Trail of the unexpected: Haneda
New flights to Haneda airport provide a convenient and colourful route to the heart of the Japanese capital.
Saturday 19 February 2011
The station worker suppressed a smile and scratched his head. "Hmmm. Tourist spots. Let me think." His bafflement at finding a map-wielding foreigner enquiring about places to visit was perhaps not surprising given our location: amidst the industrial wasteland and grey tower blocks on the fringes of Tokyo's Haneda airport, south of the Japanese capital.
Despite appearances, my mission to explore the Haneda region was timely. Today, the very first non-stop British Airways flight takes off from Heathrow, destination Haneda. Until this winter, the airport has been almost entirely domestic, with just a handful of short-haul flights to other Asian nations; all long-haul jets have been confined to distant Narita, east of the capital.
To understand how ridiculous this was: imagine if all London-bound flights from abroad had to use Stansted, with Heathrow offering only domestic flights. But a fourth runway and new terminal has opened up Haneda to international flights. Besides the vastly improved connections elsewhere in Japan, the rebirth of Haneda means much easier links into the city centre. Instead of a rail journey taking about 90 minutes and costing around £25, travellers can instead hop on a train and arrive in Haneda 13 minutes later and only a couple of pounds lighter.
Curiosity about this newly celebrated part of the capital prompted me to spend a day exploring Haneda, which sits on the mouth of the Tama River overlooking Tokyo Bay. My trail revolved around the monorail – a sleek, fast service that connects Hamamatsucho station (a maelstrom of Tokyo "salarymen" crowds) to the airport.
There is the express train, and then there is the local service which cuts through skyscrapers at a gentler pace, stopping at half a dozen stations en route to the airport. My first stop: Oi Keibajo Mae. Despite leaving the city behind only minutes earlier, I was surprised to see so much nature. Next to the station are sprawling parks, with trees lining the Tama River. Perhaps more surprisingly, I was joined by fellow monorail tourists: elderly couples, children on bicycles and giggling teens.
I wandered past the Ohi Racecourse, then popped into the weekend flea market – one of Tokyo's biggest. A leisurely rummage (and a plate of yakisoba noodles) later, I left armed with a carrier bag of old necklaces and kimono fabrics, all for less than 1,000 yen (£7.50).
Back onto the monorail, I continued to Tenkubashi, the view obscured by towers and aircraft hangars: no other passengers alighted here. But it was at Tenkubashi that I encountered my bemused station worker who directed me to the local shrine. I followed his instructions and passed over a bridge with 1960s-style jet motifs, then onwards past uniform towers, before turning left at a Family Mart convenience store. And then it all started to get interesting.
Off the main street, another landscape shifted into focus: a network of narrow lanes, lined with plant-covered wooden houses, citrus trees and cycling grannies. I had arrived at Anamori Inari, the small fishing town that was here long before Haneda's airfield opened in 1931. Quietly, unassumingly, it continues to exist in the airport's shadow.
A splash of red caught my eye: the distinct torii gates to the Shinto shrine. To the beat of a taiko drum, I wandered through the grounds, washed my hands, lit a candle and explored the walkway of red gates, peppered with what appeared to be statues of the local mascot: the fox. Later, as I walked among peaceful lanes, I stumbled across another gem: a tiny restaurant called Wakanazushi. On the ground floor of an old house and boasting only two tables and three counter seats, it is run by an elderly couple whose sprightly energy belies their years.
In between chopping sushi and watching figure-skating on the television, Toyoda Noboru explained his view of Haneda: "We've been here for 56 years. The airport has grown over the years. Things have changed, but it has been gradual. It hasn't bothered us."
After plates of mouth-melting sushi washed down with miso soup and green tea, I stepped outside to discover that my next stop was just across the street: the local sento bath-house, housed in a grand old building with a peaked red roof and an interior firmly rooted in the 1950s. I slipped my shoes into the old wooden lockers and joined the grandmothers for a soak.
I left with the sky darkening, warm to the core. At the waterfront, I stood before the mouth of the Tama River, the futuristic Haneda terminal to my left. And to my right? Fishermen returning home, one or two joggers – and an unusually large round sun setting dramatically in a vivid pink sky, right next to the pyramid of a distant Mount Fuji.
Travel essentials: Haneda
* British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) begins scheduled flights from Heathrow to Haneda today, flying five times a week. BA continues to serve Narita airport daily from Heathrow, in competition with ANA, Japan Airlines and Virgin Atlantic.
* The fast and efficient monorail service ( tokyo-monorail.co.jp/english/) runs between Haneda and Hamamatsucho station. A ticket costs Y150 (£1.10).
* Danielle Demetriou appears in The Independent Traveller's audio programme on Japan, "Something To Declare". You can listen to it here: www.pn/fhP7My
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