Nothing can mask the traditional beauty of “the land of the cherry blossom”.
I was travelling on university business, visiting partner institutions in Asia. I had just spent 3 days in Singapore and 5 days in Kuala Lumpur. I was now on my way to Canada where my university had established a campus near Toronto in the beautiful small lake-side city of Burlington on the shores of Lake Ontario. To date, this had been quite a trip. Over a week in South East Asia and now a stop-over in Japan on my way across the top of the world to Canada.
We landed at Narita International Airport, one of two international airports that serve Tokyo, the other being Haneda. Narita is the primary airport for the greater Tokyo area. Not surprisingly, Narita is a very large airport, servicing over 20 cities throughout Japan as well as a plethora of international carriers to global destinations.
To break what was a long flight from Kuala Lumpur to Toronto, I had organised a stop-over in Japan at Narita International Airport, staying overnight at the Hotel Nikko Narita. This was a 4-star hotel just 2 kilometres from the airport, so an easy coach commute from the Arrival Terminal. I arrived mid-morning and was due to depart early the following day. Fortunately my room was prepared and I was able to check in immediately. Hotels are hotels around the world and the Nikko reflected the essence of Japan in its décor – stylishly simple.
After a quick freshen-up, I ventured down to reception to see what there was to do in and around the hotel. I learned that while Narita is the site of the international airport, it is also a city of just over 130,000 people in the Chiba Prefecture of Japan, roughly 60 kilometres east of Tokyo. It is also a very historic city, having been inhabited since the Japanese Paleolithic period. Archaeologists working on the site of Natita Airport had found stone tools dating back over 30,000 years. So this is also an old city. Very definitely worth a visit.
A brief introduction to Japan
To my pleasant surprise I discovered that the airport runs a regular shuttle bus service for short-stay passengers to the city of Narita, with pick-ups from all the major airport hotels. At no cost. The perfect way to spend my afternoon and as a result of my lay-over, an opportunity to be briefly introduced to Japanese life and culture. Narita’s main tourist attraction is Naritasan, a popular Buddhist temple with a history dating back over 1000 years. The city and surroundings have a number of other attractions that can keep transit travellers like me busy.
The heart of the city is not a very large so it is relatively easy to walk around. First stop, the Naritasan temple. This temple was built in the year 940 around its main sacred object of worship, a statue of the Buddhist Fudo Myoo Deity. Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon Sect and one of the most important figures in Japan’s religious history, is said to have carved the statue. Part of the fun of visiting Naritasan is its store-lined approach, the Omotesando. Stretching over the entire one kilometre distance from the railway stations and bus drop-off point to the temple, Naritasan’s Omotesando is a lively street lined by numerous restaurants and stores that have been selling traditional crafts and souvenirs to pilgrims and tourists for centuries.
The Omotesando has been revamped to reflect a thorough-fair of centuries past, cobblestones and all. Here I could enter and relax in the darkened surrounds of traditional Japanese tea houses, much as they had been hundreds of years ago. Here also, I could explore the numerous Japanese craft shops that lined the street. One particular shop caught my attention. It specialised in hand-made papier mache Japanese masks – miniature masks beautifully detailed and hand painted that, in the face of global change, reflected the traditional face of Japan. Inexpensive but priceless, I just had to have one. Today it remains one of my most valued mementoes of my worldly travels.
The afternoon raced past. Other major attractions included Sawara Town and the National Museum of Japanese History. Sawara Town is a small town northeast of Narita City, an ancient transport hub for rice shipments into the capital. Sawara’s historic centre lies along a canal that is known as “Little Edo” for its small district of preserved and restored traditional residences, merchant shops and warehouses from the Edo Period. There’s a lot going on in this little town, far more that this weary traveller could discover or appreciate in just one afternoon. Still, it was a start.
My final stop before heading back to my hotel was the National Museum of Japanese History. Also known as “Rekihaku”, the national Museum of Japanese History is a government-run enterprise that traces the history and cultural development of the Japanese people. The permanent exhibition spans six galleries, each displaying a period from prehistoric times to modern Japan. There is also a seventh gallery that hosts temporary exhibitions. This museum was the perfect place for me to gain a snapshot into the amazing culture that is Japan.
Flying in the face of change
So what was initially planned to be just a simple stop-over and hotel-based rest break on a long international flight across the top of the world, turned out to be one of the most adventurous, informative and enjoyable 24 hours I have spent anywhere in the world. In the midst of one of the most modern and progressive countries in the world sits the town of Narita, seemingly flying in the face of change. I loved this little town and all it had to offer and I will always be grateful for the opportunity it gave me to learn a little about one of the oldest and most fascinating cultures on the planet.
“Sayounara, Narita.” I will be back to see you again and to explore far more of you and of your beautiful country.
Tips for the Trip
Avoid long international flights. They are not good for your health and you miss too much of the world from 35,000 feet. If you can and time permits, plan a stop-over. An eight hour flight is plenty before you should take a break. A stop-over and over-nighter sets you up well for the on-going journey. It may cost a little more for flights and accommodation, but you’ll end up seeing more of the world on your way to see the world. Talk to your travel agent or airline and see if you can negotiate stop-overs in your travels.
With that in mind, it’s a good idea to carry some travel essentials with you in your carry-on luggage. Often your main luggage will be held at the airport in transit so you’ll need fundamentals for an over-night stay. You may also need to consider the climate at your stop-over point. It may vary greatly from that of your ultimate destination. Example, Singapore on the way to London. So pack accordingly.
Plan your stop-over itinerary in advance. You’ll have limited time at your stop-over destination, so you’ll want to maximise it. Talk with your hotel before you travel for advice on what to see and do. Alternatively, visit any of the numerous travel advisory websites such as TripAdvisor: www.tripadvisor.com
Be aware also that you may need permission to enter your stop-over country. Once you leave the transit terminal at the airport and go through Immigration and Customs you are officially entering that country. So check on any visa or entry permit requirements. This may also help inform your decision as to where to stop over. If you are an Australia, you can check online which countries require what in terms of visas for Australians travelling overseas at: www.dfat.gov.au/visas
It’s also a good idea to register your stop-overs, not just you final destination with Smartraveller at: www.smartraveller.gov.au
Main picture: Traditional papier mache mask