Japan: Narita- the Town, not the Airport!

A small, typical Japanese town with a 1000 year old Buddhist temple and a beautiful park.

Why visit? 
Most people only know Narita as the location of Japan's busiest international airport, and once they leave the Arrivals area, they get out as fast as they can to Tokyo, 60km away. Which is a shame.

Narita town makes a perfect base for a first or last night in Japan. It's got all the charm of a small town, and a laid-back atmosphere impossible to find among Tokyo's 14 million inhabitants.

Come here for a quiet slice of traditional Japan before or after you indulge in the more modern-than-tomorrow cityscape of 21st century Tokyo, or during a long layover between flights.

60km east of Tokyo, near the international airport of the same name. Map.

FLY TO ASIA long enough, and you'll eventually find yourself with some time to kill at Tokyo's Narita International Airport.  Most people touch down and get the hell out of there, with characteristic Japanese efficiency. But it can take two hours to reach Tokyo, and if you have a relatively short layover, a trek into Tokyo may be a little too much of a good thing.

Fortunately, right under your nose there's a lot to discover: there's more to Narita than the glass and concrete of the eponymous airport.

Take the train, or hop in a cab, for the short ride to Narita town (成田市 Narita-shi), a charming little temple town with, you guessed it, a temple, but also a very Japanese park and a plethora of grilled eel. Yum!
Look closely at this picture, and you'll see the airport is not that far away...
Let's start with the temple, known as Narita San. There's been a Buddhist temple here since the year 940, so unlike most of Tokyo, this place actually does have a real sense of history. Of course, the temple has been repaired and expanded over the years, so some parts are more ancient than others. But all in all, it's an impressive temple complex.
That's what the locals think as well, and especially at the weekend Narita San is full of visitors-slash-pilgrims, many of them presumably coming from the Tokyo metropolitan area- this temple is quite a big deal locally.
Minor Sights' visit coincided with the celebration of Shichi-Go-San (七五三, lit. "Seven-Five-Three") a rite of passage for children aged three, five or seven who get to wear their first formal dress (usually kimonos and haoris), which makes for super-kawaii photo opportunities!
Are you taking my picture? You are, aren't you!
Super kawaii!

Then there's the park. As a sign proudly proclaims: 'This area is good to feel a pure atmosphere of sacredness and a spiritual power'. Amen.
Of course, this being Japan, the park is carefully landscaped, with beautiful stone lanterns and a few ponds fed by two waterfalls. If your timing is right, you can catch the amazing fall colours that we witnessed in late November, and join Japanese tourists in shooting pictures of tiny cutesy little red maple leaves.
So small! So red! So cute!

If you're staying at the Kirinoya Ryokan (see below) and walk towards Narita San, there's a backdoor passage on your right, up the hill, past a scenic cemetery, straight into the park.

Lastly, there is the town itself. Catering to a steady stream of pilgrims-cum-day trippers, it does a brisk business in trinkets and charms. And eel. For some reason, grilled eel is a local speciality and you could do worse than order a bowl of rice with some freshly grilled dead fish to rekindle a travel-weary soul.

Skewered: eel on a stick. 

Getting there:
Narita town is on the Keisei and JR mainland rail lines, with connections to both Tokyo and Narita airport. If you're at the airport and in a hurry, a taxi will whisk you to the town for about ¥3000.

Narita town is a great base for a first or final night in Japan, especially if you don't feel like getting up at an ungodly hour to catch your flight, or are too tired to bother with the two-hour trek to Tokyo after an epic long-haul trip.

To supersize your Nippon experience, stay at the venerable Kirinoya Ryokan, where you can rest your weary had on a futon in a tatami room, and feast on grilled salmon and miso for breakfast (with an extra serving of natto if you're lucky.). Minor Sights had a day room for ¥4500, which included breakfast. 

Useful links:
Minor Sights' first visit to Narita Shi, back in 2003, was inspired by Mike Newman's Narita Layover Page, created in the dark days of the ur-internet in 1996, but regularly updated since. It's still the ultimate guide to your Narita layover.