Two Layovers in Japan: Traditional and Modern


Last Updated on August 22, 2020 by Amy

While flying between the United States and Indonesia we had few good flight options.  We were leaving Starry Horizons at Medana Bay Marina on the island of Lombok, a short flight away from Ngurah Rai International Airport, Bali’s international airport.  We finally settled on the cheapest two-layover option we could find, opting not to take a three-layover voyage which would have saved us money but been even more travel time.  As it was, flying from Lombok to Bali to Tokyo to Denver took us 36 hours on the way out, and 48 hours on the way back.

Layover One: 8 Hours in Traditional Narita

On the way to Denver, we had an 8-hour layover in Tokyo, at Narita International Airport.  We quickly stashed our bags in the luggage lockers available throughout Narita and hopped on the train for a short, 6-minute ride to Narita station.


Our target was the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, and the walk from the Narita station to Naritasan is along Omotesando, a small street filled with restaurants and shops, with buildings in the style of Japan’s Edo period.  There are so many interesting things to look at, including sculptures and architecture.

A traditional Edo style building.
Statues of the Chinese zodiac signs line the street.
A statue of the poet Takajo Mitsuhashi.

Narita Traditional Performing Arts Festival

A happy coincidence for us was finding the Narita Traditional Performing Arts Festival occurring on Omotesando road while we were there. The street was blocked off to cars, and large wooden carts were being pulled up the (not-so-flat) road.  Musicians sat in each cart playing traditional instruments while being pulled by several dozen people chanting with the music.

Naritasan Shinshoji Temple

Upon reaching our destination, we got to explore the grounds of the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, a stunning complex.  The temple was founded in 940 – which is not very old by Asian standards, but for comparison, it’s older than any building in Paris.

During our visit, we poked our heads into the main hall to see the daily Goma fire prayer service.  The temple had laid out small wooden sticks for attendees to write a prayer on, which was then burned in the fire pit inside the hall.  The sounds of the music and the fire were enchanting.

Three-storied pagoda.
The gate.
I loved the colorful details.
There’s a back garden full of small statues.


Omotesando is known for one of my favorite Japanese foods – unagi!  There are several places along the road – like the 100-year-old Kawatoyo Restaurant – where you can watch the staff butcher and fillet the freshwater eels, which is very delicate work.  Then, enjoy a bento lunch of the grilled eel with sweet sauce!

Processing the eels – a spike through the head, then gutting and filleting.
The restaurant we ate at.

Layover 2: 20 Hours in Tokyo

Once again, we stored our bags in the luggage lockers and took off on a train.  This time it was a one-hour-long ride into Tokyo proper, where we transferred onto the local subway system. Tokyo is very easy to get around, with most signs available in English.

We stayed in Tsukiji, with the original plan to go to the famous fish market.  Unfortunately, the fish market was in the process of closing down.  The tuna auctions had ended just a few weeks prior to our visit, and with our jet lag, we opted to sleep in instead of getting up early enough to walk through the market.  Perhaps there were better options for places to stay in Tokyo.

However, we had plenty of time the evening we arrived to get out and see the city.  We even had a tour guide – Sean and Rachel, fellow sailors, reached out to us via Instagram and offered to show us around!

David and I walked from the Tsukiji Hongwanji Buddhist Temple up to the Ginza station, passing the Kabukiza Theatre and the hundreds of bright lights and luxury shops in the Ginza district.

Tsukiji Hongwanji Buddhist Temple
Kabukiza Theatre.
The intersection outside Ginza Station.

We hopped the subway to Shibuya, where Sean and Rachel met us at the Hachikō statue.  The statue was absolutely swamped with tourists.  They led us through Shibuya Crossing – reputed to be the busiest crossing in the world and made even more famous by The Fast and the Furious Tokyo Drift – to a traditional Yakatori restaurant.  Sean manned the grill and we pigged out on meat and bibimbap.  The pickled short ribs were my favorite.

For Next Time

A 20-hour overnight layover means you lose a lot of time for sleep and transit.  I was really happy with our Narita layover as we had a great time.  There are even more things to do in the Narita area that we didn’t get to.  I’d love to spend a week in Tokyo, but next time we have a layover we will spend more time in Narita.

Have more time?  Check out 65 Things to do in Japan.

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  1. I visited Japan for the first time at the beginning of this year and completely feel in love – I am already dreaming of the food and can’t wait to get back for a second visit! Thank you for such a comprehensive post, it’s given me great ideas for my second trip!

    1. Thank you! This was my 2nd and third trip (my first being a few days when I was a teenager). I really want to go back and explore outside of Tokyo….and see the cherry blossoms!

  2. You’re so lucky to come across the festival! I love taking layover detours too- it’s amazing how much you can do in a short stop!

  3. That’s awesome that you got to see so much during layovers. And also that the experiences were so different. I’d absolutely love to visit Japan.

  4. Both places look amazing – especially the temples. I was meant to go to Japan in April but COVID had other plans – hopefully next year.

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