Narita, Beyond the Airport

So, as many of you know from experience, Narita is the site of Japan’s main international airport. It’s also surprisingly far away from Tokyo. I remember coming into Narita for the first time in 2004 and being surprised at seeing so many rice paddies on the hour-long express train journey into the city. The inconvenience of Narita and its distance from Tokyo have actually been a subject of debate for many years, which has resulted in the recent expansion of Haneda airport (which is actually in Tokyo proper) to international flights. There’s been quite a lot of this is the news lately, with most people commenting that Haneda will certainly make things more convenient for Japanese business travelers and tourists but also adding that it is never going to be an international hub while its airport fees are so much higher than Incheon (in South Korea) and elsewhere. (Here’s one article on the topic.)

But I digress.

Basically, you only go to Narita if you’re going to the airport. And this was true of myself yesterday, as I was going to the airport to apply for a multiple reentry permit, which would enable me to return to the US for a conference in December and subsequently be allowed back into Japan. Unfortunately, it appears that the Japanese consulate in San Francisco misinformed me, since you apparently cannot apply for reentry permits at the Narita immigration office unless it’s an emergency. So, given that I had ridden the train 50 minutes from Ichikawa to Narita, I decided to leave the airport and take a look around the city of Narita.

Given that it was already the late afternoon by this time, I decided to hit what I’d heard was Narita’s main attraction: Naritasan. Or, the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, if you prefer. It was a pleasant 15-minute walk or so from the Keisei Narita stations, along a shop-lined street of shops called the Omotesando. It was an interesting mix of the traditional and the modern, the shops that looked like they’d been there forever and the ones that were clearly set up for tourists with long layovers at the airport. I didn’t buy anything, but it made for a very cute and pleasant atmosphere.

When I got to the main temple complex (at the bottom of the slow descent that you see above), I was greeted with a beautifully laid out temple with a number of interesting buildings. The temple was founded in 940, and it’s a center for the Buddhist Shingon sect. Legend has it that a Goma rite dedicated to the imaged of Fudomyoo helped to miraculously suppress a revolt led by Tairo no Masakado. An oracle proclaimed that the image should stay in Narita to help relieve local suffering, and Emperor Suzaku then ordered that Naritasan be built to enshrine the image. Anyway, I think I’ll just share some of the images and let them speak for themselves:

The main hall

Shotoku Taishi hall, dedicated to the father of Japanese Buddhism

Three-story pagoda, built in 1712

The grounds were fairly quiet, but there were a number of elementary and junior high school children wandering around, some of them having been sent by their English teacher to accost foreign tourists and introduce themselves in English. But there were all sorts of nice moments as I walked around the grounds. I particularly liked walking up the staircase to one of the temple areas to find this shisa statue peering down at me from above:

I also enjoyed the flower sculptures that they had on display, from a recent flower festival. My favorite was this one:

Anyway, I didn’t have time to see everything, since the sun is setting at around 4:45 pm these days (don’t worry, it comes up at 6:00 am, so that leaves plenty of daylight for those who can get up early enough). There’s also a 16.5 hectares park, which opened in 1928, and I think that I missed the Great Pagoda of Peace, so  I’ll have to go back again sometime. I bet it’s beautiful in the spring. On the walk back to the station, I took the time to look at the many statues that lined the Omotesando. A couple of my favorites illustrate the kind of variety I saw:


In sum: If you’re ever flying through Japan and want to get just a little taste of what it’s like, try to make the short trip to Narita and take a walk around.