NARITA, Japan — Few passengers who land at the New Tokyo International Airport know about the treasure that lies at their wing tip, the temple town of Narita, which has drawn pilgrims for a thousand years.
While travelers heading immediately for Tokyo are still languishing in freeway traffic, you can be up to your chin in a steaming Japanese ofuro (hot tub), meditating in a splendid old Buddhist temple or strolling quiet forest paths.
Narita, only minutes from the 20th-Century airport, has retained its country village atmosphere and traditions of old Japan. It's an ideal introduction to the country.
Or a peaceful interlude in hectic jet travel if you're heading to other points in the Orient. Or a wonderful place to unwind from the rigors of an Asian tour during the 72 hours you're allowed in the country without a visa.
And all on a surprisingly limited budget, for Japan (you can stay here for as little as $25 including meals and lodging).
Native or Western
If you prefer familiar surroundings, there are eight Western-style hotels on the outskirts with frequent shuttle service into town. The 500-room Narita View, on 18 acres, is a good choice--four restaurants with Western and Eastern cuisine, a dozen tennis courts, jogging trails and Japanese bathing facilities plus a skilled staff of shiatsu masseuses.
The adventurous can choose from several ryokan--Japanese country inns--in the heart of old Narita. At Wakematsu Ryokan, overlooking the temple, a kimono-clad staff serves sumptuous meals right in your room.
The way through town and the temple approach challenge all the senses, a winding, narrow street lined with aromatic restaurants and open-front shops. It can take 10 minutes, half a day or even longer if you've brought your camera or paintbrushes.
There are vats of pickles, pyramids of dried fish, corps of drumming mechanical pandas. Vendors hawk seaweed, snake powder, crafts and kimono. Eel kebabs sizzle on a sidewalk grill, fresh from a curbside aquarium. And in front of the temple gates, free pots of steaming tea refresh shoppers and weary pilgrims.
A steep staircase leads from the village to Narita-san, a wonderland of temples, pagodas and sacred halls. Since AD 940, Fudo, the temple deity and god of fire, has protected, purified and fulfilled the prayers of pilgrims. This hillside retreat is considered one of Japan's most magnificent Shingon-sect Buddhist temples.
The Grand Pagoda, Narita-san's newest addition (1983), crowns the temple grounds and overlooks 45 acres of adjoining forested parkland, a network of footpaths, waterfalls, streams and ponds. Buried beneath this gallery of ancient temple treasures is a time capsule to be opened in 450 years, containing messages for peace from world leaders, including the Pope and President Reagan.
Starting at 5:30 a.m., five ceremonies daily celebrate the holy fire ritual (Goma) in the great main hall, a performance with music and pageantry. Monks robed in lime, plum and lemon silk chant in concert with bells, cymbals, tambourines, drums and trumpets. In a palace-style sanctuary festooned with gold chandeliers, wooden sticks inscribed with the prayers of pilgrims are received by the high priest and blessed in the smoke of a crackling fire.
Pilgrims too rushed to take in the ceremony can spin a silo-size prayer wheel containing all the Buddhist sutras; one revolution credits your spiritual account with having read the entire collection.
Or pre-blessed, pre-inscribed prayer sticks are available, including an all-purpose model. The hottest item, pre-blessed automobile charms, cost 3,000 yen (about $18), a year's protection for you and your car. A terrific bargain at today's insurance rates, and internationally valid.
Every day is festive at Narita-san, but the busiest time is Lunar New Year when about 3 million pilgrims converge on the temple. During the year there's the Bean Throwing Festival in early February (prosperity and easy birth); Buddha's Birthday party on April 8 and the Gion Festival July 7-9 with fireworks, floats and bands. In November, a chrysanthemum show completes the year's celebrations.
For a visitor who's staying longer than a day at Narita, Sawara, less than an hour away by train, offers a different look at old rural Japan. A boat trip in the aquatic botanical gardens and a visit to Katori Shrine, with its 8th-Century deity in acres of towering ancient cedars, is a relaxing excursion.
For a full day and memorable meal, lunch at Shimizuya, a family restaurant for eight generations, specializing in fresh eel and carp. Owner Kazuhiko Osaki keeps recipes secret from even his head chef.