A Mid-Winter Adventure in Japan

Osenbei vendors in Narita City.
Osenbei vendors in Narita City.

Narita-san Temple: A Mid-Winter Adventure in Japa

By Kurt Jacobson

The statues lining the street to Narita-san templeThe statues lining the street to Narita-san templeA popular destination for those with an affinity for the slopes, I had to wonder: Why would anyone go to Japan in the middle of winter if it wasn’t for skiing or snowboarding? I was curious to find out if there was enough to offer a non-skiing traveler during the winter months in this exotic country, even if the experts deem it best to visit in fall and spring.

My plan was set; I would spend eleven days in mid-January exploring parts of the main island, (Honshu), traveling with a rail pass on JR Lines in Tokyo and destinations beyond. My wife, who was born in Japan, and I would start our trip from the place where many start their journey, Narita Airport. But, on this particular trip (and my eighth voyage to Japan so far), we would spend the first day investigating worthy attractions just minutes fromthe airport.

A Free Ride

Over 800,000 visitors from North America came to Japan last year, though probably only a few hundred thought to visit Narita-san Temple– a beautiful sight less than ten minutes from the sprawling international airport.

A cat enjoying the sun at the temple.
A cat enjoying the sun at the temple.

Staying at the nearby Nikko Narita Hotel provided us with clean, comfortable, and reasonably priced rooms, and also included free transportation not only to and from the hotel and airport, but also a shuttle bus that took visitors straight into the heart of Narita City. The hotel shuttle drops off at the Narita City train station, and from there it was merely a fifteen to twenty minute walk to the temple.

Once the shuttle dropped us off in front of the train station, escalators whisked us up to the main level where we made our way straight through to the other side.

A Walk Through Town

It was just about another hundred feet or so to the intersection where we turned right and spied the McDonalds— a reference point the hotel clerk told us to look for. We enjoyed the walk to the temple where many shops and restaurants lined the route. As we made our way down Nakamachi Street at around eight in the morning there were interesting points that begged for further inspection on our return.

Especially the Coeur de Chocolate shop— it was shuttered but intriguing. The walk down Nakamachi Street was made all the more fun by the collection of whimsical statues lining the road. If you have never been to this temple you will know you’re on the right road when you pass statues of animals such as a mouse, dragon or snake. They were all carved in a grey stone and sat about three feet high.

A Walk in the ParkAt the temple we entered the So-Mon Gate and walked the temple grounds for over an hour, taking in the beauty of this park and temple complex that covers over 165,000 square meters. When you can take a walk in the woods anywhere in the Tokyo area, it’s a nice break from the concrete and high-rises of the city.

Topiary garden at Narita Temple.
Topiary garden at Narita Temple.

The three-storied pagoda built in 1712 stood tall and sparkled with gold trim. It is regarded as one of the highlights of the temple grounds. Next we walked on towards the three “lakes” (I’d call them more ponds) and paused at an over-the-water gazebo, just enjoying the beauty and silence. For the last part of our self-guided tour, we went up to the Great Pagoda of Peace before heading back to the So-Mon gate area.

There outside the entrance we had to check out the flea-market-like stalls selling foods and crafts of the area.

Shopping and Eating Eel

It was forty five degrees Fahrenheit at best, and many of the vendors we met were in their sixties or seventies and working in the cold stalls! They were certainly some tough old birds. High quality peanuts are a famous crop of this region, and several of the stalls offered free samples of roasted, boiled, or flavored peanuts. We bought a bag of the best then headed to Kawatoyo Honten, a restaurant serving Unagi, (eel) for an early lunch.

Peanut stand in Narita City.
Peanut stand in Narita City.

The restaraunt was quite popular, and the place filled completely minutes after opening at ten in the morning. I marveled at the skill of the cook filleting and de-boning the eel right at the front of the restaurant for all to see. It is no easy job working in cold conditions in the unheated front section of the restaurant while tourist and regulars scuttle by. We were seated at a traditional sunken table but underneath was an electric foot warmer that was nice touch on a cold day.

We ordered the specialty of the house-grilled Unagi that came in three sizes: 2,500, 3,100, and the extra large 4,100 yen size for those who are really hungry. At 2,500 yen/$21 USD each we got an excellent meal of this traditional Japanese comfort food and proclaimed it the best Unagi ever! With a side order of clear soup that had an eel liver at the bottom, it was a perfect combination. There were a few other items on this short menu such as broiled eel liver, fried eel bones or a bowl of pickles that we didn’t try.

They also served beer and sake, but at ten in the morning on our first full day in Japan it didn’t seem wise. Be advised they don’t take credit cards so be sure to bring enough yen.

Tasting Local Foods

With lunch over we continued browsing the shops of Nakamachi Street, tasting local foods as we went. They had so many free samples it made for some slow going; I tasted the different Japanese style pickles and my wife tried the osenbei (rice crackers). One stand was selling a Japanese sweet treat called Taiyaki, (a pancake stuffed with sweet red bean treat) and my wife was drawn to it like fleas to a dog. This is a treat that is best fresh off the grill, and several people were doing a grab and go with warm Taiyaki in their hands and smiles on their faces.

A mochi shop pulled us in as we hopped from shop to shop enjoying the energy of this market place. It was all so colorful and interesting seeing these masters of visual marketing grab customers with dazzling displays. Japanese food shops are so much more colorful and perfectly arranged than similar shops in the U.S.

The Chocolate Shop

Back up the hill towards our pick-up point near the train station, the little chocolate shop I had seen earlier was now open and so I walked in to take a look. I consider myself an expert chocolate shopper, and while this didn’t seem it it would be a candidate for top five in the world it ended up being so.

The nice lady behind the counter spoke English well and when I inquired as to why she explained how she had lived in Montreal for twelve years.

Her husband was French and, was the mastermind behind the chocolate goodness and the pastries.

They did not have a particularly large selection, but were incredible in their quality.

Unfortunately, I didn’t try the chocolate until the next day and by then it was too late to buy more since they don’t sell online or by phone, and we would not pass that way again on this trip. Should you go to Narita and love great chocolate, be sure and try the dark chocolate bar with hazelnuts; it is sublime! If pastries are more to your liking, try the Mont Blanc or almond croissant.

Farewell Narita City

With our bags full of goodies, we caught the bus back to the Hotel Nikko Narita to queue up for the free airport bus. Back at the airport we caught the Airport Limousine bus to Tokyo. The next ten days would be full of more winter adventures in Tokyo and beyond.

Our visit to Narita-san Temple had us wondering why we had never stopped there before. It was well worth spending half a day exploring the temple and the city of Narita. In future trips to Japan we will certainly come back to enjoy a walk in the woods at Narita-san Temple, the foodie shops, and one more order of the best Unagi ever at Kawatoyo Honten.

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Kurt Jacobson
Kurt Jacobson lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and spent many years as a professional chef. Now he travels the world and shares his stories here and on other travel websites.