An Unexpected Night’s Sleep at Narita Airport, Tokyo

Unlike many around me, my teenage diary was never filled with rebellious confessions to land me in hot water with the parental justice system. No chemicals were consumed, no cigarettes lit and Mum and Dad were never called upon for any truancy-related conversations. I had my pubertal meltdowns from time to time, as most do, but my reasonably uncomplicated adolescent track record will not be inspiring Hollywood movies anytime soon.

And that trend continued even after I left home. Let’s talk travel for a moment (as that is what we do best on here.) I was never a student who hitchhiked rides to get from A – B. I wouldn’t have had the courage to fly anywhere without travel insurance and I always had accommodation booked in advance (regardless of how grotty it might have been.)

travelling Japan Lonely Planet

It was for these reasons why I never imagined, all these years on and now with a bit more wisdom, income and travel experience to my armoury, that I would find myself sleeping on an airport floor – immediately adjacent to a smoking room – in the middle of the night.

Allow me to rewind and elaborate.

The Calm Before The Storm

Our visit to Japan last month started off with a 3 hour layover in Seoul, South Korea. The long-haul segment of the journey had far exceeded our expectations. Given that I hadn’t yet recovered from a nasty flu-like illness that afflicted floored me in the preceding fortnight, I was grateful for the five hours of undisturbed sleep I managed on board (and extremely grateful for the Paracetamol that worked wonders at helping me manage.)

Incheon Airport Live Music Performance

The layover was anything but an inconvenience, as it gave us a bit of time to explore Incheon Airport, consistently ranked as one of the best airports in the world, featuring live musical performances, craft classes, complimentary massage chairs, a spa, sleeping areas, shower services for transit passengers – they even had horticultural gardens!

When we did take off from Seoul, we were welcomed with sunset’s rosy glow. I have been lucky to see a few sunsets from the airplane this year but this one took the biscuit.

aeroplane view sunset

Now obviously I am a little biased but for a man whose every fibre is spun from the utmost laid back cloth, when it comes to travel plans, Pumpkin executes with a flawless precision. He had worked out all the options for transfers – the bus, the train, the cab. He factored in changes, stops, costs, conveniences, booking processes and timings. The best option for us was to take the bus that goes directly from Narita International Airport to the Shinjuku area of Tokyo, where we were staying, as the bus coincidentally happened to stop directly at our hotel. The train and taxi options were our contingency options (or so we thought.)

Our flight was due to land at around 9 pm and Pumpkin had even looked up the average time it takes passengers from disembarkation to exiting the airport but even he could not have prepared for the unanticipated turn of events.

Prior to landing, the pilot announced that we had reached but were circling for some time as there was a “queue” of aircraft. I am no Sherlock but this was a revealing hint and one that escaped us both.

sunset Seoul
A sunset departure from Seoul to Tokyo

When we finally entered the terminal at Narita Airport, we released simultaneous disgruntled sighs. The sight facing us was a mass of exhausted passengers congregating in front of, behind and on all sides of the escalator. I have been to at least a dozen outdoor music festivals in my time and the parallels were frustratingly clear.

A Four Hour Wait For Immigration at Narita Airport

The crowd was so dense that we were unable to see past it to try and assess the situation. All we could do was shuffle forward a few steps every twenty minutes, in tandem with those around us, empathising with all the sullen faces and puffy eyes.

sleeping on airport floor

When we finally reached the front of that queue, nearly an hour after landing, we realised it had merely been the tip of the iceberg.

Apparently, we hadn’t even been in the immigration area up until this point! Within the immigration space, the queue weaved back and forth in a concertina-like undulating fashion. The heat generated from hundreds of people confined within a small space was stifling and we cursed ourselves for not carrying water. Never and I mean NEVER underestimate just how useful a boarding pass can be for a makeshift fan in times of perspiration.

