The little town with a big name


You’ve hauled your bags off the conveyor belt onto the cart, you’ve skulked through Customs and you’re staring blankly at an electronic board, trying to fathom which Limousine Bus is going where. You’ve heard that there is another Narita apart from this one dedicated to air travel, but somehow you’ve never had time to see it.

Narita suffers from an image problem. Though it has a great temple complex and has been a pilgrimage site for centuries, many are the long-term foreign residents of Japan who never get to see the place. If the temple known as Naritasan were anywhere other than beside Tokyo’s main international airport, you somehow feel that more people would make the effort to go and visit.

But Narita has a long history, going way beyond the time when the first Jumbo rumbled onto its tarmac. Naritasan dates back to 940, shortly after a failed rebellion in Kanto. To suppress the rebellion, the emperor in Kyoto dispatched a punitive force and — just to be on the safe side — a holy statue of the deity Fudo Myoo to provide a little help from on high. The rebellion was duly quashed. But then, when it was time for everyone to pack up and go home, they found that — mysteriously — they couldn’t move Fudo Myoo. Since the god quite clearly preferred being in Kanto to Kansai, they built a temple around him, and this became Naritasan.

Naritasan is a grand affair. It consists of dozens of buildings sprawled over a huge site, attached to which is a 16.5-hectare park. And the place is bristling with old buildings classified as Important Cultural Properties. A couple of these, like the elegant Sanju no To (Three-Storied Pagoda), date from the early 18th century.

Perhaps inevitably, these older buildings are the most arresting. At the entrance to Naritasan stands the Niomon Gate, flanked by those great scowlers the Deva kings — fearsome statues that ward off evil spirits and gather thick dust over the ages. Between the grimacing statues hangs a huge and splendid red paper lantern. Most intriguing among the temple structures is the Gakudo (Tablet Hall), a peculiar building that looks like a box on stilts, on which large votive tablets, many bearing pictures of horses, are displayed. There is also the interestingly named Shusse Inari (Success-in-Life Shrine), which — somehow typically — I wasn’t able to find at all.

As the name suggests, though, the most important of its structures is the Daihondo (Great Main Building). This is where the holy statue is housed — and where the eyes of the nation are fixed every February. In a widely televised event, stars from sumo, film and TV stand in front of this imposing hall to ceremoniously throw beans to the crowds that gather below. This ritual takes place on setsubun (the turning of the seasons), and the ceremony — which regularly attracts around 40,000 people — symbolizes the driving out of evil and the welcoming of good luck.

One latter-day commodity that gets its fair share of such ritual purification at Naritasan is the car. Once a year, people take their vehicles there to get them blessed against accidents. At other times, to keep vehicles safe from mishap, you can buy amulets, which cost 5,000 yen or 7,000 yen. When I asked the priest selling the charms, though, what the more costly amulet got you for your money, he didn’t seem too sure (perhaps the occasional joyrider or leaking radiator for the cheapskates?).

Though Naritasan’s history goes back well over a millennium, its heyday was in the Edo Period (1603-1867), when its location within two days’ walk of the booming metropolis helped make it an attractive pilgrimage destination. Realizing they could make a tidy profit from all those visitors hanging around, local farmers abandoned their crops and turned to milking tourists instead.

That tourist trade is certainly still in full swing, as is evident on Omotesando, the winding road that connects Narita Station with the grandiose temple. As always in a Japanese tourist trap, the omiyage (souvenir) industry pounces on whatever local foodstuff happens to be around and then goes the whole hog. In Narita, for some reason, it pounces on peanuts. Apart from being sold loose, peanuts appear in a staggering range of sweet and savory concoctions. A personal favorite was Peanut Florentine, which the label reassuringly informed me are: “The decent sweets which shut up the flavor of a peanut.” I do so admire decency in confectionery.

And as with the peanuts, so with the eels. Narita is also apparently famed for the slippery fish. Anyone curious about the process by which an eel gets filleted for the grill can watch this happen to their heart’s content outside an eel eatery on Omotesando. It’s not exactly a pretty sight: It starts with a skewer straight through the fish’s head. And then gets worse. Yet, by some odd process of inverse logic, it seems to whet appetites: People watch an eel being disemboweled, see the still-wriggling spine attached to the head being flung onto a pile of other twitching central nervous systems and decide that, yes, they do feel rather peckish.

Despite the international image its name conveys, the town of Narita is rather provincial. It is a small piece of Chiba Prefecture that happens to have the international airport dumped on its doorstep and has pretty much gone about its own business ever since. The locals still look a little askance at foreigners. But unless you’re a flight crew member without the time to get to Tokyo (in which case, you must get awfully tired of all those eels and peanuts), Narita is certainly none the worse for it.