The vast majority of Narita's visitors come there for one reason only: Narita Airport, Tokyo's international gateway. But there are a few attractions in the vicinity if you have a short layover and don't want to waste 2-3 hours of it on the long round trip to Tokyo. Narita is only a short (c. 20 mins) train journey from the airport and the Narita-san Shinshō-ji temple complex and wooded Naritasan Park, with its tranquil koi ponds and pagodas, are a must-see.
Narita City itself is very charming with lots of quaint winding old streets lined with old wooden shops. The pace of life here is dramatically different to that of nearby Tokyo and is very relaxed. This is a major congregation point for airline staff too so you can take it that most of the foreigners in town are Air Crew. This means there's a bit more to Narita's nightlife than may seem at first in this sleepy town.
Narita Airport (成田空港 Narita-kūkō, IATA: NRT ICAO: RJAA), located nearly 70 kilometers northeast of Tokyo, is Japan's largest international airport. The airport is generally modern and efficient, but sometimes overcrowded (particularly at immigration). Security has been rather heavy, especially when coming in, due to continuing controversy over land expropriated for the airport - there are plans in the works, however, to relax the checkpoints at train stations and possibly the entry gates for vehicles as part of the first security overhaul since the airport's 1978 opening.
The airport has three terminals — two terminals connected by both train and bus. Foreign airlines use both terminals 1 and 2, with Japanese carriers ANA and JAL operating out of terminals 1 and 2, respectively. The 3rd terminal handles low cost carriers (Jet Star, Peach, Jeju-Air, etc.) and is connected to terminal 2 by a walkway. There is only one way to get from terminal 1 to 2 or vice-versa - that is a free shuttle bus that drives around the runways.
The South Wing of Terminal 1 now has most airlines in the Star Alliance (e.g. ANA, Asiana Airlines, United, Air Canada, SAS) operate out of that section (although Air New Zealand operates from Terminal 2). Carriers in the other two major airline alliances are also grouped together: the Skyteam Alliance (e.g. Air France, China Southern, Delta, KLM, Korean Air) operates out of the North Wing of Terminal 1, and the OneWorld Alliance (e.g. JAL, American (Except some fights to/from LAX in which they fly to Haneda Airport), British Airways, Finnair) operates out of Terminal 2. Check the airport's website just prior to your departure to determine the terminal you will arrive at. On the way to the airport, there are also lists (in English) posted near the doors of trains going to Narita.
Narita Airport has several banks that can exchange many nation's currencies for Japanese yen. Rates are fair, but regarding the question of your own country or Japan having better rates, the general rule of thumb still holds true — the country with the smaller of the two economies will almost always give a better rate. Those coming from the United States should never buy yen in America - the rates are simply horrible. If you are unsure if your own country's rates are better or not, you can see the current actual rates used in Japan right now here.
Nowadays, it is simply unnecessary to take a wad of cash with you, however. You can get yen at a good rate with your ATM card at any Japanese 7-11, post office, and a growing number of Family Marts and Lawson's convenience stores, not to mention Citibank, Shinsei Bank, and Aeon Bank. (Check if its a Visa or Mastercard belonging to either the Plus, Maestro, or Cirrus networks). In the airport, if you don't see a 7-11 store, then look for a 7-Bank ATM. The ATM machines all have English menus if you wish. If you plan to use your ATM card in Japan, be sure to notify your bank before your trip, or else they might suspect fraud when you try to use your card and they will freeze your account. Charges on the Japan side are reasonable — ¥110 for withdrawing ¥10,000 yen, and ¥220 for anything more. Any other charges are from your home bank, so having your money in a more consumer friendly place like a credit union will save you a lot of money. Be aware that money from ATMs is in ¥10,000 note denominations, and you are still subject to the same ATM withdrawal limits as back home. The post office will allow a maximum of ¥50,000 yen withdrawal per transaction, and for 7-11 it is ¥100,000 (assuming your own bank allows it). You can also get money from a Visa, Mastercard, JCB, or American Express credit card, but getting a cash advance off your card would be extremely imprudent - nearly all banks charge extortionate interest rates close to 30% and it starts to accrue the second the money is in your hands. Both 7-11 and the post office have 20,000 branches each across Japan, and they are readily found.
