Saturday, October 15, 2011

Narita Stopover

Tea & cookies

12 hours in Japan - what would YOU do? I have visited Japan in the past, and so have seen the major “sights” of Tokyo, and with only 12 hours there is a limit on how far you can expect to travel. Indeed, I’ve been warned that it can take 2 -3 hours to get in to central Tokyo from the airport at Narita. Plus there’s the dreaded jet lag to consider. Here’s what I did after arriving at 9 am:

First: check into a day room at the Narita Rest House and take a shower. Good move. The Narita Rest House, despite it’s attractive traditional-sounding name, is in fact a cheap, run-down airport hotel. Never mind - it has a shower and a bed, and one of those amazing over-engineered Japanese toilets.

Red letter day at Naritasan

Watching the show.
Second: head off with pre-booked guide, Ms Kaoru Otani, and a cheerful driver. We made our way into the city of Narita, our object the local temple known as Naritasan. This, as it turns out, is a principal Shingon Budhist temple, founded in 940, and is a huge complex of buildings and gardens. Not only that, we have arrived on the day of the annual fire-walking ceremony. How lucky can we be? Naritasan, approached by several large gates and steep staircases, is dedicated to a deity named Fudōmyōō, who is associated with flames. Thus, the monks get to play with fire quite a lot. In fact, the main ceremony, which I witnessed, is performed several times a day and involves the lighting of a sacred fire. It seems that if you wave your belongings in the general direction of the flames, they absorb some spiritually potency, so the ceremony ends with the monks carrying armloads of cheap handbags and waving them in the flames before returning them to their pious and hopeful owners. Outside, since this was a special day, other monks were lighting a large bonfire and performing various rites of chanting, dancing and fierce-sounding invocations around it. Later, they would walk on the dying embers.

Beautiful pagoda

Kaoru grabs some spiritual incense smoke

Japanese tea house
Third: Leaving the temple after the ceremony, Kaoru and I wandered up a nearby street, where vendors were getting ready to quell the appetite of the faithful with a variety of unidentifiable foodstuffs, including a kind of jellied eel, the local speciality. Seeking refreshment, we walked down a small side alley and found a lovely little tea garden, complete with koi pond and red parasol umbrellas. Kaoru helpfully ordered some Japanese tea (strange sludgy stuff) and sweets (a red bean paste thingy), which I drank and ate, feeling very Japanese. Well, a tiny bit.

Fourth: After this interlude, we hooked up again with our cheerful driver and set off for a neighbouring city, Sakura City, about 30 minutes drive away. As in many parts of Japan, it was hard to tell where one city ended and the next started, since there is very little actual countryside still existing. But in the end we reached our goal: the National Museum of Japanese History. I had read on the web that this was a very good museum, but Kaoru sheepishly admitted that she had never been there. Once inside, she and I wandered through the galleries on the early Paleolithic age through to the Nara period (8th century); daily life from the 9th to the 16th centuries including the Heian court and everyday lives of samurai, and a wonderful model of 16th century Kyoto; and then the culture of the Edo period up to the 18th century. Kaoru kept exclaiming (in a refined Japanese kind of way): “This great treasure!”, “Look here! This very famous!” We found marvelous scrolls that had been preserved for centuries, buried in metal canisters; awesome and detailed painted screens showing life in ancient Kyoto and Tokyo; and some very well preserved ancient pottery and statuettes. 
National Museum of Japanese History

Aren't they cute?

Edo period Tokyo- "a treasure!"
It is indeed a great museum, though very rarely visited because of its distance from Tokyo. It was a busy Sunday at Naritasan, but there was hardly anyone in the museum. Not only is the Museum worth a visit for its contents, but it also sits in a beautiful botanical park known as Sakura Castle Park. Sakura Castle, of which some remains still exist in the park, was founded in the early 1600s. Sadly, a mere stopover did not give enough time to explore - maybe next time.

Fifth and final: back to the Narita Rest House for a few hours of shut-eye before the next long-haul flight leg. And another look at that amazing toilet.

Toilet instructions: contemplate and enjoy.

Er...maybe later.

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