Narita has been known to me for the last 20 years or so only as Tokyo’s new (ish) airport though, at up to an hour and a half’s travel by train from Tokyo itself it wouldn’t have been at all surprising that only Ryanair called it that.
So despite picking a hotel in Narita city so that we wouldn’t have to move bags and baggage on the last day, we fully expected a dreary airport town with little to recommend it, a sort of Crawley with Japanese food. Certainly our guide book not only didn’t recommend it it didn’t even mention the place.
On first inspection though, once away from the station and its attendant convenience stores and that ubiquitous fast food establishment (they are not restaurants, whatever they may like to pretend) whose name begins with an “M” and ends with an “cDonald” it turned out to be a pleasant enough place with a nice main street with attractive shop fronts, traditional and more international bars and restaurants and was, in short, not a bad place to wander around.
On second inspection, we found the temple.
Now, this is Japan. Of course we have visited several temples (the Buddhists) and shrines (Shinto) on our travels around the country: not to do so would be like visiting the Vatican without ever going in to a church. But, beautiful though some of them are and although each is unique in its own way they do have a certain generic similarity and so, philistines that we are, we weren’t actually dying to see more. This seemed quite modern, modest in size and generally unpromising apart from a spectacular pagoda. But it was there, it was free, and I wandered in through the elegant, and apparently quite recent, gates to discover that this was the Nakitasan Shinshoji Temple and is one of the oldest, possibly one of the largest and certainly one of the most impressive temples in the whole country.
The three-story pagoda, 25 metres high and dating from 1712.
External appearances are quite deceptive: what the site lacks in width at the street entrance it makes up for in depth. You get drawn in: at every step there is another building or path lying behind draws you in to see more. This temple continues building – the current main hall is an enormous, cavernous building built in 1968 but at least two of its predecessors, from 1858 and 1701, are still there. The site has been in use since 940, and they are not in a hurry to throw anything away.
Perhaps the most unexpected feature of all – because from the street all you can see is a few trees on the top of a small hill – is the park: 16.5 hectares of garden with ponds, streams and waterfalls (what Japanese garden would be complete without them) in a small valley completely hidden from the main street.
The hidden forest – invisible from the road.
Now we have a tendency in the west I think to romanticise Buddhism: a religion of peace, we say. No, scarcely even a religion, more a system of philosophy. Barefoot smiley monks in orange robes, who eat lentils and won’t step on a cockroach in case it is their dead aunt reincarnated. That sort of thing,
But of course humans have an uncanny ability to make their gods in their own image, and Shingon Buddhism is no exception. The temple’s main deity, Fudomyo-o, is a cranky looking character altogether and carries a sword in one hand (to “cut away hindrances of passion and false knowledge“, apparently) and a rope in the other (“to draw in beings to the enlightenment“). Enough to send shivers down the spine.
But despite this rather belligerent aspect, Fudomyoo today presides over the peace pagoda that is the single most impressive building on the site:
The peace pagoda
It contains, apparently, a time capsule with wishes for peace from world leaders, though the leaflet is strangely silent on the question of whether they were cut from those leaders with the sword and then drawn in with the rope …
All in all, this was a fascinating stop. The temple has a steady stream of visitors, but nothing like the hordes we found in Kyoto or even Miwajima. And it’s even free.
Just watch out for the sword …