The day before my flight back from Tokyo by Narita airport, it was raining. It kind of felt like Japan didn’t want me to go or that we had had such a good weather that it couldn’t wait more…
The thing is that it was raining. Not too much, just enough to make me take the umbrella out of the luggage. I could have spent the day at the hotel’s onsen and read, read and read (or work). But since I was having about 12 hours to read on my next flight, I chose what any responsible traveler should: explore the surrounding area and see all that Narita city had to offer.
As I found out, Narita is not only the city where the Tokyo’s most international airport is (yes, you can fly to Haneda too, but the highest chance is that you will be flying to Narita), but also an important power spot that attracts about 10 million travelers per year (on its own).
Well, the airport is not the only thing in Narita. See all you shouldn’t miss if you want to visit Narita on your own:
What to see in Narita city (day trip)
According to my phone step counter, this whole trip takes about 3.5 kilometres and you could do it in half a day, so it makes a great short trip from the airport. You could also spend more time there, as there are plenty of things in the area and great spots to test local food, which is a top recommendation in Narita.
The starting point is the JR train station (or the Keisei station, which is really close to the JR one), so no excuses to take a short ride and visit Narita!
There’s a lot to see, so here is an index, just in case:
- From the train station
- Top things around Omotesando street
- Narita-San Shinshoji
- More interesting spots in Narita
- Key dates to add to your calendar
At the JR station
Narita has two train stations, one from JR (Japan Rail) and another one from Keisei. But they are really close one to the other. Neither is a stunning station, neither the streets where they are located at, but you will find a few restaurants, hotels, karaoke and conbini around here. There’s even a big theatre just around the corner.
But this will sure be your starting point when you visit Narita sicne:
- Free buses from hotels in the area stop at the JR station.
- Trains connecting with Narita airport and Tokyo stop here (it takes 11 minutes from Narita airport to Narita city).
- The guided tours to other interesting spots around Narita, such as the ones from JR, depart from the JR station too
Having said that, take a look around and search for the Kabuki statue, the beautiful Omotesando street starts just behind.
Narita’s Omotesando street
If you are coming from Tokyo, Omotesando will sound like top brands, alternative wear, modern architecture… but here in Narita Omotensando means just the opposite: small restaurants, crafters, sweets and statues.
There are two parts of the street: one more modern, up to the statue of Takajo Mitsuhashi and the Yakushido temple, and a more traditional one. And you will go through both of them to get to Narita’s buddhist temple, so take a look around, there are interesting spots in both of them (even though the second one seems to be a better shot for Instagram).
At the first part of Omotesando you will see a modern japanese town with many international food options and plenty of groceries and traditional japanese food and drinks to buy. The one that seems to attract most visitors is the “Barge Inn” an English pub that Virgin’s CEO Richard Branson built in Narita so that their crew felt like home when they were sleeping at Narita. o_O It is now under a different management, but seems to be still attracting many international crews.
While you walk by the sake stores and the artisan groceries and ingredients, take a look at the different animal statues around. They are all signs from the japanese and chinese zodiac, together with a few turtles (they are a symbol of longevity).
When you are getting close to the Yakushido Hall and the second part of the street, you will come across the Nagomi-no-Yoneya shop on your left hand. It is a big traditional sweets’ shop. (The name is in japanese, but you the one-storey building won’t go unnoticed.) Go through it, they have plenty of traditional sweets, which are handmade here in Narita.
And, since you are already there go to their backyard (you can cross through the store or through their parking lot) to see two interesting spots: the garden and the building with the pink frame.
The pink building is the museum of Yokan sweets, the traditional sweets from Narita. Yokan is a sweet jellied paste from red bean paste (you can try them at the shop you went through) which, according to tradition, was created by the Shinshoji monks to serve their vegetarian diet (the jelly is made from agar). The museum shows how the sweets went from a “conventual” dessert to a commercial product. Visiting is free and it has some interesting things to spot, but you will find most signs and explanations only in japanese.
Behind the building and next to the factory and the parking lot is the garden of deity Fudo Myoo. This little garden doesn’t seem to fit here, but it could be the origin of the impressive temple of Narita. The story says that the statue of Fudo Myoo (Acala the immovable), more than 400 years ago. It’s no longer here, but at one corner of this garden you will find a sacred fountain.
Back to the main street, you will find the small temple of Yakushido and the statue of Takajo Mitsuhashi. She is considered the best haiku writer from Japan and she was born in Narita at the beginning of the XX century.
*Note: if you missed the Barge Inn on your way, it was next to the Seven Eleven, just 5 minutes from the train station (right side from the train station too). Since you will be going back to the station, take a look and let me know if it’s worth stopping by or not 😉
Second part of Omotesando
The second part of Omotesando, closer to the temple has a more traditional feeling. I don’t know if it is more authentic, but I do know it certainly is something you shouldn’t miss. Here you will find more crafters, sweets shops, japanese unagi (eel) restaurants and traditional chinese medicine….
You can stop at every shop, they have amazing things all the way down to Naritasan temple, but if you are in a bit of a rush, check these:
- halfway down the street (where you see that slight curve to the left on the picture) is Narita’s Tourist Pavillion. It is probably the ugliest building on the street, but you have a few seats, an information point with leaflets in English and other languages, and a little exhibition with the Mikoshis (portable shrines) from the Matsuri (festivals). Entrance is free and if you are there on Thursdays at 10:30 they have a tea ceremony that you can watch (English translation available).
- Right across, there are two traditional Unagi (eel) restaurants that catch, cut and cook the eels on the street (not apt for vegans). You will find another one down the street.
If you are in Narita at lunch time, it is a great place to eat. There is an interesting mix of locals and tourists, and it is also the traditional dish that pilgrims had in Narita (they say that the excellent waters from Tone river and Imba lake make them great.)
