E-mail from a friend:
I look at the map and there’s a great airport right by the bay of Hiroshima. Great I think. Just like Fukuoka, an airport right in city center, nice and convenient.
But no, that’s the “Hiroshima West Flying strip.” The actual airport is, of course, up in the f***ing mountains, 50km and an hour bus ride away from Hiroshima.
How the f*** did this country get trains so right, and yet planes so wrong?
Check it out on Google Maps. You have to zoom into Hiroshima City to see the smaller airport.
Hiroshima West was Hiroshima’s only airport from 1961 until 1992, when the new Hiroshima Airport opened outside the city. For a while Hiroshima West stayed alive as a hub for small regional prop plane flights, sort of like Sapporo’s Okadama Airport, but nowadays its operations are limited to a couple of podunk destinations, and everyone else has to either take the Shinkansen or subject themselves to the hour-long bus ride from the new airport.
Japan’s trains lucked out — they were set up (for the most part) before 1920, back when it was easy to find and expropriate land for lines and stations. Japan’s airports are much more recent creations. There are only two significant Japanese airports which predate World War II: Tokyo Haneda and Sapporo Chitose. Most of the major airports of the early postwar era were built as military bases during the war (Itami, Komaki, Fukuoka, Okinawa) and didn’t get civilian operations until the 1950s, by which point they were starting to be strangled by their neighboring cities, right when runway and terminal extensions were needed to handle the new generation of jets. This is how we ended up with inconvenient monstrosities like Narita and the new Hiroshima airport.
(The biggest postwar rail development, the Shinkansen network, is not coincidentally also an inconvenient one in places like Yokohama and Osaka, where they had to stick the terminal in the middle of nowhere for lack of better options.)
To Japan’s credit, most of the big-city airports here are now multimodal, with direct rail connections into the city. There are two rail lines that pass right by Hiroshima Airport — the Sanyo Shinkansen and Sanyo Main Line — and there have been a multitude of plans to connect one or both of these lines to the airport by a spur line, monorail, maglev, ropeway or any number of other mass-transit means. So why hasn’t this happened?
Both of those lines are JR lines, and Hiroshima is one city where JR has an ironclad grip on domestic travel. Tokyo-Hiroshima is 4 hours by Shinkansen: by plane it’s 90 minutes, but the transfer from Hiroshima Airport to the city takes 60-90 minutes depending on how long it takes for the bus to show up, and another 45-60 minutes to get to Haneda and check in makes flying a bigger hassle than it’s worth on this heavily-traveled route. The airlines can stay competitive in Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka thanks to relatively convenient airports, but the inconvenience of Hiroshima Airport works in favor of the one company that has the power to make it more convenient.