Ridiculously long layover in Narita, Japan? No problem! You can easily leave the airport and explore the town of Narita. As long as you have at least 6 hours to kill. We got into NRT at 7:30 local time and weren't scheduled to leave again until 5:00 pm. (Our flight ended up being delayed a couple hours, but that's just one of the hazards of flying.) I think we could have made it into downtown Tokyo in that time, but with two little ones, I didn't want to push our luck.
Leaving the airport was a little nerve-racking, but it turned out to be a great experience and a mini-vacation within our intense 26 hours of travel.
To leave the airport, we simply walked out as though we were at our final destination. We had to go through a health check station (checking for high fevers) and then go through customs. For US citizens (and many others), Japan does not require a visa if you can show you already have a departure ticket. We could have stayed until September had we wanted.
Once you have gone through customs but before you exit the airport, there are a couple of little kiosks that will store your carry-on luggage for you for anywhere from a couple hours to a couple of days. We stored our five bags for the whole day for a little less than $15 USD. There was only one option because we were there so early, and the guy took for-ev-er to get our bags checked in. It went much faster when we picked up later in the day.
After the bags were stored, we walked over to the train ticket booth and bought tickets to the Narita station. It's only two stops away and cost us less than $5 for the whole family.
The town of Narita is small and seemed very touristy. There were dozens of little shops selling tea pots, Japanese sweets, Hello Kitty knick-knacks, and all sorts of other fun things. We walked down the rather steep hill to the main temple in town to walk around a little bit. As we walked down the big hill, we saw several markets selling dried fish, and Oliver commented that it was "same-same" as Saigon. We found ourselves walking around the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple and then wandering through Naritasan Park.
The temple and grounds were lovely and very well-kept. (Actually, all of Narita was very well-kept.) We happened to enter the complex right as what appeared to be some sort of fire-fighter ceremony was taking place. Owen liked that because he got to see Japanese fire trucks! Pretty cool for a five-year-old.
The park was absolutely stunning... and huge. Statues, apricot trees, cherry trees, paths, ponds, and rolling green hills. So peaceful and lovely. And we loved wandering, letting the kids run free, and taking in a bit of nature. The oversized coy pond was also a huge hit.
After we found our way out of the park (we had gotten a bit lost), we found a little cafe and had some traditional red-bean treats. I believe it's called Anko. It's mixed with other things, served cold or warm. It was a little different tasting, but good and surprisingly filling. We also had some tea, and I had some excellent sushi. Yum!
I'm really glad we took the risk and spent the day wandering around Narita. The boys would have gone crazy if they would have had to spend the entire day in the airport. It was bad enough that our flight was delayed two hours and we were sitting there for a little over three hours waiting to board the Dreamliner. If we ever have to do this layover again though, I think we will head into Tokyo. We would have had time to get there, walk around a bit, eat lunch, and get back. And we would have gotten to ride one of the fastest trains in the world. Maybe next year...
Or maybe we'll spend an extra day and go to Tokyo's Disneyland...