AKIKO Ishibashi has seen great change since moving to Narita City in 1972.
When the young bride arrived in the Japanese settlement to join new husband Kikutaro, and work in his family’s famous restaurant, the destination was a sleepy rural settlement with a modest main street and a few residential roads surrounded by vast hectares of quiet farmland.
But the bucolic character was set to disappear when the Japanese government announced plans to build a new international airport near the village after postwar development prompted the airline industry to outgrow its previous accommodations at Haneda Airport on the western side of Tokyo Bay.
Narita International Airport – or the New Tokyo International Airport as it was christened upon opening in 1978 – prospered to become one of the world’s busiest hubs, now hosting 98,000 travellers and 490 aircraft movements every day, with nearby Narita booming to support the new army of airline staff.
“Narita was slow when I first moved here, and I thought it was so boring at that time, but that changed after Narita Airport opened,’’ the Ishibashi clan’s matriarch explains during a brief lull in the lunchtime rush.
“I didn’t expect we would get such business from the airport, but there are so many airline people working there that we have a full house almost every day, this street is only 20 minutes from the airport and the airline people want breakfast and dinner at all different times.’’
The Ishibashi’s restaurant Kikuya – or Chrysanthemum House, as it was named after getting the nod from the royal family to use its emblem – isn’t just a Narita gem but one of Japan’s most esteemed eateries serving seafood and the traditional freshwater eel that’s now considered to be a rare and prized delicacy.
The Ishibashi family has been running the culinary icon for 11 generations, with Ishibashi’s son showing interest in taking over the 300-year-old business when his parents retire. It’s one of the few establishments still able to serve eel – or unagi – now the catch has become rare and skyrocketing in price.
“Today, we find 90 per cent of our customers want barbecued eel,’’ Ishibashi says.
“People want to eat the freshwater species of eel that only grows around here, but the natural eel is now so expensive and we can’t always get what we need, so now we buy eel from special freshwater farm ponds rather than the original lakes and rivers.’’
I linger over lunch at Chrysanthemum House – the wooden shutters covering the upstairs windows on the former candle factory are open to let the warm breeze carry the street-level chatter to my table – and sample the famous grilled eel on rice after feasting on the freshest sashimi and sushi I’ve tasted.
There are 60 unagi restaurants on the 1km stretch of Omotesando Rd between Narita City Station and the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, with many originally opening to feed the hundreds of pilgrims making their way to pray at Japan’s most visited sanctuary.
But there’s more to the main street than just seafood cafes with rustic kitchenware emporiums are dotted between stores selling delicacies like the peanut confectionary, a bean jelly called azuki, and the local Chomeisen sake.
Omotesando Rd is a vibrant avenue on this sunny day with chefs preparing seafood on barbecues arranged along the footpaths and waitresses darting about to customers sitting inside the cafes.
I inspect the graceful pavilion at Yakushido, which is one of Naritasan’s satellite meeting halls built in 1855, sample the local sake in the building where it’s brewed, and stumble across a manicured garden where local ladies dressed in elegant robes conduct a silent tea ceremony in the shade of colourful umbrellas.
My destination is the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple. Established in the 10th century, it now attracts three million pilgrims during the first three days of the new year, with another 10 million Japanese visitors calling annually – for the afternoon Ogoma Kito smoke ceremony.
There’s a gate not far from Chrysanthemum House and I pass a cemetery, with graves marked by sturdy stones, before taking a written fortune from an altar in the forecourt and knotting it on a line strung in the shadows of the three-level pagoda as an offering to the temple’s gods.
I wait on the front steps of the grand hall for the monks to arrive with the procession of religious leaders clad in colourful robes.
It’s rare for foreign visitors to see this 1000-year-old ritual, which pays tribute to the god of fire and asks the deity to protect the flock, with this pavilion in a peaceful corner of Narita City – one of the few places in Japan where travellers are welcome to witness proceedings.
I sit on the red carpet in the shadows of the fire burning on the central altar, beside the robust drums that make the congregation jump with surprise the first few times they are struck, and watch as the monks chant in melodious unison and collect possessions like handbags and backpacks from the audience to wave through the wafting smoke.
Parishioners believe the smoke protects not only the object but the person carrying the item, and those at the temple this afternoon are pilgrims from all over Japan.
By the time I finish exploring a collection of auxiliary structures, an ornate tower in the forecourt and symbolic gates protecting serene gardens packed with flowering plants, and wander the grounds admiring impressive structures decorated with golden flourishes, it’s well after 5pm, and the shutters are locked on the restaurants and shops lining Narita City’s now sleepy streets.
No problem, though, as downtown Tokyo is only an hour away, and it’s a city that never sleeps.
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• THIS STORY FIRST APPEARED IN ESCAPE ON SUNDAY, MARCH 8, 2015 •