Kansai International Airport, Osaka Japan

Kansai, called “one of the greatest engineering feats of the world” has captivated travelers ever since its opening date. I wrote an article on Kansai several years ago, and a recent National Geographic TV episode of MegaStructures has given me new insights on this amazing airport. So, I’ve decided to blog on it – even though this article is going to be a megastructure itself!

The first time that I laid eyes on Kansai (airport code: KIX) was in 2002, on a trip from the US to Taiwan. I heard the Captain casually mention that we would be arriving in “Kansai” shortly, etc. etc. I turned to my fellow passengers (who were all Japanese) and said “Kansai?” to which they vigorously nodded their heads. TOO COOL! I had of course, seen television shows in the US on this amazing island airport and I’d always wanted to go there, but I didn’t realize that I was actually going to see it until we were on the final approach! Built on a man made island in the middle of Osaka bay, one usually doesn’t see the airport until you are right upon it. If you are sitting in a window seat, the sensation of “landing” on water is a bit unnerving.

I took some photos of Kansai in 2002, and 2003, but I never left the airport. I was restricted to the terminal building near the gate where I was to board my departing flight. However, in 2004 I visited Kyoto and I was able to take a leisurely stroll about the airport and photo-document much of it. I actually planned to spend 3 hours just walking around the airport, and I met my friends in Kyoto later. Does that make me a geek?

Kansai currently features a single runway, unlike nearly every other international airport in the world. The authorities have been concerned about the problems associated with being a single-runway facility, and they have good reason to be. For example, you could be on a flight that is descending on its final approach, only to hear the Captain say that s/he must divert the flight because the previous aircraft blew out a tire and is stuck on the runway. That is all it would take to shut Kansai down until such problem could be eliminated. Thus the decision was made – build a second island and a second runway! Amazing as it sounds, engineers are doing just that!

In 1999, construction began on a new island, farther out in the bay by 200 meters. The islands were constructed using some very sophisticated methods of hardening up the bottom substrate that would support the islands. Then a wall was constructed into which, literally millions of tons of mountain land would be dumped. It is like moving a mountain into the sea. GPS is used to ensure the consistent and uniform placement of the fill material.

Let’s begin with some 2002 photos because we can go back in time by doing so.

Here, we are flying right by the NorthWest bird farm (notice the red aircraft). If you look out towards the sea you can see the outline of the new island, formed by a seawall.

Further past the terminal below, you can get a better view of the seawall. As you can see, there is still sea water inside the walled enclosure.

Here we see a big JAL boy taxiing out to the runway. Behind you can see the weather, which is often less than desirable. I’ve flown in and out of Kansai at least 10 times and most of the time its rainy or foggy.

Now, let’s move ahead to 2004 and show you what its like to land on Kansai, and explore the airport itself. On our little virtual tour, we will do a flyby of the islands and then turn around and land from the opposite direction.

Osaka bay is full of shipping traffic. You can see a surprising amount of commercial and pleasure craft going about their business. I am shooting through the starboard porthole (the right side of the aircraft) and the scenery is passing the porthole from left to right in this series of photos. The nose of the aircraft is to the left and the tail is to the right.

One of the first things we notice is the bridge that connects the island airport to the mainland. At 3,750 meters long, this breathtaking double-decker bridge is the longest bridge of its type in the world. 6 lanes of automobile traffic on the top deck, and 2 train tracks on the bottom for the rapid transit system. There is a station right in Kansai!

The end of the island that connects to the bridge comes into view now.

Continuing with our flyby, we now pass the main body of the islands. Notice the second island, previously mentioned above, is now filled in. In this view, the newer island is in the foreground and the original island is behind it. There is a small space between the islands and there is water between them.

Now, we are going to turn around and approach the runway going the opposite direction.

The line of marker buoys that marks the general outline of the islands. The last thing you want is for someone to run aground on the islands!

Flying lower still, and yet, no sign of a runway! Not even a sign of anything surrounding the runway, except open ocean! This does make some passengers a bit uneasy.

So, you are flying along, straight and low, when suddenly there’s an island airport right underneath you! “Hey look there’s a radome outside my porthole!”

This shot was taken about 20 seconds after the previous shot. The new island is partially visible in the background.

