Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Golden Week

It is that time of the year in Japan, when almost everyone you know asks you "Where are you going for Golden Week?". Everyone is just getting in the mood for Golden Week, one of the three big holiday periods in Japan, the other two being Obon and O-shogatsu

So, what is Golden Week ? It is just an extended holiday period which in certain years, like 2013, could extend upto 10 days. The holiday period begins in the end of April, usually April 29th and ends around 5th or 6th of May. Not all days in this period are holidays in the real sense; they end up being holidays owing to the following Japanese provisions of law:
1. When a national holiday falls on a Sunday, the next working day becomes the public holiday, referred to as "Furikae kyujitsu", which means "Transfer holiday". 
2. Any day that falls between two other national holidays shall become a holiday, referred to as "Kokumin no Kyujitsu" which means "Citizens' Holiday". 

The first national holiday during the Golden Week is April 29th- "Showa Day". It was the birthday of the Emperor Showa. During his rule, this day was celebrated as "Ten-no-Tanjoubi", meaning "Emperor's Birthday". After his death, the day was designated Showa no Hi in his remembrance. (The current Emperor Akihito's birthday falls on December 23rd and this day is currently a public holiday referred to as "Ten-no-Tanjoubi". )

The second holiday during Golden Week is May 3rd - "Kenpou Kinen Bi" which is Constitution Memorial Day. This is followed by the third holiday "Midori no Hi" meaning Greenery Day, which falls on May 4th. Golden week concludes with the last holiday "Kodomo no Hi", "Childrens' Day" which falls on May 5th. Traditionally in Japan, Boy's Festival known as "Tango no Sekku" is celebrated on May 5th. 

Interestingly, Japan does not have a public holiday on May 1st, the International Labor Day. Instead, Japan has a its "Labor Thanksgiving Day" public holiday, locally known as "Kinro Kansha no Hi" on November 23rd. 

Golden week is a period which most people in Japan look forward to. Most companies and academic institutions are closed during this period, giving people the much needed break.  Usually people prefer to travel during this period. The weather in Japan at this time of the year is pleasant and this encourages people to go on family trips. Most people take a vacation and travel around the country or abroad. A majority of people will even take this opportunity to visit their hometown and meet family. Airports, railway stations  and expressways are extremely crowded during Golden Week. Trying to secure last minute reservations is unthinkable. Most Japanese plan their Golden Week trip months in advance; popular destinations being Hawaii, Guam, Indonesia and North America. Most flights to and out of Japan are overpriced during this 10 day period. Local attractions in Japan are also crowded during this period and finding hotel accommodation at the last moment is extremely difficult. 

Foreign tourists planning to visit Japan should best avoid Golden Week to visit Japan. Apart from the holiday crowd and higher airfares etc, some tourist attractions may also be closed on certain days. 

On the contrary, people in Japan would find commuting within cities like Tokyo during this period more convenient on  public transportation.

Finally, as a friend puts it, "The best travel plan for Golden week, is not to travel." 
    In 2013, most offices are likely to be closed from Saturday April 27th, to Monday , May 6th. Peak travel days are likely to be from April 27th to 29th and May 3rd to May 6th.

    Monday, April 22, 2013

    Exploring Aizu- To No Hetsuri

    On our trip to the Aizu area last autumn, we visited 2 places - Ouchijuku and To no Hetsuri. 

    To No Hetsuri is a valley which means " Row of cliffs" in the local dialect. As the name suggests, To no Hetsuri consists of a row of tower shaped cliffs overlooking a river.A suspension bridge is built across the river and visitors cross this to have a closer look at the cliffs. 
     These cliffs have strange shapes and were formed due to wind and rain erosion.




    The odd shapes of these rocks have resulted in them having unique names like Eagle Tower, Hawk Tower, Nine Ring tower, Elephant tower and so on. These cliffs were named as a national natural monument in 1943. 

    In autumn, the colourful foliage adds to the beauty of the natural surroundings. 