If you're at Narita for a connecting flight, you may wish to use the day rooms and showers inside the terminal, past security. Day rooms are paid for by the hour; ¥1000 for the first hour and ¥500 for each additional hour. The day room consists of a bed and a bathroom with a shower. It's a great way to refresh yourself before your next flight. If you just want to take a shower, you can get a shower room for ¥500 for a half hour. Soap and shampoo are provided, but not things like toothbrushes, toothpaste, shavers, and deodorant, so bring them in your carry-on with your change of clothes. Twin day rooms are available for ¥1600 for the first hour and ¥800 for each additional hour. Day room reservations can be made up to a month in advance.
Wi-fi access is available throughout the airport. There are several wi-fi desks located in both terminals which have 100-volt power ports and free Internet access. Elsewhere in the airport you can connect to the internet with the SSID NRT-AIRPORT at a cost of ¥500 per 24 hours.
There are many ways to travel between Narita Airport and central Tokyo. For a first-time visitor, suffering jet-lag, laden with luggage and holding a reservation for a major hotel, the easiest option is often to take the Limousine Bus direct to the hotel. A close second is taking one of the buses or express trains to Tokyo or Ueno Station and then transferring to a taxi for the final leg. If taking the bus, note that traffic jams can cause you to reach your destination a lot later than you were told when you boarded. Keeping a light schedule on your first day would likely be very helpful.
When departing Narita, the better shops and restaurants are located in the check-in area before passing security and immigration, then all that's really available is expensive duty-free and some convenience store sundries. But remember that Japan restricts liquids in carry-on baggage, and plan to buy drinks for the plane after security.
The two premier reserved-seat train services that operate out of Narita Airport are the Keisei Skyliner and the JR Narita Express. As a general rule of thumb, Skyliner trains offer the fastest ride into Tokyo (36 minutes - but only to Nippori and Ueno on Tokyo's east side), while Narita Express trains offer direct one-seat connections to the Tokaido bullet trains and several major train stations on the west side, albeit at a slower pace (55 minutes).
If you are on a budget and plan to use any of the various commuter train services that run out of Narita Airport, using an IC card (Suica or PASMO) will prove to be convenient.
From Narita Airport, the most convenient (direct service into many places without transfer; like Shinjuku), yet expensive way, (by rail) into Tokyo is the Japan Railways (JR) Narita Express (N'EX)  into central Tokyo Station. The ride takes 55 minutes, costs ¥3070 and offers the best connections to Shinkansen (bullet train) services or the JR Yamanote loop line. Trains usually depart Terminal 1 at around 15 and 45 minutes past the hour; there is one hourly departure between 12 Noon and 1 PM, and after 8 PM. Smoking is not permitted on board the Narita Express, and all seats are reserved.
Alternatively, you can continue onward in the same train, which splits in two with the front half heading south to Shinagawa, Musashi-Kosugi, Yokohama and Ofuna, while the rear cars go west to Shibuya, Shinjuku and Ikebukuro. Trains run to Hachioji, Takao and Omiya in the evening, with service from these stations to Narita Airport during morning hours. Reservations are required but can be purchased just before boarding if there is space (and there usually is). If there is no space, JR will sell standing tickets for ¥500 less.
JR also operates Rapid trains on the Sobu/Narita line, leaving once per hour and stopping at various points along the way, including Chiba. To Tokyo the trip is approximately 82 minutes and costs ¥1280. These are normal, non-smoking commuter trains and often get crowded during rush hour (though boarding at Narita Airport should not be a problem, and seats can be easily obtained). The Rapid service train also has Green Car service (reserved seating); a seat can be obtained for ¥950 (¥750 on a holiday) if reserved beforehand, or for ¥1200 (¥1000 on a holiday) if obtained onboard the Green Car.
If you have a voucher for a JR pass, then you may wish to exchange it for an active rail pass right away, as the Narita Express is free with a Japan Rail Pass. You can also make onward reservations from Tokyo. That said, if you plan more expensive travel later on, it might save you more money to take a Keisei train or bus instead from Narita and save that extra travel day — it depends on your plans. You can activate your pass in Narita with a future date as your first day, but be aware that there are many travelers who exchange their vouchers for rail passes immediately, and lines can be 30-45 minutes long at busier times. Also for day trips from Tokyo, it might save you more money to use the Tokyo Wide Pass, which still lets you use the Narita Express, or the Greater Tokyo Pass.
Be careful the last trian from Tokyo-Narita and Narita-Tokyo is 10 PM.
