How many can say that they have been to Japan, clearing immigration and getting the proper stamp on the passport, just to go to Narita? Not many, or at least not many who also happen to be right in their head.
However, that’s a claim I can happily (and rightly so) make, for I have been to Japan thrice and to Narita twice (yes, I ventured further on one occasion). And you know what? It isn’t a bad place to stay at all, at the end of the day.
Remember the inner city where Holly and Benji use to hang about, or the one upon which Doraemon used to fly? The Japanese Springfield sans the nuclear power station (or Moe’s tavern, for that matter). Well, Narita pretty much seems like all those places. A dormitory town off Tokyo, known also to have an airport named after itself, it’s quite a pleasant place to stay if the weather is fine. There are things to see and do and, if you’re not looking like a local, you can also be treated like an exotic guest (people approaching you to practice their English included).
So, let’s imagine that business or (more likely) a cancelled flight strands you in Narita. What to do? Firstly, I’d dearly recommend to stay at the Mercure hotel. Not because it’s particularly swanky, but because it’s downtown and a short walk away from the shops and bars. The hotel is not as good as the Hilton but it’slocation, location, location that makes it a winner.
Secondly, pay a visit to the Narita-san Shinsho-ji temple complex. A Buddhist temple with some 1100 years of history, it’s your quintessential Japanese affair of lush woods, gurgling springs, beautiful ponds and, obviously, pagodas. Most of the pagodas have been rebuilt over time as it’s been sadly the case for many such buildings in a country prone to earthquakes and bombings with phosphorus, but had they been in Tokyo these exquisite works of art would’ve featured in countless Instagram snaps. Also don’t miss the inscribed stones, mainly tombstones, popping out here and there between the trees.
I spent some nice hours there once my work for the day had been done, doing loops of the park and ending up high-fiving the all-Louisiana crew of a cargo plane. Eventually night falls and this is the moment when my stay in Japan stops being interesting and becomes awkward. The salarymen return to their homes or tuck in a bento box at the local eatery; kids do what kids do, i.e. flirting with each others on their phones; and I’m left out for I don’t speak the language nor I can blend in.
A surprisingly high number of clubs and bars in Narita boast a “No foregners” sign at their entrance (and I suspect that telling them that an “I” also ought to be added might not be fully understood), which leaves the average Westener with a few places to choose from, one of them being the aptly named ‘Jet Lag Bar’, run and catered for night-stopping cabin crews. But after a couple of pints it’s back to the Mercure where I return, once again feeling as only Japan can make me feel: enthralled, but also deeply aware that I’ll never be able to fit in completely.