The term “once in a lifetime” gets overused, to the point where the meaning can be lost. However, at the end of next month, an event that truly is a once in a generation event is scheduled to take place.
After three decades of hard work promoting Japan to the wider world, Emperor Akihito is going to retire. His son, Crown Prince Naruhito, will replace him and become the new Emperor of Japan. This is the first time in centuries that such an occurrence has taken place. The last time this happened was in 1817, when Emperor Kokaku abdicated.
Typically, as was the case with Emperor Akihito’s father, Emperor Hirohito, the monarch’s term does not end until he dies. However, whatever your views on monarchies or hereditary privilege, almost everyone agrees that after 30 years of rule, the current Emperor and his wife have earned a peaceful retirement.
There is still some confusion as to the effect this will have on the Japanese calendar since eras (and therefore dates) are named after the sitting monarch. Currently, Akihito’s reign is known as the Heisei era and yearly dates according to the Japanese calendar would be numbered accordingly — for example, the current year (2019) is Heisei 31. The word heisei comes from ancient texts referencing the Chinese Emperor Shun and is said to mean “universal peace.”
Crown Prince Naruhito’s coronation will see the beginning of a brand new era and a reset of the traditional Japanese calendar. No announcement has yet been made as to what this new era will be called — much to the chagrin of bureaucrats and calendar publishers across Japan. For us mere peasants, though, that means a long holiday — a truly unprecedented one.
The ceremony to welcome in our new emperor has lead to this year’s Golden Week being rebranded by the Japanese media as “Platinum Week” to describe the break that will run from Saturday April 27 through Monday May 6.
For one year only, the gaps in the Golden Week schedule are being filled out with extra holidays to provide a grand total of 10 days off in a row.
Golden Week in Japan represents an annual string of holidays from April 29 to early May. With the emperor’s abdication scheduled for April 29 and his son’s ascension to the throne the next day, May 1 will also become a national holiday.
With this — for one year only — the gaps in the Golden Week schedule are being filled out with extra holidays (by Japanese law, any day sandwiched between two national holidays also becomes a holiday) to provide a grand total of 10 days off in a row.
2019 Golden Week holidays
|Mon, April 29||Showa Day|
|Tue April 30||Emperor’s abdication day|
|Wed May 1||New emperor ascension, start of new era|
|Thu May 2||Stipulated holiday|
|Fri May 3||Constitution Memorial Day|
|Sat May 4||Greenery Day|
|Sun May 5||Children’s Day|
|Mon May 6||Stipulated holiday|
Naturally, as is always the case with Golden Week, travel agents aren’t slow to cash in, travelers have started booking fares and stays since January — meaning most choice seats and rooms have already filled up — and price-gouging is perhaps even worse this year than it usually is.
However, to those in the know, there remains some hidden gems that the tour companies won’t tell you about. These allow for some quiet getaways during even this — the most crowded of holiday seasons.
For those living in and around Tokyo, there are basically three types of holidays one can take during Golden Week: day trips, overnight trips and short breaks. Even if you’re living outside of Tokyo like me, these places are well worth considering if you’re still unsure of your travel plans for this coming holiday.
With that in mind, here are three options for getting away this year.
1. Day trip: Nokogiriyama, Chiba Prefecture
Whenever the topic of daibutsu (large statue of Buddha) in Japan comes up, most people tend to think of Kamakura in Kanagawa. However, Kamakura’s daibutsu isn’t the largest in Japan — it’s not even the largest in the Kanto Region. That honor belongs to Nokogiriyama in Chiba Prefecture.
Fans of the BBC TV show Top Gear may recall the show’s visit to Japan back in 2007 — best remembered for a sports car versus shinkansen race from Kanazawa to Chiba that concluded in Nokogiriyama. In true Top Gear style, Jeremy Clarkson and his Nissan Skyline, the Tokyo street racer’s car of choice, came out on top.
There’s more to Nokogiriyama than just statues and car shows, though. The view from its highest peak — open to tourists when the weather is clear — gives amazing panoramic views of the surrounding forests on one side and Tokyo Bay on the other.
Upon arriving at the nearby Hama-Kanaya station, stop off for a fresh seafood lunch at one of the nearby seaside restaurants. With all manner of fish, shellfish and other marine delights coming straight off the boats to your plate, you’ll struggle to find any fresher, more authentic seafood anywhere in Japan (with the possible exception of Hokkaido).