The brave and the needy exited the queue for toilet breaks but re-entering it looked like one of life’s less pleasurable activities. And whilst some lethargic children were draped across their parents’ comforting shoulders, others were too tired to remain vertical and had been placed to nap on coveted floor space away from the queues.

water bottles Tokyo Narita Airport

We were completely baffled as to what the underlying problem was. Nowhere in our research had we read of this occurring routinely and Japan is known for its efficiency of operation right? Why were there so many passengers and so few immigration officials?

The Wi-fi was out of the question since about three hundred thousand people were trying to use it so a dose of cheeky eavesdropping helped us to piece together the protracted immigration jigsaw. Several voices around us were frantically contacting their airlines. It emerged they had not been due to land in Tokyo. Their flights had been diverted to Tokyo due to bad weather conditions in other parts of Japan. They had missed their connections. They had no accommodation in Tokyo. They cursed in frustration.

And it wasn’t one flight that had been diverted into Tokyo. It was several, which was why we had been circling so long and why there were so many people waiting in one go.

Sleeping at an airport

No one was exempt from the chaos. The prince and the pauper mingled intimately in this (non) fairytale with first, business and economy passengers all in the same predicament and even the cabin crew and pilots, stuck in their own queues, found themselves almost as stagnant.

When we finally cleared immigration, we had queued for nearly 4 hours. The time we had spent at Narita International Airport after landing had been nearly double the duration of the Seoul to Tokyo flight but we were out now and it was a euphoric feeling of freedom, more appropriate for those reaching base camp at Everest than arrivals at an airport.

Tokyo Airport Immigration

Flurries of weary passengers hovered in clusters. A lady with floaty, ginger locks was huddled in a corner of the floor. She struggled to conceal her exasperation, as she spoke on her mobile phone in tears. I naïvely walked towards the information desk, oblivious to the fact that I would soon be adopting the same position that she was in.

The lady at information was in good spirits, sporting the courteous and professional smile of a person who had enjoyed a drink and a seat in the preceding four hours. We shared our hotel location, queried the modes of transport. It was a quick discussion, the significance of the brevity not lost on us. There were no options so there was nothing to discuss. Simples.

The last train had long gone, the last bus following suit. Pumpkin and I decided to take a taxi, even with the rather off-putting price tag of approximately £150 GBP. How optimistic (and silly) we were to think somehow that we would be the only ones with this plan. The information desk team warned us it would be almost impossible to find a cab, proposing instead that we sleep overnight at the airport.

sleeping bag airport floor
Admiring the way the sleeping bag perfectly matched the luggage!

We thanked her but still tried our luck with a walk towards the taxi rank with an almost child-like belief that one way or another, we would rest our heads on the hotel pillow before sunrise. There were no cabs to be seen for miles but there were hundreds of passengers waiting regardless. The few taxis that had been there had been snapped up like a winning lottery ticket lying in a puddle. And with the airport being so far away from the city centre, it was unlikely anymore would be showing up. We tried Uber, again to no avail and then we resigned ourselves to our fate for the night.

Thankfully  – and I truly mean that with every bone in my body – we were given sleeping bags, air mattresses, bottles of water and packets of crackers. I have never ingested so many crackers at such speed. There were ample supplies with volunteers all around handing them out without question and with no checks.  I do not know whether this was just part and parcel of the Japanese efficiency I had heard so much about or whether this was a more poignant reflection of the earthquake preparations in place, as just days earlier Japan had suffered yet more earthquakes. But if you do have to sleep on an airport floor, you really cannot ask for it to be a more thoughtful arrangement than that. They even seemed happy for passengers to keep the sleeping bags for good.

airport delays Tokyo

I am a big believer in silver linings and there were plenty waiting to be sketched out of this little story:

