To most, the city of Narita is a blur seen out the window of a train traveling between Japan’s largest international airport and downtown Tokyo.
An astute observer might catch a glimpse of the golden crown of Narita-san Shinshoji Temple’s graceful three-story pagoda, before their thoughts are subsumed by Japan’s better-publicized destinations. But Shinshoji is worth stopping for — it is one of Chiba Prefecture’s best-known religious sites.
Affectionately referred to as Narita-san, the temple hosts more than 10 million visitors a year, many of whom converge on the grounds during the new year festivities. It’s so popular that finding the temple is as easy as following the streams of people leaving Narita Station.
Where there are temples, there is commerce, and Shinshoji is no exception. Its intriguing monzen-machi (shopping streets in the vicinity of a temple) runs downhill from the station to the very gates of Shinshoji. This shopping street is known as “Omotesando,” and is noted for its souvenir shops that flog religious trinkets and its many restaurants where the specialty is Japanese eel. Unlike chefs in the Kansai area, who prepare eel by slicing each fish down its belly, Kanto’s chefs traditionally cut along the back. Visitors on the street can watch through the open windows of eateries as chefs prepare the fish.
Stocks of Japanese-bred eel are fast becoming depleted, which means this is an increasingly costly treat to sample. The most popular eel dishes along Omotesando appear to be una-don (grilled eel on rice) and unagi-no-kabayaki, charcoal-grilled eel coated in teriyaki sauce and topped with a light sprinkling of sanshō (prickly ash pepper powder). Some Japanese make the trip to this area solely to sample its eel dishes, with nary a passing look at the temple grounds.
Besides food, another popular service Shinshoji provides to visitors is the ritual Shinto blessing of cars. Conducted by priests on a side lot of the temple grounds, many Japanese people regard this precaution against accidents worth the cost. The parking area held several new vehicles waiting for the treatment. Watching priests wave branches of the evergreen sakaki plant across car bumpers reminded me of Buddhist priests sprinkling Air America planes with sacred water during the Vietnam War; pilots would sometimes request the ritual before setting off on missions.
I ascend a series of stone steps that bisect a pond full of turtles — popular symbols of longevity — in the grounds of Shinshoji. The garden and original 18th-century pagoda seem spacious enough to accommodate the temple’s well-patronized events. Shinshoji’s busy cultural calendar begins with its much-televised ringing in of the new year by monks, and its February Setsubun festival, in which top-ranking sumo wrestlers toss dried beans to scare away malign spirits and welcome benevolent ones.
Shinshoji’s Gion Matsuri, taking its name from the celebrated festival in Kyoto, is not exactly the city’s best-kept secret, but it’s surprising how few tourists know about the event. Perhaps it is best that the festival is not widely publicized, as a large crowd of locals always turn out for the July spectacle.
The congestion at the festival energizes the participants, who in turn animate the crowds. This reciprocal invigoration is a feature of Japan’s summer festivals. At Shinshoji, it’s driven by the presence of large, towering floats called dashi, which teams pull along Omotesando with ropes. These decorated behemoths are weighed down with costumed participants — some balancing at the top of the structures, which threaten to topple over at any minute. At other danjiri matsuri (cart-pulling festivals) — such as one in Kishiwada, Osaka Prefecture, where dashi hurtle down curvaceous slopes — they have been known to do just that.
The festival has had time to burnish its reputation and build up a healthy support base over the 300 years it has been held. Last year, almost 500,000 visitors came to see the event. Arrive early at the festival, as I did, and you can enjoy the informal atmosphere by mingling among the participating groups. You can watch as participants undergo costume changes, engage in friendly banter and prepare their floats with ensembles of flute and drum players.
With no barriers or admission fee, the temple’s spacious garden is more like a park, a parallel world to Shinshoji’s animated main compound, replete with winding paths, stone lanterns, towering pine trees and a floating pergola. Based on the design of a Japanese stroll garden, the landscape was fashioned not out of grounds owned by an aristocratic family, as so many of these circuit gardens are, but the prevailing natural surroundings. Without the strictly confining boundaries typically associated with Japanese gardens, this landscape offers a rare liberation of space. This is a world populated by Sunday painters, bird watchers and young couples seeking a moment’s privacy in space-pinched Japan. It is also a popular spot for well-organized retirees — it never ceases to surprise me when I see them unfolding their camping chairs, Tupperware boxes and paper napkins.
I found a similar mix of people in Inbanuma, a marshy lake area nearby — a kind of Japanese fenland in Sakura. Flocks of terns, reed warblers, bitterns and wintering ducks make the lake, and its periphery of reeds, pampas grass and bull rushes, their home. You’ll also find wild flowers, such as groundsel and corydalis, and perhaps come across elderly women in smocks and bonnets grubbing for edible nettles and herbs.
Less appealing than these natural details were the man-made features of this broad, flat landscape: a large water filtration plant and a mountain of rotting seed bags alongside a gravel path.
For many people, the focal point of Inbanuma is a life-size Dutch windmill. A few years ago, while I was walking past the structure, a door leading into it was flung open, disgorging a Westerner. It turned out the fellow was a Dutchman in Japan for two months to supervise and maintain windmills. It seems there are several located across the country.
It was sunflower season when I arrived this time, but given the Dutch theme, the spot is best known for its May tulip festival. The event and windmill are fine examples of what Pico Iyer was talking about in an essay for The New York Times Magazine, when he wrote that Japan has “created a promiscuous anthology of the world’s best styles” — a place where ideas and commodities are imported, adapted and recalibrated for domestic consumption and entertainment.
Narita Station is a one-hour train ride from Tokyo Station and seven minutes from Narita Airport. Bicycles can be rented from a shop near the windmill in Inbanuma. The Gion Matsuri is scheduled to run July 8-10. For more information, visit www.naritasan.or.jp/english.
Wakamatsu Honten (www.wakamatsuhonten.jp; 0476-22-1136) is a ryokan (traditional inn) that was founded more than 240 years ago It is a 15-minute walk from Narita Station and a short walk from Shinshoji Temple, and offers Japanese-style tatami rooms.
Food and drink
Kikuya Chrysanthemum House (www.ann.hi-ho.ne.jp/kikuya; 0476-22-0236) an affordable 100-year-old restaurant along Shinshoji Temple’s Omotesando. Kikuya is reknowned for its charbroiled eel dishes.
Kawatoyo Honten (www.unagi-kawatoyo.com/foreign; 0476-22-2711) is also on the walk to Shinshoji Temple. The restaurant lets you watch the process of preparing an eel from beginning to end, and also offers an English menu.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.