The private Keisei (京成, stylized as K'SEI) Railway offers trains to central and southern Tokyo, as well as direct commuter trains to Haneda airport. Keisei trains run on two routes: the faster, more-direct Narita Sky Access Line and the slower, less-direct Keisei Main Line. Both routes connect to Tokyo's Keisei Ueno and Nippori stations; the two lines branch off separately between Airport Terminal 2 Station and Takasago Station. Nippori offers the easiest connection to the JR Yamanote and Joban Lines, and to the Nippori-Toneri Liner for Tokyo's Adachi Ward. At Keisei Ueno you can walk over to JR Ueno station in 4 minutes to connect to the JR Yamanote, Tohoku and Takasaki lines and northbound Shinkansen trains, as well as the Ginza and Hibiya subway lines.
Because the Sky Access and Keisei Main Lines operate on different fare structures, separate ticket gates and platforms are used at Narita Airport's two train stations. Sky Access Line passengers only have to pass through one ticket gate, while Keisei Main Line passengers must pass through two ticket gates. Taking a train through the Sky Access route between the Airport and Nippori/Ueno is ¥1200, while the Keisei Main Line route is ¥1000. There are also Skyliner & Tokyo Subway tickets available, which are the best value for money if you do not have a JR pass. You can buy a Keisei Skyliner round trip ticket combined with a 1, 2, and 3 day day passes for the Tokyo Subway (including Toei lines). See here for more info.
Sky Access Line
Keisei's premier service is the Skyliner , which operates on the Sky Access Line twice per hour. The Skyliner is the fastest train connecting Narita Airport to Tokyo, with trains running into and out of Keisei Ueno and Nippori Stations. The trains offer comfortable seating and a maximum speed of 160 kmh (100 mph). The full run from Terminal 1 to Ueno takes 41 minutes, with the train traveling nonstop between Nippori and Terminal 2 in 36 minutes. All seats are reserved and the fare is ¥2400 each way.
The budget option along the Sky Access Line is the commuter train service known as Access Express, or Access Tokkyu (アクセス特急). Access Tokkyu trains depart every 40 minutes, and most daytime trains run into the Toei Asakusa Subway Line (from 4:00/5:00 PM, only to Ueno). Making limited stops, the Access Tokkyu offers the best ride to Oshiage (in front of Tokyo-Skytree, 49 minutes, ¥1130), Asakusa (53 minutes, ¥1240) and Nihombashi (61 minutes, ¥1280). Shimbashi (66 minutes, ¥1280) puts you within easy reach of the Yurikamome light rail line to Odaiba. A change of trains at Nihombashi will allow you to make a quick hop into the Ginza district (Higashi-Ginza Station, 64 minutes, ¥1280). Many services also continue onto the Keikyu Line for Shinagawa (75 minutes, ¥1460) and Haneda Airport (89 minutes, ¥1740).
After 4:00 PM (5:00 PM on weekends), Access Tokkyu trains run directly into Nippori and Keisei Ueno in 60 minutes at a cost of ¥1200. Other times, you will be required to transfer at Aoto; the connecting train a local service; this increases travel time to 80-90 minutes. During these hours, it is better to take the Mainline Limited Express directly to Ueno (81 minutes), and save ¥200.
From the Access Tokkyu trains you can transfer at Imba-Nihon-Idai station - two stations after Terminal 2 - to local Hokuso Railway services. One place of interest is Chiba New Town Chuo (Central Chiba New Town), where malls and shopping venues are on the plenty. At Shin-Kamagaya station you can change to the Shin-Keisei Railway and Tobu Noda Line, which make for inexpensive trips to Matsudo (56 minutes, ¥1070) and Omiya (122 minutes, ¥1580), respectively. At Higashi-Matsudo station you can change to the JR Musashino Line for Saitama's Minami Ward (80-110 minutes to Musashi-Urawa depending on connection, ¥1450).
Keisei Main Line
Regular Tokkyu (特急) commuter trains - those that do not carry the "Access" designation - depart from Narita Airport every 20 minutes, reaching Keisei Ueno in 81 minutes at a cost of ¥1000. During the morning and early afternoon hours, you should use these Tokkyu services over Sky Access trains as they offer a one-seat, cheaper ride. (Taking the Access train will require you to transfer at Aoto, the only connection being a "Local" service to Ueno, hence losing any time-savings you made previously on the Access line). After 4:00 PM (5:00 PM on Weekends), Sky Access trains offer a one-seat ride from Narita Airport directly to Nippori and Ueno; the 20 minutes you'll save on the Sky Access train is worth paying the extra ¥200.
Reserved-seat services that are cheaper than the Skyliner include the Morning Liner which operates from the airport to Ueno twice in the morning, and the Evening Liner which operates from Ueno to the airport six times at night after the final Skyliner service has run. Morning and Evening liner trains cost ¥1400, but you can only make a seat reservation on the day of departure from a special ticket vending machine. The vending machine will sell liner tickets for ¥400 which are to be used on top of the regular ¥1000 fare.
