Anyway, depending on your flight schedule, back in the day you might have arrived early in the afternoon or late in the evening, but if I remember correctly you always flew to Saipan in the morning. So depending on how early you arrived, you could spend some time in Narita or take the train or the bus into Tokyo.
The last time I did that I think was 1995. Alex and I spent the summer in Saipan that year and for whatever reason Dad came to meet us up in Narita (maybe because Alex was with me. Mom always treated Alex like a baby so maybe she made him come up).
Anyway, like I said you don’t have to spend the night anymore. The last two times I came through Japan my connections were so tight that I was the last person to board before they closed the gate.
So this rambling is actually leading somewhere, I promise. So my layover in Narita was seven hours this trip, and I wasn't looking forward to strolling around a Duty Free Shop all day. Nope. I decided to something I’d never done before. I left the airport and went into Narita.
It seems like only yesterday that I was living in Japan, taking trains, deciphering food labels, and generally getting in the way of throngs of Japanese trying to get on with their lives. What seems like yesterday is now three years ago. Man, I'm getting old.
As I walked out of immigration, the first time I’d been outside the secure area of the airport in three years, I was flooded with memories of my first few hours in Japan waaaay back in 2005.
I changed my money at the same moneychanger. Walked by the telephones that I used to call Emily to tell her that I had arrived. I even went down to the same JR ticket counter, this time not so much confident in my ability to ask for a round trip ticket to Narita City in Japanese, but confident in the ticket agent’s ability to understand English. That’s right, three years later and I speak even less Japanese than when I first arrived in this half of the globe.
You know what? That’s not entirely true. Now I actually know how the trains work in Japan. I knew how to buy my tickets. Knew that it was cheaper to buy one round trip ticket rather than two one way tickets. Knew how to find my train. Knew how to put my tickets into the machine (harder than it sounds, especially if you have more than one ticket). Knew not to sit in the reserved car. I was pretty darn proud of myself.
I didn't know too much about Narita, though. Before today’s little day trip I knew exactly two things about Narita. I knew that there was a train station one stop away from the airport and I knew there was a buddhist temple.
I figured if I could find the train station, I could find the temple and if I found the temple that would kill enough time for me to, well, killing time was really the name of the game.
As we rolled into the station I spotted an Aeon shopping center with a Jusco. Whoa, flashbacks. When I lived in Takaoka the highlight of my week was going to Aeon. We used to go there for ladies’ night movies and Starbucks coffee.
Behind the Aeon, sort of up on a hill, jutting out from the trees was the top of a stupa. Is that the right word? Anyway, it looked templey and figured the rest of the temple lay around it.
Problem was that from the ground in front of the station I couldn’t see the stupa. From the train it looked like it was sort of off to the left, so I headed in the direction of left, I think.
Famous in Japan: I'm sure Barack Obama would love to know that his mug is on this particular magazine rack.By now it was about 8:10 AM and the town was just starting to wake up. Shop keepers were unlocking their doors and baskets of fruits, vegetables, and something that looked like Antarctic krill and I guess passes for food in these parts were being placed on the sidewalks.
The town of Narita is great. The streets are all really small and there are all these small shops with old ladies weighing out piles of vegetables. I even walked by a few old guys that were taking live freshwater eels and slicing them up for yaki inagi (is that the right name?). They were alive and wriggling in a bucket one moment and the next they were being grilled up with teriyaki sauce. Talk about fresh!
Before I found the temple I found the temple festival. I remember that around New Years in Takaoka there was a celebration in Kojo Park near the big Shinto shrine. I am completely ignorant of Japanese religious holidays. I apologize. This was a Buddhist temple, not a Shinto shrine and it was a few days too late. Related? I have no idea.
All I know is that takoyaki (grilled octopus balls!) equals a good time in Japan. Choco-bananas? Even better time.
I was pretty much the only gaijin at the temple that day, that I saw anyway. I should have bought one of these Hello Kitty masks to hide by gaijin-ness.
The temple was raking in the money. Every 20 feet was a booth selling religious trinkets. People were buying omikuji (little paper fortunes of a sort), Ema (wooden things that you write your name on), and other things I don't know the name of at an alarming rate. .
I’ve written about omikuji before. The way they work is that there is some chance involved in which omikuji you get. Either you reach into a bucket full of omikuji and pick a random one or there is an omikuji, um, thing that is a little box with small sticks with numbers written on them. You shake up the box until one of the sticks comes out of the hole. The corresponding number is your omikuji and it determines your future for the upcoming year. Or something like that.
Or, as is the case at Naritasan Temple, you can just get your omikuji at a vending machine.
Again, I make no claim to have any understanding of what was going on or even where I was or what I was looking at. I couldn’t understand why the temple was bursting at the seams with people, but the great garden behind the temple (if a garden is in Japan, you don’t have to call it a Japanese garden) was practically empty. If I was Japanese and I felt obliged to visit the temple, I’d have gone to the temple, said my prayers and then spent the rest of my time in the garden. It was a great garden.
Before I knew it my time had run out and it was time to get back to the train station. If you have a few hours to kill in Narita, I highly recommend going into town. If you feel a little intimidated doing so, drop me a line and I'll give you a play by play on how to get there.