Golden Week is almost upon us, and if you're in Tokyo for the holdiays and haven't made plans yet, the time to do so is now. Stuck for ideas? We've got a bunch, so read on and start planning!
Join the osampo boom! If you've been to a bookstore in Japan lately you've probably noticed that osampo guides are enjoying a surge in popularity. Osampo means “to take a walk”, and although there have always been osampo guidebooks on the shelves, they used to be only for standard tourist destinations and were mostly written for the senior set.
The current crop of guidebooks are aimed at a younger crowd, and explore lesser-known areas of Tokyo as well the usual touristy places. They come with fully planned routes, including suggestions for refreshments along the way, maps and everything else you need to explore a new area. Many of them have specialized themes, like exploring gourmet neighborhoods orshitamachi (“low town” areas like Asakusa and Kanda) areas with an old-fashioned atmosphere. Other books focus on topics like nature, dog-friendly areas, history, temples and shrines.
If you can read Japanese or have a Japanese-literate walking partner then you're set. If not, head to your favorite foreign language bookstore and pick up a classic English-language book like Day Walks Near Tokyo, Little Adventures in Tokyo or Hiking in Japan, or the newer A Flower Lover's Guide to Tokyo. For online information, it's hard to beat Tokyo Tourism Info's 53 Ways to Explore Tokyo on Foot.
If you've dismissed zoos in Japan after a depressing visit to Ueno Zoo, it's time to try again: there are actually quite a few good zoos in Japan, including a few right here in Kanto.
Tama Zoo Park in western Tokyo is a huge place featuring all the usual animals in large enclosures that let you get up close; the popular Lion Bus lets you get even closer, as does the beautiful butterfly conservatory. Tobu Zoo Park is popular for its two white tigers and its penguin exhibit, which lets visitors see the birds on land and underwater. Zoorasia is considered one of the best zoos in Japan, with well-treated animals given plenty of space and natural looking habitats. Zoorasia is celebrating its 10th anniversary with free entrance on April 24th and a commemorative pin given to visitors between April 24th and 30th. Fuji Kachoen is paradise for bird and flower lovers, with a fantastic array colorful blooms and a good number of owls and other wild birds, some of whom are put to work doing shows or playing with visitors.
Tokyo and its suburbs are also blessed with a number of very good aquariums, with Enoshima Aquarium, Tokyo Sea Life Park and Shinagawa Aquarium three of the best. If you prefer the more sedentary kind of wildlife, try one of Tokyo's botanical gardens. Yumenoshima is a large greenhouse full of tropical plants, built over a landfill and kept warm with heat from the next-door garbage incinerator. Jindai Shokubutsu Botanical Park also features a greenhouse, but the main attractions are outdoors. During Golden Week the large grounds will be home to azaleas and peonies in full bloom as well as a number of wildflowers.
If zoos, aquariums and parks just aren't exciting enough for you (or if you find that the exhibits make you hungry), it's time for a wildlife encounter of a different kind. The edible kind.
If you have a sweet tooth you'll be pleased to know that the Kanto area strawberry season lasts until May; some places to try are Nikura Noen in Tama, Tokyo (pick and take-home berries are 300 yen per 100 grams, the all-you-can-eat option ended in mid-April), Kawana Noen in Miura, Kanagawa (1500 yen all-you-can-eat in 30 minutes), Okiune Farm in Chichibu, Saitama (1500 yen all-you-can-eat in 30 minutes, take-home also available), and the ever-popular Mother Farm in Futtsu, Chiba (take-home 200 yen per 100 grams plus 200 yen admission).
Clam digging, called shio-higari in Japanese, is a popular spring activity in Japan, and believe it or not the shores of Tokyo Bay produce plenty of asari (short-neck clams). All you need to dig them up is a small rake to dig through the sand with, a bucket to hold your catch, some rubber boots if you don't want to go barefoot (the sand can be cold and muddy) and a good recipe for linguine con vongole. Shio-higari spots in Tokyo include Odaiba Kaihin Koen, Kasai Kaihin Koen, and Toritsu Jonanjima Kaihin Koen. Note that young clams (smaller than a 10 yen coin) must be released; some beaches charge an entry fee or require clam diggers to pay for their catch.
For (slightly) more lively prey, fishermen don't have to go far, as Tokyo has a few catch-and-release koi (carp) fishing spots: Ichigaya Fish Center, which you've probably seen from Ichigaya Station on the Chuo line, costs 690 per hour for men and 590 for women and junior high school students, and kids can try the goldfish tank for 400 yen per half hour (poles and bait included). Suzukien is similar pond in Asagaya, costing 550 yen per hour, equipment included. Seibuen Yuenchi's nijimasu (rainbow trout) pond is open until the end of Golden Week; 1500 yen entry plus 500 yen for pole rental and bait allows you to catch up to three trout (lure fishing also available for a higher fee) and they'll clean your fish for free.
For a kinder, gentler sort of hunting, search out bargains at one of Tokyo's many flea markets and antique fairs. There are too many to mention here, but we've narrowed down some highlights.
On April 29th Prism Hall in Tokyo Dome City hosts two large events: a regular flea market with 300 vendors and a special flea market run by and aimed at children. On May 2nd Shinjuku Chuo Koen hosts 200 vendors and on May 3rd a smaller market will be held in the same park; also on May 3rd is a flea market in Meiji Koen. May 3rd, 4th and 5th will see big flea markets near Akihabara station and at Shinagawa Intercity. Most flea markets start at 9:00 or 10:00am and run until mid-afternoon.
