Following up on my fabulous 9 hour overnight layover in Tokyo at the start of a recent trip, I had another long layover on my return trip, this time landing and departing from Narita airport. The city of Narita is funding free transit tours for people with some time to kill at the airport. I didn’t want to be rushed going all the way into Tokyo (which is more than an hour from the airport) so this seemed like a great option for fun during my layover.
There is a tour desk in both terminals 1 and 2. I found that some folks working at the general airport information desks weren’t aware of the tours (which just started last year) but after asking around I got pointed in the right direction and found the tour desk. It has a big sign saying “free tours” and there was a super friendly woman working behind the desk who seemed very excited that I wanted to use the program. I showed up right at 9am when they opened and I was the only customer there. I was given the choice of three possible tours and I selected the Narita city and temple tour. I figured I would be asked to wait around while they gathered more people for my tour, but there was no waiting involved. The woman at the desk gave me a free bottle of water and called for the guides who appeared, ready to go, in less than 5 minutes. There was no one else asking for a tour at this time so I ended up with two tour guides all to myself (both wearing bright pink vests with the program logo ensuring that you could see me, the tourist, coming from a mile away).
The guides are all volunteers, and they work in pairs. So even if you are doing the tour alone, you’ll get two guides. We ran into another tour which left from the other airport terminal around the same time. That was a group of 3 people (traveling together) with their own two guides. We didn’t follow the exact same path, but we saw them a few times during the four hour tour. My guides both spoke very good English and knew lots of useful facts about the town of Narita and the temple we visited. Based on the four guides I saw I’d say many of the volunteers are retired folks.
The tour requires a brief train ride, just one stop from the airport to the town of Narita. You do need to pay for the train in cash so you’ll want to have at least￥500, and if you want lunch or any other incidentals you should probably have about￥2000 in cash (though you can get away with credit cards for food and purchases if you are selective about where you go.) Warning: ATM machines in Japan seem to dispense a minimum of ￥10,000, which is a bit tricky if you only need a small amount of cash. Much as I hate paying to exchange money, you may be better off just changing a small amount of cash at the airport.
From the Narita town train station you walk down along a cute street filled with shops and restaurants. We stopped at the tourism center in town for a quick look at the history museum upstairs, which gave some context for the development of Narita and its relationship to Tokyo. Then we went to the Buddhist Narita-san Shinsho-ji temple, which was founded in 940 and later became an important site for pilgrimages. Although it was pretty empty on a Tuesday, my guides told me that lots of locals from Tokyo come out to the temple on the weekend. The temple also has a very large and beautiful park as a part of the grounds.
We visited some of the main buildings and then took a walk through the park, which is very well maintained by men up on interesting ladders balanced with poles on odd angles. One of my guides pointed out a “secret musical instrument”: a bamboo pipe with some water running through it and another bamboo pipe just sticking in the ground. I was told to put my ear to the one in the ground, and I heard a faint melodic chime. Apparently this is the sound of the water drops underground. The sign explaining this music was only in Japanese: score one for the guides.
At 11am there is a ceremony in the main temple which my guides timed the sightseeing around. It was quite impressive with big drums, fire, and chanting. I passed on the opportunity to get my bag waved in the smoke of the fire (lots of women handed over their purses to monks for this ritual), which I later learned is meant to increase the future value of the contents. I guess I may have missed out on future riches appearing in my travel backpack.
After the ceremony we walked back along the main street, stopping for sake tasting in a brewery, and peanut sampling in a nut roasting shop, and finally for lunch at a ramen restaurant. I was given the choice of any type of food I wanted for lunch, and I was paralyzed with indecision since I like so many different Japanese foods. So when we walked by a ramen shop that looked popular I decided to end the back and forth with my guides who were holding out on providing restaurant recommendations until I gave them a specific type of food I wanted to eat. The ramen was good, but not better than I’ve had in the U.S., and it was mostly frequented by tourists. I suppose most tourists really like it though, so you can make your own decision about whether it’s a good option for your lunch. It was the only ramen place on the main street, so it’s easy to find.
When we were walking back to the train after lunch, more than 3 hours into my tour, one of my guides told me that we had more time if I wanted to see anything else. Two private guides, available for whatever I wanted to see and do in Narita for 4+ hours, for free! Best priced tour anywhere.
There are over 100 volunteers in the Japanese Transit Program, all of whom work 2 days a month. Sometimes during their shifts no one shows up for a tour, so I think you can count on being quickly set up with a pair of guides if you want to take advantage of this program. Just show up any time between 9am and noon, though I was told they have to be back by 2pm when the tour desk closes, so after 11am might be a bit late to get started.
When we got back to the airport the woman at the tour desk gave me a few presents: a pen and a small paper origami bird, both with the program logo on them, and asked me to take a quick survey about the tour. She also offered me access to the transit program lounge where people can hang out in comfort while waiting for their flights. Did I mention this was all free?