  • For one, it was the type of situation where you could laugh or cry (and I am fairly sure that if I was alone, it would have been the latter) but in the company of someone you get on with, we embraced the funny side and the banter kept us going.
  • Secondly, Pumpkin (serious knight-in-shining-armour brownie points for this) had packed two fully-charged portable phone chargers, meaning that when we did lay our heads down, we could set our alarms, update our loved ones and engage in a little bit of social media fun just before we went off to sleep. Who says the airport floor can’t feel homely?!
  • We had our luggage so we could change, we could de-odorise and keep up with dental hygiene.
  • We had reached our destination, unlike those around us who were stuck in transit at the wrong airport. For us, the only real difference this had made was a few hours less sleep and a slightly different bed for the night. (not quite the skyscraper luxury hotel we had forked out for!)
  • Finally – and perhaps the most important – it made for great blog content!!
sleeping bag airport floor
Less “Sleepless in Seattle” and more “Exhausted in Tokyo”

We found a cosy corner of the airport to park at (seems no one wants the smoking room as their neighbour.) I struggle to even blow up balloons let alone air mattresses so after Pumpkin exercised his respiratory tract, we snuggled into our sleeping bags and finally closed our eyes at around 2am, setting our alarms for three hours later to make a beeline to the rail station to get the first train into the city. The quality of solid shuteye I experienced evidenced by the patch of dry saliva at the corner of my mouth the next morning and in truth, as embarrassed as I am to say it, I almost relished the adventure, though there are certainly more effective ways of trying recover from a bad bout of flu!

Keio Plaza Hotel Shinjuku Tokyo

When we finally checked into the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku, where we were staying, an enormous cherry blossom centerpiece greeted us in the lobby and the spread of fragrant florals facing us confirmed that we had finally arrived and were ready to embark upon our Japanese adventure.

After a speedy check in with no queues (hallelujah!) and a totally unexpected upgrade, which could not have been more timely or gone to two more grateful travellers, we finally entered our room. You might think that we jumped straight on the bed for a decent snooze – but you’d be wrong. You might think that we immediately raided the breakfast buffet to eat our body weights – but again, you’d be wrong. So how did we recuperate?

Well…after arriving at the hotel at 7.20am, we put our gadgets aside for a turbo charge, jumped into the shower, fished out some clean clothes and headed straight back down to the hotel lobby at 8am to join a pre-booked tour. You can sleep when you die right?!

Keio Plaza Rooftop Bar
A much needed drink at the Keio Plaza later in the week with a view of the Cocoon Tower

Starting like you mean to go on? Unlikely.

The suppressed teenage rebel in me thrived on the sense of adventure but once was enough to redress the balance and I was not about to have the same experience upon my inbound journey to London as I did upon arrival in Tokyo. A few months ago, I was invited to trial a chauffeur service in London for one of my airport transfers and I had been deliberating for weeks over when would be best to use it. After my door to door journey from home to the Keio Plaza in Tokyo ended up taking around 34 hours, I am sure you can see why a smooth sailing and timely transfer back home was calling out to me!

Have you ever spent the night at an airport? What was your story?


Disclaimer: I received a complimentary airport transfer with Blacklane but after 3 hours sleep on an airport floor, I can assure you I needed no persuading about the benefits of a pre-booked transfer service!


49 thoughts on “An Unexpected Night’s Sleep at Narita Airport, Tokyo

  1. You held up well! Yes I have spent the night in an airport. LA 1982 on my way to Japan to get married. They were gearing up for the 1984 only pics and the whole place was a freaking construction zone with jackhammers and dust.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 21, 2016 — 11:08 am

      Thank you! But oh my word, your airport drama back then sounds like a bit of a nightmare too! Just trying to picture how chaotic the scene must have been with all the construction going on around you, especially when you’re on your way to get married! Hope it had a smooth ending ☺

  2. Oh, I’m sure I would have cried. Thrown a tantrum. Cried some more. Maybe laughed after all of that. But sheesh. You even made it seem fun! x

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 21, 2016 — 11:10 am

      Hehe, trust me Frankie, I was very rapidly approaching the junction of tears/tantrum but made a swift U Turn when I realised we had a long night to get through – it was self preservation really!

