We have a mid-morning flight to catch from Tokyo Narita Airport, going home after two weeks in Japan. To avoid the stress of navigating rush hour in the city, we decide to leave Tokyo the evening before and find a hotel near the airport for the night.
The cheapest place we find is a business hotel in Narita town, APA Hotel Keisei Narita Ekimae. (Do not book from their web site. For some reason, you’ll usually get a much better price through other hotel booking sites.) They even offer free transportation to the airport, just 20 minutes or so away, and there’s a free for guests onsen (hot springs bathing facilities) inside the hotel. The rooms are tiny, but clean and with all the normal amenities.
We make the most of our time in Tokyo, so it is late in the evening before we arrive at the hotel. We chose the cheapest train from Tokyo, the Keisei Main Line. For just 870 Yen, about 8 US dollars, we get more than an hour and a half of authentic local train experience, allowing us to enjoy no less than 40 stops along the way.
In hindsight, we could have saved half an hour or so of travel time by taking a faster and only slightly more expensive direct train to the airport, and then get a cheap ticket to go a few stops back to Narita town. Still, it’s a pleasant train ride, not crowded at all, so we’re happy.
After checking in, I decide to go for a walk in Narita before going to bed. Rarely have a spontaneous idea of mine turned out so well.
From the square between the two train stations, I walk north on what seems to be the main street. By now it is almost midnight, so except for a few bars, McDonald’s and a noodle shop, everything is closed. Airline personnel looking for a party is in steady supply here, so places like the “Jet Lag Club” do good business. But never mind that. I keep walking up the street, sincerely hoping that the guy falling out of a bar I pass isn’t flying my plane tomorrow.
I don’t know what Narita is like during the day, but at night, in the dark, it does a good job at looking like the stereotype of an old, traditional Japanese village. I see more cats than cars on my walk through what must be a street for tourists. It’s a perfect evening walk in central Japan’s pleasant springtime.
About a kilometer down the street, I arrive at the entrance to the Naritasan Shinshō-ji Temple. I know nothing at all about it, but it looks both impressive and somewhat scary. I haven’t seen another person around for quite a while. Is it okay to go in? I have no idea. The place isn’t fenced off, but it is rather dark.
I’m a curious soul, so I enter. You know, just to have a quick look around. And then I spend several hours in there.
It is incredible. Just the day before I had gone to the Sensō-ji temple in Tokyo. That was hell. Tour groups all over the place, competing for space with countless rickshaw drivers desperately looking for business. Noise. Crowds. Pushing. I’m sure a lot of the visitors there enjoyed themselves a lot, but I could not. Being all alone now, in a similar place in Narita, instantly makes me forget all about that.
Apart from a few amusing Engrish language signs and a couple of vending machines, what meets me inside the gate is exactly what I have imagined a medieval Japanese Buddhist temple to look like.
There’s a stone dragon offering water for the Buddhist pre-prayer ceremony. Fancy stone towers are surrounded by bonsai-style trees. There are signs with Japanese characters that maybe says “No Smoking”, but that I prefer to think says “Welcome all samurais from near and far”, “Here there be dragons”, and that sort of thing. Behind some metal bars, a fierce god with huge nipples looks ready for some serious martial arts. I like this place.
Up a flight of stone stairs the grey world of stone is replaced by a colourful pagoda and a bell tower. Prayer flags fly up and down with the wind. And I’m the only person there to enjoy the show. I take my time.
Behind the buildings there’s a park with a tight electricity budget. It looks awfully dark, although I can glimpse some light spots inside the forest, with lots of space to separate them. According to my map, there are a couple of small lakes in the park, as well as more buildings with intriguing names. So I decide to go on.
I find my way by walking from one barely lit spot to the next. The light bulbs are weak, but in the dark forest they seem like suns. I half expect one of them to be a parked UFO, ready to abduct me, but eventually I find a lake. There’s of course a pretty pavillion in it, mirrored in the silent water. So, so beautiful.
Beyond the lake I find the Pagoda of Peace, 平和大塔. It reminds me of Futurama’s Bender, looking like a giant, ancient robot wearing a samurai costume, looking down at me from a hilltop, ready to squash me if I bother it. But it’s not a robot. It is the Pagoda of Peace, and the place is as peaceful as can be.
I walk up all the stairs to sit on the main terrace. Wind makes chains clink, flags fly, trees whisper. It’s delightful. And above me there are all the stars. Japan has surprised me with a great night sky. I expected the large cities to be engulfed in smog, but they’re not. And I expected light pollution from all the buildings to wash out all stars in the sky. But no, at night people go to sleep and the lights are turned off, leaving relative darkness.
For quite some time I walk around, looking at all the details on the buildings. The Komyo-Do hall. The Sanja shrine. Kaizando. Tenmangū. Shodendo. Okutono. This is fine.
When I discover that it’s nearly three in the morning, I reluctantly walk back to my hotel. I can rest on the plane. This has been well worth losing sleep over.
As you can probably tell, a round of nocturnal sight-seeing in Narita is my top tip if you ever spend some time at Tokyo’s main airport when it’s dark outside. You should have at least four hours to spare, whether it’s before your flight or between changing planes.
It’s best if you’re based in Narita town for the night. Then you can just walk to and from the temple area. Getting from Narita airport to Narita town is easy, too. I stayed at APA Hotel Keisei Narita Ekimae, which was perfectly fine and had a hot bath as well. Otherwise, the cheapest way is to go from Tokyo on the Keisei Main Line. It leaves relatively frequently, and it’s just a couple of stops from the train station at Narita airport and costs the equivalent of about 2 US dollars. You can also take some of the JR trains. They take a slightly longer route, but make sure you get on a train that actually stops at Narita station. Another option is to take a taxi. It’s a ten kilometer drive, so it should be fairly reasonably priced, even at night. And if it’s outside the working hours of the trains, taxi is your only option anyway.
Bringing a flashlight may be a good idea, as some of the paths are really rather badly lit. If it’s a night with a more or less full moon and nice weather, you will be perfectly fine even without a flashlight.
You’ll find the place indicated on the map below. It can be entered from any side, but I do recommend starting at the main entrance on the south side. Please explore as much as possible of the area marked green on the map, there’s much more to see than the main buildings near the entrance.
I’ll leave you with this view of Kōmyō-dō, a building from 1701, rich in color. It’s a good place to sit and contemplate where to travel next.