Winning the Layover Lottery: Narita, Japan

October 4, 2012 in Asia, Japan, Travelogue

Boston to Tokyo is a 14 hour flight. Tokyo to Kuala Lumpur will be another 7.5. The only bright spot in that long day trapped in germ tubes was found in a six hour layover in Japan.

Normally, layovers aren’t my favourite part of travel.

There is nothing worse than uncomfortable airport chairs, the uninspiring parade of terminal food and having to wait patiently when what I want most in the world is to “get there.”

I’m ready to be home, it’s true. I miss my people. But if I have to wait out six hours in Tokyo I decided to do it walking the streets of Narita, the town nearest the international airport.

An eight minute train ride drops you off in the center of town and at the head of Omotesando Street, the walking and shopping district of Narita.

It’s a quaint, one way alley lined with two story wooden buildings with the gently swooping roofs characteristic of Japanese architecture. Silk kimonos, bamboo and wooden basketry, dried and fermented foods attractively packaged and an array of tourist kitsch spill out of shops lit with red and white paper lanterns. School children in perfectly arranged uniforms and matching white helmets cycle past, chattering in the way children do. Elegant older women sashay among the shops in starched kimonos. Young people stroll hand in hand laughing as dusk falls. And I meander between the pages of a Japanese storybook I remember from childhood in search of the pagoda.

Naritasan Temple is hard to miss.

It’s almost intuitive to follow the road, turn by turn until your feet magically find themselves at the bottom of the stone staircase leading up to the pagoda. The sky was blushing every shade of peach and cream, violet and amber as I quietly climbed the steps. At the end of the day, I had the entire complex to myself, except for a few caretakers wandering about, lighting incense, sweeping stone walk ways and bowing respectfully. I carefully deposited seven pinches of powdered green incense into the big brass sensor set in the middle of the courtyard; one for each of the people I remember in such places. I sat quietly as darkness pulled her velvet mantle over the hilltop and soaked in the sounds of reverent silence: frogs croaking, water gurgling, the shuffle of shoes on the stones and the movement of the leaves in the lightest of breezes. I like to be alone in perfect places.

This is my brain on jet lag… taking the next photo… but spinning the camera while pushing the button… kind of how I see the world today! 🙂

The incense lingered on my fingers and in my hair, following me like a ghost back up Omotesando and into the ramen shop where I had my dinner.

There was no English menu, always a good sign, and so I was at the mercy of the cook. The result: a big bowl of ramen with seaweed, some sort of fish and onion sprinkled on top, five crispy meat dumplings and a bowl of sticky rice.

There isn’t another soul in the shop.

The sounds of the street outside could be any city in the world, unseen through the frosted glass windows. I’m acutely aware that my time is drawing to a close. I need to walk for the train station and reenter the surreal world that is airport existence. In fourteen short hours I’ll be in Penang, no doubt monkey piled by my children and swept full speed into business as usual, but for right now, for this one moment, I’m savoring the solitude, the sound of the whisk coming from the kitchen, the odd synthesizer music being piped into the dining room, the smoky smell of meat kabobs burning from the stall at the end of the street, and the echo of a pagoda sunset on my first night in Japan.

How’s that for winning the layover lottery?

Jet lag.