Ten million people annually make the pilgrimage to the enormous temple complex of Naritasan Shinshō-ji (成田山新勝寺) in NARITA (成田), 60km northeast of Tokyo. Even if you don’t have to kill time between connecting flights at the nearby international airport, it’s well worth visiting this thousand-year-old temple, which is an important landmark in the Shingon sect of Buddhism. It’s such a vast place that as long as you’re not here on one of the main festival days (New Year, and Setsubun on Feb 3 or 4), it doesn’t feel crowded.
The temple’s ornate Niō-mon gate is at the end of the shopping street, Omotesandō, lined with souvenir stalls and unagi (eel) restaurants – the town is famous for them. The colourful three-storey pagoda in front of the Great Main Hall dates from the eighteenth century and is decorated with fearsome gilded dragon heads snarling from under brightly painted rafters. Behind the main hall, the temple’s pretty gardens include a calligraphy museum, small forests and ornamental ponds.
If you have more time, head to the impressive National Museum of Japanese History (国立歴史民族博物館), in Sakura (佐倉), four stops south of Narita on the Keisei line. It houses a great collection of Japanese arts and crafts, including Jōmon-period pottery figurines (which look as though they could be Picasso sculptures) and detailed models of temples, towns and settlements through the ages.