Temples, shops and onsen – Narita in a day

Contains five Buddhas

Contains five Buddhas

Narita is not a big place, so exploring it in a day was going to be easy. The tricky part is not getting lost in the windy alleyways which turn out to be fully-functioning streets. Only small. And windy. Having a good sense of direction here isn’t an advantage, it’s a necessary survival tool.

I had stayed up till 3am the night before – don’t askhow or why – and couldn’t sleep past 8am. I got up and munched on toast and sipped on tea while I talked to Max. He’s a US Marine based in Singapore who’s studying a martial art I’ve never heard of but involves killing people with pointy things. And flat things. And wavy things. Don’t piss him off. He and some Dutch guys I got talking to last night were here for a 2-week course under a Dutch sensei. At 54 he looks like your average tousle-haired Dutch bloke. But I dare you to break something in his coffee shop. The guy’s got more black belts than I have pairs of clean boxers in my rucksack.

After doing the internet thing, I popped downstairs to get a map from Taka-san. He pointed me towards the major sights and then handed me the keys to a bike parked outside. Free bike, yay! I was actually surprised there were two locks, this being Japan. This is, after all, the country where a polite “Please don’t pass this point” sign has the same effect as a 10′ barbed wire fence and gun turret in the UK.

Enclosed - one holy person

Enclosed - one holy person

I set off towards the Shinsyōji Temple which I’d heard good things about. It’s only a short bike ride away from the hostel and I was there within ten minutes. Just look for the green roof.

I parked up and started to walk around. The temple grounds contain several buildings ranging in age from 50 years to almost 300. The whole place is simply gorgeous. There’s a main gate which has only recently been completed, an older one with a huge spherical Japanese lantern hanging in it, a 3-storied pagoda, the new main hall (1968), the old one (1858), the Great Pagoda of Peace (1984) and a smattering more.

In addition, there’s a shady river walk with a waterfall and seating which was lovely and quiet when I wandered down. Tranquil barely covers it.

Scary!

Scary!

Several times a day, the priests/monks (I’m not sure which they are) perform the Goma ceremony. I’m assured this is not named after a waste-of-space French footballer and that the title is purely coincidental. I wasn’t aware of this when I arrived, and got to see it by chance. I’d been sat in the main hall for a few minutes (with my shoes in two plastic bags as they were too big for a single one) when many religious people wearing bright garbs came in.

It’s not the most bizarre of rites to see performed, but it’s certainly the first of its type I’ve seen. Bells are struck, drums bashed, things burned, things waved. When a fire is going, wooden paddles with Japanese script are brought to the flame and held up to it. I’ve no idea what this signifies, but it seemed to the layman like they were trying to warm up a library.

The weirdest part, again the the uninitiated, was at the end where members of the congregation passed their handbags to the priests. Each was, in turn, held in front of the flame and then handed back to the owner. I assume it’s some good luck thing, like rubbing the Buddha’s belly in Singapore.

Right time of year

Right time of year

The 30-ish minute ritual passed fairly quickly and I’d definitely recommend sitting in on one should you ever be visiting. One thing that struck me was the monotonous (and I use that in the literal descriptive sense) voice used by the priests reading the script was exactly as you’d expect from, say, a Catholic priest reading Latin. Strange how such habits or techniques cross religions.

Overall, I spent the best part of 2 hours just around the temple. Definitely worth a visit… and I’m aware it’s nowhere near the most impressive in Tokyo, let alone Japan.

I next decided to head shopping mall-wards. I blame Hans for this as he always told me he likes to visit malls in different countries to see what they’re like. The one in Narita is called Aeon and isn’t that big. However, there is something about it that sets it apart from others I’ve seen. It took me a while to put my finger on it, but I figured it was down to two things:

  1. Lots of the shops don’t have glass frontage
  2. There are areas where you simply have to pass through one store to get to the next part of the mall. There’s no alternative route. Actually, in one area you had to exit a store, walk across the front of the mall and re-enter. More like being in a retail park.
Great Pagoda of Peace

Great Pagoda of Peace

Within this structure, I found my first scary Japanese toilet which sadly I couldn’t get to work for a video. I’ve never seen a bog pan wired up to the mains before, but at least it’s plastic. There were buttons down one side which I assume resulted in water being squooshed into places that water simply should not be squooshed. I pressed and prodded and poked, but I couldn’t get any squooshage. It’d have been good for YouTube as well.

