Seven Hours in Japan

A Jewel Found Near the Airport

David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  12/21/2003

NARITA, Japan -- The last-minute ticket to Bangkok had one noticeable flaw: a massive gap, indeed a possible purgatory, between connecting flights.

My recent journey from Boston to Bangkok would start at 6 a.m. at Logan, involve a change of planes in Newark, then a 13-hour flight to Narita, the closest airport to Tokyo. It would be another six-hour flight to Thailand after a seven-hour layover.

At first, it seemed like an opportunity to visit Tokyo. To my dismay, I learned it takes some two hours to get there from Narita, and because I had to check in early for the next flight, it wouldn't make sense to try.

So when I arrived, I imagined spending hours here pacing around the airport, practicing my "konnichiwa"s and "domo arigato"s until boredom had consumed me.

It didn't occur to me there would be much to do in a city dominated by an airport, but in my traipsing about, I met a woman who suggested I visit the Temple of Narita. For some reason, I imagined it would look something like a cross between a Howard Johnson's and a Chinese restaurant.

What I never expected was that it would be among the most impressive sights worthy of any superlative I had ever visited. The time would vanish faster than I wished, and my jet lag was easily ignored.

The short trip from the airport began with my cashing in a few dollars for yen, and purchasing a riceball, a baseball-sized, dollar-valued clump of rice packaged in dried kelp. Then I found my way to the airport train.

Fifteen minutes and two stops later, the clean Keisei train arrived in a dingy station in downtown Narita. It was cold and rain ing, and through my misty glasses I could see only gray slabs of concrete, neon advertisements, and a flurry of compact cars passing by on the wrong side of the road, splashing mud-colored puddles onto my leather shoes.

Perhaps this was a mistake, I thought, and considered taking the next train back to the airport. But I decided to stay for the temple. Even if it amounted to little more than a heap of kitsch, it would kill some time.

So I crossed to the next block, making sure to look to the right and avoid an anonymous death in an industrial, soot-covered foreign town. I spotted a sign with what seemed to be a picture of a temple. It pointed to a narrow road. A gaggle of girls in school uniforms, who took a minute from chatting on their camera cellphones to giggle at my appalling Japanese, confirmed the direction.

As I walked down the road, I heard a woman's voice, a soft, enchanting melody and it seemed to be following me. There was a pining quality to it, like a genie trapped in a magic lamp, beseeching passersby to help her out. Then I noticed speakers attached to the streetlights. Soon after, I discovered the source: a group of elderly women dressed in colorful kimonos, their faces covered in white powder, dancing robotically around an open-air stage, singing in unison, in the middle of the afternoon.

This was the first of what began to feel like a carnival of surprises during a mile-long walk, my first and indelible taste of Asia. The grime surrounding the station disappeared on this orderly, well-swept street lined with fountains, cafes, and all sorts of markets and shops.

The rain subsided to a fine mist, and I found myself sampling jelly-filled pancakes, pickled cucumbers, and everything from rice crackers to spicy sauces. In buckets set up along the road, merchants sold leeches, small sharks, eels, squid, octopus, and snakes. Behind glass windows and through small doors, I found rock-filled gardens with perfectly manicured trees, some bearing exotic fruits.

Every few feet offered a different indulgence for the senses the aroma drifting from orchid shops, the sight of a man clubbing and impaling snakes, the tongue-tickling taste of gooey sweets.

But none of it prepared me for what stood at the end of the road.

When I arrived,
it seemed to hover above me in a cloud. Then I walked along a narrow path to the entrance, a giant stairway that rose at such a steep grade it looked like a vertical climb.

After trudging past other exhausted visitors, stopping a few times to catch my breath and cleanse my hands in a ceremonial well, I found myself at the top, on a broad plaza, gazing at the massive, 1,000-year-old Naritasan Shinshoji Temple.

What first stood out was the giant, three-story pagoda, a 300-year-old single piece of wood carved with gilded dragons and brightly painted rafters. Behind it stood the Shinto temple, its simple elegance adorned with a massive circular lantern hanging by the entrance, regal red carpets, and some 296 special mats in a candlelit sanctuary. All around the complex were more than 40 acres of rock gardens, streams, small waterfalls, and everything from topiaries to apricot trees.
After taking it all in, including the steady deluge again of rain, I found the stairway down, making sure to avoid what would be a painful tumble to the bottom.

It was near sunset when I found my way back to the road, and many of the merchants lighted rows of candles beside their shops. I browsed through a store full of kimonos, ate a strange, gummy rice concoction on a stick, which was good and salty, and watched restaurant workers prepare bento boxes and chefs assemble sushi.

When I reached the end of the road, it was dark and the rain had stopped. I looked at my watch and couldn't believe the time. I would have to rush to make it back for my flight to Bangkok.

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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