So you have a long layover in Japan and aren’t sure what to do with all the extra time? How about just stay at the airport? Maybe catch up on sleep? Shop some more? Eat some more? All are great options but how about leaving the airport and traveling the local area?
On my way back from a two and a half week trip in Thailand and Cambodia, I had a 10 hour layover at Tokyo Narita Airport. Given the crazy traveler that I am, I decided to venture out and see Japan as a first time tourist. Now comes the tough decision? Do we (where we = Sonya and younger sister) actually venture into Tokyo on our own or take a guided tour and visit nearby Narita? Tough decision. We decided we were tired after a red-eye from Bangkok to Narita and opted for more straightforward option. The Narita Transit program. It was a safe and cheap option which would enable us to see Japan and also get another passport stamp. Who doesn’t like an extra passport stamp?
For those who aren’t aware, the Tokyo Narita Airport runs a Narita Airport Transit and Stay Program (formally known as the Narita Transit Program) The program’s aim is to increase local tourism in the Narita area especially with the 2020 Olympics Tokyo approaching.
The program is simple. After you exit immigration, you can follow signs to the Narita Transit Program desk in Terminal one. The desk usually opens around 9 AM. Volunteer based guides lead tourists from the airport to various local destinations around Narita airport. It’s a free program for travelers with long layovers in Japan. The only expense is the round trip transportation cost which usually consists of the metro fare. But this is highly dependent on the transit program you elect and there are quite a few options depending on how much time you have and your own personal interests. Just remember this is a guided tour and typically runs for two to four hours. If you have a longer layover and want more time touring, you may want to opt for a self guided tour instead. Our guides were on a schedule to get us back to the airport at a certain time even though our flight was several hours later. We were pretty tired and jet lagged so we were okay with going back and grabbing a late lunch at the airport. So just a caveat – the tour may seem rushed but all that truly depends on the traveler. (Note: since the program is also a stay program now, some of this could have changed so check the transit and stay program main site for up to date info)
We opted for the local city tour of Narita which I would highly recommended for first time visitors to Japan. The city-town is a 10 minute metro ride from the airport. You arrive at the Keisei-Narita station. As someone new to Japan, I was highly impressed with how clean and efficient the entire metro system was when compared to the NYC subway.
Narita is a quaint and charming city which features everything from historical shrines to eels and between. Narita is famous for its eel cuisine. Being a vegetarian, I naturally didn’t want any of it. But I enjoyed some of the vegetarian food options.
The experience sure what something. Sure we didn’t see the top attractions in the Tokyo that everyone visits Japan for but luckily for us, we got to witness and experience some truly authentic Japanese culture and customs. Some top highlights were
- Narita-san Shinsho-ji Temple – Being it was early November, there was hint of autumn in the air which made the walk around the temple area pleasant and enjoyable.The autumn foliage wasn’t there just yet but the mild weather and sun was definitely welcoming. Near the entrance, we washed our hands at the temple cleansing area, chouzu. We then proceeded to walk around the temple grounds, admiring the three-story pagoda and witnessing a Goma prayer ceremony which feature loud drums and prayers and chants. We weren’t permitted to go too close to the actual ceremony but could watch from a distance. No photographs are allowed as the ceremony is considered holy and special.
- Shichi-Go-San – this is a traditional rite of passage ceremony and festival for young Japanese children which celebrates growth and health. This was my favorite part of the day.
Japanese families visit shrines to celebrate the special day. Children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends. We saw many families out that day and the children were dressed in colorful kimonos, faces full of joy and excitement. We even smiled and congratulated a few of them. The occasion reminded me of graduations in the United States. You typically see families together celebrating. Family values are important in Japanese culture and we were fortunate to witness it firsthand. I wonder if such an authentic experience can be seen at the more tourist-y temples in Tokyo center city. Probably not.
- Fishes – there is a beautiful park Naritasan Koen Park in Narita city. It’s nice to simply walk around and experience nature. One of the highlights is a small little waterfall. Incredibly peaceful. There’s also a large pond where one can feed fishes. We didn’t have any food but some strangers were nice enough to share some of bread crumbs.
By virtue of sharing bread crumbs with the fishes, we became their BFF aka best friend forever. They were hungry! They didn’t waste any time gobbling down the bread crumbs.
- Good eats – and lots of sugar. Since we arrived in Japan around 8AM, we were hungry! We first tried imagawayaki which is like a stuffed red bean Japanese pancake. Think of that as “to-go” breakfast which is a bit of an antithesis since to-go anything (like coffee) is not typical of standard Japanese culture. Anyway, the breakfast was fresh, hot and delicious. This is coming from someone who isn’t crazy about red bean. We also made a quick stop at a Japanese bakery and had some warm matcha tea and purchased some peanut cakes. No one really spoke English at the bakery but they were more than happy to help us out with a big smile. The last thing we ate to end the tour and day before returning to the airport was fresh mochi. It wasn’t overly sweet as I had expected and the added flavor was provided by some extra peanut based sauce. It was very rich and dry. I liked it but my sister wasn’t too fond of it.
- Guides – we asked our guides a lot of culture. Some of it was the typical tourist questions. But we also asked why they volunteer for the transit program. Their reasons for volunteering had to do with sharing their knowledge with tourists and also improving their English. In exchange for their knowledge and time, they also get to meet with folks from other countries. Our guides are NBA fans and had questions about how to buy tickets (the app they were using didn’t look too legit) and I also shared my experience watching the Knicks games live in NYC at Madison Square Garden. So while the program is meant for tourists, it can be a cultural exchange program where knowledge is shared and transferred both ways:)
So if you have a few hours to spare at the airport and don’t think you’ll be able to plan your own itinerary and would like some direction, I’d recommend the transit program. There is a survey at the end which helps the program coordinators understand what is working and what is not working. Unless you’re running late and risk missing your flight, please complete the survey. It helps improve the program and is quick.
Narita is definitely off the beaten path for many travelers and you can also get an added bonus of hanging out with knowledgeable natives. It’s the best of both worlds and DEFINITELY beats just sitting at the airport, visiting the same duty-free stores and staring at your phone for hours.