The author enjoys traveling the world and visiting educational attractions such as museums where he can learn more about the local culture.
It must have been something I ate and the lack of sleep. Our February 2020, flight from Singapore to Narita International Airport in Tokyo, Japan, left me with a headache, an upset stomach, and diarrhea. So, I decided at the last minute to cancel a six-hour bus tour that I had scheduled months ago with the Narita Transit and Stay program to occupy our 11-hour layover.
My husband, Anthony and I, had already braved immigration and customs in only ten minutes. We then found a small locker for only 300 yen ($2.73) and stuffed our carry-ons inside it. After consulting some brochures we’d found at an information stand, we decided to visit nearby Narita City and its chief attraction, the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple.
Japan seemed somewhat dumpy. That was the impression of a first-timer, although my husband, Anthony, who had been there many times before, confirmed it was his general thought about the country as well. Where were the shiny tech, the polished architecture, and colorful mascots touted by all the media about Japan?
The airport confined us with low ceilings. And the 18-minute train ride from the airport to the city, while on-time and clean, confronted us with well-worn cars and an aging station. The 25-minute interval between trains surprised me. I was used to rapid transit taking from a one to 10 minutes arrive in such countries as Singapore or Germany.
Walking out of the station surrounded us with fresh air that made me feel better. Before me rose plain buildings no taller than a few stories in glass, steel, and brick, with not a green leaf in sight. We followed the free map and soon found Omotesando Street.
Omotesando Street proved to be the Japan I hoped to see: a one-lane road, down which squeezed impossibly small hatchbacks, sedans, vans, and pickup trucks. They’re called kei cars, microcars with engines under 700cc. Not only do they suit Japan’s smaller streets, they have lower taxes, including the road tax, which is based on engine displacement. These cars are unknown in the US.
On either side of the road, narrower lanes are marked off as shoulder to be used for temporary parking or, in cases where the brick sidewalk disappears, a place for pedestrians. The sidewalks are decorated by cute knee-high stone animals of the Japanese Zodiac.
Charming Shopping Street
Also on both sides stand numerous shops, many with interior left wide open to entice visitors. Some sell unagi or eel. The specialty of the area is barbecued on skewers, roasted with rice, or grilled with noodles. Other shops focus on trinkets and souvenirs.
The tourist office was closed for cleaning due to some holiday. But the smiling lady inside took the trouble to come out of her locked glass doors to ask us if we needed help. We asked her what to visit in Narita City. She recommended the temple, our planned destination. As we left, we noticed the public restrooms downstairs that were still open.
The towering traditional architecture of the temple beckoned us from the end of the street. The high stairs leading to the Main Gate of the temple grounds seemed imposing. But if barely mobile senior citizens were making the climb, we could too. When we reached the temple grounds, it was difficult to decide which of the beautiful buildings to visit first.
We spotted an information booth attended by a young lady who spoke only Japanese. Buried among the Japanese language signs was a small notice in English announcing free tours of the site by volunteers. By relying on our rudimentary knowledge of the language, gestures, and a lot of smiling, we were able to task for the tour.
She asked us to wait and about 10 minutes or so later, Mr. Yusanao Sato appeared. SatoSan, as we called him, was an elderly bespectacled mane dressed in a knee-length yukata (traditional Japanese coat), carrying a small shoulder bag. He spent a couple of years working in Anaheim, the city next to our own, so he could speak English.
After we asked him how long the tour would take, he told us it depended on us and eagerly asked us how much time we had. We answered “about an hour.” He did his best to hide his disappointment but gamely opened his blue binder to show us diagrams and pictures, and to explain the history of the temple.
The complex started out in 940 AD to celebrate the victory over a rebellion led by samurai Tira no Masakado. The temple is one of the top three for visitors in the entire country and is entirely free, except for a calligraphy museum on the grounds.
Just as I was starting to wonder if the whole tour would consist of a lecture out of his binder, SatoSan began to walk.
What We Saw
SatoSan’s engaging tales and zest for what he was doing encouraged us to stay with him for about three hours. He was careful to occasionally ask how much time we needed. Fortunately, we didn’t need to leave until early evening. He showed us things we would not have known to explore on our own.
Among the most memorable was the Goma fire ritual at the Daihon-do, or Main Training Hall. After much chanting and drumming, colorfully-clad Buddhist monks burned special wooden Goma sticks and other offerings in a bonfire at the center of the building. Visitors then lent their amulets, bags, and other possessions to the priests who hold them over the smoke to be purified.
The ritual occurs at least once a day with announcements throughout the complex in Japanese. If you don't speak the language, just follow all the tourists heading to the building after the announcement. And please remove your shoes before entering.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures of the ceremony. But I did take pictures of the other attractions at the temple complex.
Enjoying the Greenery
The 40 acres of Naritasan Park surrounds the temple with foliage like cherry trees, azaleas, and apricots. The colors and blooms depend on the season. When we were there, the apricots were flowering. The various gardens are meant to duplicate different landscapes around Japan, such as contemplative lakes and barren hillsides, and are worth a stroll when you want to forest bathe.
If your layover at Narita Airport lasts a minimum of three hours or, preferably, five, head for Naritasan Shinshoji temple. The free attraction gives you a delightful break from airline travel while offering a brief glimpse into Japanese life.
Be sure to take advantage of the free English-speaking tour. In our case, the expertise and enthusiasm of SatoSan became the most memorable part of the experience. We offered him lunch but he said he did not have time. I wish we'd brought him a souvenir or snack from the US to thank him for his efforts.
If you're hesitant about negotiating this adventure by yourself, then sign up ahead of time for the temple tour at the Narita Airport Transit and Stay website. An English-speaking volunteer meets you at the airport and then takes you to Omotesando Street and the Temple, and brings you back.
This tour is also free but you'll need to pay for your own tickets with the help of the volunteer who meets you AFTER you go through customs and immigration. Technically, you also have to pay any costs incurred by the volunteer but since many are senior citizens with train passes, their costs are zero.
If you have any questions, please ask in the Comments section below. And don't forget to fill out the fun poll.
Video of Naritasan Shinshoji Temple
Would You Visit the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple?
© 2020 Aurelio Locsin
Anya Ali from Rabwah, Pakistan on November 24, 2020:
Strange, I visited Japan in a dream some days ago . . . I would love to visit it in real life. Thank you for this hub.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 23, 2020:
Thanks for showing us the beautiful temple and surrounding gardens in Narita City, Japan. Your photos are beautiful. As Liz wrote, you did well to be able to spend that much time there given your health issues.
Liz Westwood from UK on November 22, 2020:
This is an interesting and very well-illustrated account of your visit to this temple. Given your health issues at the time you did well to fit this sightseeing in.