Japan was absolutely beautiful in October, not that I expected anything less. Before reaching Tokyo and then moving on to Kyoto, our group spent several days exploring a few of Tokyo’s neighboring towns and attractions that are often overlooked by tourists. The only thing I would change if I could do this over would be to have more time in each place rather than rushing through them all. That being said, the three cities and sites included in this post are the ones I’d recommend adding to your Japan bucket list.
Narita: for temples, shops and fresh fish
The first thing to note about Narita is that when you fly internationally into Tokyo, you are most likely in Narita. For whatever reason, the main international airport is located here so if you’re looking for a few cultural excursions to do during a long layover, you are in luck.
Narita is a city within Chiba Prefecture and most famous for its Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, which is easily accessible from Tokyo and the Narita airport via train. A short walk from the temple is the famous Omotesando Road, with its shops selling handmade crafts and fresh produce. The street is rather narrow so keep an eye out for cars. Don’t leave without ordering some fresh eel. We ate at Kikuya and my mouth was in heaven.
This was my first time visiting Japan (and Asia in general) and my day in Narita was a good introduction to the country’s unique culture. We arrived to the temple around 8am and watched the ‘goma’, a Buddhist ceremony where prayers are recited. There were hardly any tourists around and I found the whole experience rather spiritual even though I didn’t know know the literal translations. I also really enjoyed walking along Omotesando Road and eating eel for the first time.
Nihon-ji Temple at Nokogiriyama: for great views and trails
Our morning started with a cable car ride up the mountain followed by a very scenic walk through Nokogiri’s many trails. Not too far from the Nihon-ji temple is a collection of more than 1500 statues depicting mortals who have reached enlightenment. Their faces are so expressive and I cold have easily spent my entire day, or at least the afternoon, taking photographs of these personable characters.
Clearly, I didn’t do too much research the day we visited Nihon-ji Temple at Nokogiriyama because I was not expecting to see this large Buddha when I turned the corner. Once again, we were the only tourists around and that made all the difference in my opinion. Sure, this sight is amazing no matter when you visit but I enjoyed hearing nothing around me but the quiet sound of birds chirping.
Marveling at one of Japan’s largest Buddha statues was truly awe-inspiring but even if it wasn’t there, I’d still recommend visiting the park, especially if you are looking for hiking trails and a break from city life. Since it’s not as easy to get here via public transportation as Narita, it’s best to make this a day trip so you don’t feel rushed.
Kawagoe: for architecture, sweets and local life
Kawagoe is located in Saitama Prefecture and takes about 30 minutes to reach from Ikebukuro, Tokyo if you go by train. The city is perhaps best known for its sweet potatoes and if you head down “Candy Street”, you can buy sweet potato chips, sweet potato ice-cream, sweet potato coffee and even sweet potato beer. From an architectural standpoint, several of the streets feature preserved buildings from the Edo period (17th to 19th centuries). Tourists usually visit the bell tower, the Kita-in Temple and the 500 Statues of Rakan.
I am not kidding you when I say that we visited Kawagoe during a pretty bad rainstorm. Instead of passing the time inside a warm coffee shop, were were led all through the town in an effort to stay on schedule so I tried making the best of it. There are very few places that remain beautiful in cold, rainy weather and luckily for me, Kawagoe is one of them. My favorite part about the town was seeing so many locals doing everyday things like shopping, walking home from school and sporting the most colorful array of umbrellas I’ve ever seen.
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