From the Keisei Main Line you have the option of transferring at Funabashi station to the JR Chūō-Sobu line or at Katsutadai station to the Tōyō Rapid with through service to the Tōzai subway line, both of which go right through the middle of Tokyo. The Chūō-Sobu line goes through Akihabara (86 minutes from Narita, ¥1100), Ochanomizu, Yotsuya and Shinjuku (104 minutes, ¥1260) and facilitates an easy transfer to the regular JR Chūō express, which goes as far west as Tachikawa, Ōme, Takao and other destinations beyond. The Tōzai line takes a slight southern approach with stops including Kiba (77 minutes, ¥1400), Nihonbashi, Iidabashi and Takadanobaba (98 minutes, ¥1440).
Note that none of the subway or elevated lines are specifically prepared for travelers with big luggage and tend to get crowded once inside the Yamanote ring; the exchanges at Katsutadai and Funabashi are usually rather pleasant though.
There is also a network of Airport Limousine shuttle buses that serve most major hubs within Tokyo, stopping at major hotels, as well as some suburbs. Prices are comparable to the Narita Express train services (¥3,000/person), but are convenient for the first-time traveler as they take you directly to your hotel. The Airport Limousine is also one way to transfer to Haneda Airport; Access Tokkyu trains are cheaper, but Airport Limousines are much more frequent. The journey to most points in central Tokyo takes 90 minutes or so, but watch out in rush hour (especially on the way to the airport) as there may be traffic jams. The Airport Limousine buses make three pickup stops (Terminal 1 North Wing, Terminal 1 South Wing, Terminal 2) and two dropoff stops (Terminal 1 and Terminal 2). Keisei offers a new bus service called the Access Narita Tokyo Shuttle between Tokyo Station and Narita Airport. It costs ¥1300 one way and the buses leave hourly from the airport for a bus stop near the Yaesu exit of Tokyo Station or Ginza.
A taxi to central Tokyo is insanely expensive, on the order of ¥30000+ if you hail one directly by yourself (equivalent to a few nights stay in the average Tokyo hotel), and you are more likely to get stuck in a traffic jam than save any time. Flat fare taxi cabs to Tokyo go for around ¥17000-19000 from special taxi ranks, but even so, if you're in a hurry, it's generally much faster and cheaper to take the Narita Express or the Skyliner, and change to a taxi upon arriving in Tokyo or Ueno. If you're not in a hurry, consider the airport limousine bus or the Access Narita Tokyo Shuttle.
The easiest way to go between Narita City and Narita Airport is by using either Keisei or JR Line railway. The fare from Narita Airport to the city is ¥260 yen by the Keisei Line. Their service is every 20 minutes. Another bus service is a shuttle service between the airport and AEON Shopping Mall, operated by Chiba Kotsu. The bus runs one every hour or so. Not too frequent.
Not that much. There is a large Aeon shopping mall outside of town, which you can get to by bus, if you absolutely have to visit a branch of the sporting goods store "The Sports Authority." There are souvenir stores on the road leading to the temple, as well as a reasonably interesting "100 yen" store -- which actually sells items for ¥110 including consumption tax -- along the way. Still, everything should be cheaper than at the airport.
Many shops on the main street sell unagi (うなぎ) broiled eel in a sweet sauce. It can be expensive for a standard plate (unaju (うな重), layered on rice, is ¥1500) but it is quite tasty. Look for the guys cleaning and chopping the eels right by the street-side.
Another great option is takoyaki (たこ焼き), or fried octopus balls. These are popular on the go treats, going for ¥360 for ten small takoyaki. Order zenbu (全部) to get all the toppings. There is a stand right by the Keisei line station main exit (left as you are leaving). Look for the little cartoon octopus pulling a cart of fried balls.
Don't forget to get a hot and sweet dorayaki (どら焼き), or sweet red bean pancake from a little shop across the main street.
Narita has a large number of hotels in the vicinity and they are often cheaper than hotels in central Tokyo thus it may be worthwhile staying out at the airport on your first/last night. If you want to get a cheap rate, however, do book in advance as rates and availability for walk up customers are highly variable.
For the latest info on events and sights, contact the Narita City Tourism Association.
If you have more than 8 hours to spare, you should seriously consider making the effort to visit Tokyo itself, although with limited time, it really is best if you plan where you will go in advance of arriving at the airport.