need to venture out on your own which can seem a bit daunting to those merely transiting in Japan. Fret not though! In the following sections, I’ll include detailed instructions to ease your concerns.

Like with all my articles, I made a point of personally visiting all the areas that I’ll introduce. For the purposes of sourcing content this guide, I opted to simulate a twenty-four hour layover period. This is likely a little bit longer than most transit passengers will have but I wanted to see how much I could cram into a single day. If you have a bit of leeway with your travels, I encourage you to consider doing an extended stopover here in Japan. That way, you can get a more authentic experience. Note that the following tips can also be of use to those who are departing Tokyo and need one final taste of what the city has to offer.

Getting to & Around Tokyo

The Tokyo Monorail Haneda Airport Line that connects Tokyo International Airport (A.K.A. Haneda) with Tokyo

Typically, when I introduce a single area or attraction, I cover how to get there but since we will be looking at a smorgasbord of locations spread across a wide swath of Tokyo, that headline just doesn’t make sense. While I’ll include information about stations and whatnot later on, I first want to tackle some logistical issues. Simply put, it can be a real hassle to find your way around if you’re not familiar with the train system. Between having to calculate out the price from point A to point B and figuring out connections, the whole damn side adventure in Japan can easily start to feel overwhelming. Thankfully though, by making use of the following two handy tools, the entire process becomes much simpler.

  • Hyperdia
    Deciding which train to take at what time can at first seem like some arcane feat of wizardry. Worry not though traveler! Here, you need to realize that residents struggle with this feat too. Rather than trying to beseech the gods for help, most of us simply refer to a service such as Hyperdia to work out the best connections. All you need to do is put in the nearest stations to where you are and where you want to go; Hyperdia or its cousins will do the rest for you. Honestly speaking, I don’t know how the hell I’d travel to all the places that I do without this handy website. It’s really a lifesaver!
  • IC Cards
    Unlike in some other countries where public transportation costs a flat fee, here in Japan, the price varies depending on the distance you travel. As such, it can often be confusing to parse just how much you need to pay. Like with Hyperdia though, Japanese folks basically avoid the entire problem by instead paying with a handy IC card. All you need to do is charge it up with a few thousand yen. Then, when riding the train or bus, all you need to do is tap it before getting on and once again when disembarking. The system will automatically tally up how much you owe and deduct it from the balance on the IC card. I really cannot stress enough how many headaches this eliminates!

With these two allies at your side, even the most obtuse transit traveler can navigate Tokyo with ease. Rather than risk wasting any of your precious layover time trying to calculate routes and fares, just heed my advice here. It will make the entire trip into the city so much easier!

Explore the Shinagawa Area

A local temple known as Sengaku-ji near Shingawa Station that was integral to the story of the forty-seven ronin

With the logistical advice above now out of the way, let’s get on to my simulated twenty-four hour expedition into Tokyo from Haneda. To faithfully recreate the experience that would-be transit travelers would have, I actually began my adventures early in the morning at the airport. From there, I hopped one of the Keikyu trains bound for Shinagawa Station. Though mostly thought of as a major transportation hub these days, the area around the station actually boasts a good bit of history. Seeing Shinagawa can conveniently be reached from Haneda without needing to make any further connections, it’s a logical starting point for those with time to kill during a lengthy layover.

To kick off my adventures, I made my way over to a local temple known as Sengaku-ji. Those interested will find it located here, a few minutes walk from Shinagawa Station. Though it may seem rather nondescript at first glance, its homely appearance belies a hidden narrative. You see, this temple is the site where the famous forty-seven ronin avenged their master, Asano Naganori, during the Edo period. The tale has been immortalized in a fictionalized account known as Chushingura in Japanese. To this day, the masterpiece continues to be popular in Japan and abroad. In fact, the story of this band of ronin was even made into a 2013 American movie, titled 47 Ronin that starred the cultural icon, Keanu Reeves.

After paying my respects at the graves of the forty-seven ronin pictured above, I made my way back towards Shinagawa Station before continuing on to the neighboring Shinagawa-shuku. This area was once a bustling post town on the vital Tokaido highway that linked modern day Tokyo with Kyoto and Osaka in the west. Located on the outskirts of the city in the days of yore, Shinagawa-shuku was the first of fifty-three stations that lined the Tokaido route. These days, you’ll find few of the former trappings of the past since the post town has been remodeled into a quaint shopping street. Still, there are some bits and pieces of the region’s history to be seen if you know where to look. It’s also a great way to get in a walk after a long flight.