After lunch, the Nokogiri Ropeway, a nearby cable car service, will take you up to the mountain peak. Or if you’re feeling especially brave, there’s an optional hiking trail, too. Just watch out for the mosquitoes!
- Take the Keiyo Line Rapid from Tokyo station to Soga, this will take about 45 minutes.
- From Soga, take the Uchibo line to Hama-Kanaya station. This will take about 70 minutes. The total fare cost is ¥1,940.
2. Overnight trip: Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture
Many people tend to think of Karuizawa — and indeed Nagano Prefecture, in general — as purely a ski destination. Indeed, friends have joked with me that I must be the only guy who has been to Nagano multiple times, moved there and never been skiing.
However, there’s a lot more to Karuizawa than just the slopes and if you can resist your craving for the white stuff, you can save a lot on accommodation, too.
A short, forested hike north from central Karuizawa lies the beautiful Shiraito waterfall. Shiraito in English literally means “white threads” and this seems like quite an apt title for such a beautiful area when you see it in person. The water cascades from three meters above into the lake below. Though this may seem small for a waterfall, its elliptical shape, surrounded by forest, coupled with the flowing, thread-like waters of the falls give this area a unique beauty.
Heading west from Karuizawa station will take you to Naka-Karuizawa and its beautiful, yet under-appreciated Hoshino Resort. Built into the surrounding woodland areas, Hoshino’s blend of high-end cafés, fine dining and onsen (hot springs) offers a perfect tonic to the stresses and strains of daily city life.
The Hoshino Onsen is open all year round with an admission price of ¥1,500. If you wish to stay in the resort itself there are hotel options available, but these will be a bit pricier than those elsewhere in Karuizawa.
For example, n the Asama Kogen Hotel is located elsewhere in Karuizawa — approximately 10 kilometers from the Hoshino Resort. Based on a check-in of May 1, a one-night stay for two people would cost ¥18,000.
In contrast, based on the same dates and two people sharing a room, the Karuizawa Prince Hotel West — approximately three kilometers from the Hoshino Resort — will cost around ¥75,000. As they say in real estate: location is key.
- From Tokyo station take the Asama Shinkansen bound for Nagano. You will reach Karuizawa in one hour and 15 minutes. The fare is ¥5,390 per person.
3. Short break: Hachimantai, Akita and Iwate prefectures
Although Akita Prefecture is perhaps best known for it’s Kanto Festival, held each August, and its new year “Namahage” legend, it’s also a great place to visit anytime of the year — one that is often overlooked by foreign tourists.
Hachimantai is perhaps one of the area’s best kept secrets, straddling as it does the border between Akita and northern Iwate prefectures. As part of the enormous Towada-Hachimantai National Park, Hachimantai makes up the southern portion, whilst Lake Towada lies to the east. Both areas offer beautiful forests and mountains — ideal for springtime hiking — and plenty of onsen options, too.
An absolute must see is Lake Tazawa, Japan’s deepest lake, with a depth of 423 meters. In a time of huge urban sprawl and vast redevelopment projects, Lake Tazawa is that rarest of gems, an area that even today looks almost exactly as it did in the times of the shogun — untouched and unspoiled.
Many visitors will combine a trip here with a stay at the nearby Nyuto Onsen resort. The resort is a combination of eight different ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) offering both rustic, traditional accommodations with a dash of western comforts here and there too.
The name “Nyuto Onsen” has a rather amusing backstory, literally translating as “nipple hot spring.” My friends assure me this is due to the shape of the nearby Mount Nyuto rather than based on anything you’ll see in the onsen bath itself!
Now, this option is by far the most expensive of those on this list, but I think when you see it for yourself, you’ll agree — it’s more than worth it!
A three-day stay at the Tazawako Resort Hotel comes in at ¥117,000. However, considering what you’re getting and the price of Golden Week hotels in general, this comes in as a bargain.
- Take the Komachi Shinkansen bound for Akita and get off at Morioka station. From Morioka station head to the west exit and take the Michinoku highway bus to Kazunohawa station. From Kazunohawa station, Hachimantai station is only seven minutes away. From Tokyo, the total journey time is around four hours and cost ¥16,760 per person.
As you can see, there are options available. For those who know where to look, you can still experience a Golden Week break in Japan that you won’t be paying off this time next year!
What are your plans for this year’s extra-long spring holiday? Got any tips to share with your fellow travelers? Leave us a comment and let us know your thoughts!