If you don’t feel like having eel, you can also go for Senbei (traditional rice fritters from the Chiba region), Tsukudani (fish cooked in soy sauce) or Sora Anpan (buns filled with lotus roots, teppozuke pickles or sweet potatoes, for example). Or just skip the most traditional and go for other japanese dishes, you will find plenty of options.
The Narita-san Shinshoji buddhist temple
When you get to the end of Omotesando street, you will find to your left the big Narita Somon door. It’s not something you can easily miss (it’s 15 meters high and has an open space in front). Access to the temple is free and they have even made it accessible for wheelchairs that allow you to visit many of the areas (not everything but a great part of it).
#Pro Tip: Outside of the temple, right across the door, you will find the building Shinto Kaikan (the one with horns over the main door). They have leaflets about the temple but also volunteer guides that can guide you through Naritasan Shinshoji buildings and gardens. They are there from 10AM to 3PM and only a few speak English so better be early or book a guided visit from the Volunteer Guides Association from Narita (at Chiba), the temple or the free guides from Narita Airport.
So, having said that, let’s go with the temple visit (which is a total must-see in Narita). As you may have seen at other japanese temples, it is not just one temple or building, but many buildings, and the door is not the only door, but there are many doors. The first door you’ve come across is not even the most impressive door at Naritasan, follow the steps up to Niomon, which is National Cultural Heritage of Japan:
Once you go through it, you will find a small bridge. Kids will stop here to look at the turtles, but the surrounding forest and graveyard is amazing too.
You can keep going up the stairs (or take the lift) to get to the main area. To your right, the three storey pagoda, in front of you the Daihondo building, and on your left (a bit hidden behind other buildings) Shaka-do.
The main building, Daihondo, is one of the most modern ones (from the 1960s). Here is where the Goma rituals take place at first time in the morning and, although it doesn’t have a long history behind it, it is also where you will find the main deity of the temple (Acala or Fudo Myo), together with the four messengers of Vairocana Budha and the big Mandala from the Heisei era.
It is an active temple and you will find people praying and priests here. They also sell Goma charms and omamoris. But getting inside is free. Just remember to take your shoes off and be respectful.
Following left, on the same area, you will find the Shakado building. It was built in the XIX century and used to be the main building of the temple (it is also National Heritage of Japan). It is worth getting closer and see the 500 carvings of buddhist saints (they say there is not one like the other.)
Once here, you have different options:
- keep going left towards the Okuyama Hiroba plaza. You will find here fortune tellers and souvenir shops.
- turn around leaving the building on your back and go up the stairs that take you to the sanctuary Shusse Inari. It’s a success sanctuary (for life and business) so get closer to the fox statues and light a candle or give them aburaage (their favorite food). You can buy any of these around the temple. And you will find some amazing views of Naritasan from here.
But if you want to stick to the traditional route, follow the path between the main building and the Shakado and up the stairs. This way you will visit Gakudo, Komyodo (from the XVIII century and once the main building of the temple) and the Great Peace Pagoda.
The great Pagoda of Peace from 1984 is a symbol of Shingon Buddhism and has a little exhibition inside about the history of the temple and also a room where you can copy the Buddhist Sutras with japanese calligraphy (from 8:00 to 15:00 it is free to do this and you can keep the brush, but you have to be silent and they only speak japanese.) The pagoda outside is 58 meters tall and is another National Heritage of Japan.
From here, you can go down the streets below the pagoda or next to the Komyodo building, which will take you the gardens (stunning), the National Museum of Caligraphy (it’s pay and most signs are in Japanese, but might be a great visit) and the 20 meters waterfall.
Other interesting spots to add to the “traditional” list
If you have some extra time to spend in Narita, there are some nice spots to add to the list:
- if you are a train freak or an engineer addict, you can see here a brick tunnel that the Seiso Electric Train used to go through. It is a Public Works National Heritage in Japan and will find near Omotesando at Denshamichi street.
- if you haven’t visited Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, Narita’s market opens from 7:30AM to 10:30AM (closes Sundays and Wednesdays). It is smaller and it is not next to any of the above, but you have local buses that take you there from the Keisei train station. For the tuna auction, you will need to book online (on their web, in japanese) and be there at 5AM, but there are guided visits (and free visits) to the general area.
- If you are into quirky gifts, Narita is famous for the “miracle medicines” they sell since the Edo period. Even today their Ichiriyugan stomach medicine is quite popular. You can buy it at a 280 years old pharmacy called Ichiruygan Mitsuhashi (almost in front of the temple) which sells all sort of herbal remedies. If you are interested in traditional chinese medicine, you will find more shops here.
- if you are into air and planes, check all you can do near (and inside) the airport, as visiting the museum of aeronautics or visiting the Observatory Decks.
Where to sleep in Narita
For this trip I slept at Narita View Hotel, which is a layover hotel, but also a great place for exploring the area. Big and comfortable rooms in between Narita city and Narita airport, It has a free transfer bus that connects you with the airport, Narita train station and the Shopping Mall (great spot to buy green tea Kit Kats and other things.)
And key dates to visit Narita
- July 7th to 9th. It is Narita’s Gion festival, which has been celebrated for 300 years.
- July 14th to August 27th. It is the eel festival with offers in many shops and some nice activities.
- July 30th. The Makata Shrine Matsuri, near Narita city centre.
- August 23rd. It is Narita’s Mitama Festival, a Bon type festival to honor the ancestors and lots of dance and music by night.
- September 16th and 17th. The Scenic Arts Festival that brings to Narita traditional dances and music from all around Japan.
- September 24th. Goma Ceremony. While goma ceremonies take place daily, they have two bigger ceremonies with fire at the temple, one in May and another one in September.
All the important dates, available at the site from Narita tourist office.