By Elena Lisina
Do you have free time in transit at Narita International Airport or before flying back home? Check out the nearby historical city, savor unagi and—if the timing is right—enjoy a festival or cherry blossoms! Access is simple and fast.
Before you explore Narita City's historic center, watch the world’s aircraft come and go at the north end of Narita Airport’s main runway. At Sakura no Yama Park, a high lookout facing Terminal 1 allows for clear views of planes taking off and landing. As planes roar overhead, challenge your companions to identify the airlines livery which you can clearly see from this vantage point. Sakura no Yama, as the name indicates, is a prime cherry blossom viewing spot in March and April. Hundreds of cherry trees provide a flurry of pink to frame photos of you and the world's air traffic.
Narita Omotesando street
The charm of Narita starts at the station front plaza where, on the hour from 08:00 to 20:00 from Sunday to Thursday and to 22:00 on Friday and Saturday, an animated clock presents figures and music evoking Narita's festivals. Start your exploration of Narita’s vintage town here stepping into Narita Omotesando, the kilometer-long approach to Shinshoji Temple.
For over 400 years, pilgrims traveled along this last stretch of the 60 kilometer route from the capital of Edo to the temple, receiving food and lodging in the inns. Today, the south end of the street has a mix of international and Japanese dining, attracting both flight crews and visitors from abroad. Dine at ramen and curry shops, pubs and cafes, many with English menus.
The closer you get to Shinshoji Temple, the farther back in time you travel. Keep an eye open for the sake brewery, apothecary, senbei cracker and sweets shops carrying yokan bean paste cakes, a Narita favorite.
Narita’s specialty, unagi
The dish Narita is best known for is grilled unagi, or freshwater eel. Weary pilgrims from Edo needed hearty fare, and freshwater eel, which they say relieves fatigue, grew in popularity over the centuries. Today, a few dozen shops around Omotesando serve unagi.
The most popular shop is the 109-year old Kawatoyo Honten. There’s no mistaking the freshness of the eel as the chefs select and filet it on a long bench in front of diners. The eel is broiled, basted with Kawatoyo’s own sauce blend, and served over rice in a lacquered box. The combination of sweet and savory, the crisp glaze on the outside with tender fish on the inside, served over fluffy rice with a dash of sansho pepper is so good, you might want to make it a regular excursion on your way to or from Narita Airport.
Narita Tourist Pavilion
Across the street from Kawatoyo is the Narita Tourism Pavilion. This building, a modern interpretation of kura storehouse architecture, houses Gion Festival floats, and provides maps and information about dining, shopping, and events. Connect to free wi-fi here.
Narita-san Shinshoji Temple
At the bottom of the winding Omotesando is Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, a pilgrimage destination for over 1,000 years. This Shingon Buddhist institution, “New Victory Temple” was founded when the emperor sent a priest along with a special goma-taki ritual statue in order to quell a rebellion. After performing the goma-taki fire ritual, the statue of Fudomyo, the immoveable wisdom king with fiery resolve, had grown too heavy to be returned to Kyoto. Today, the site venerates Fudomyo and has many impressive structures dating from the Edo Period, including the Komyo-do Hall and a pagoda. Not to be missed are the towering Pagoda of Peace housing a three-dimensional mandala of Fudomyo, and the main hall to observe the daily goma-taki ritual.
Between the main hall and the Pagoda of Peace lies Narita-san Park, a tranquil garden with ponds full of koi carps, mossy rocks, shady trees, and trickling streams. The park is popular for plum and cherry blossom viewing in spring, as a retreat from summer heat, and strolling under the colorful leaves in autumn.
In early July, Narita city celebrates summer with a three-day Gion Festival. Antique wooden floats with elaborate carpentry are paraded through the streets accompanied by costumed crews of dancers and musicians. Celebrations continue into the evening as the floats are lighted.
JR Narita Station and Keisei Narita Station are only two stops from Narita Airport Terminal 1 on the JR Narita Line and Keisei Main Line. Head down to the terminal's B1 level, and get oriented at the Skyliner and Keisei Line information counter. Access the gate with either paper tickets or easy-to-use IC cards such as PASMO or Suica. Ride just 10 minutes into the heart of Narita City.
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You will see many of my stories on Japan Travel are about places and events outside of big city centers and tourist destinations. While I highly recommend the big name sights and experiences, I encourage visitors to see and feel the atmosphere off the beaten path, too.