Stranded at the Airport: Putting the Gnar in Narita


The switch from comfort to desperation can happen fast. Sometimes all it takes is a big snowstorm, a missed connection and a city incapable of removing snow from it’s roads and railways. And you kind of know it’s bad when the Red Cross comes around delivering bottles of water.

The Endless Check-in Queue

The Endless Check-in Queue at Japan Airlines

Last weekend I spent 43 hours on the floor of the Tokyo airport. When our plane landed in the midst of a huge snowstorm–what turned out to be the biggest in a few decades–I had a bad feeling.

We were headed to Niseko, a ski resort on the island of Hokkaido, the land of hot onsens and nightly dumps and some of the best snow in the world. But Tokyo is much like Seattle–a big city, a gateway to mountains and ocean, where precipitation usually falls as rain.

Not this storm. In some places, 70cm fell in 24 hours. It shut the city down. All roads were closed. The train stopped. The airport was completely shut off from the outside world. No flights, no trains, no buses. The line at the taxi stand was so long it wound into the next day.

My husband is a solver of problems. He took this setback as an opportunity to find a solution. And he went at it like a dog on a bone. There was a flight from Haneda leaving for Sapporo in a few hours. All we needed was to get there. He located the train station and tried to find a ride to the city.   But the flights were all full.

JK finally admitting defeat

JK finally admitting defeat

Next, he tried to find a train all the way to Hokkaido. But the seats were all full. Again, he booked us a flight out of another city up north. But we couldn’t get there. The buses had stopped running. They’d closed all the roads from the airport. We were definitely trapped.

Some lucky couple found this love nest to call home

Some lucky couple found this love nest to call home

And yet, thousands of travelers poured in on international flights. Someone at the control tower forgot to tell them they were landing at the Hotel California. You could check in but you couldn’t leave. For a while there, things got a bit desperate. Lines snaked back and forth across the floor of the airport. Travelers fell asleep while standing up, or simply curled around their luggage while keeping their place in line. That’s when volunteers came around with water bottles and cute little sandwiches with the crusts cut off.

I’ve said it before. Adversity is good for you. Besides, this wasn’t that bad. We had water. We had beer. And we had these cute little sandwiches. That’s what I kept telling myself as I headed into the second night in our little bunker we created out of our luggage in a side room at the top of Level 3.

Being the survivors that our group of six truly was, we planned ahead. We bought enough beer that first night to see us through. Even though the restaurants ran out of food, and the famous vending machines hemorrhaged hot coffee and cold tea until sucked dry, we knew we’d be okay. We had two decks of cards and plenty of beer.

A few lucky dogs found this deluxe overwater bungalow

A few lucky dogs found this deluxe overwater bungalow

So we played hearts, we watched the large board that flashed CANCELED next to every domestic flight heading north, and bided our time.

Then something miraculous happened. We realized we were having fun. We were laughing so hard that other sleep-deprived travelers gave us sideways glances. The card game was becoming cut-throat, the beer was holding firm, even the fermented plum treats out of the vending machine offered a hilarity beyond what would seem possible. How could something that tasted so rotten be so funny? Because when you’re scavenging cardboard boxes to sleep on, anything is possible.

Of all the airports in the world I’d rather be stranded at Narita. At least they sell beer in vending machines. At least Japanese people are nice and don’t steal your stuff. All throughout the airport, cell phones and other electronics were plugged into remote outlets and left for hours. Somber-looking police officers cruised the hallways without much to do.

Making ourselves comfortable at Chateau Crystal

Making ourselves comfortable at Chateau Crystal

When we woke the second morning, I wasn’t sure our flight would hold. Still no flights had left the airport. But we stood in the long checkout line anyway. And then it happened. We were each handed a boarding pass–a Willy Wonka golden ticket–and just like that we were ushered through security and onto a bus and out to the plane.

A few hours later we were soaking in the hot water at a Niseko onsen, drinking sake and eating sushi. And just like that we were back in the land of comfort, where snowfall is a good thing and problem solving actually works and anything is possible.

Someday I will probably look back at those 43 hours with gratitude. Actually, on the eve of our last day in Niseko, I’m already doing that. Because if you can still laugh when you’re sleeping on a cardboard box, when the thought of ever taking a shower or sleeping on a bed are only remote possibilities, then you’re doing pretty good.

8 responses »

  1. Delightful! Enjoy that Japanese pow, will have to experience it vicariously. And thought you posted a video from your travels but it turned out to be an ad for visiting Portland! Ha. I slept at Narita on a few seats but that was just due to a long layover. Had the best bowl of noodle soup I’ve ever had in my life there, too. Cheers.

  2. Thats it, I’m voting Scott as dirtbag king.. Maybe Martin, only cause he looks totally natural lounging, on luggage.. Hope you guys have a blast. And don’t worry, I’ll make sure to shred all the snow we got so you guys won’t have to.

    • Either one would make perfect royalty. Glad it’s been snowing at Crystal. If it takes us all having to spend a few nights on an airport floor to make it snow in the PNW, then it’s worth it.

  3. Kim, I will be flying in to Narita at 6pm and have a 12 hour layover til I fly to Sapporo the next morning. Will obviously be coming in internationally and I had to book a flight with a separate airline for my last flight. Any tips on what I can do with my luggage and myself before I can check in at the domestic terminal at 3am? Looking all over the web and ended up here lol. 🙂 Thanks!

    • Chris,

      Narita is a great airport. There are large luggage lockers near the International check in gates, which is upstairs from the domestic check-in. You might be able to use those to store your gear. There’s regular train service into Tokyo, although I was unable to avail myself of that service (ha!) due to all the snow when we were there. It’s also worth it to see if there’s a luggage valet at the airport that can keep your stuff if you have larger items, like skis or snowboards. I recall something like that, but it was full when we were there. You can also take your gear with you on the train. But that doesn’t work well for seeing the sights of Tokyo. Hopefully that helps. Enjoy your trip!

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