Naritasan Shinshoji Temple hosts one of a few public Goma ceremonies. // © 2014 Narita City Tourism Office
“Not yet,” whispered my guide.
Around me, Japanese people were unfolding themselves from kneeling positions. Once standing, they made a collective rush to hand their purses, wallets and bags to the priest of Naritasan Shinshoji Temple. The priests took the bags two or three at a time and waved them over a consecrated fire while the head priest chanted a blessing of protection.
Known as the Goma Ceremony, this sacred fire ritual is performed at numerous temples throughout Japan, although Naritasan Shinshoji Temple has the distinction of being one of the few places where the general public can join in its blessings.
The flame, according to my guide, has burned non-stop at the temple for nearly a millennium. Legend has it that during Japan’s Heian period, after the emperor ordered a Goma prayer of protection be made to the Buddhist deity Fudo Myoo, war ended in the area. Naritasan is said to have been built on the site where the original prayer was made, and priests have offered a similar prayer every day since the temple’s foundation.
The ceremony is a stirring one.
Giant Taiko-style drums are hit so loudly that the noise reverberates through the temple like an earthquake. Even our experienced guide put his fingers in his ears to help drown out the noise.
Naritasan Temple is located in Narita City, home of Japan’s famed international airport. Although millions of passengers travel through Narita every year, most don’t realize that the neighboring city offers a wealth of visitor activities.
The temple is located on Omotesando Street, a recreation of an Edo-period merchant road with an excellent variety of shops and restaurants. Here visitors can buy one-of-a-kind handicrafts and enjoy Narita delicacies, including its signature dish of unagi eel.
With a number of internationally known hotel brands, such as Hotel Nikko Narita, Hilton Narita and Radisson Hotel Narita, a variety of locally known properties and myriad transportation options that connect Narita with Tokyo in under an hour, Narita is an excellent and more cost-effective alternative to staying in Tokyo proper.
At the temple, my guide finally let me give my bag to the priest. I was the last to do so, and since everyone else had already had their turn, the priest waved my bag alone over the sacred fire.
“You see,” my guide smiled triumphantly. “When you wait, you don’t have to share that good fortune with anyone else.”
In addition to the fire ceremony, Naritasan is a peaceful respite with its collection of historic buildings and hands-on activities. Though the temple and the Goma Ceremony are open to the public, advise clients to book an English-speaking guide from the Narita Tourist Office, located across the street from the temple. Guide services are free when booked a week in advance.