How to get to and from Japan in the earthquake/tsunami aftermath

By John Walton, March 15 2011
How to get to and from Japan in the earthquake/tsunami aftermath

Authorities in Australia and around the world are advising against non-essential travel to Japan. The situation for essential travel is confusing, though, with Tokyo's main airports congested and difficult to access.

We've got the lowdown on the current situation, and we've put together suggestions (in order of convenience) for ways to get to and from Japan right now.

The situation in Tokyo

City centre Tokyo Haneda Airport seems to be more accessible than remote Tokyo Narita, which sits 60 km to the east of Tokyo.

Narita's remote location, damaged railway track, crowded roads and disrupted trains are creating delays and problems for travellers. Leave plenty of time if you're heading for Narita, and consider the other options outlined below. 

Booking or changing your flight 

Airlines are waiving change fees in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, even for tickets that would normally incur a change penalty. Check our full list of airline change fee waiver policies

If your airline doesn't have seats, check whether they will rebook you on a oneworld or Star Alliance partner airline. Alliance rebooking isn't part of airlines' official change offerings at the moment, but it may well be possible in individual cases.

Qantas passengers may well be able to travel on oneworld partner Japan Airlines (JAL). Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand travellers could be rebooked on Star Alliance's Korean Asiana or Japanese ANA All Nippon Airways).

When looking to book or rebook in unusual circumstances like these, it's always helpful to be able to present a list of route options to a booking agent. They'll be busier and more stressed than normal, and may well miss out some options.

Bear in mind also that the Shinmoedake volcano on Kyushu, in southern Japan, is currently erupting. Its ash cloud may disrupt flights as airlines route around the plume

Here are the next-best options to get to and from Japan right now.

Japan: Osaka

Osaka's Kansai International Airport (KIX) is a good bet for getting into and out of Japan, particularly since it is far enough west to have been undamaged by Friday's earthquake.

Jetstar flies from Cairns, Gold Coast and Sydney to Osaka, while Air New Zealand flies from Auckland.

Korea: Seoul

Incheon International Airport in Seoul (ICN) is a major international hub for Korean Air (a SkyTeam airline) and Asiana (a member of the Star Alliance). Both airlines fly to multiple airports within Japan.

To connect to or from Australia, both airlines fly to Sydney, and Korean Air also flies to Melbourne and Brisbane. Auckland is also served by Korean Air.

Taiwan: Taipei

Taipei's Taoyuan International Airport (TPE) is a hub for China Airlines and EVA Air. Both airlines fly to Brisbane, and China Airlines also flies to Sydney.

In Japan, China Airlines flies to Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Miyazaki, Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo and Tokyo Narita. Eva Air serves Fukuoka, Komatsu, Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo, Sendai (closed), and Tokyo Narita.

JAL, Delta Airlines and ANA also connect Tokyo Narita with Taipei. JAL also flies to Osaka and Nagoya. Jetstar Asia flies from Osaka to Taipei.

China: Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong

Connecting in mainland China can be tricky. According to the Chinese Embassy in Canberra's visa rules, which are aimed at Australian passport holders:

  • You do not need a Transit Visa (G Visa) if your transit in China is less than 24 hours and during which time you will only stay within the airport (However, American and British passports bearers still need visas under this situation).
  • You need to apply for a Transit Visa (G Visa) if your transit is more than 24 hours, or if you have to go out of the airport regardless of the duration of your transit.

The Embassy also highlights that there is a 48-hour special permit allowing transit between Shanghai's two main airports, Pudong (PVG) and Hongqiao (SHA):

  • Australian, New Zealand, American, Canadian, South Korean, German, French, Dutch, Luxemburg, Belgian, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Austrian, Greek, Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish passports bearers do not need a Transit Visa (G Visa) if they transit via SHANGHAI and staying for less than 48 hours (going out of the airport is allowed).

There is an application process involved:

  • Please apply for the Transit Visa only 1 to 2 months before your planned date to enter China.

As a result of all of these conditions, connecting in Beijing or Shanghai is unlikely be a convenient option for some passengers.

Hong Kong is not subject to these mainland Chinese visa restrictions, which means that a connection in Hong Kong's airport might be easier, even with the additional flight time.

Many Chinese airports have flights to Japan. We've picked the largest, in order of convenience.
Hong Kong is connected to many airports in Japan:

  • ANA flies to Osaka and both Tokyo airports.
  • Cathay Pacific flies to Fukuoka, Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo, and both Tokyo airports.
  • Delta flies to Tokyo Narita.
  • Dragonair flies to Fukuoka and Sendai.
  • Hong Kong Express flies to Osaka, Sapporo and Hakodate.
  • JAL flies to both Tokyo airports.

From Beijing, many airlines fly to Tokyo's Narita and Haneda airports, including Air China, ANA, China Eastern, Delta, Japan Airlines and United.

Iran Air and Pakistan International Airlines also fly between Beijing and Tokyo to connect back to their home hubs, although ticketing on those airlines may be more difficult.

Beijing to Osaka services are run by Air China, ANA and China Eastern. Chinese airlines also fly to other airports in Japan, including Fukuoka, Nagoya, Okayama, Sapporo, and the closed Sendai airport, which was hit by the tsunami on Friday.

Shanghai's Hongqiao Airport has flights to Tokyo Haneda on ANA, China Eastern, JAL and Shanghai Airlines. Note that there are no connections to Australia from Hongqiao, so a transit across Shanghai to larger Pudong Airport will be needed.

Shanghai Pudong International Airport is connected to Tokyo Narita by Air China, China Eastern, Delta and JAL. ANA and JAL also fly to Nagoya and Osaka. 

Shanghai Pudong is also the hub for China Eastern, which flies to Fukuoka, Fukushima, Hiroshima, Kagoshima, Komatsu, Matsuyama, Nagasaki, Nagoya, Naha, Niigata, Okayama and Sapporo.

Air China flies from Shanghai Pudong to Fukuoka, Nagoya, Osaka and (closed) Sendai, while Shanghai Airlines has flights to Osaka and Toyama.

Whichever route you take, make sure that you prepare yourself, business colleagues, family and friends before you leave home in case you're caught up in a disaster.

John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.

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