I touch down at Narita Airport on schedule and feel lucky to have just missed Typhoon Faxai, a category 3 storm which had passed through the area hours earlier. I'd received a note from the airline that, depending on how fast the typhoon was moving, my flight (which was scheduled to land just after 3 pm) could be canceled or delayed, but we left on time and the updates during the flight suggested all was clear.
As a resident of Japan, I get to use the special "reentry permit holder" lines at immigration which tend to take about 5 minutes to get through, which is incredible compared against the sometimes hour-long queue for visiting foreigners. Once through customs, I have to decide how to get home. Some airports offer no transportation, Narita for all its faults (mostly that it's so far from Tokyo) offers many. I bounce between taking the Narita Express train or the Airport Limousine bus. Both options will get me to Shinjuku for about $40 and take roughly an hour and a half. From Shinjuku station, I can transfer to a local line and I'm walking in the door of my house about 15 minutes later. I tend to prefer the train because I'm tall and the reserved seats have more legroom, but it runs only once an hour, while there tends to be a bus leaving every 10-15 minutes so the bus is often more convenient. Anyway, my point is as I was walking off the plane at 3 pm I expect to be home by 5pm.
As I approach immigration I'm shocked by the giant crowd flowing into the lines blocking the entire entranceway. The airport greeter, an older gentleman who usually just reminds people to fill out their forms, seems a bit flustered by the crowd. I tell him I have a reentry permit and ask him how to get to the line for that since it's blocked by a few hundred people. He kindly lifts a barrier strap and points me towards a smaller, yet still much larger than usual, line. It takes about 15 minutes to get through immigration. I assume all of the delayed flights from the morning must have just landed at once. The immigration agent confirms that to be the case, and says it was quiet all morning until just now. I thank her and head down the escalator expecting to pass through Duty-Free and be on a bus moments later. Instead, I'm met by an even larger crowd just outside of customs that seem confused and panic-y.
I think to myself, what a shame all these first-time visitors don't know how to quickly get out of there like I do. I quietly laugh at their collective n00bness and walk up to the bus counter to buy a ticket. I realize that while the counter is fully staffed all the lights are off, the employees are holding "Closed" signs and sending people away. I've never seen that before but didn't give it much thought either as I beeline for the escalators that lead down to the train platform. This plan is immediately thwarted by a strap across the escalators, which are also turned off and a Japan Rail employee shooing people away. "All trains canceled," she tells me.
I look around at the crowd and the chaos and it starts to hit me that something strange is going on. I pull out my phone to check Twitter or the news and don't find anything useful. I overhear a few conversations that suggest all trains and buses had been canceled due to the typhoon throwing debris all over the tracks and the highways being closed. Surely there had to be other options for the likely tens of thousands of people arriving at the airport, right? I walk outside the Arrivals terminal and am immediately struck by both the 90+ degree/80% humidity weather and the longest taxi line I've ever seen in my life.
This is a small part of the taxi line at Narita right now. #strandedatnarita pic.twitter.com/cQRmRM3pb6
— Sean Bonner Ⓥ (@seanbonner) September 9, 2019
I could guess that there were 3,000 people in the line and that might be a bit conservative. I stand there sweating, partially from the heat and partially from immediate stress of not knowing what to do next. A taxi from Narita to Tokyo was likely to cost 30,000 Yen (about $300) which was not appealing, and that line made it even less so.
I check twitter again and as luck would have it a journalist I follow in Tokyo just retweeted Yan Fan, who was already in the taxi line and asking if anyone else was at NRT and wanted to share the fare into Tokyo. I reply immediately – "Me!!"
Hi! I am! Just cleared customs
— Sean Bonner Ⓥ (@seanbonner) September 9, 2019
A few tweets later and we find each other though unfortunately she'd only just gotten in the line recently herself and wasn't too far along. Yan introduced me to the others she'd joined with and our quick math suggests that we'll each be on the hook for 10,000 Yen (about $100) which was more than double the $40 I was expecting from the bus but was fine considering the circumstances and much better than having to foot the whole bill myself.
A half-hour later when we've moved maybe 10 feet and the reality of the situation began to hit us. The "#standedatnarita" hashtag was filling up with similar stories and photos of people stuck, without any option to get anywhere. The crowd was growing by the moment. The heat was oppressive, with no breeze of any kind. While Japan usually operates like a finely oiled machine, this was a Grade A clusterfuck. We realize that the reason the taxi line is moving so slow was that there are no taxis to speak of. Every 5 minutes or so a single taxi rolls up, a few people pile in and the whole line takes a step or two forward — then we wait another 5 minutes for the next single taxi to arrive. At this rate, we weren't going to get a taxi for hours. The 4th person in our group bails, saying they were going to try to find some other option, but we quickly replace them a coworker of Yan's who had coincidentally just landed as well.