  3. ladies what travel May 18, 2016 — 11:10 am

    Wow!!! Really feel for you Shikha! I’ve never had to sleep in an airport but did suffer a 3hr queue to get through immigration when I lost visited NYC. You guys dealt with a very crappy situation so well! K x

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 21, 2016 — 11:12 am

      3 hours in NYC?!? No way Keri!! I love NYC but that would actually put me off returning! My longest until this experience was around 2.5 hrs in Abu Dhabi last year. I’m just glad that the sleeping arrangements were as comfy as they could possibly be when you’re on a floor!

  4. I just so impressed at the air mattresses & Pumpkin’s lung capacity!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 21, 2016 — 11:14 am

      Haha, I hadn’t thought of it that way Emma – without his lung capacity, it would have been a much more uncomfortable night’s sleep!

  5. I admire your resilience Shikha, you did so well! I’m not sure how I’d react being if I was in the same situation! I’m glad they gave you air mattresses and sleeping bags!!!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 21, 2016 — 11:16 am

      Awww thanks Priti! Honestly if I was on my own, I’d have been in a complete state I’m sure but together, we just had to laugh about it & kept reminding ourselves that it’ll make a great story to tell in years to come! :mrgreen:

  6. kashacapetown May 19, 2016 — 1:36 pm

    Love this post, Shikha, and love how you sought out the silver lining in this situation! I’m definitely keeping this in mind in case the same thing happens when we go 😛


    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 21, 2016 — 11:19 am

      Thanks Kasha, that’s so sweet of you to say! I think it was genuinely one of those situations that could never have been predicted – we couldn’t possily have planned for the fact that so many other flight to other cities would get diverted at the same but my biggest tip would be always carry water & snacks even when you think it’s just a short 2 hour flight as that was our big mistake!

  7. Oh boy, what a nightmare. I’ve been in huge lines checking in, even had one flight (in Montreal with damn USAir) where there was a huge line checking in to board, followed by a 2 hr wait on the tarmac, following which they told us that the flight was cancelled. That was followed by another 2 hr wait to retrieve baggage and pass customs where we had the pleasure of telling the immigration office “nowhere” when he asked where we had just come from.
    But 4 hours at immigration and to be stuck all night? I wouldn’t be happy…

    Frank (bbqboy)

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 21, 2016 — 11:23 am

      Gosh Frank, that experience in Montreal sounds awful – 2 hours on the tarmac only for it to be cancelled – what on earth was going on there I wonder?! Yep it was a looong journey getting from London – Tokyo that’s for sure!

  8. Oh you poor thing, what a horrendous experience yet you came out of it smiling.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 21, 2016 — 4:16 pm

      Thanks Suze! Tried to keep smiling through it and even managed to convince ourselves it was a fun adventure….but I have won’t pretend I wouldn’t have preferred the hotel! :mrgreen:

  9. What a story! We visited Japan last summer and honestly, it’s the safest country to travel around and sleep at the airport. :)))))))) Wish I could come back to Nara!!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 21, 2016 — 4:19 pm

      I remember seeing your Japan updates back then and I know exactly what you mean – if this had to happen anywhere, Japan was definitely one of the safest places! Nara is so special & peaceful isn’t it? I really enjoyed my time there too ☺

  10. Wow – what an experience! You and Pumpkin are such troopers… long night at the airport and then straight out on a tour?! I salute you!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 21, 2016 — 4:22 pm

      Haha, Aww thanks for the kind words Connie but I think it less of a case of us being troopers & more just that we knew how much there was to see and do in a city as huge as Tokyo & we simply refused to allow one stressful journey to wipe out an entire day of our travels!

  11. Oh poor you, airports are very strange places to try and sleep! At least you had those mats and sleeping bags!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 28, 2016 — 5:58 am

      Definitely Katie 🙂 We’d have been in for a loooong & probably achy night without them!

  12. What an adventure! I have no idea how I would have reacted if I had been faced with a night at the airport – so close to your comfortable hotel bed, yet so far! But your little bed set-up actually looks rather comfy 😉 (And many many kudos to your hub for those portable chargers! What a lifesaver!)

