This past weekend, I had the pleasure of spending four days exploring Tokyo after concluding a week-long business trip south of the capital. There are a lot of hotels in Tokyo, but since these extra days were at my expense rather than being covered by my employer, I decided to tradedsome of my acquired Hilton HHonors points for a free room instead of running up a tab on lodging. The catch? My room was in Narita, not far from the airport.
Narita is hardly a backwater: both the airport itself and the suburb that bears it name have their own railway stations, with service provided both by Japan Railways (JR East) and a Keisei regional line, so it's convenient enough to get into Tokyo. The problem is that it's far from the city, as in fourteen stops on a Limited Express or more than thirty should you be cursed to catch a local train.
The best solution is therefore to take either the Narita Express (N'Ex) from the airport or the Skyliner from Narita Keisei station, both of which get you to Tokyo with just a few stops. But even then, you're looking at upwards of an hour into the city, plus another hour back out, and the cost of an Express ticket is about $25 one way. There's also the 25-minute shuttle ride from the hotel to either origin point.
By the time it's all said and done, you're looking at leaving the hotel at 8:00 a.m. to arrive in town by 10:00 a.m. Similarly, you need to leave Tokyo by 8:30 p.m. at the latest if you want to guarantee that a shuttle will be there to get you back to the hotel when you make it back to Narita. That's four or more hours of commuting each day--hours that don't get spent sightseeing in Tokyo. Nor is this a dilemma unique to Tokyo: Chicago's O'Hare is equally far from the city, but the CTA is almost always local and a cab ride is far too expensive to be practical.
The bottom line? Traveling from a city to an airport takes time, and on short trips, that time can be more valuable than the perceived savings of staying at the airport. Stay closer to what you want to see, and you'll be able to spend more time seeing it.