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Tokyo takes expensive toll on stranded travellers

Being stranded in Asia as a cloud of volcanic ash over Europe causes air traffic chaos has taken a punitive toll on travellers marooned in Tokyo, one of the world's most expensive cities.

world Updated: Apr 20, 2010 14:17 IST

Being stranded in Asia as a cloud of volcanic ash over Europe causes air traffic chaos has taken a punitive toll on travellers marooned in Tokyo, one of the world's most expensive cities.

The soaring costs of an extended stay in Japan has driven some to despair amid the clamour to find the next available flight out of Narita airport, with nearby hotels full and metropolitan Tokyo an hour-long train ride away.

At least 35 international flights were cancelled in Japan on Tuesday, 26 at Narita, officials said, leaving thousands stranded in a city named by the Economist Intelligence Unit last year as the world's most expensive.

For French sisters Lucille, 23 and Anais, 21, a three-week trip to Japan became a nightmare when an Icelandic volcano blasted an ash cloud into the sky, shutting down European airspace and leaving them stranded.

The pair have run out of money and Lucille has used up her supply of medicine to treat a rare stomach disorder, preventing her from eating.

"We've been coming here to the airport every day for the past five days since our flight was cancelled Friday," said a tearful Lucille, doubled up in pain on a row of seats. "We've no more money and I've no more medicine."

They were taken in by a Japanese family on Friday after their flight to England was cancelled because of the ash cloud over Europe, in the biggest air traffic lockdown since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

They have since been booked into a hotel by their anxious parents in France, but the sisters have been told to expect another five-day wait for the next available seats on a flight to Birmingham, in Britain, where they are students.

Those attempting to leave via different routes face high costs, with airlines such as Italian carrier Alitalia offering same-day flights to Rome for 3,500 euros Tuesday.

"I need to get home fast," said a weary Abel Horvath, 36, on his way back from a wedding in Tokyo to Freiburg in Germany. "But 3,500 euros is just too expensive."

For European travellers, Japan has become an expensive proposition in recent months as fears over sovereign debt hammer the euro, which is down roughly six percent against the yen since the start of the year.

Antoine, Nordine, Pierre and Stephane, four young employees of French TV station TF1, came for a two-week holiday to Japan but are now struggling to make ends meet as their vacation rapidly sours during the wait to go home.

"We're having to sleep in a capsule hotel", said Pierre, referring to Tokyo's budget hotels which offer cabinet-sized rooms for guests and where a night costs 3,150 yen (34 dollars, 25 euros), not including a shower.

With airlines tentatively checking in some passengers as some European governments opened airspace to new flights Tuesday, tourists in Japan were particularly anxious to escape before next week's Golden Week holidays.

The public holiday brings one of the biggest annual peaks in Japanese air travel demand as companies close for a week and the country of 127 million looks to travel, with air tickets either scarce or highly inflated.

Eyeing potential chaos brought by a continued shutdown, embassies are working with airlines to ensure backlogs are cleared quickly once airspace reopens, with the likes of Virgin Atlantic reporting 1,500 passengers stranded in Japan.

"It's put a whole downer on the trip and not knowing anything makes it worse," said Sydney-based Nicole Don, scribbling her phone number onto the arms of her young son and daughter in case they get lost waiting in Narita's cavernous complex.

Others were resigned to their powerlessness in the face of the eruption which according to British officials spewed a fresh ash cloud headed for Britain on Tuesday.

"If I don't get to London today, then so be it," said Dutch helicopter pilot Rolf Jilesen, strumming a guitar in front of a departures board covered in red cancellation signs.