If you ever find yourself with a half-day or so layover transiting through Narita airport in Japan (the airport most commonly used for Tokyo), be sure to take full advantage of the Transit & Stay Program. There are eleven free tours covering all of Narita’s must-see and must-do attractions, ranging from shopping to eating to traditional culture to visiting the countryside. Some include a volunteer guide while others are self-guided.
The best tour to choose
I chose to do Tour 1 and visited Narita town and Narita-san Shinsho-ji Temple without a guide. (If you want a free tour guide, it’s best to book ahead on the Transit & Stay Program website.) This way I could do some shopping, some eating and get some culture in at the same time without running out of time.
To participate you need to: 1. Go through immigration and officially enter Japan As an Australian, I only needed to fill out the arrival cards. Other nationalities should check their specific requirements. 2. Have at least five hours to spare before your next flight departs It is important to be back at the airport at least two hours before your onward flight’s departure time. I did Tour 1 in approximately 3.5 hours but wish I’d had more time. 3. Have sufficient cash Although the tours and guides are free, you still need to pay for transport and entrance fees. Also, many of the shops and restaurants only accept cash. I took out ¥4000 which was enough for hiring a locker, a return train fare, a bottle of water, a small souvenir, a snack and a meal.
Preparing for the tour
What to do with luggage?
Luggage can be left at the airport in lockers. There were plenty available in the central area of Terminal 1 (T1) on the ground level, sized small to large. I had no trouble fitting all my bags into a large locker. It was simple to operate using coins, costing just ¥500 for the whole day.
Visiting the Transit & Stay Reception Counter
It was definitely worth dropping by the Counter also in the central area of T1. Even though the brochures provided enough information to venture out confidently, I found talking to the staff much more useful. They spoke perfect English, were incredibly polite and gave me all the necessary information to make my trip as smooth as possible.
Taking the train to Narita Station
Go to T2 and buy a ticket
If you start your tour from T1 like I did, you will need to get to T2 to take the Keisei Main Line. The staff at the Counter explained how to get there and even gave me instructions on how to purchase the discounted same-day round-trip ticket to Keisei-Narita Station. I never would have figured that out without their help.
The train journey
The journey to Narita was a quick seven minutes with trains departing every 20 minutes. Everything was clearly written in English making navigating the stations super easy. With the Transit & Stay Program staffs’ help, I planned to take the 11:33am train there and return on the 2:03pm, which was just enough time to fit in the top attractions.
Getting to Narita-san Shinsho-ji Temple
Once out of Keisei-Narita Station I followed the map provided and made my way to Narita-san along the historic Omotesando Street. It was about a 15-minute walk in basically a straight line. Along the way I happily browsed through the tourist shops. I could have spent much longer looking at the mementos for sale, including Japanese porcelain, clothing, fans, weird jelly soaps, all sorts of local snacks and more, but time was of the essence.
What to do at the Temple
Narita-san is truly a top attraction. Big traditional gates, lots of pagodas, ponds with terrapins stacked high, ancient-looking trees. The entrance to the temple was impressive and, ultimately for me, the most awe-inspiring part. Just before ascending the steep stairs up to the main temple, there was a dragon statue with running water which many people used to wash their hands. So I did, too. Then once at the top, I wandered around and admired the different temples. I took off my shoes, put them in one of the plastic bags provided and had a look inside the main one. Although I found the gates more striking, it was still amazing to see. Plus it was all for free!
Afterwards I walked through the beautiful gardens. It was so refreshing to be in a luscious green park after spending so much time at the airport. I loved strolling around the ponds full of huge fish and admiring the waterfall. I would have spent much more time enjoying the serenity, but I was hungry and running out of time.
Where to eat
Narita is home to some must-try Japanese food. All the staples like sushi, ramen, katsudon, yakitori and sake, are easy to find. Plus there are local specialties like peanut miso, braised eel (unagi) and red bean paste-filled dough (amataroyaki).
The best maccha
The hidden Miyoshiya café is just off the main street set in a lovely Japanese garden surrounded by tall bamboo. The clientele was mostly Japanese, which made the place feel very authentic. The menu was limited to desserts, so I just had the highly recommended iced maccha. It was perfect. It came with a piece of yokan, which is a must-try local sweet made of red bean paste and chestnut. I didn’t linger at the cafe, although I could have easily wasted the whole day there reading and patting the friendly resident sausage dog. Instead I hurried off to find lunch.
The best ramen
Ramen is one of my favourite dishes from Japan and something all visitors must try at least once. I visited Ramen Bayashi after reading some great reviews online. I chose the Sichuan-style ramen with an extra egg because I love spicy food. The noodles were just right; the pork was tender and tasty; the broth was strong, flavourful and with a proper spicy kick; the service was excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and highly recommend the restaurant to anyone looking for a real ramen experience in Narita.
The end of the tour
It was definitely time to get back to the airport by then; I had a flight to catch! I walked back to Keisei-Narita Station and used my return ticket to access the platform. The return train took about ten minutes and thankfully stopped at T1 as well as T2. I grabbed my bags from the locker and went back through immigration in good time with no worries or fears of missing my next flight. All in all it was a great little adventure and the perfect way to make use of a layover. It was an experience not to be missed.