Dear passengers in transit to Asia and those flying out of Narita,
Did you know that the area surrounding one of the major entry points to Japan is actually host to an impressive collection of attractions and adventures? That’s right folks! Even if you only have a few hours in Japan or otherwise need to kill time before your flight, the area around Narita International Airport is more than able to deliver a true taste of authentic culture. From an ancient temple with a millennia of history to the recently built Mega Don Quijote department store, the Narita area is the perfect sampler of Japan at large.
As always with my area guides, I’ll be covering the Narita area in extreme depth. I do this so that travelers can best appreciate the cultural context while also being aware of any potential challenges that a visitor might face. If something doesn’t seem of interest to you, feel free to skip liberally. That said, this lengthy article might make for the perfect read while cruising in the sky!
Getting to Chiba Prefecture & Narita
While often thought to be quite close to Tokyo, Narita and its international airport are actually located about 60 km to the east in Chiba Prefecture. This distance makes for quite the hike when traveling from the nation’s capital. Of course, there are express trains like the Keisei Skyliner that service the airport yet the trip can take over an hour to reach Narita from Central Tokyo.
Luckily though, transit passengers and those with evening flights need not worry about this logistical hurdle. For these readers, Narita city is just a few minutes away from the airport by train. Just hop on one of the JR or Keisei trains bound for Tokyo and get off at the JR Narita Station. Note that of the two, the Keisei Line has more frequent departures (about every 20 minutes) but costs a whole 20 yen more.
As always, be sure to fire up Hyperdia or another similar service to find the best train routes. Alternatively, simply ask any of the staff from the wonderful Narita Airport Transit & Stay Program. You’ll find information centers located in both Terminal 1 & 2. They have a whole slew of resources on display and even offer English speaking volunteer tour guides. While I’m the type of traveler who always likes to go it alone, this additional support is a godsend for less adventurous souls.
Visit Narita’s Sprawling Temple Complex
Without a doubt, the prime attraction in the Narita area is the ancient Narita-san Shinsho-ji temple grounds. Often referred to merely as Narita-san (meaning Mt. Narita) in Japanese, this time-honored site has a history dating back well over 1,000 years. Of the present structures that make up the complex, five have been designated as important cultural properties by the Japanese government.
According to the records, Narita-san was originally founded in 940 by a disciple of Kukai, one of the most important figures in Buddhism. It was erected to commemorate the victory of forces dispatched from Kyoto (then called Heian-kyo) to suppress an imperial revolt by a samurai warlord in the region. Taking from this legacy, the full name of Narita-san literally translates to something like “Mt. Narita’s New Victory temple.”
Throughout most of its history, Narita-san was a remote and provincial temple. The temple only started to gain popularity when Tokugawa Ieyasu finally unified Japan in 1603 and made Edo (modern day Tokyo) his new capital. In fact, it is said that Ieyasu himself often credited Narita-san for his conversion to Buddhism. Despite its ties to the shogunate, it was actually a chance connection with the world of kabuki that was most responsible for promoting and enriching the Narita-san temple.
Interested in making a visit to Narita-san? Well you should know that the temple can easily be reached in a matter of minutes from either the JR Narita Station or the Keisei-Narita Station. Just follow the map above! One of the most charming aspects of Narita-san is that the “Omotesando” approach to the temple is lined with a collection shops. Stretching over a kilometer from the station to the Narita-san complex, here you’ll find an array of vendors selling traditional crafts and yummy delectables. What’s more, many of these shops have been catering to visitors to the temple for centuries.
While I don’t want to spoil all of the fun, here’s a short list of a few things to keep an eye out for while visiting Narita-san.
- The Main Hall: The current main hall was completed in 1968; while a rather ordinary building, it’s a great place to catch a glimpse of the magnificent Goma fire ritual which is performed here several times a day.
- Three-Story Pagoda: Located directly in front of the main hall, this ornate three-storied pagoda is a sight to behold. Much of the structure dates back to 1712 with a few minor touch ups being more recent.
- Komyo-do Hall: Located smack in the middle of the greater complex, this hall was built in 1701 when Narita-san became popular in the world of kabuki. It is the oldest building on the grounds.
- The Great Pagoda of Peace: This gigantic 58-meter high pagoda is a relatively new addition to the Narita-san grounds but nevertheless, quite an impressive sight to behold. Be sure to venture inside if you have a chance!
Shopping In and Around Narita
Looking to do a little bit of shopping during your transit or before heading home? Don’t worry, Narita has you more than covered in this regard. While you’ll find duty free shops scattered about perhaps the most efficient option is Narita’s AEON Shopping Mall. Due to its close proximity to the airport, the mall has long been popular with foreign travelers. Despite being a bit more than your typical, run-of-the-mill Japanese shopping center, it is far better equipped to accommodate those who can’t speak the local tongue. And, with over 170 stores to choose from as well as a rather large game center, this is the perfect location to kill time before a flight.
