More than an airport, Narita is a must-see city
A quick stop in London, then on to New York for a few days, before that final stretch in Tokyo -- it sounds like a typical travel itinerary for any modern, jet-setting CEO or a particularly unimaginative traveler.
They are the world’s three busiest cities in terms of air traffic for a reason, after all.
But which of them offers an overnight layover right beside a major airport that’s so accessible and enjoyable you’ll look forward to each takeoff or touchdown there?
If you’ve done London and NYC to death, you’ll be pleased to know that it’s Tokyo.
More specifically, Narita; Japan’s best-known airport, attracting upwards of 35 million fliers annually, but also one of our favorite pre-flight overnighters in any major city.
Just 10 minutes by train or taxi from the airport itself, Narita City offers a quintessential Japanese experience -- and a side order of great eats as well.
A little history
This city’s history can be traced back over a thousand years to when the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple was founded in 940.
And it would most likely have stayed a sleepy temple town if the Japanese government hadn’t decided to build an international airport in the 1960s on the surrounding farmland.
The controversy over land purchases in the area aside, Narita is an unusual combo of old-school Japan and the modern airline industry, which makes for a very entertaining visit.
From Narita Station make your way to the start of Omotesando Street, the main drag that runs through the town and takes you straight to Naritasan -- the famed Buddhist temple.
The stores along this quaint “sando” sell the usual Japanese souvenirs from Hello Kitty to samurai swords, senbei crackers and sake, but there are lots of unique emporiums as well.
Find the taiko drum shop Mokufuda on the left-hand side of the road -- a popular stop during the annual Taiko Drum Festival held in spring and with tourists looking for a more substantial souvenir.
A little further down on the right is a basket-weaving shop where you can watch the weaver on the floor in the middle of his tiny store as he crafts your tailor-made basket.
While in the area, it’s a good idea to stop in at the Narita Tourist Pavilion halfway down the street, as it offers several brochures in English that will help you navigate the temple and the town.
Eating and drinking
Like most Japanese towns, Narita has a fierce pride in the regional food items for sale in many of the shops and restaurants that line the street.
Consider trying sweet azuki bean jelly (yokan), Japanese pickles (tsukemono) and the main attraction, broiled eel (unagi).
For an authentic Japanese lunch or dinner try the Chrysanthemum Restaurant, a family business for 11 generations now. The sashimi is unbelievably fresh, the tempura and eel delicious.
Speaking of eel, the smell of the teriyaki sauce slapped onto the finished dish and the charcoal used to cook it hit you on the head on as you make your way along Omotesando.
You can’t miss the low wooden table at Kawatoyo, where the eel master plunges his fist into a bucket, drives a nail through the unlucky catch’s head, then quickly skins and slices it into small strips ready to be thrown on the nearby grill.
In the mood for a light snack? Consider some crunchy eel spine and a frothy Sapporo beer. Even if eel is not your thing, it’s still something to see.
Unlike most Japanese cities, you will also find many restaurants catering to international visitors, albeit mostly “Crew.” You can’t miss the signs -- they’re all in English, something you don’t find much of in Japan.
Good examples of international eateries include the New World Indian Restaurant and Galeteria, a Brazilian specialist.
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Virgin on the ridiculous?
As you make your way down the one-kilometer street to the temple, you can’t help but smack right into the The Barge Inn -- a British pub that wouldn’t look out of place in a London suburb.
In the late 1990s when Virgin Atlantic owned various enterprises in Japan, including the Virgin record stores and movie theaters, Richard Branson decided to open a Narita bar where his employees could feel at home.
Knowing the difficulty the average Japanese speaker had in pronouncing the word “Virgin,” the pub was named “Barge Inn” instead -- say it three times fast and you’ll understand why.
Bryan Harmon, manager for the past 12 years, says The Barge Inn was like Club Med back in its heyday.
But now, due to the economic situation and the popularity of short, 24-hour layovers he’s seeing fewer crewmembers in his pub and more locals.
“It’s about 80 percent local Japanese and 20 percent crew,” he says. “When it started out, it was the reverse.”
This establishment would be unique to Tokyo, never mind a usually overlooked airport town. On the main level it resembles a typical British pub, complete with pool tables, foosball and even a fireplace.
In the middle of the space there are steps down into a concrete, graffitied nightclub -- another distinctly un-Japanese touch. “We try to cater to everyone,” says Harmon.
While the Barge is showing a little wear and tear these days, the food coming out of its huge kitchen is excellent -- pies, potatoes, roast chicken and more of what those Virgin staff surely crave.
Finally, right at the end of Omotesando, you will arrive at the 1,000-year-old Naritasan temple.
The complex is large and you could spend several hours walking around it, taking in some pretty impressive scenery -- particularly by airport town standards.
Naritsan park, adjacent to the temple grounds, is filled with plum and cherry blossom in spring and red leafy trees in fall. It’s famous for a plum festival in late February and early March.
New Year provides Narita with its one annual moment in the spotlight. Several million visitors come to hear the temple bells toll 108 times at midnight, making it one of Japan’s most-visited temples during the holiday season -- second in the Kanto area only to Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine.
While it may be a touch clichéd, no Japanese experience is complete without soaking in a hot spring.
Five minutes by train from Narita Station you will find Yamato no Yu, a traditional Japanese onsen featuring both indoor and outdoor baths. It also offers massage and other spa services.
And you don’t have to be laying over to enjoy this unusual airport town.
“I've lived in Tokyo for 11 years and have been to Narita airport close to a hundred times,” says Jill Pulley, a speech therapist from New York.
“But I had no idea what lay hidden in Narita City itself,” she says. “The temple and the traditional shops and restaurants are not what one would expect to find in a little town right by such a busy international airport.”
Before you go
If visiting from the airport, you’ll need a minimum of four hours to make it back in time and get through immigration and customs.
The Keisei line runs from both terminals to Narita Station for ¥250, while Narita City operates its own tourist bus from the airport.
Chrysanthemum, 385 Naka-machi, Narita City, +81 (0) 476 22 0236.
Kawatoyo, 389 Naka-machi Narita City, +81 (0) 476 22 2711.
New World Indian, 558-1 Kamicho, Narita City, +81 (0) 476 24 5651.
Galeteria, 522 Naka-machi Narita City, +81 (0) 476 22 7306.
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