    Address: Yagoshima Shitabayashi, Shimogo machi, Minami Aizu gun, Fukushima prefecture  

    Phone: 0241-68-2920

    Entrance fees: None

    Parking: Available

    Closing days: May not be accessible during winter months due to snowfall


    Exploring Aizu : Ouchijuku

    Ouchijuku is a small village in Shimogo District of Fukushima Prefecture's Aizu area. This village used to be an important post town on the Aizu-Nishi Kaido trade route in the past. This trade route connected the castle town of Aizu to Nikko and was an important route during the Edo period. Due to the restrictions imposed by the Shogunate, travellers had to make long journeys on foot and Ouchijuku was one amongst the various post towns where travellers could find food, accommodation and places to relax before continuing further. 

    Ouchijuku's look has been restored and preserved to resemble its look during the Edo period. 
    The buildings with thick thatched roofs and dusty main street give the area an historic look.

    Located on the main street is the Honjin which was the principal inn used by High ranking officials in the shogunate. 
    Today it serves as a public museums where artifacts and antiquities are on display. 

    The old style buildings now house shops selling local handmade crafts and potteries, restaurants offering local specialities of ramen and soba, shops selling roasted fish on a stick and dango (Japanese sweet dumplings on a stick) and locally brewed sake.  



    At the end of the main street is a temple which can be accessed by a steep flight of stairs. 
    A panoramic view of Ouchijuku and the surrounding mountains can be enjoyed from the shrine. Close to the shrine is a small path leading to a shrine nestled among tall cedars.  

    Closing days: Open all 365 days

    Shimogo town office Address: 1000, Oishi, Shimogo machi, Minami Aizu gun, Fukushima prefecture - 969-5345

    Phone No: 0241-683-611

    Entrance fees: No admission fees ; 250 yen to visit the Honjin (museum)

    Access: Ouchijuku is not easily accessible as bus connectivity is limited. Trains run from Aizu Wakamatsu station to Yunokami Onsen station every hour and the journey takes about 35-40 minutes. Ouchijuku is a 15-20 minute taxi ride away from Yunokami Onsen station. 

    Parking: Paid parking is available across the road from Ouchijuku. 

    Sunday, April 21, 2013

    Shibazakura Festival - Hirata

    In early May each year, the slopes of a hillock in Hirata village, Fukushima prefecture, are covered with millions of pink flowers, called Shibazakura. 
    Shibazakura, also known as Moss Phlox, Mountain Phlox or Moss Pink is a small creeper on which small flowers bloom in shades of pink, blue and white. The plant is native to North America but is now cultivated at many places in Japan. The flowers bloom in late spring to early spring, ideally in early to mid May. 
    The entire surrounding hills look as though they are covered with bright pink carpets.
     It is at this time that Hirata village conducts its annual Shibazakura festival. 
    The venue for this event is known as Jyupia land and thousands of visitors flock to this small farming village to view this colourful sight. 
    Visitors can walk through short trails along the flowers on the slopes. 
     
    There are even some mannequin displays.

    Visitors can also enjoy some music performances at specific times. 
    The most popular Shibazakura festival in Japan is held near Lake Motosu at the foot of Mount Fuji  in Yamanashi prefecture. ( http://www.shibazakura.jp/eng/index.html )

    The pictures on this blogpost are from our visit to Hirata Shibazakura festival in May 2012. 

    Useful link : http://www.vill.hirata.fukushima.jp/index.html

    Entrance: Free


    Parking : Available


    Phone: 0247-55-3111

    Contact: Hirata village officeHirata mura, Ishikawa gun, Fukushima prefecture, 963-8292

    Friday, April 19, 2013

    Hanamiyama Park - Fukushima's Xanadu

    Last weekend, we went on a Hanami trip to Hanamiyama Park. 

    Hanamiyama Park is a popular Cherry Blossom viewing spot in Fukushima prefecture. Located on the slopes of the hills to the southeast of Fukushima City, the park provides a spectacular views of the picturesque snow-capped Bandai Azuma mountain range and Fukushima city amidst the beautiful cherry blossoms and other ornamental flowers. 

    Some travel sites even refer to the spot as Fukushima's Xanadu !

    The park is a private property owned by a flower farmer who converted the slopes into a beautiful park and has allowed visitors to enjoy the floral views in spring each year since 1959, and is generous enough to not charge visitors any admission fees. 


    The various paths leading to the walking trails of Hanamiyama are lined by residential houses.

    There are three walking courses for blossom viewing - each taking 30 mins, 45 mins and 60 mins respectively. 
    The 60 minute walking trail takes visitors to the summit of the mountain, from where the  view is breathtaking ! 
    Cherry blossoms, Peach blossoms and other ornamental flowers in different colours can be found along the paths. 




    Like every Hanami spot in Japan, Hanamiyama park also has its own picnic spots and stalls selling food and other stuff. 


    Best time to visit - Beginning to end April . Please check exact dates for peak blossoms as the period varies each year. 

    Opening hours: Never closed. However since the property is privately owned, visiting during odd hours might be intrusion on privacy of owners and neighbour's privacy.


    Entrance fees: Free

    Address: 1-1, Sakae Machi, Fukushima city, Fukushima Prefecture 960-8031

    Access: Approximately 2 kms from both Fukushima Nishi IC and Fukushima Iizaka IC on Tohoku Expressway


    Parking : Parking spots are available at a distance and traffic regulating personnel are deployed in peak season to guide visitors. Shuttle buses are available from parking spots to the park for a about 250 yen one way. Be prepared for traffic congestion especially on weekends during peak period. 


    Useful link : http://www.hanamiyamakoen.jp/ ( Japanese only)

                       http://www.f-kankou.jp/hanamomi/hanamiyama/

    Thursday, April 18, 2013

    Miharu's Takizakura - Fukushima's pride

    It is a well known fact that Cherry Blossom is Japan's pride. Though Japan does not have an official National Flower, most Japanese would like to believe that Sakura, as Cherry Blossom is known in Japan, is the national flower of Japan. The Sakura is also depicted on the rear of the100 yen coin. Cherry blossom is so important to the nation that each year, the meteorological agency releases a blossom forecast much in advance so that people can plan their spring vacations, trips and hanami parties in advance. Local news broadcasts also give daily updates about status of blossoms in surrounding areas to. No wonder then that Japan has its list of top Cherry Blossom viewing spots and Cherry Blossom trees
    Each year thousands of locals and visitors to Japan, make their annual "Hanami" pilgrimages to these spots.  

    Fukushima prefecture has one such reputed Cherry Blossom spot - the waterfall cherry blossom tree in Miharu town, locally known as Miharu no Taki zakura.
     At 12 meters high and with a circumference of 9.5 metres, the Takizakura finds a place among Japan's top 5 giant cherry trees. 
    The tree is an ancient tree and is believed to be over 1000 years old. The tree was designated a national treasure in 1922. 

    The tree is a symbol of pride for the people of Miharu which is otherwise a small farming community. In 2005 when the tree suffered damage to its branches due to heavy snowfall, villagers toiled hard to clear out the snow to avoid extensive damage. The tree escaped any damage during the Great East Japan earthquake of 2011.  

    The tree is 12 metres high, the trunk circumference is 9.5 metres, the east-west spread is 22 metres, and the north-south spread is 18 metres. 



    The Takizakura flowers in mid to late April, and its light pink flowers spread in all directions from the branches, like a waterfall. 
    The tree is even lit up at nights during peak blossom period. 


    An estimated 300,000 people visit it each year during the flowering period which lasts approximately a week. Please check exact flowering dates as it tends to change each year.  

    Miharu is a short drive south of Koriyama city.  Train ride from JR Koriyama station to JR Miharu stations takes about 15 minutes on JR Banetsu line. Shuttle buses are available from JR Miharu station during the Blossom period. Traffic congestion can be expected on roads leading to the Takizakura during this period.    

    Useful links : http://miharukoma.com/ (Japanese only)

    Entrance fees: Adults : 300 yen (during blossom season)  
                         Students (junior high school and younger) : free

    Access: 296, Sakurakubo, Takiaza, Miharu-machi, Tamura gun, Fukushima prefecture 

    Phone: 0247-62-3960