In Transit in Narita

It's my last night in Japan after a month's stay, and I'm sitting at my hotel window, looking out over a dense forest of evergreens and marveling at the jets as they float over treetops on their descent into Narita Airport. I sometimes end my travels in Japan with an overnight stay in Narita so that I can unhurriedly make my way to the airport the next morning, especially if I have an early flight.

Even better, I just spent the afternoon sightseeing in the town of Narita, famous for its Buddhist temple and boasting a charming, winding main street lined with shops and restaurants. Narita town is close enough to the airport that anyone with four hours of transit time should escape the confines of the airport and enjoy a relaxing excursion here.

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Narita Temple Narita is well tuned to its role as a transit town and serves the needs of transiting passengers by offering a myriad of trouble-free transportation options. The old-fashioned-looking Retro Bus connects Narita Airport with downtown Narita, while the Narita Circle Bus makes the rounds from seven major hotels to major sights in Narita (cost of the Circle or Retro Bus is about $1.75 per trip). In addition, both the Keisei and JR trains, which connect Narita Airport with downtown Tokyo, make stops in the town of Narita. For those staying overnight, many hotels offer free shuttle buses to and from both the airport and downtown Narita.

After arriving at Keisei Narita Station this afternoon, I made my way down Omotesando Dori, a winding, narrow lane that leads to Narita's most famous attraction, Naritasan Temple, founded in 939. Open-fronted shops offer Japanese sweets, crackers, kimono, sake, and Narita's famous food products: pickled vegetables and peanuts. I marveled at peanuts combined with a variety of flavors--curry, red pepper, yogurt, green tea, strawberry, chili, cheese, or chocolate--but in the end it was the pickled vegetables I couldn't resist (the shopkeeper assured me the vacuum-packed product would do just fine in my checked-in luggage).

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Omotesando Dori Also on Omotesando Dori is the Narita Tourist Pavilion, which introduces the town's main sights in several exhibitions. Of more interest, perhaps, is the free tea ceremony from 10:30am to noon for those lucky enough to visit on Thursdays, while on Tuesdays there are free kimono, ikebana (flower arranging), tea ceremony, Japanese harp, and calligraphy demonstrations (for more information, call the tourist office at 0476/24-3232). But I was more interested in lunch, and knowing that Narita is also famous for eel dishes, I chose Kawatoyo across the street from the Narita Tourist Pavilion, a traditional restaurant with tatami seating which has been dishing out barbecued eel for more than 80 years.

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Eel bentou Properly fortified (eel supposedly makes one more virile, too, but I wasn't able to test that theory), I then continued onward to Naritasan, more properly known as Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, where I was immediately greeted by an English-speaking Volunteer Guide eager to impart his knowledge of the temple to any and all wayward foreign tourists (Volunteer Guides offer their services free of charge daily from 10am to 3pm). I learned that the temple's raison d'etre is a fearsome-looking deity said to have been carved by Kobo Daishi (founder of the Shingon Buddhist sect who lived 774 to 835 A.D.). That's impressive enough, but the blue-skinned Fudomyoo deity, with vampire-like teeth and piercing eyes, is a fantastic piece of art. Surrounded by blue-skinned, many-armed assistants and symbolic flames, the God of Fire holds both a sword and a rope, one to cut down proponents of false knowledge and the other to round up believers of enlightenment (which camp are you in?). He holds court in the Great Pagoda of Peace, symbol of Narita city and home of a time capsule filled with messages and prayers from world leaders for eternal peace. The interior of the pagoda is a riot of colors and murals, and though the Fudomyoo looks slightly unnerving (like he's about to leap into action at any moment), the faithful have been flocking here for centuries to pray for the banishment of evil and for freedom from oppression. Apparently, Fudomyoo is so terrifying, demons wouldn't be caught dead anywhere near Naritasan.

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Pond and garden

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Memorial tablets Just below the Great Pagoda of Peace is Naritasan Park, laid out in 1928 and consisting of three linked ponds. It's known for plum and cherry blossoms in spring and red maples in autumn, but I was delighted to find one of my favorite flowers bursting forth, wisteria. Feeling energized and at peace, I headed back toward Omote-sando Dori on a shaded path lined with memorial tablets donated by the faithful. This, I think, would be a wonderful antidote to jetlag. But since I'm outbound, I'm hoping that my few hours in Narita will carry me through the traveling day to come. But just case, Fudomyoo can go ahead and throw me that rope.

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That's me with my favorite flowers, Wisteria.

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