As I approach the ATM, a woman in a blue uniform is wiping the screen and keypad with a towel. She nods – more of a bow, really – and moves aside. The machine takes my card but will only dispense ten-thousand yen notes — about seventy dollars more than I need to grab a snack and buy the notebook in which I’ll write all this down. A motor hums, the screen blinks, and a crisp new bill drops into a metal tray. The bill is so pristine that I half expect the cleaning woman to pick it from the tray with a pair of tweezers. But she’s busy now — polishing a bank of payphones off to my left. Nearby, about 25 people are sitting before an enormous, scoreboard-sized television showing Tokyo tourism promos.
The man at the exchange desk can’t break the ten-thousand. “No, no, no,” he says, eyeing the bill with a look of exaggerated pity. He sends me to a different exchange, downstairs on the mid-level mezzanine. When I get there, a woman is standing sentry in front of the glass partition. Apparently some kind of currency desk greeter, she bows and wants to know exactly what my banking needs entail. Like every employee at Narita she is wearing an immaculate blue suit, white gloves and an armband — an outfit that makes Japanese airport workers look like a cross between paramilitary troops and hospital orderlies. “I just need some smaller yen,” I tell her. I show her the bill and make a chop-chop-chop gesture.
She flashes a robotic smile, sticks a carbon-backed form in my hand, and leads me by the elbow to a table. There, I spend the next two minutes transcribing my name, address, passport number, and itemizing precisely which denominations I would like my change to appear in. Next I move to the window, placing the form and thousand yen note into a red basket. A man behind the glass pulls in the basket, rips off the carbon, grins… and points to another window.
This is the “cashier” window, where after thirty seconds another basket is pushed at me through a slot. Inside, finally, are ten notes of a thousand yen each, accompanied by a receipt. The bills are not only as starched and clean as the thousand had been, but strangely warm to the touch, as if they’ve been spun from an on-site press beneath the counter.
Back upstairs, in the bookstore, a girl about seventeen is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the following:
Sexy Girl Welcomes
For You the Music is Snatch
Mulling that over, I remember these are the people who brought us indoor fishing and meat-flavored ice cream. I peruse the choice of notepads, where lo and behold the Janglish is even better. One spiral bound pad features the graphic of an elephant. Next to the elephant it says:
What Lovely Friends. They Will Bring Happy Day For You.
I’m thankful for the sentiment, but in my guise as airport journalist I obviously require something more masculine and businesslike. The one I buy is a college-ruled hundred pager. It’s a serious-looking book, and on the cover, in block letters:
Private and Official Time For Sensuous People
Walking through Narita’s Terminal 2 is like being inside a giant Japanese pachinko machine. The building is spacious and immaculate, but the clutter of lights, shops, signs and displays brings on a kind of electronic claustrophobia. And there’s something about Japanese architecture — a style that splits the difference between modernist and sci-fi…. Maybe it’s the Gen-Xer in me — too many Saturday afternoon monster movies in the ’70s — but I’m waiting to hear a crash and that rusty-throated bellow of Godzilla.
In addition to numerous restaurants and shops retailing everything from postcards to DVD players, Terminal 2’s amenities include five internet kiosks, an observation deck, and a children’s play park. Showers and bunks are for rent by the hour, or you can opt for the free-of-charge “relaxation facility,” a set-off space with soft reclining chairs. The entire departure zone is set up for wireless LAN. All good things for any airport, though Narita lacks the flair of those newer Asian megaprojects — the dramatic vastness of Hong Kong International, or the hints of tropical lushness at Singapore (koi ponds, gardens, swimming pool) or Kuala Lumpur (in-terminal rainforest).
As the world’s 11th busiest airport outside North America, Narita is peculiar in that two US airlines maintain large hubs on the premises. United and Northwest base their Pacific Rim flying here, staging onward services to Bangkok, Seoul, Manila, Taipei, and a dozen other cities. The industry calls this “Fifth Freedom” flying — the rights of a carrier to pick up passengers in a country other than its own, and deliver them to a third country. The arrangement at Narita dates back to Japanese reconstruction after World War two (the Freedoms of the air — eight presently exist — were first provisioned by the Convention on International Civil Aviation, held in Chicago in 1944). By the late 1990s, US airlines were accounting for half of all international traffic at the airport.
Out on the tarmac it’s not unusual to spot ten or more 747s in the colors of Northwest or United, outnumbered only by the hometown JAL or All Nippon Airways. Northwest has been a player throughout Asia for decades — indeed the airline was calling itself Northwest Orient until a name change in 1985 — while the bulk of UAL’s routes were purchased from a dying Pan Am.
Next time you’re upset about airport parking charges, take comfort that you’re driving a Honda and not a Boeing. Narita’s landing fees are the highest in the world. Airlines pay about nine thousand dollars each time one of their 747s touches down.
This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.