For antiques, The Japantique Show runs from April 30th to May 4th at the Tokyo Prince Hotel and the Heiwajima Antique Fair is from May 3rd to May 5th in Heiwajima. For kotto-ichi (antique fairs) try the Kawagoe Antique Market at Narita-san Temple in Kawagoe, Saitama on April 28th; the Kasai Jinja Antique Market on May 2nd at Kasai Shrine near Kanamachi Station; the Arai Yakushi Antique Fair at Arai Yakushi Temple near Arai Yakushi-mae Station; and the Yasukuni Jinja Antique Market at Yasukuni Shrine on May 3rd. For the best finds you'll need to wake up early: Kotto-ichi usually start at sun-up and run until early afternoon.
It's tempting to take a trip outside the city during the holidays, but keep in mind nearly everyone in Tokyo feels the same, causing massive crowds. Don't even think about driving: Golden Week's notorious traffic jams will be even worse this year, thanks to the newly reduced highway tolls. If you must leave town, take the train and make sure you have reserved seats: even fancy trains like the Shinkansen and Odakyu Romance Car lose their charm when you have to stand up for the whole trip, squished up against your fellow holiday-makers like a Tokyo subway at rush hour.
Good day trips from Tokyo include Kamakura, Mount Takao, Chichibu and the Okutama area; for places like Nikko, Hakone, and Izu it's better to spend a night or two. Golden Week is also an ideal time to catch a ferry to the Izu Shoto, Tokyo's string of islands. They enjoy warmer weather than the mainland so you can enjoy summer-like weather without the crowds that descend on the islands in July and August. Oshima is the nearest and most developed, featuring onsens, a zoo and a volcano that can be hiked in a few hours; Niijima has beautiful beaches (still too cold for swimming or surfing without a wetsuit), hot springs and free camping. Getting further afield, the wild dolphin watching season off Mikurajima is already underway, and if you know how to snorkel you can swim alongside them. Hachijojima offers surfing, scuba diving, hiking and fascinating ruins left by Edo era exiles and WWII soldiers.
The term "Golden Week" was invented by Japanese movie theaters in an attempt to attract moviegoers on the national holidays that fall at the end of April and beginning of May. The name stuck, so well that today few people remember the origin of the holiday's name. But it's still as good a time as any to see a movie.
Once small, dingy and uncomfortable, most of Tokyo's movie theaters have improved in the past decade. Many feature large screens, much-improved sound quality, comfortable seating, and conveniences like pre-reserved seats. Certain theatres like Warner MyCal Cinemas and Toho Cinemas let you buy tickets and reserve seats online (credit card required) at no extra cost, and even those who buy tickets at the theatre get to choose their seats. If the 1800 yen cost of a movie ticket is keeping you away, remember that almost all theatres offer some kind of discount days, and some, including Movie Day on the first of each month and Ladies Day on Wednesdays, both with 1000 yen tickets, will fall during Golden Week.
If you'd rather stay home, consider joining Discas, Tsutaya's Netflix-like service that delivers rental DVDs to your home. A number of plans are available but the basic plan gets you 8 DVDs each month for 1974 yen. They come two at a time with all delivery and returns covered, and 8 movies per month are not enough you can rent extra DVDs at prices comparable to your neighborhood rental shop. Discas is currently offering a one month free trial, so now is a great time to try it out. The catch? It's all in Japanese, so if you can't read Japanese you'll need some help.
Although summer is considered amusement park season in Japan, Golden Week is a great time to visit one. All the same rides and attractions are open as in the summer, with the exception of water parks, but you'll enjoy crowds much lighter than at peak summer season.
Toshimaen has a new roller coaster called Mini Cyclone, a kiddie version of their popular Cyclone coaster; kids will also enjoy the special Golden Week stage shows by favorite characters like Ultraman and Doraemon. Seibuen Yuenchi features mini golf, trout fishing (as mentioned above) and performances for the kids featuring popular characters like Hello Kitty, Anpan Man and Yatta Man. Fuji-Q Highland celebrates Golden Week with Asian Fuji-Q, a collection of yatai (food stalls) serving food from around Asia; Thomas the Tank Engine fans can meet Sir Topham Hat, who will pay a visit to the park's Thomas Land during the holidays. Sanrio PuroLand will host Sugar Bunnies Experience World, where kids can try their hands at cooking classes, accessory-making workshops, a dress-up photo studio and more. Or explore the darker side of Hello Kitty with Hello Kitty Black Wonder, an interactive roll-playing attraction in which visitors must rescue Hello Kitty and her friend Dear Daniel. Black Wonder opens April 25th for the first time in Japan after enjoying immense popularity in Hong Kong, and with the success of the associated fashion lines you can expect Sanrio Puroland's gift shops to be full of gothic-inspired Hello Kitty goods.
Yomiuri Land goes international with Sekai no Yatai Mura, a collection of food stalls offering 30 dishes from 20 different countries. Even better, each of the six weekend and holiday days that fall during Golden Week will feature one country or area, with people from the featured region getting free entry for themselves and up to four friends, (a passport, alien card or other type of proof is necessary). April 29th is England Day, May 2nd is Okinawa Day, May 3rd is America Day, May 4th is Mekong Delta Countries Day (Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma/Myanmar and Laos), May 5th is Brazil Day, and May 6th is Turkey Day. Those who aren't lucky enough to be from one of the featured countries still get to enjoy special entertainment and attractions from the featured regions, such as a bagpipe concert on England Day and belly dancing on Turkey Day. It's the next best thing to a trip home for the holidays.