Some people were opting out of the line and taking hotel courtesy buses either to just crash overnight and hope the trains and buses were running the next day or maybe to have better luck getting a taxi at the hotel. We debate the idea and decided it's too risky. None of us wants to spend the night in Narita. The line we are in is on the ground floor, at Arrivals — for people who have just arrived in Japan.
Confirmed! We just did this and got a taxi in moments. Have to run from the police though because they are trying to stop people from jumping in taxis at arrivals. #strandedatnarita https://t.co/X6KPAnWYVa
— Sean Bonner Ⓥ (@seanbonner) September 9, 2019
Someone tweeted that they had gone upstairs to Departures and were able to grab a taxi that was dropping someone off in just a few minutes. We send one of our crew up to scope it out, they report back that it seems possible. So we decided to go for it. We jump out of line and head back into the terminal. People behind us probably thought the line was moving now! Once we get to the 4th floor Departures area and look down, the scope of the crowd waiting at Arrivals takes on a whole new level of insanity, but we don't have time to linger or take photos as we rush towards the area where taxis are dropping people off.
Unfortunately, we weren't the only ones rushing over there, the airport police are aiming for the same place. At this point I need to explain something about Japan – this is the land of zero flexibility. If something that is being done by three people can more efficiently and easily be done by one person, rest assured it will forever continue to be done by three people because that's how many people the policy says should be doing it. Ironically it's this unwillingness to make decisions on the fly that caused me to move to Japan in the first place to help run Safecast when the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power station melted down in part because the people running the plant looked disaster in the face and rather than adapting to quickly changing circumstances decided to follow the rules in the book, word-for-word.
But that's a different story. Currently, at NRT taxis are dropping people off on the 4th floor at Departures, and are then expected to drive down to the 1st floor to pick people up at Arrivals. However, the entire airport is almost gridlocked. A driver we'd spoken to earlier had told us it took him almost 45 minutes to get to Arrivals from Departures. This is probably why so few taxis are down at Arrivals — they are just leaving to get away from this chaos. On top of that planes are continuing to land and buses and trains are still shut down. Taxis are the only way to reduce the growing number of people waiting outside. But the rule is that taxis are supposed to go down 4 floors before they pick anyone up, and the police are there to enforce that rule. As we walk up with our luggage we see the cops stepping in front of people trying to get in taxis, jumping in front of other taxis that had just loaded people in, blowing their whistles, and generally ensuring that a messed up situation remains messed up.
We are momentarily defeated until we spot an empty taxi one lane over, almost about to pull out of the drop off area. With the police focused on people curbside we decide to go for it. We run out across a lane of traffic to the other side and through the window ask the driver if he can take 4 people to Tokyo. He looks at us, looks at our bags, looks at the cops, then back to us and says "get in!" We pile in as fast as possible loading the back up with our suitcases and struggling to close the back door. As the latch finally engages we can see a pair of police officers walking towards us waving their hands. "Let's go!" we cried, and the driver hits the gas. Very briefly, as he can only move a few feet, because that's all the room there is between us and the car stopped in front of us. We look back and the police are still coming, then look ahead just in time to see a barricade that had previously been blocking the onramp for the highway being pulled away. "Highway is open!!" the driver says, and he makes a hard left and guns it out onto the open highway, not a single car ahead of us. We've escaped!
As we drive away from the airport we can see the oncoming lanes are completely packed, and dead stopped. Those people are going to be missing some flights for sure. It was at this point the driver laid out the hard truth for us. The roads are still mostly closed, so the usual hour and a half drive is going to take closer to 3. Also, the rate is doubled. We can expect a final charge of around 60,000 yen. We gulped, and nodded, knowing the only other option was back at the airport and we didn't want any of that. We were glad he'd taken the chance to rescue us.
Air condition blasting and finally headed home, we rip into leftover snacks from our respective flights — snack bars, chips, fiery Cheetos — you know, travel comfort food. We check the internets and see how much of a disaster things remained at the airport. I accidentally caught a fellow not to be named traveler licking Red No.5 off their fingers — "this is a low moment for me" they said. "Don't worry, the secret is safe." We sank back into our seats, scanning the side of the road for further evidence of the typhoon that put this all into motion hours earlier.
We had to drive quite far out of the way to get in due to road closures but also gave us a chance to reroute to a functioning train station on the edge of Tokyo rather than going all the way to the center. This let us dump the expensive taxi and go our separate ways on local lines without anyone backtracking which made more sense anyway. Final taxi bill was about 8,000 yen each. Just after 9 pm, I walked in the door at home, feeling like I'd escaped a war.
Image: Twitter/Sean Bonner