I only had one day in Narita, and previous research led me to believe that my time would be best spent at the Naritasan temple complex, which is about a 15 minute walk from the Narita train station. The road between the train station and the temple complex is called Omotesando, and it is a quaint winding road perfect for tourists.
Hardware store with a big ol’ vending machine
Monkey show along Omote sando…ironic because in Indonesia the week before I saw people protesting monkey shows as animal cruelty.
There were many shops, selling things like jewelry, kimonos, snacks, jewelry, knickknacks baskets, and incense. There were reportedly dozens of Unagi (broiled eel) restaurants, as Unagi is a specialty of the region.
Many of the restaurants advertise their foods with the display of rubbery looking examples.
Fake food in the window display
I decided to eat at one of the Unagi restaurants. I went inside, looked at the menu, pointed at a picture of what I wanted, and received my food. Even though I encountered very few people who spoke more than a few words of English on my trip to Japan, we were able to communicate somehow.
The unagi, which I had not had in years since quitting gluten, was very good but my stomach felt itchy for hours afterwards, so something there didn’t agree with me. I was literally eating some foods I did not recognize at all.
Powder for the unagi
Another seasoning powder
Eventually, after making my way through all these distractions, I found the temple complex. Here is its entrance:
Entrance to Naritasan
Inside the temple area I was amazed. Memorably, it was a cold day, but the toilet seats were warm. I had never encountered preheated toilet seats before, and they were very welcome.
There are about a dozen temples, and many of them are still actively being used, apparently by Zen priests or monks practicing Shingon Buddhism.
I managed to get a few photographs of inside places before I realized I wasn’t supposed to be taking photographs inside.
Inside the main temple before someone scolded me for taking a picture
I think this was the main temple exterior
In the main temple, I sat down to try to meditate, figuring that seem like a good thing to do inside a Buddhist temple. After a while I noticed more and more people were coming in and one of the priests was lighting some candles. I wondered if something was about to happen, and sure enough I was in for a real treat.
A dozen or so priests filed in and sat in a row with their backs to us. There were now at least 100 or more people in the temple. I practically had a front row seat, if you can call sitting on the floor a seat. The priest spoke for a while and did some ritual movements that I didn’t understand. Then a very old man in fancy garb came in and he sat in some sort of seat of honor, also with his back to us. Then I saw fire appear in front of the old man, and I realized I was watching the Goma fire ritual. Priests started waving wooden planks with writing over the fire and then suddenly one of the priests was waving a bunch of handbags over the fire. Then I realized people were lining up and handing over their bags to be waved in front of the fire. I figured it was some sort of blessing. At one point during the ritual someone banged a drum that was probably at least 6 feet in diameter. It was simply thunderous. All in all a very special experience. I felt like quite the ignorant newbie.
There were opportunities throughout the temple complex to light and offer incense, purchase amulets and listen to rituals. Some people were having words written in Japanese on wooden planks, but there wasn’t any explanation in English how that worked. Almost all the signage was in Japanese. I expected there to be lots of tourists there but I was pretty much the only non-Asian, so I don’t know.
I’ve been practicing Tibetan Buddhism for years and found it fascinating to see the differences between Tibetan esoteric Buddhism and Japanese esoteric Buddhism. I saw statues of Buddhas I recognized, and there were vajras in some of the temples. But some of the things they were doing ritually seemed very unfamiliar to me, like rubbing the prayer beads against something to make sound. I felt bad in a way that I couldn’t understand more of what I was seeing. But it definitely lit the curiosity stick for me to learn more someday.