Happy Golden Week, everyone.
Or is it? With practically everyone and her brother having the week off, it seems wherever you go there will be crowds, crowds, and still more crowds.
Here in Nagano, the major attractions such as Matsumoto Castle, the Utsukushigahara ridge drive, the resort town of Karuizawa etc. also tend to be jam-packed during peak holidays. And the many major events taking place in Nagano during Golden Week, such as the hot air balloon festival in Saku, the rape blossom festival in Iiyama and, especially, the once-every-seven-years Gokaicho at Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, will likely draw hordes of visitors.
Don’t despair — the prefecture has plenty of off-the-beaten-path places and simple, local events to enjoy in a quiet, Nagano-like fashion.
As but one example of how to enjoy Golden Week Nagano-style, here is what my daughter and I found on a drive to the Hakuba area.
First, we stopped at Aoki Lake just south of Hakuba Village. The Northern Alps were still covered in snow which contrasted brilliantly with the deep blue color of the sky and the lake. The cherry trees were still in bloom, adding a spash of reddish-pink to the scene.
The old ‘Chikuni-Kaido’ trail passes on the west side of the lake. This ancient path used to be known as the Salt Road by which mountainous Nagano got its salt from the sea. Every year for three days during Golden Week, a special event is held to commemorate the trail’s history. Participants walk along the trail, one section each day, many in period costume.
While at Aoki Lake, we stopped for lunch at Seebrick, a ramen shop in a quaint log cabin located along the old lane on the lake’s east side. We tried the soysauce based ramen, mine with the extra charshu pork (the thickest slices I’ve ever seen!). The miso based version as well as the curry rice menu options looked enticing, too. The restaurant was busy, but not nearly as much as the restaurants we passed on the main highway.
After lunch, it was time for a soak in an onsen bath. Since the sky was so clear and the snow-capped Alps were so blazingly beautiful, we opted for Mimizuku no Yu in the center of Hakuba Village. The baths, both the indoor ones as well as the open-air outdoor ones, feature a stunning view of the Hakuba Range. The onsen water source is Hakuba Happone, and has a pH of 11.6 — possibly the highest in all of Japan. We were surprised how silky smooth it made our skin feel. The onsen water is clear and doesn’t have any smell, but the view and the beautifying effect of the water are both outstanding.
On the way back towards Nagano City along the Olympic Highway, we passed the road that heads to Kinasa. This hamlet tucked in the hills above Nagano holds a very local, non-touristy festival during Golden Week involving some ornately-carved ‘dashi’ parade floats. This year’s festival featured some shamisen entertainment. This is the type of event that best showcases Nagano’s rural charm — and without crowds!
So, enjoy Golden Week by coming to Nagano and exploring the countryside of Japan!