Not the best shot (but hey, you didn’t pay for it, right?) the famous steel roofed terminal building that looks like a wing.

We are on the ground and taxiing up to our gate in the NorthWest section of the terminal.

Once disembarked, this is the view from the glass walkway into the terminal. If you look directly ahead in this photograph, you can see another glass bridge identical to the one I am shooting from. The far end of the bridge has a cool elbow joint that allows the corrugated jetway to swing about and connect with the door of the aircraft. Its a nice design.

Turning a corner in the terminal, you can get a better view of the jetway connected to the NW aircraft that I arrived on.

Inside the terminal building, you are confronted with an almost surreal environment. If you look carefully through the windows just to the right of the aircraft tail, you can see the connecting bridge to the mainland.

Multi-leveled, the terminal building is deceptively large. I really like the hi-tech look of all the steel beams. Those are not just for looks, though. This baby is designed to handle the severe weather of Osaka bay, and the numerous earthquakes that strike the area. Not long after the airport was open, a deadly 7.2 magnitude earthquake in nearby Kobe toppled highways. Kansai suffered only superficial damage, even though the epicenter was only 29 kilometers away!

The terminal is one of the largest single-room buildings in the world. It seems as if the hallways go on forever! We are on the top level in the arrival section. The red “phone booth” looking thing to the left is a glass elevator.

Glancing out of the windows along the hallway, I took note of the construction of the second island. The work goes on around the clock.

Another shot of the terminal building, near my arrival gate. Everything is well marked but sometimes there is a bit of confusion. For example, one must take escalators or elevators to different levels, naturally. In one area where I pass through, there is a sign that says “Take Escalator to Second Floor.” This is confusing because the sign is on the forth floor and the escalator one must take is going down, not up, and there isn’t any indication of what floor you are currently on. Normally, a native English speaker would add the word “down” to avoid confusion. Just be aware that you are in a multi-level facility and may be required to go up or down to get where you need to go. The signs don’t tell you which direction to go from where you are standing.

Although it seems like a lot of walking, I’ve never had to walk more than about 100 meters to get where I needed to be.

If you are leaving the airport and entering Japan, you need to take this cool automated shuttle train to the central part of the airport and then onto passport control.

You are never more than a couple of minutes away from any section of Kansai.

Here is a classic example of a down escalator, although its pretty clear that there is only one direction for you to go to get to Arrivals.

Frequent readers of our blog will recognize this shot as what I am famous for – namely a quickly framed undercover shot taken in a forbidden area. Poor lighting, hand shake and a sign clearly prohibiting photography in plain view (although I didn’t see that at the time or else I wouldn’t have taken this shot). This is a medical health checkpoint on the way to Exit Control. The red sign displays a scrolling list of countries from which travelers are required to fill out an information form and wait for a medical examination. Taiwan is not on that list. We have a similar checkpoint in Taiwan.

Huge crowd at Passport Control. It took me almost 2 hours to get through this line. Fortunately it was full of Taiwanese people who were cracking jokes during the entire time.

Now, just when you thought the tour of Kansai International Airport was over – think again!

Upon passing through Immigration, one enters a very spacious lobby. I’m not really happy with their choice of colors but the terminal certainly is impressive no matter what the color. There are restaurants, shops and bars nearby.

Another lobby shot

This shot kinda puts things into perspective. I wandered around inside the lobby for about 30 minutes, looking at everything (and probably getting myself on every security camera in the place while doing it).

Eventually I wandered outside and man, was I impressed with the superstructure!

180 degrees from the above shot, we see the bus boarding area on the ground floor. You can take buses to destinations all over Japan. I can tell you from personal experience that the woman at the ticket counter understands sign language, or else I never would have been able to purchase a round-trip ticket to Kyoto. Good for up to 14 days, the R/T ticket is recommended because not only is it cheaper than two single journey tickets, you are guaranteed a way to get back to the airport.

As if it weren’t enough to have a world-class international airport built upon an artificial island in the middle of Osaka bay, Kansai sports a complex next to the terminal building that contains restaurants, a hotel and train station.

On the right we see the train station entrance. Notice the cool skylight overhead.