After checking out Shinagawa-shuku, I had one more attraction nearby that I wanted to hit up before changing locations. Known simply as Shinagawa shrine (here’s a link to a Google Map), this sepulchre has a miniaturized version of Mt. Fuji for you to climb. What’s more, the small hill also comes complete with markers for the various stations you’d encounter if you actually made the ascent. As if that weren’t enough, there’s also a series of multiple torii gates towards the rear of the shrine. While the shrine can’t compare to the grandeur of Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto, it’s enough for transit travelers to get a taste of what the real deal is like.

Note that Shinagawa also has some other attractions that I opted to skip. For example, there’s a movie theater nearby the station as well as a rather impressive aquarium. If history and culture just aren’t your shtick, consider hitting up these alternatives instead.

The Influential Ikegami Honmon-ji

A traditional rendition of Tokyo’s Ikegami Honmon-ji, the functional head of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism

Following my stint in Shinagawa, I got back on the train and made my way over to Nishi-Magome Station. My next destination was a sprawling temple complex known as Ikegami Honmon-ji. Located here back in Ota Ward where Haneda is, this attraction is the most notable of its kind in the vicinity of the airport. Because of this, it makes for a good alternative to more established options like Senoso-ji over in Asakusa, at least insomuch as transit travelers are concerned. In fact, the only thing that this still rather unknown hidden gem has going against it is that you’ll need to walk for about ten minutes or so from the Station. If you don’t mind hoofing it a bit, I highly recommend that you consider stopping by.

So, what’s separates Ikegami Honmon-ji from other temples? Well, for starters, know that the exampansive grounds are actually the administrative headquarters of the Nichiren Buddhism sect. Though the head temple is technically located atop the provincial Mt. Minobu in Yamanashi prefecture, most of the sect’s affairs are run out of the more centrally positioned Ikegami Honmon-ji. The temple is rumored to be erected where Nichiren, the founder of this unique branch of Buddhism, died in the 1200s. Tragically, many of the original wood buildings perished during the 1945 fire bombings of Tokyo but they have since been faithfully reconstructed. Within the compound, you’ll find a towering five-story pagoda as well as other Buddhist iconography.

In addition to Ikegami Honmon-ji, there is also a beautiful plum blossom garden located adjacent to the complex. Here’s a link to a Google Map in case you want to check it out. Truth be told, even when the flowers have yet to emerge from their buds, the garden makes for a nice stroll. Entry is quite cheap and will only run you around one-hundred yen or so.

Ota Ward’s Kamata Area

After thoroughly exploring the vast Ikegami Honmon-ji temple grounds, I made my way on foot over to Ikegami Station. From there, I took the Tokyu Ikegami Line down to Kamata. This area is basically the central hub of Ota ward where Haneda is located. While the area has a long historical pedigree as a major producer of Japanese plums, little of this region’s former identity remains. Because of this, I would normally be hesitant to recommend Kamata to visitors but the hub is a logistically sound way for transit travelers to sample urban life. All around the station, you’ll find tons of tiny restaurants and watering holes. Seeing as it’s located just a few minutes away from Haneda, this makes Kamata a great option for those with nighttime layovers.

In addition to all the spots to get a drink and some grub after a long flight, Kamata is also home to a number of bathhouses to enjoy. What’s more, many of these sport that tubs are filled with waters as dark as black coffee due to the high concentration of peat and volcanic ash in the ground. Supposedly, a good soak in the mineral rich solution is good for the skin. Though technically not considered “hot springs” due to the fact that the dark waters need to be heated, a dip into any of Kamata many public bathing facilities is sure to help with any post flight fatigue. Frankly, when coupled with the availability for food and drink, Kamata is just what the doctor ordered for those with evening arrivals.

By the way, if you’re a little uneasy about getting stark naked in a bath with complete strangers, know that it does take some getting used to. Keep in mind that there are a lot of rules and procedures you will need to follow. Be sure to refer in advance to my extremely in-depth guide. It will answer any lingering questions you might have about proper bathing protocol and whatnot.

Time to Head Back to Haneda

An Edo period (1603–1868) style shopping street at Tokyo International Airport (A.K.A. Haneda)

Once I had checked out some of the bathing facilities in Kamata, I made my way back towards Haneda. After all, Tokyo’s most convenient airport is basically an attraction unto itself. Honestly speaking, you could easily spend the duration of your time in Japan just exploring the endless options the international terminal has to offer. Haneda also has two additional terminals that are dedicated entirely to domestic flights and each of these has their own set of allures as well. To make things simple, I am just going to list out all the things for you to do and see at Haneda. This will serve you, the reader, a lot more than me giving an account of the dinner I had with a friend who happened to have a flight that day.

