Four authentic Asian layovers
In the city of Narita, a trail of local restaurants line the path to the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple. (John Borthwick/LPI/Getty)
Even after a long, restless flight, the descent onto a new city can awaken the senses. The gradually magnifying aerial view dissolves into bright lights signifying vibrant life that can be felt even from your vantage point in the sky.
If this wondrous new place is not your final destination, though, such thoughts of discovery and intrigue are likely to feel stunted, because rarely does being in an airport feel anything like being in its surrounding city. As in nearly any international airport in the world, the chain stores bore with unnecessary offerings, the generic restaurants irritate with their unjustifiably high prices and the uncomfortable waiting rooms make it impossible to squeeze in even a few minutes of sleep. If not for the airport’s signs being in a different language, you might completely forget where on Earth you are.
Finding escape routes from the overpriced tedium of standard airport venues is a worthy mission, though, and there are a few places in Asia where layovers offer authentic cultural experiences at reasonable prices.
South Korea’s Incheon International Airport
South Korea’s biggest airport, 48km west of its capital city, Seoul, is home to a fully authentic – that is to say, fully nude – jimjilbang, or Korean bathhouse. Located on the basement floor of the airport, Spa on Air is an inviting gem where the entrance fee is just 20,000 won and you can stay as long you like.
After disrobing in locker rooms, spa visitors enter gender-segregated areas that have hot water baths, cold water baths, dry saunas and wet steam rooms. Let the tension of being in transit wash away as the hot water loosens your muscles. As an added bonus, Spa on Air is open 24 hours and offers sleeping rooms for passengers with especially long layovers. Given the relaxation of the jimjilbang, it may even beat staying at a hotel in town. The cost is 15,000 won to stay in a private room and 1,000 won to borrow a sleeping mat for the communal resting area. All ages are welcome.
Japan’s Narita International Airport
If your layover is three hours or longer, Narita Airport’s location makes it possible to leave the airport for a quick, yet immersive, Japanese experience. Take the Narita Express train just one stop (about a 10-minute ride) to the city of Narita, where a trail of local shops and restaurants line the path to the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple. Buddhist temples are a must visit when travelling through Asia, and Naritasan is one of the less touristy. Since 940 AD, locals have been worshiping at the temple’s statue of the Buddhist Fudo Myoo deity. Along the way to the holy site, shops sell everything from Japanese books to handcrafted teapots to sake, while restaurants and stalls serve up fresh noodles, baked goods and a wide range of seafood.
If you have less than three hours, worthy shopping options do exist inside the airport. Head to Terminal 2 on the fourth floor to the Fukujuen tea shop, the airport branch of one of Japan’s oldest tea stores, having opened in the late 1700s. Overall, the selection is wide, but the traditional variety (the kind used in Japanese tea ceremonies) is matcha, a finely powdered green tea. Also in Terminal 2, the Japanese candy store Okashi Greenport is a fun place to shop for edible gifts. The shop’s shelves are rainbows of brightly packaged sweets, in flavours ranging from green tea or plum to old standbys like chocolate.
Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport
At Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, head to the Magic Food Point, a cafeteria frequented by airport staff, for fare that is far more authentic and affordable than the options catering to travellers. Take the elevator to the first floor where the cafeteria works like the food courts at Thai bus stations: you first buy tickets at a counter and then exchange the tickets for dishes at any of the food stalls. The stalls serve tasty Thai, Thai-Muslim and Thai-Chinese dishes such as papaya salad, halal meats and roast pork.
Singapore’s Changi Airport
Singapore welcomes visitors touching down at its international Changi Airport with a variety of inexpensive, traditional food. Hawker centres are the signature of Singaporean cuisine, and two airport food courts -- one in the basement in Terminal 1 and one on the third floor in Terminal 2 -- are home to hawker stalls serving dishes with Chinese, Indian and/or Malaysian influences. Since eating is perhaps the most beloved pastime in Singapore, stuffing your face in one of these hawker centres may be the best way to have a true travel experience without having to leave the airport.
Changi Airport also organises cultural festivities, such as a Lunar New Year celebration, which in the past two years has involved food, music and arts and crafts activities. This year, the Lunar New Year festival begins on 10 February.