Despite being the main entry and exit point for many international travellers into Tokyo, Narita International Airport is actually in the prefecture of Chiba. Since the journey between Tokyo city and the airport could take up to 90 minutes, getting there for an early morning or after-hours flight can be rather troublesome.
Luckily, the city of Narita, just a stop or two away from the airport of the same name, has quite a bit to offer to a casual visitor. Break up your layover or spend the day/night in Narita before your flight – it’ll certainly be a short stay to remember. To explore the city, just get off at Narita or Keisei-Narita station, and all these venues are accessible on foot.
One of the largest of its kind in the wider Tokyo area, Naritasan Shinshoji is a Buddhist temple with over 1,000 years of history. It gets especially crowded during the New Year period, when visitors from across the country come and pay their respects to the lord Buddha. The complex itself is huge, with many historic buildings showcasing traditional Japanese temple artistry, such as the three-storey pagoda which was built in 1712.
Inside the grounds is Naritasan Park, a mix of carefully sculpted gardens and open, wilder, green spaces. It’s pretty in every season, but particularly spring – when its plum and sakura trees blossom – and autumn, when the fiery leaves take over. To top it off, there’s a calligraphy museum, which is worth a closer look even if you don’t read Japanese.
Naritasan Shinshoji, Naritasan Park, 1 Narita, Narita, Chiba. 0476 22 2111.
Calligraphy Museum, inside Naritasan Shinshoji grounds, 640 Narita, Narita, Chiba. 0476 24 0774. 9am-4pm (last entry 3.30pm), closed Mon (next working day if Mon is a hol). Adults ¥500, high school & university students ¥300, primary & junior high school students FREE.
To add to the traditional feel of Naritasan Omotesando street and its surrounding area, tourist information centre Hospitality Narita offers a kimono service where you can try on the traditional attire for a mere ¥800. The ladies on hand will help you dress the part, accessories included, and you’re allowed to go for a short wander around town in your new found splendor. Both male and female kimono are available, a small selection of which are in large sizes, as well as summery yukata. You could also don a furisode (formal kimono for young, unmarried woman) for an extra ¥2,000.
For the best pick, go early; as there are a limited number of kimono and geta (slippers), chances are you’ll have to wait for someone to return if the stock has run out. No reservations are taken, but letting them know in advance when you intend to show up is appreciated.
Kimono try-on service, Machikado Fureaikan, 559-1 Kamicho, Narita, Chiba. Wed, Thu, Fri 10am-2.30pm. For enquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 080 3411 0238.
Chomeisen bottle shop in the centre of Narita is directly managed by the namesake sake brewery located in the area. It’s a good place to pick up both local liquors and nationwide favourites, including a small but decent selection of whiskies and plum wines. As a nice touch, the more traditionally packaged booze (in earthenware flasks) each comes with a traditional sake cup which you can reuse afterwards.
Chomeisen, 540 Kamicho, Narita, Chiba. 0476 22 8417. Mon-Sat 10am-7pm, Sun 10am-6pm.
Taiko are those massive drums that take centre stage during traditional Japanese festivals, and Narita hosts one of Japan’s largest taiko festivals in mid-April every year. So there’s no better place to pick up some drumming paraphernalia. Unsurprisingly, the Taiko Drum Shop is a good place to start. Just stopping by to take a look at the drums is fun, but it also has little taiko-related gifts to satisfy the fans.
Taiko Drum Shop Kokyo, 508 Kamicho, Narita, Chiba. 0476 23 4139. 10am-6.30pm, closed Mon and every 1st, 3rd Wed of the month.
The size of the fish slices at this popular sushi shop are spectacularly generous – kudos if you manage to finish a piece in one bite. Menu options are pretty standard for a sushi restaurant, but to make life easier, it has pictures and English labels – a rarity in Narita. There are three outlets in the city centre, so if one is full, you can easily hop to another one.
Edokko Sushi, main branch, 536-10 Hanazakicho, Narita, Chiba. 0476 22 0530. 11am-2.30pm, 5pm-10pm, closed Mon.
It’s said that unagi (freshwater eel) has been eaten in Japan since the dawn of time, but it was only around the 18th century that it started to be served in its current form. The fish is butterflied and cut into rectangular fillets, dipped in the sweet soy-based kabayaki sauce, and then broiled on a grill. Today, there are many famous eel eateries in Narita, and although you can even get unagi in convenience stores, we’d recommend sticking to the specialist joints to make sure you experience eel at its best.
The longest queues (and the tastiest fish) tend to be at Unagi Kawatoyo and Surugaya Unagi; waits of an hour or more aren’t uncommon at peak times (New Year and whenever a tour bus has been released on the town), and both restaurants tend to close early. A set of unagi served on rice in a lacquerware box doesn’t come cheap (prices hover around ¥3,000 and rise exponentially from there), but it’s certainly worth the splurge.
Unagi Kawatoyo, 386 Nakamachi, Narita, Chiba. 0476 22 2711. 10am-5pm (last orders) daily.
Surugaya Unagi, 359 Nakamachi, Narita, Chiba. 0476 22 1133. 10.30am-5pm, closed Wed.
Located near the station, the cosy café Hashira has a great selection of reasonably-priced deli options, coffee and juices, making it an ideal place to wind down or have a lazy brunch before or after your flight. Did we mention the free wi-fi? Keep an eye out for its cute latte art too, which comes with both its regular and matcha latte.
Hashira Deli & Café, 839-30 Hanazakicho, Narita, Chiba. 0476 22 0789. 7.30am-7pm (last orders 6pm, deli from 11am), closed Sun.
Where to stay
One of the few hostels in town, Narita Sando Guesthouse ticks all the boxes for a simple night’s stay: comfy (bunk) beds, USB charging points, a common area, free coffee and tea, and a location close to the station. It also has a sister guesthouse down the road.
It may not dazzle in the way some newer hotels try to, but Richmond Hotel Narita’s rooms are comfy and rates are reasonable. Its breakfast buffet is pretty decent too, and best of all, it offers free shuttle services to the airport – even for some early-morning flights.
A traditional ryokan right on Narita’s main drag and overlooking Naritasan Park, Wakamatsu Honten comes complete with an in-house onsen. For the ultimate experience, splurge on the full-board option, where you’ll be dining on a kaiseki (traditional multi-course Japanese meal) feast. If you’re just passing through, it offers daytime plans too.