Walking past the train station and turning around inside of the complex, we can see just how large it is. The train station entrance is on the left and there are shops and restaurants on the right.

There is room for expansion and the addition of shops and restaurants too. This place just goes on forever. There is no indication whatsoever that I am standing on an island.

Let’s take a bus down that long bridge towards Osaka! Everything in Japan is clean, modern and well engineered. Now you didn’t think that I would leave you hanging and not show you views of the city, did you?

Osaka from the left side of the bus/bridge.

Nearing the end of the bridge.

The cool thing about visiting Japan is that the signage is in English and traditional Japanese, which is Chinese, basically. So at least if you are from Taiwan you can tell where you are going!

Now, we are coming back to Kansai from our visit in Kyoto (sorry that I can’t show you that right now – this post is already too long!) The view down the airport road is quite impressive.

The steel roof is gleaming in the afternoon sun (photo is tinted blue because of the bus’s tinted window). The terminal building is shaped like a giant wheel, with most of it (theoretically) underground. The ends taper lower to the ground and the highest point is in the center.

OK, I just had to mention something about food. I went to one of the restaurants before taking my flight back home to Taiwan and got this beef omelet. Curious, the menu had no English. Fortunately my waiter possessed some rudimentary knowledge of English. The omelet was not bad.

Finishing my lunch, I proceeded to Departures where I found another one of Kansai’s engineering marvels. Can you see it? Its very clearly visible.

Ventilation is a huge problem to solve in such a long terminal building. The problem of air movement throughout the terminal has been addressed in a very ingenious way. Notice the blue colored air vents to the right of this photo. Then notice the concave structures attached to the ceiling. Those are air troughs and they are designed to direct the airflow output from the vents, all along the length of the terminal.

This photo shows the trough structure more clearly. Air is forced up and out of the blue vent and right into the trough. But, how do you know its actually working? Do you get a ladder and put your hand over the vent to check the airflow?

No! Just check the movement of these very cleverly designed mobiles! Japanese engineers have succeeded in melding the old with the new in these origami-like mobiles that move with the breeze. Most people just watch them and admire the soothing slow motion action of these beautiful pieces of art. I looked at them, fully aware of their true function.

At this point, dear reader, we are finished with our tour of Kansai International Airport. But, there is something else that I would like to show you while I am talking about Kansai….

In 2000 I traveled to Taiwan but I did not stop over in Kansai. I just happened to be looking out of the porthole on the port side of the aircraft when I noticed a volcano on an island! I snapped this photo using my 1.3 megapixel Kodak DC120. If you look closely you will see that this is a double-coned volcano. One of the cones appears to be dormant.

On a trip from Kansai to Taiwan in September, 2004, I noticed a smoking cone, again on the port side of the aircraft.

As our aircraft got closer, it immediately became apparent that this is the same volcano that I saw in 2000.

The double-cones are quite evident in this photo, taken with the Nikon 5700, a decidedly better camera than the old Kodak.

The last thing I want to talk about regarding Kansai, is the fact that the island airport is sinking. In the first few years, the rate of sinking was so great that engineers estimated the airport had aged 40 years due to sinking. Early on, the rate was 5cm per month. Today, the rate of sinking has slowed to only 5cm per year which is a clear indication that the situation is improving. The good news is that the runway has been sinking at a very uniform rate along its length and has maintained flatness (attributed no doubt to the uniform distribution of the fill from the beginning). The second island is being built with the acquired knowledge of the lessons learned from the first island, and engineers say they can match the levels of the two islands within a few years of completion. In the meantime, the terminal building is constantly monitored for sinking and is routinely jacked up. Everything from the basement ceiling and up, move up when the building is jacked. Water, electrical, HVAC – everything – is attached to the ceiling of the basement so it can freely move up with the rest of the building. The height of the basement constantly increases where the rest of the building moves together.

If you liked this article, then I highly recommend viewing National Geographic’s MegaStructures for more fascinating information and excellent video coverage of Kansai.

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  1. Amazing photo essay!!! It makes me want to go to Japan just to see the airport.

    I will be interested to read your impressions of the new Suvarnabhumi Airport on your next visit to Thailand.

  2. Thanks David. i will be going back to Thailand in about a month, so i might have the opportunity then! take care.

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