  • Nihonbashi Bridge
    Spanning the entire stretch between the fourth and fifth floors of the international terminal sits a 25 meter-long replica of the famous Nihonbashi bridge in central Tokyo. Here, you can partake in some Japanese cultural activities such as dressing up as a samurai. Alternatively, if you rather refrain, the archway offers some stunning views of the entire facility below.
  • Edo Alley
    Built to recreate the atmosphere of the Edo period (1603–1868) in Japan, this collection of shops and restaurants pictured above peddles all sorts of goods and yummy dishes to savor. If you’re not heading out to town, I highly suggest sampling some local cuisine here before your flight!
  • Observation Deck
    The international terminal has a killer observation deck that is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. From this vantage point, you can watch planes taxiing to and from the runway. For the imbibers out there, know that it’s OK to drink in public in Japan so head on down to the 7-Eleven on the ground level and grab yourself a beer!
  • Shopping & Fun
    The international terminal has a wide variety of shops featuring all sorts of goods to explore. Additionally, there are also plenty of options for play too. For example, you can race miniature cars at the Hakuhinkan Toy Park or try your hand flying an aircraft at any of the flight simulators.
  • Gaze at the Stars
    Located on the fifth floor of the international terminal, you’ll find a spot known as Planetarium Starry Cafe. It’s the first of its kind to ever appear at an airport and patrons can nibble on a bite while marveling at a digital celestial display of over 40,000,000 stars.
  • Catch Some Shuteye
    If you just want to recover from a hard flight, know that Haneda is great for that too. The airport staff tend to be tolerant of sleepers and even let travelers camp out overnight. If you rather some privacy though, there are several hotel facilities within the confines of the terminal.

Note that if you’re feeling uneasy about venturing out into Tokyo, you could do a lot worse than spending the entirety of your time at Haneda! Likewise, if you have a shorter layover, it might be best not to risk anything and just spend the duration of your time in Japan at the airport. Frankly speaking, there’s a surprising amount of local culture that can be experienced without needing to ever set foot out of Haneda

Nighttime Soak Near Haneda

Tokyo’s Heiwajima Onsen hot spring facility which is located near to Tokyo International Airport (A.K.A. Haneda)

After grabbing a bite to eat at the aforementioned Edo Alley with my good friend and fellow #VisitMie supporter Cheeserland, it was time for me to figure out where to spend the night. Originally, I had been planning to just crash on one of the many benches. Haneda has conveniently removed the armrests so that travelers needing to overnight in the airport can stretch out horizontally. As I was hunting for a comfortable place to crash, I somehow stumbled upon an article for Heiwajima Onsen. This natural hot spring is open round the clock and just happens to be one of the biggest onsen in Tokyo. What’s more, the facility is also located a short distance from Haneda. Hell, they even have shuttle buses from the airport that you can reserve online.

Now, seeing as I am an aficionado for all things hot spring, I knew that a good soak would do me a lot more good than spending a restless night at the airport. Given that the shuttle buses need to be booked twelve hours in advance, I was out of luck there (as I also imagine many transit travelers would be too). Though I was too late for the bus, a little bit of Googling showed that Heiwajima Onsen can easily be reached in around fifteen minutes via the trains. Assuming the trains are still running, this is probably your best bet yet you’ll need to walk a bit from the station. Alternatively, should it be late at night and the trains are finished, you can also opt to just cab it to Heiwajima Onsen too.

As for the facilities themselves, know that Heiwajima Onsen sources its baths from a natural hot spring that’s located over 2,000 meters below ground level. The onsen’s waters are rich with sodium-chloride which is said to have the effect of leaving your skin moist and smooth. From what I read, the minerals form a thin layer over the skin, thereby preventing evaporation and locking in moisture. In addition to the natural hot spring bath, you’ll also find a wide range of other tubs as well as several saunas. If you’re arriving after 8:00 PM, note there’s a late night package special that will allow you to stay until the following day. Seeing this special deal also includes breakfast, I’d suggest this option for anyone seeking an alternative to crashing at Haneda.

Attractions Near Haneda

Airplanes await departure at the gate of Tokyo International Airport (A.K.A. Haneda)

Before long, it was time for my non-existent flight which meant I had to give the axe to a number of attractions that I had come across when doing preliminary research for this article. I’ll include some of these below in case they’re up your alley but just know that I haven’t vetted them firsthand.

  • Heiwa no Mori Koen Field Athletic Course
    If you ever wanted to train to be a ninja, this is a good starting point. The grounds are home to a collection of over 40 different obstacles that range from scalable walls to various ziplines.
  • Ota Ward Market
    Those with flights arriving in the early morning hours should know that Ota ward has an impressive market where you can see fish and fresh produce being auctioned.
  • Anamori Inari Shrine
    Located only a hop, skip, and a jump away from the airport, this shrine has a small but impressive collection of vermilion torii gates to experience.

Until next time travelers…