Most folks just pass thru Narita on their way to Tokyo or Kyoto – If they sleep even one night in town, it’s to rest up after their flight – and then to quickly race off to other parts of Japan.
But that’s not fair to Narita. It’s a very famous place in it’s own right! One of Japan’s most famous and most often visited pilgrimage sites is right here in Narita – the Naritasan Shinshoji temple.
This is a huge complex – dating back to the beginning of Buddhism here in Japan – and is well worth a long visit. Particularly special is their three times a day services in the main hall. These feature some amazing drumming – and were very very different from the services we saw in Koyasan.
This temple has been performing a Goma (fire burning) ritual every day for over 1000 years. No matter what your religious affliction – that’s a lot of devotion!
And I had to see it. So we got organized, left our absolutely lovely Air BnB lodging, and went to Temple.
The service started with a brief introduction in Japanese – to a congregation of almost 500 people. There were 4 sections of participants. two large groups kneeling quite near the center alter on the right and left, a much larger group kneeling in front of the altar, and then the senior group. We were sitting on benches that ran along the back wall – with a good view and no kneeling required.
I expected something similar to the morning prayers in Koyasan – but what happened was very different. The service started with the entry of the monks – about 10 of them in formal attire. The main monk seated himself in front of the altar, the gong rang out in the courtyard, the lights dimmed, and a monk sounded a single, extremely loud, Thump on the giant Taiko Drum. That started the service. The monks said some prayers that clearly the gather congregants knew, and then there was some gong ringing and drumming. Suddenly a huge fire burst out in front of the main monk. We were blocked by his body from the bottom of the flame, but the top was easily a body length above his head. This was a signal for everyone to get up and line up to the right and left of the altar.
The Intrepid Traveller and I tried to decide in our own minds, what they might be doing. Comparing notes I thought they were going to do confession, the Intrepid Traveler thought that they were going to a lesson or communion. But it turns out they weren’t doing either. They were handing bags and purses and personal belongings to the helper monks, who were bringing these items to the altar and exposing them – briefly – to the flames.
We had read up on the Goma ritual – and the idea is that the flames represent the wisdom of the Buddha of Unmoving Knowledge – and they burn away the root causes of your suffering. Bu exposing your belongings to the fire, you are allowing the wisdom of the Buddha to impact your life.
Obviously as soon as I realized this was what was happening, I got up with my backpack and joined the line.
After the service ended – folks again lined up – this time to run their hands along a staff that ran in front of the main Buddha. We never figured out why they did this – but it’s been happening for a really long time. The staff was carefully wrapped in ropes to prevent it from being worn away by hundreds of hands, multiple times a day.
Great Service, very interesting Temple, lovely walking meditation garden. This shrine was a definite winner.
We did also had an incidence of ‘Japanese nabbing’. I left the Intrepid Traveller alone for just a minute – and when I got back, she had disappeared. Two older Japanese ladies had grabbed her and forced her to go with them into the tea room for a cup of tea. They spoke no English, so she felt the polite thing to go was to go with with them.
While she was being polite, I spent several anxious minutes wondering where she’d gone when she finally re-appeared to explain that she just had to drink the offered tea – it would have been rude to have refused.
Lunch was in a traditional Eel house. It turns out that Narita is famous for it’s ell restaurants – they are the preferred food of pilgrims – health restoring and considered beneficial after a long trek. And the Eel restaurants in Narita have been serving this dish for over a hundred years. We sat down in a traditional looking restaurant, but with a hole for your legs – no kneeling unless you wanted to – and ordered a meal of eel to share.
It was delicious – and the tea (both hot and cold) was unlimited and free. We were the only westerner’s in the place – it was packed with Japanese – so you know it’s the right place. Delightful meal – and a great way to end our trip to Japan. Tomorrow we are heading for home.
A note on shopping in Narita. We happened into the two largest grocery stores we’ve seen in Japan here in Narita. The land is clearly cheaper – and the shoppers clearly either locals or pilgrims to the shrine – not a foreigner in site.
The sushi selection in the 2nd of the grocery stores we found was unreal. So fresh, so beautiful and so reasonably price. $5.00 Canadian ($6.00 US) got you a platter of at least 8 different sushi option. And need we say delicious?
We are so glad we opted to spend two nights in Narita. It’s a really cool spot – well worth visiting. If you come – check out the Aeon Mall – and buy the sushi. And of course – have at least one eel dinner.
Signing off to get our selves to the airport – our flight home awaits.
The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler