The weather is warming up and with Golden Week just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to plan a trip. Although it seems that almost every Japanese citizen – and their dog – is on the move over Golden Week, there are plenty of wonderful places around the archipelago where the crowds won’t be too much of a problem.
Yoichi, Hokkaido: A Land of Wine & Whiskey
Known for its lovely beaches, Yoichi is popular with surfers in the warmer months of the year. However, it is also a good choice for those who want to enjoy a touch of the gourmet life. It goes without saying that the area boasts fresh, delicious seafood, but it is also beginning to develop a reputation for wines, too. One winery and restaurant that comes recommended is The Occi Gabi. They welcome visitors from elementary school age and up, and the owner speaks both English and German. Yoichi is also home to the Nikka Whiskey Distillery, famous as the origin of Japanese whiskey and, more recently, as the inspiration for the popular NHK “Massan” morning drama. Nikka founders Masataka Taketsuru and his Scottish wife Rita were the models for the characters in the series.
Wakayama: Koyasan and Stationmaster Cat
The Koyasan (Mount Koya) area is a World Heritage site and has been a sacred spot for Japanese Buddhism since the monk Kukai set up residence there in 816. The centerpiece is Okunoin Cemetery, comprised of some 200,000 stone monuments set among a cedar forest. It is hard to sum up the atmosphere at Okunoin, but a combination of “spiritual, tranquil, ethereal and eerie” might cover it. Scores of other temples can be found in the vicinity, some of which offer lodgings to tourists and the chance to experience shojin ryori (vegetarian Buddhist cuisine) and meditation. Less than an hour from this quintessential Japanese experience is another “only-in-Japan” attraction: Nitama, the Stationmaster Cat. Presiding over Kishi Station on the Kishikawa train line in Kinokawa, Nitama follows in the footsteps of her late predecessor, the “legendary” Tama. The cat is credited for bringing the station back from the brink of financial ruin and tourists now flock to the area, which now celebrates all things feline.
Mine, Yamaguchi: Akiyoshido Limestone Cave
Yamaguchi Prefecture in the Chugoku region is off the average foreign tourist’s radar, but is home to the spectacular Akiyoshido Limestone Cave in Mine. The caves are around ten kilometers in length, one kilometer of which is open to the public. The route is equipped with elevators and isn’t difficult to traverse, making it suitable for all ages and levels of fitness. (Very small children, however, might find the underground experience unnerving.) You can view a range of curious and awe-inspiring vistas sculpted by Mother Nature herself along the way, and you may see some of the six types of bats that call the caves “home.” Other attractions in the Mine area include the Akiyoshidai Karst Observatory, located in a popular area for hiking and wonderful views, and Akiyoshidai Safariland, where you can get close up and personal with various animals.
Takachiho, Miyazaki: Spectacular Scenery and Shinto Mythology
The dramatic geographical features of Takachiho in northwest Miyazaki Prefecture can make for an unforgettable Golden Week excursion. The Gokase River flows through the Takachiho Gorge, with steep cliffs on either side. Probably the best way to experience the natural beauty of the gorge is by renting a boat, with the 17-meter high Manai Falls being just one of the cascades to take in along the route. There are also walking trails, and Golden Week is prime time to view various species of flowers. Takachiho is also known as a cradle of Shinto, Japan’s native religion. There are a number of shrines to visit, and Takachiho Shrine hosts evening performances of kagura – sacred dancing and music offered to the Shinto gods. Minpaku (homestays) can be arranged through the town office. Particularly welcoming to foreign overnight guests is Shonenji Temple, where British woman Victoria Yoshimura and her Japanese husband are the priests.
Tono and Kitakami, Iwate: Folklore in the North
Most visitors to Iwate make a beeline for Hiraizumi, a World Heritage spot renowned for its historic monuments and gardens. However, for something a little different, head over to the small town of Tono with its rich folkloric heritage. Chief within this tradition are legends about the kappa, mischievous Japanese “water sprites” that resemble something akin to a turtle, frog and bird all rolled into one. A few kilometers out of town is the picturesque Kappabuchi Pool, where you can try fishing for kappa with a cucumber (their favorite food), and chat to Kappa Ojisan, the local kappa expert. Don’t miss the Tono Folklore Village (Furusato no Mura), which has a wonderful collection of traditional buildings set up like a farming village. The first part of Golden Week is generally cherry blossom time in Iwate, and Tenshochi Park in the city of Kitakami is a top viewing spot. Located about 70 minutes from Tono, the park hosts parades and festival booths during the season, and is adjacent to the Michinoku Folklore Museum.