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 28, 2016 — 5:59 am

      I know – he definitely did well there Emily!! It just made it a bit more entertaining & light hearted being able to go online & share some funny photos of our camp set up and being able to set our alarms which was kind of crucial! ☺

  13. WOW Shikha – the airport situation sounds like a total mare and yet you managed to find several silver linings…Like Connie, I totally salute you for this! Super impressed with your energy the next day too – seems as though it was an incredibly memorable holiday and in more ways than one xx

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 28, 2016 — 6:02 am

      Hehe, thanks Ayushi! Trust me, it didn’t feel like I had high energy levels – we fell asleep within about 2 seconds when we finally did get to bed in the hotel the following evening – exhausting!! But glad we stuck it out so we didn’t lose a day from our plans having been so excited about the trip. Loved every moment out there ☺

  14. Most importantly, it made a great story for your blog! After reading your tale on social media I definitely made sure I had a transfer booked for Tokyo. But I’ve got a totally different and rather interesting story to tell about our journey there!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 29, 2016 — 6:16 pm

      Oooh I’m intrigued Angie! Looking forward to reading about it soon! Yep the blog is great in situations like this – the pre blog me would have just moaned but the post blog me just kept thinking it’ll make for an entertaining blog post! :mrgreen:

  15. Holy cow! Talk about an adventure – the longest custom’s queue I’ve had was fish hours in New York City, with the entire computer system gone down, and at least we were able to head straight to a bed after! Troopers!!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) May 29, 2016 — 6:22 pm

      Hehe, thanks Cass! Don’t think I’ve ever fallen asleep quite as quickly as I did when we finally finished our tour, ate dinner & headed back to our hotel at the end of that first full day! I wish I could say we were troopers but I think it was more just desperation not to miss out on all the things we wanted to see in Tokyo purely because of this travel mishap! :mrgreen:

  16. Wow! What an incredible disaster!! I don’t think I’ll ever complain about airport delays again.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) June 2, 2016 — 8:39 am

      Haha, I’m sure you would find your own silver linings Mandy! I’ve never been so grateful for a sleeping bag and a packet of crackers that’s for sure 😀

  17. Oh, isn’t it great that every adventure is an awesome blog post, wonderful to have you keep up your spirits. 🙂 And it was so nice of them to give you sleeping bags and food. I guess it was a good thing this happened in Japan where at least you can have a go at this. Haha…hope the rest of the trip went better 🙂

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) July 23, 2016 — 9:00 pm

      Hehe thanks Sha! Yes thankfully, the rest of the trip was much less dramatic! But it’s nice to be able to think of these adventures as great blog content rather than just annoying inconveniences :mrgreen:

  18. Wow that is insane! And even more so that you joined a tour after 3 hours of sleep – I would have probably stayed in bed for the day 😀

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 2, 2017 — 9:21 pm

      Trust me, it took all the willpower in the world NOT to just dive straight into the huge big bed and sleep for about 16 hours! But it was worth pushing ourselves I think because the tour took us to some absolutely gorgeous blossom viewing parks in Tokyo & also because it meant we slept so well that night that we kissed goodbye to jet lag immediately! ☺

  19. Goodness me what a horrible journey! Thank goodness it was alright in the end!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 2, 2017 — 9:23 pm

      I think the 4 hours in the stuffy immigration queue with no water was the worst bit Roping – by the time we got to the sleeping bags & camping at the airport part of the adventure, we were actually both just laughing & very much seeing the funny / adventure side to the whole saga! 😀

  20. oh yes, I’ve had my share of sleeping on the airport floor:) #travellinkup

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 3, 2017 — 10:34 am

      Hehe, oh really Tanja?! Ok, maybe I should count myself thankful I’ve only had to do it the once!

  21. I’m a big believer to see things going wrong as nothing but ‘blog fodder’ – it’s good to see you feel the same way!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 11, 2017 — 10:19 pm

      Definitely Francesca! What once would have been a really annoying drag of a situation all of a sudden becomes a hilarious blog story right?! (Even if everyone else stuck at the airport was looking at me wondering why on earth I was photographing the shambles!!) 😀

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