Many people transit through Tokyo’s Narita Airport, but most never leave the airport. This is a shame, as they miss a jewel in Narita City: the centuries-old temple complex, its five main structures designated as Important National Cultural Assets. The Narita-san Shinshoji Temple and the Narita-san Park are definitely worth a visit, whether you are staying in the airport area to catch a flight or making a short day trip from Tokyo.
The complex is a short walk from either of the city’s train stations (JR Narita, or Keisei Narita) along narrow streets, and sidewalks that only allow for one person at a time. Narita City is one stop from Airport Terminal 2 (cost about 250 yen one way) and takes about 8-10 minutes. Get maps at the Tourist Information desk at the airport but if you get lost ask for the local McDonalds directly across from the temple gate.
Once within the temple complex you feel as if you are in another peaceful world, in a different time and place. An entrance walkway is lined with stone lanterns, leading to the big red entrance gate (torii). Lots of steep stairs lead up to another level, past gardens with ponds, teeming with koi fish and hundreds of turtles, many on the rocks. Above that is the temple complex dedicated to Fudo Myoo, the Buddhist god of fire. The temple is the cathedral of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, founded in 940 by archbishop Kanjo. They are beautiful buildings, with a characteristic style of architecture, wooden roof curving upward, prolific carvings, many very brightly painted, especially with reds, yellows and blues. This profusion of color is especially noticeable on the Sanju-no-to, the three-storied wooden pagoda.
The grounds are exquisitely tended, with shrubs, raked white gravel paths and ornamental flower beds, full of pansies and poppies when we were there one April. A few information boards, written in both English and Japanese, give the name of the building, whom it honored and when it was built, but otherwise everything was in Japanese, and therefore a mystery to us. If you’re lucky your visit may co-incide with the Goma ceremony, a sacred fire rite. Several times a day, brightly-robed priests perform the ceremony in the Dai-hon-do (the main building or hall) with drums, bells and chants.
On top of the hill is the impressive Pagoda of Peace with the Great Mandala and evocative Japanese paintings that invite quiet reflection. On the other side, steps lead down to the Narita-san Park, which has a beautiful pond surrounded by cherry, plum, maple and other trees, so it’s gorgeous at any time of year. The Narita-san Calligraphy Museum and the ruins of the Teradai Castle are also on the grounds. Calligraphy is one of the traditional Japanese arts and this museum is known for its collection of masterpieces.
For a couple of hours it’s fun just to wander, soaking up the general atmosphere of serenity and beauty. The complex is big enough that you don’t get a feeling of being crowded, even if there are many people about.
For more information on Narita City contact the Japan National Tourist Organization at 212-757-5640, or visit Narita’s web site at www.city.narita.chiba.jp/english/index.html