There are direct shuttle buses running between Narita Airport and the Aeon Mall about every 20–25 minutes. Alternatively, you can board one of the pink Aeon Mall buses that depart regularly from the front of the Keisei-Narita Station. While first timers to Japan might be a little intimidated by buses, there’s really no need to worry. If you need help, the Narita Airport Transit & Stay Program staff are always there at their kiosk and ready to help!
Not in the mood for the mall? Why not try out the aforementioned Mega Don Quijote department store? This whacky amalgam of goods, toys, clothes, and other sundry items is sure to provide ample opportunities for both shopping and entertainment. You’ll find it located here, right next to the Aeon Mall. To get there, simply take one of the buses bound for the shopping center and hoof it.
Time Travel at Narita’s Boso Village
While the Narita-san complex and the Aeon Mall constitute the primary attractions for transit passengers, the Boso Village provides a great alternative for those clamoring for something more unique. This open air museum aims to showcase what the traditional local lifestyles would have been for people living in and around the Narita region. Across its wide open grounds, you’ll find a handful of historical farmhouses as well as opportunities to participate in creating traditional crafts. There’s even a large collection of ancient kofun tombs and other archaeological discoveries from the early mists of time.
Like with Edo Wonderland up in Nikko, the Boso Village also offers a chance to dress up as a character from the Edo period (1603–1868). You can choose to don the guise of a samurai, a ninja, or a lady in a kimono. Especially for those traveling in a group, this is the perfect way to set up a commemorative Instagram shot while in Japan. Note that prices vary depending on the outfit. Entry to the Boso Village will also cost you another 300 yen.
The only downside to the Boso Village is that it’s pretty difficult to get to on your own. For starters, you’ll need to make your way to the west exit of the JR Narita Station. From there, you’ll want to hop on one of the buses bound for Ryukakuji 2–chome that depart from stop #4. If this sounds confusing, know that IT IS. I actually got on the wrong bus myself when researching for this guide. I suggest that you just pony up and pay for a taxi and especially if you’re running on limited time. The fare should total about 2,000 yen or so and will save you many headaches.
Lastly, those who aren’t adverse to guides should know that the Narita Airport Transit & Stay Program also offers English-speaking tours. These are conducted by volunteers who will ensure you get to and from the Boso Village safely while also not risking missing a flight. Those who opt for this recourse have the added bonus of getting 40–50% off the costume fees as well.
Savor Local Cuisine in Narita
Generally speaking, it’s hard to beat sampling the regional cuisine when it comes to authentically experiencing a culture. This holds true for Narita as well. Located next to the Tonegawa River and its ishery, Narita has long been famous for its unagi (freshwater eels). As far back as the Edo period (1603–1868), these savory dishes have sustained pilgrims with the much needed calories to recuperate following a long day’s journey. Historically, Narita lodge owners would serve unagi to famished travelers; the tradition continues today as over 60 unagi restaurants dot the Omotesando approach to Narita-san.
No doubt, some people are immediately put off by thoughts of eating unagi. Please know that the actual texture is far from the slimy image eels typically conjure. Still, if you prefer to opt for another of Narita’s meibutsu, be sure to try some yokan. This culinary gem was once a part of the Buddhist vegetarian cuisine of Narita-san’s monks. It consists of a jelly painstakingly made with sweet azuki beans and agar jelly. The local take on yokan often also employs the use of regionally-sourced chestnuts for additional flavor.
Attractions Near the Narita Area
Oh boy, where to even begin! The entirety of the Narita area (and the wider Boso peninsula on which it resides) is rich with history. Within an hour’s train ride, there are all sorts of hidden gems for intrepid adventurers to explore. While I wouldn’t recommend any of these to travelers with only a few hours to spare before their next flight, those with next-day layovers may appreciate the following. In the interest of brevity, I’ll only offer a short description of each so be sure to do some digging in Google if any of these attractions tickle your fancy.
- Historic Sawara
Along with my beloved Kawagoe, Sawara (pictured above) also bears the title of “Little Edo” due to the large collection of perfectly preserved Edo period (1603–1868) architecture. The historic area can be reached on foot in a matter of minutes from Sawara Station. Note that Sawara is best explored by taking a leisurely cruise along its main canal.
- Shisui Outlets
Is the Aeon Mall not enough for you? No problem. Narita has plenty of other options for commerce but few things compare to the bargains you’ll find at the outlets in Shisui. The collection of shops is served by direct buses both from the airport and Shisui Station. #ShopTillYouDrop!
- Kashima Jingu
Located about an hour outside of Narita, this antediluvian shrine has strong ties to the martial arts while also boasting routes that date back well over 2,000 years. Today, its tranquil grounds are home to some truly magnificent structures as well as a deer park. Refer to my guide linked above for more information if you want to make a visit.
- Katori Jingu
Like with Kashima Jingu, Katori Jingu is an ancient shrine that also has strong ties to the martial arts. Of the two twin sites, Katori Jingu is much harder to get to and requires taking an obscure bus or walking about 30 minutes. As such, first time visitors to Japan would do well to consider other options given the travel challenges.
Until next time travelers…