I also located my now-mandatory KFC. At the current exchange rate, it was pricey but traditions are traditions so I had one. I swear the servings here are smaller than anywhere else, but the burger was one of the best I’ve had anywhere. Still, I’m kind of “off food” at the moment. The joys of being able to convince my body it doesn’t need anything when the weight of the coinage necessary to fill me outweighs the weight of the food that would be going in.

Nearby was a supermarket with a million things in colourful wrappers… all coated in Japanese writing. I have no idea what I’ve put into my little cousin’s “present from Japan” package but I’m hoping she doesn’t a) die or b) go hyperactive. The chances are kind of 50/50. At least I can honestly say “I had no idea what was in it” because I can’t read Japanese.

Also in the mall is a Capcom arcade. I was expecting millions of teenagers trying to kill each other on a beat-’em-up but it was only Friday afternoon. They were likely still browsing Manga hidden in their textbooks. Instead were a few pensioners playing the high-tech version of shove ha’penny that the Japanese have invented.

And about a half a dozen guys playing some really unusual games. A hybrid of arcade machine and collectible card games. There were handful on show, from baseball and football to a fantasy war game. Cards are places on a sensitive “desktop” and moved as required. I’m assuming they have a small chip in them so the system can figure out how they’re being moved.

I cycled round a fair bit of the town centre and then returned to the hostel for a quick email check. Max came back in, as did Will – another martial arts student, this one from Holland. They were planning on going to the local onsen, as was I. Taka-san, being just awesome, offered to drive us to save messing about with bikes, cabs or buses.

It is wired... to the mains!

It is wired... to the mains!

We made it to the onsen before the Friday crowds arrived and got settled in. Onsen, in case I’ve not mentioned before, are Japanese spas. Many (most, perhaps) use naturally-heated water that comes up from heated springs very similarly to Iceland. They have certain facilites and procedures which I had read up on, but followed Max’s example as he’d been to this one before.

800 Yen got us in, and the chaps paid an extra 4000Y each for a massage. I settled for just soaking and steaming myself. Pricewise, it’s not too bad at around £6. This is from opening till closing time as long as you don’t leave.

A word of warning, at least at this onsen: make sure you go through the correct curtain for the changing room. While most places are male-only, this one isn’t. The curtains for the  gents are blue, for ladies, red/pink. Only they swap the changing rooms from day to day… Max guided us almost into the wrong one. It’s all his fault.

What surprised me, though, was that nobody stopped us. We were through the first curtain before Max realised the colour difference. The staff had seen us, but were too polite to yell at us and stop us. Good job we twigged when we did – the screams would have been a giveaway.

The spa was great. Not on a par with the Claudius Therme in Colgone, but a very different and enjoyable experience. Hot water, sauna, steam room, Turkish baths… All the facilities spotlessly clean and useable for as long as you want. I honestly don’t think I’ve been so clean in months.

I left around 7pm when the guys went for a massage. Rather than take the direct route home along the 51 I decided to meander. And get lost.

OK, Narita’s too small to really get lost in but unless you’re on the right road you will find the one you’re on bending in completely the wrong direction to the point where you have no choice other than to retrace the last 15 minutes.

I made it back to the hostel by around 20:30 and proceeded to bombard Taka-san with questions about transportation for tomorrow. He answered every one and then threw more information on top. The guy’s a legend.

It’s just gone 1am, Will and Max only got back at midnight (drunk!) and I’ve ploughed through four random beverages in a bid to make myelf tired. It’s working, and I’m heading for bed now.

I doubt I’ll get a chance to post again in the next couple of days due to the schedule, but I’m going to try and be as Japanese a tourist I can with the volume of photos the next couple of days!

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