Ria is an avid writer who is currently teaching English in southwest Japan. She loves helping new teachers and expats get settled in.
Arriving at Narita
Welcome to Japan! First, make sure you fill out your immigration and customs forms before getting off the plane. They're fairly straightforward documents, and the flight attendants may be able to answer any basic questions you have if something is unclear.
Hope you wore good walking shoes! Narita Airport's arrival area is sprawling, and you will likely have to walk down several massive hallways before even getting to the immigration checkpoint. Japanese customs and immigration are easier than they are in many countries, though, and many of the staff speak English, so don't lose too much sleep worrying about this part. Pay attention to the signs and don't assume that you'll be in the same line as the other foreigners - military personnel, long-term visa holders and tourists typically get separated into different lines.
At customs, you'll probably just have to read the English signs, get in the appropriate line, and hand your completed customs form to the agent when he holds out his hand and nods at you. They typically don't ask questions unless they suspect you're bringing in something you shouldn't, or if you filled out your form incorrectly.
Getting to Downtown Tokyo
Narita Airport is notorious for being far outside of Tokyo, but it's a major hub for many international flights, so it may be a cheaper and more viable option than flying into Haneda Airport. There are clearly marked signs for train transfers, and since many of the airport staff speak English, you should have a fairly easy time if you are arriving to Narita without any connections.
Keep in mind, though, that the airport is about 40 miles outside of Tokyo, so leave ample time to get into the city if you have meetings or tour groups to get to. Additionally, the express trains running to major stations in the city technically require reservations; while you won't be booted off the train if you don't have a reservation, you may not be able to grab a seat. There are also multiple express bus options for getting to Tokyo Station and other major stations, and these tickets can be as cheap as ¥1000.
If you're hoping to use the shinkansen bullet train to get from the airport to a smaller nearby city, keep in mind that the shinkansen does not go to Narita airport, and you will have to use a bus or express train to get from the airport to Tokyo or Shinagawa Station. This extra leg can be a hassle if you're carrying tons of luggage, so plan carefully!
Making a Domestic Connection
If you're connecting to a domestic flight at Narita, make sure to leave a layover of at least two hours. You will have to pick up your baggage, go through customs, re-check your bag, and then go through security again. If you're cutting it close because customs took a while, you can let the baggage check counter staff know that you're in a hurry and they can probably help.
Be sure to be at your domestic flight gate at or before the boarding time, though, as you may have to take a bus out to the plane! The bus will begin boarding at the boarding time provided to you by the airline staff, and will usually head out to the plane within a few minutes.
Unfortunately, if you get through security with too much time to spare, you may end up bored: Narita's domestic departure areas are pretty lacking in terms of shopping and food! Terminal 2's domestic area only has one shop past security, and while it does sell beer, it doesn't sell much in the way of English-language entertainment. If you have more than two hours to kill, you can check out the shops outside of security for a while.
Making an International Connection
As of this writing, international travelers who do not need to exit the airport's secure areas do not typically need to go through immigration procedures. You do, however, have to get your bags re-screened at a security checkpoint. This process does not usually take as long as it does in other countries like the United States. Bus transfers between terminals can take up to 20 minutes and don't always run very frequently, so make sure to get on a bus as quickly as possible. Check the airport website for the most up-to-date information on transferring.
Even if you have a long layover, it may not be worth it to go through immigration to leave the airport. Terminal 1 in particular has ample shopping and nap rooms available. While the nap rooms charge a small fee, they're clean and fairly quiet, making them well worth it if you're jetlagged. If you're stuck in Terminal 3, which has much less to offer, you might need to find creative ways to pass the time. The same goes for Terminal 2, though international connections in this terminal seem to be less common.
© 2018 Ria Fritz
Liz Westwood from UK on October 24, 2018:
I have never been to Japan,but you give a good introduction about what to expect when flying in there.