February 15, 2019

Fly Regional Airports

While most visitors to Japan opt to fly into either Tokyo or Osaka, regional airports are often better for exploring Japan's hidden gems.

Airline passengers arrive from regional airports to Tokyo's Haneda International Airport

It was a cold, snowy day in February when it finally hit me. How could I have been so oblivious? After all, it was staring me right in the face all along. You see, oftentimes when traveling, I purposely make many mistakes I suspect overseas visitors will also encounter. By doing so, I can readily address myriad points of confusion in advance which in turn, informs my written guides. Alas, the one thing that I have not been able to replicate first hand is the means by which people enter and leave the country. As a longtime resident of Japan, I had developed blind spots regarding the inevitable necessity tourists require to make their way back to an airport for a return flight home. Talk about being a total nitwit!

On that note, the topic of today’s post will be utilizing regional airports as your entry points within Japan. This rarely used travel hack is the perfect tactic for repeat visitors to the country who are looking to get off the beaten path. Why is flying into regional airports so beneficial you ask? Well, consider this for starters. As a visitor to Japan, you must eventually enter and leave from one of only a handful of international airports. Because of this, the bookends of your adventures are more or less set in stone. For most travelers, these airport locations default to being either Haneda or Narita in Tokyo or Kansai International Airport in Osaka. When accounting for transportation to and from the airport, one can easily squander more than a day in transport. Sad panda.

Luckily though, there is another way. Unlike the poor souls who need to shlep their sorry behinds back to the major cities, savvy travelers flying into regional airports can better savor their time in Japan. While this does require a bit of planning and research, you’ll ultimately gain an additional day or so in the process. Note that this method of travel is especially resourceful for travelers originating from Asia due to the higher prevalence of direct flights from cities like Hong Kong or Seoul. That said, even for westerners who need to transfer somewhere in Asia first, this method of entering Japan locally is still very useful. At the very least, you get to avoid the crowds at major airports and the odds are good that you will experience a different country en route too

An Example of Flying Regional Airports

An aerial shot of Garuda Indonesia new flight to Centrair (Chubu Centrair International Airport) in central Japan

To illustrate why this tactic is so effective for repeat visitors to Japan, let’s examine the currently trending instance of Garuda Indonesia’s new flight from Jakarta to Nagoya (GA884 & GA885). Beginning in March 2019, passengers who use this route will be able to fly directly into central Japan without needing to transfer at Narita, Haneda, or Kansai International Airport. From there, the possibilities for exploration are quite honestly endless. For example, if you so desired, you could head on down to Mie prefecture for a once-in-a-lifetime experience at Ise Jingu then continue on to explore the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route. Alternatively, you could head up north to Gifu and follow in the footsteps of Japanese merchants by traversing the ancient Nakasendo highway.

As anyone who has visited central Japan can attest, the area is chock full of hidden gems. For sure, repeat visits are required to utterly experience it all. Nevertheless, do you need to actually fly a route such as the previously mentioned Garuda Indonesia route to explore these charms? No, of course not! Thanks to Japan’s amazing railway system, all destinations are accessible (even those who are doomed to fly out of the remote Narita International Airport). Nevertheless, by opting to fly in and out of a more conveniently located airport, you are able to eliminate needless transit time spent idly on a train. I simply cannot stress how big of a massive boon this is.

While this might be obvious for some, I want to make sure that all readers pick up on the subtlety here. The regional airport tactic works best when there is a specific area of the country you want to explore such as central Japan mentioned above. Essentially what you’re doing here is moving the location of your final departure closer to your targeted area of interest. In doing so, you get to genuinely experience unique Japanese locales at the expense of having a more narrow focus. As such, the ploy is best utilized by repeat visitors to Japan who have already exhausted the traditional Tokyo-Kyoto-Hiroshima style of adventure.

Lastly, before moving on, I have one final advanced tip for the expert road warriors out there like myself. If you choose to try the regional airport hack and opt to explore more of Japan, consider booking two one-way tickets. For instance, you could fly into Kagoshima from Hong Kong, experience all of western Japan by train before continuing on to Tokyo to catch your return flight. Alternatively, to use the example of Garuda Indonesia again, you could fly into Narita, check out Tokyo, move on to central Japan, and then head home via the new flight from Nagoya. Honestly, there are unlimited combinations to peruse and especially so if you’re willing to book two flights on separate carriers.

Transiting via Asia to Regional Airports

Duty free shopping at Haneda International Airport in Tokyo

As alluded to before, the regional airport works best for those who are traveling from Asia. For example, though the previously noted Garuda Indonesia flight is a fantastic option for exploring central Japan, you do need to get yourself to Jakarta first to take advantage of the route. In most cases, this means those flying from locations such as North America or Europe are out of luck. What’s a westerner to do? Well, with a bit of digging, it’s easy to come up with some really insane routes. Sure you’ll spend more time in air and likely have a longer layover but these days many airports offer transit programs for passengers having several hours to squander before their next flight. Why not kill two birds with one stone and add another country’s stamp to your passport on the way!

In addition to promoting transit campaigns, one other detail to keep an eye out for is airports providing fully equipped facilities. For example, Singapore’s Changi International Airport is in many ways an attraction unto itself. In addition to being a major hub for Asia with regional flights to Hiroshima, inside you’ll find untold options for both shopping and dining. Hell, they even have a movie theater on the premises! Such terminals serve as the ideal transfer location as you can totally enjoy your layover. Just be mindful that you’ll only want to consider this transit strategy in Asia if you’re the type who can sleep soundly in flight. Honestly, I cannot think of anything more tortuous than attempting this tactic on little to no sleep.