One of the exciting things using Narita Airport as your gateway into Japan is the wide variety of activities and options available to travelers. The airport, in conjunction with some nearby towns, offers visitors a peek into Japanese culture and tradition through free guided tours to nearby attractions that last for about 3-4 hours, as well as longer, paid tours to places further away.

For those with a long layover or a day to fill and who are looking for a short trip around Narita Airport, look no further than the Narita Select Bus Tours. These depart from Narita Airport and the JR Narita Station everyday in the mornings from Tuesday to Sunday.

There are two bus tours on offer: the Sawara Course which runs from Tuesdays to Thursdays and the Shibayama Course which runs from Fridays to Sundays. Each tour costs 3500 yen and last for about six hours. They are a relaxing and convenient way to visit the areas in the vicinity of Narita Airport, and the fee includes transport, entrance fees and lunch.

Visitor Service Center at Narita Airport Terminal 1
Look out for that cute logo to make sure you're at the right place
Comfortable sightseeing bus

Tour 1: Experiencing little Edo on the Sawara Course

The theme for this course is about experiencing a bit of life as it was during the feudal ages. The day starts off at the Boso no Mura, an Edo Period-themed outdoor museum which showcases life in the Boso Region (which includes the area where Narita is located) of past centuries. In addition to seeing the museum's many regular attractions, tour participants have the option to rent a traditional happi overcoat for the day and to participate in hands-on activities (additional fees apply).

Main street inside Boso no Mura
Hands-on activities inside traditional houses

The tour's next stop is the Hakko no Sato Kozaki Michi no Eki, a roadside station where tour participants make miso balls and have lunch. An instructor explains the simple and easy-to-follow steps of making miso balls, which consist of miso paste and dried condiments like spring onions, seaweed and aburaage (thin deep fried tofu). The balls are later mixed into hot water, making for a delicious miso soup for lunch.

Making miso balls with other dried ingredients
Like making a Christmas ornament except this one is delicious
Got to drink my handiwork at lunch

A unique feature of the roadside station is that it focuses on fermentation, and the station's shop carries all sorts of fermented products from miso to Japanese sake and soy sauce from all across Japan.

The Hakko no Sato Kozaki Roadside Station
Massive wooden soy sauce tank
Shop selling different kinds of fermented products
Lots of miso here

Finally it was off to the town of Sawara, the last stop on the tour. Participants first visit the festival museum to learn about the well known Sawara Festival and see a couple of actual floats used during the event. From there, it was off for a stroll along the Ono River that runs through the town's thoroughfare. The houses along the river have been preserved to retain the look of days long gone and a number of them remain as they were from the Edo Period!

The warmer months are some of the best times to visit Sawara as the branches of the willow trees sway ever so slightly in the breeze
Massive festival float on display in the festival museum
Felt a little festive inside
Dioramas of the festival in the museum
Lamp post decoration depicting scenes from the festival
These houses here are pretty old
Inside a shop along the river
Love the traditional storefronts

Tour 2: Observing Japanese tradition on the Shibayama Course

The focus along the Shibayama Course is on Japanese culture, tradition and everyday life. Like the other tour, this one starts at the Boso no Mura outdoor museum which recreates a local village from past centuries.

Wind chimes in the summer
Tea ceremony activity also available at Boso no Mura

The next stop is the roadside station Tako Ajisai-kan Michi no Eki where tour participants make some onigiri rice balls and have lunch. The rice used to make the rice balls is a local variety grown in Tako Town, known as Tako Mai (Tako rice). One of the attractions at the roadside station is the river behind it which is lined by cherry trees and hydrangea bushes that provide seasonal flora to look at.

Onigiri rice ball making activity
These simple, plain rice balls allow the flavour of the rice to shine through
Lunch at the roadside station
Cherry trees and hydrangea bushes line the riverside
Inside the shop filled with local produce and specialties

The last stop on the tour is Shibayama Nioson Temple, a Buddhist temple whose history dates back to the Heian Period (794-1185). At the base of the temple grounds stands a unique gate shaped like a small hall that was completed in the late 1800s and houses two Nio Guardian Kings, one on each side. Other highlights of this stop include visiting the Haniwa Museum, which houses a sizeable collection of excavated, unglazed clay statues from the 5th-7th centuries, and ringing the large bell behind the main hall. Those joining the tour on weekends may have the opportunity to observe a fire burning ceremony (goma gonshu) at the temple.

Base of the temple grounds and the gate at the top of the stairs
Gate in which the Nio Guardian Statues are housed
Participants can ring this bell
Goma ceremony in which the priest prays and burns wooden sticks for blessings
Inside the Haniwa Museum
Some of these haniwa (unglazed clay statues) are prefectural cultural properties