Old Japan -- next-door to Tokyo's airport

Few passengers who land at Tokyo's international airport know about the treasure that lies at their wing tip -- the temple town of Narita, which has drawn Buddhist pilgrims for a thousand years. While Tokyo-bound travelers are still languishing in freeway traffic, you can already be sitting up to your chin in a steaming Japanese o furo (hot tub), wandering through a splendid old Buddhist temple, or strolling along quiet forest paths.

Only minutes from a 20th-century airport, Narita has retained its country village atmosphere and traditions of old Japan. It's an ideal cultural introduction to the country, and a peaceful interlude in hectic jet travel if you're heading to other points in the Orient. Narita is also a wonderful place to unwind from the rigors of an Asian tour during the 72 hours you're allowed in the country without a visa. And all on a surprisingly limited budget -- for Japan. (You can stay here for as little as $25 a day, including meals and lodging.)

If you prefer familiar surroundings, there are eight Western-style hotels on the outskirts with frequent shuttle service into town. The 500-room Narita View on its own 18-acre site is a good choice. It has four restaurants with both Western and Eastern cuisine, a dozen tennis courts, jogging trails, and Japanese bathing facilities.

The adventurous, however, can choose from several delightful ryokans -- Japanese-style country inns -- in the heart of old Narita. At Wakematsu Ryokan, overlooking the temple, a kimono-clad staff serves sumptuous meals right in your room.

The journey through town challenges all the senses -- a winding, narrow street lined with aromatic restaurants and open-front shops. There are vats of pickles, pyramids of dried fish, and corps of drumming mechanical pandas. Vendors hawk seaweed, snake powder, crafts, and kimonos. Eel kebabs sizzle on a sidewalk grill, fresh from a curbside aquarium. And in front of the temple gates, free pots of steaming tea are available for shoppers and weary pilgrims.

A steep staircase leads from the village to Narita-san, a wonderland of temple buildings, pagodas, and sacred halls. This hillside retreat is considered one of Japan's most magnificent Shingon-sect Buddhist temple complexes. The Grand Pagoda, Narita-san's newest addition (1983) crowns the temple grounds and overlooks 45 acres of adjoining forested parkland -- a network of footpaths, waterfalls, streams, and ponds.

Starting at 5:30 a.m., five ceremonies daily celebrate the holy fire ritual, Goma, in the great main hall -- a performance with music and pageantry. Monks robed in lime, plum, and lemon silk chant in concert with bells, symbols, tambourines, drums, and trumpets. In a palace-style sanctuary festooned with gold chandeliers, wooden sticks inscribed with the prayers of pilgrims are received by the high priest and blessed in the smoke of a crackling fire.

Every day is festive at Narita-san, but the busiest time is the Lunar New Year, which began Feb. 9 and draws about about 3 million pilgrims to the temple. During the year, there's the Bean Throwing Festival in early February (which is meant to foster prosperity and easy birth); Buddha's birthday party, April 8; and the Gion Festival July 7-9 with fireworks, floats, and bands. In November, a chrysanthemum show completes the year's celebrations.

For a visitor who's staying longer than a day at Narita, Sawara, less than an hour away by train, offers a different look at rural, old Japan. A boat trip through the aquatic botanical gardens and a visit to Katori Shrine with its 8th-century deity in acres of towering ancient cedars, is a relaxing excursion.

For a full day at Sawara and a memorable meal, lunch at Shimizuya, a family restaurant for eight generations that specializes in fresh eel and carp. Owner Kazuhiko Osaki keeps recipes secret from even his head chef.

From June 10-25, over a million irises in 300 varieties are in bloom. ``Sendos,'' women skilled at poling, propel small wooden boats through narrow gardenside waterways, crisscrossed with bridges sculptured from a single plank of wood. Even out of season, with not a blossom in sight, it's a delightful excursion to skirt the reedlands and look for birds.

Our ``Sendo,'' Mitsue, a 30-year veteran, was dressed in traditional Sendo costume fashioned from kasuri cloth -- handwoven and tie-dyed, topped with a rice straw hat and streaming red ribbons.

``Poling is a dying art,'' Mitsue told us sadly. ``Most of my colleagues are 50 years old. Yesterday's customs required women to learn to pole before they married -- it took me three years to master. I was afraid my husband would get tired of waiting.''

We were too late for the flowers, but Mitsue sang a wedding song in a sweet falsetto that brought tears to her eyes and ours. And that seemed worth at least a million irises. Practical information

For complete Narita hotel and ryokan information, contact Japan National Tourist Organization, 1737 Post Street, San Francisco, Calif. 94115, or call (415) 989-7140. Request Narita Mini-Guide MG 032 and ``The Tourist Handbook, Practical Ways to Relieve Your Language Problems'' -- especially useful in the ryokans. Review ryokan customs in a good guidebook before leaving home and remember that ryokan staffs will speak little English.

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