Out of Japan: Hell on earth when you try to fly out of Narita

TOKYO - It is without doubt the worst airport in Asia and, excepting Sarajevo airport under Serbian mortar fire, it is perhaps the most stressful and inconvenient airport in the world. But Narita International Airport is the main gateway to Japan, the world's second most powerful economy, serving 22 million passengers a year.

Scenes in the over-crowded airport lobby are reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch and his depictions of Hell. And for the departing traveller, even getting to Narita is something of a logistical nightmare. It was built 40 miles outside Tokyo with no high- speed rail link, so for most travellers the journey is made in buses on the misnamed expressway, which in current traffic conditions is more like a semi-permanent car-park with occasional forward motion.

At its best the trip takes 70 minutes but two- or even three- hour journeys are not uncommon. Anyone foolish enough to take a taxi will be hit for well over pounds 100. Last year the Narita express train service was opened, but because parts of the route have only a single track, trains are infrequent and usually booked out days in advance.

The airport terminal is ludicrously small for the number of passengers it handles and queuing up to check in and pass through immigration and security checks is like the crush to get into the terraces of a football ground for a cup tie.

There are no good restaurants, the cafeterias invariably have queues outside for tables and airport officials hurry around in a constant state of near-panic, as if the PA system had just announced the imminent end of the world.

Most airports in Asia have some redeeming charm. Bangkok's Don Muang, with the golf course between the two runways, its high-ceilinged lobby and ever- smiling staff, is a haven of peace. Singapore's ultra-modern Airtropolis at Changi is a cross between a well-laid-out department store and an efficient business centre and is worth a visit even if you are merely in transit.

Kai Tak at Hong Kong is always crowded, but you can get off a plane, breeze through immigration and customs and be on a taxi and heading for Central within 20 minutes.

Peking has a soothing tree- lined avenue on the approach to the airport, and you can always get jasmine tea close to the departure gates. In Manila, a xylophone band greets incoming flights, Seoul's Kimpo airport serves tremendous doughnuts with freshly brewed coffee, and even in Pyongyang airport, in North Korea, there is entertainment to be had in the bookshop, where the latest works of Great Leader Kim Il Sung are available in many languages.

The airports in Asia's poorest countries are models of civilisation when compared to Narita. The officials at Pochentong airport in Phnom Penh allow passengers to stroll out on to the apron to watch incoming flights.

Rangoon airport is one of the few places in all of Burma where they serve chilled beer. The authorities in Tan Son Nhat in Saigon have even stopped porters from routinely rifling through suitcases before they put them on the luggage belt for collection.

So why is the main airport in Asia's economic superpower so woefully inadequate? Is it something intrinsic to Japan and its inward-looking nature? Is it a coincidence that the new aiport in Osaka, Japan's second-largest city, is sinking into the sea before it is even finished? Is Narita a permanent rehearsal for the Day of Judgement?

Narita was a disaster even before it was opened - seven years late - in 1978. When the government decided in 1966 to build it, they botched up the compensation payments to local farmers, and there were also rumours that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party was making huge profits from land speculation.

For years there were pitched battles between the local farmers and radical students on one side and the riot police on the other. Even today the approach to Narita, with multiple steel fences, watchtowers, armoured cars and police with dogs, looks like the entrance to a high-security prison. Continuing hostility from the locals has so far prevented the building of an extra runway, which is badly needed, as well as extensions to terminal buildings.

Japan has been held up as a paragon of a harmonious society with an efficient, well-planned infrastructure. Such theories have clearly been hatched by people arriving in the country by ship.

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