From the moment I popped into Japan I wished I was staying longer. After a dazzling welcome from passport control we were gutted we only had 6 hours to play with. But it turns out you can fit a lot of temples, tempura and tea in just 6 hours in Japan – it’s well worth taking a long layover in Tokyo Narita.
We were flying to Sydney from London and were routing via Tokyo due to the availability for Avios redemption flights on that route. Rather than book a close connection that would have us stressing if there were any delays we opted for a flight that departed later that day and decided to leave the airport for some air and a sampler of Japanese hospitality.
After the warm welcome from passport control we swiftly moved through customs and approached an information desk to find out what we could do within our stopover. As we knew entering Tokyo central itself wouldn’t be possible in the time we had (the international airport is 60kms outside of Tokyo), we decided we would visit the nearby city of Narita instead. At the information desk they had a English handout prepared with instructions on where to get the train from and what sites we could see in town. We dropped the heavier items of our hand luggage with a baggage hold service and made our way downstairs to the trains (via the ATM – the ticket offices don’t take card.)
From the airport Narita City is just a 7 minute train ride away on the Keisei. It costs 260 yen (approx. £1.50) and trains depart every 20 minutes. The biggest draw in Narita City is the Naritasan Temple – and boy is it big. Spanning several steep-stepped levels and involving numerous historic buildings, Naritsan was established in the year 940 and is still used for Buddhist ceremonies today. After taking the leisurely 20 minute stroll from the station to the temple we found ourselves in the middle of a ceremony involving fire, cymbals and the blessing of handbags.
Narita’s main street (the Omotesando) is lined with traditional looking restaurants and shops. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant which seemed to be more popular with locals. Leaving shoes at the door we knelt at the low tables and were served prawn tempura, grilled chicken and wasabi peas washed down with sake (of course!) and green tea. After much bowing we paid our bill and made our way back onto the street, having been waved off by a lady dressed as a geisha.
A few doors down I noticed an interesting looking alleyway, lined with statues and potted plants, and decided to take a closer look. At the end was an unexpected, serene tea garden; wooden benches surrounded by water features and giant red umbrellas. I ordered what sounded like the most interesting thing on the menu – a lemon, shaved ice tea – and it was certainly a unique beverage. I didn’t know how I was supposed to eat it but heaped a load of ice into a small cup and hoped I wasn’t making a faux pas. When we asked for our bill we were served with a complimentary jug of iced tea, just to finish off the experience properly.
We saw only a handful of Western tourists during our time in Narita, most visitors seemed to be Japanese tourists who had come to see the temple, but Narita is often used by air crew during longer layovers. You can see this influence in some of the more western looking cafes and shops (some offer discounts to store crew). There is the ultimate convenience store, 7-11, on the main street as well as several vending machines we couldn’t help but play with. Overall, though, we were surprised by how much of a mini Japanese experience you can have in such a short time and so close to the departure lounge too.
Back in departures we were lucky enough to have access to the Japan Airlines Business Lounge. Whilst the Sakura Lounge looks like it could be anywhere in the world it certainly demonstrates the Japanese level of superb service. The shower facilities are sublime, like mini spa rooms with water jets that spray from all corners, and you can sign up for a free ten minute massage. I simply asked for an appointment at the spa desk just before I went in for my shower and was given an appointment card for shortly after (it advised me to arrive 3 minutes before my allotted time – how is that for efficiency!) The massage room has relaxing music and a lay flat bed. You remain fully clothed for the treatment but I must say it was far more relaxing than my massage chair experience at the hectic Elemis spa in London Heathrow. The JAL Business lounge also has massage chairs, which I am advised are best used with a beer in hand. I was too busy eating the beef katsu curry in the dining area to test this theory myself.
Our layover in Japan was probably my best stopover experience yet. Next time we visit Japan, though, it will be for much longer than a day!