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Avoiding the crowds during Golden Week

by Mark Schreiber

Let’s be sensible: During Golden Week, why on earth would any sane person choose to drive to a destination on the expressway only to spend a good part of their holiday ensnared in a 35-km-long traffic jam? Doing their part to ease the congestion, domestic magazines are offering some imaginative alternatives to let readers enjoy a well-deserved break from work while avoiding the crowds.

If you’re a nostalgia buff, for instance, Sunday Mainichi (May 11-18) suggests you take a trip down memory lane to places that have inspired a popular song.

“Nagori Yuki” (“The Snow of our Parting”), initially recorded by male trio Kaguyahime in 1974, became a smash hit the following year for female folk singer “Iruka” (the stage name of Toshie Hosaka).

“I put my face to the window of the train as it started off, and a late-season snow is falling,” the song begins.

“The image of a Tokyo-bound diesel-powered train on the Nippo main line was fixed in my mind,” composer Shozo Ise tells the magazine. “Even as I was writing down the story, it struck me as strange. Perhaps that song was meant to be about myself making a departure from what I had been up to that point.”

To see the very spot where the famous song was inspired, you’ll need to travel all the way to Ise’s home town of Tsukumi, Oita Prefecture. Not only can you view and snap photos of the marker commemorating “Nagori Yuki” that’s installed on the station platform, but from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., train departures are serenaded by the nostalgic notes of Ise’s enduring hit.

For those in search of a discreet dining experience, monthly magazine Takarajima (June) guides its readers to eating establishments in Shinjuku 2-chome, Tokyo’s largest and best-known hangout for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the capital. Apparently these eateries receive a lot of business from VIP patrons in the entertainment industry and don’t crave media publicity, so the magazine has partially censored their names by substituting a circle for one or more characters. But this should not be an impediment, as the reporter — a 20-year denizen of the district described as an onē (an elder “sister,” who happens to be male) — gives fairly detailed directions.

First, there’s Raku-something, a shop offering a 10-dish course of Wanko soba, buckwheat noodles served Tohoku-style in separate portions. The course costs ¥2,000. Popular with late-night revelers is Ban-something-o, a restaurant staffed completely by people from Thailand, that stays open until 5 a.m. A tasty dish of Pad Thai noodles can be had there for ¥800, and kushinsai (a stir-fried green vegetable) for ¥780. Other affordable ethnic eateries recommended by our guide include a Vietnamese restaurant named Koko-something Cafe and the On-something Kitchen, specializing in Korean bibimbap (a bowl of assorted foods atop white rice).

Meanwhile, Shukan Shincho (May 8-15) introduces some of the country’s most thrilling roller coaster rides. Japan’s oldest, built in 1953 and still in operation, can be found at the Hanayashiki amusement park in Asakusa, which, by the way, also has the distinction of being Japan’s oldest amusement park, dating back to 1853. Until the end of June, the roller coaster’s cars will be decked out in a coat of red paint in observance of its kanreki (60th birthday celebration).

If you’d like to ride the world’s longest roller coaster (2,479 meters), go to Nagashima Spa Land in Kuwana, Mie Prefecture for a hair-raising three-minute, 30-second ride aboard The Steel Dragon 2000. It features a drop of 93.5 meters and reaches a top speed of 153 kph.

Then there’s the Regina, claimed to be the world’s first wood-frame roller coaster to be built above water, at Pleasure Land in Saitama’s Tobu Zoo. Except for the rails themselves, the frame’s constructed completely of wood — enough of it to build 600 houses — so the cars produce a distinctive clattering sound like the old coasters of yore that’s particularly scary for passengers.

If you’re determined to depart on a last-minute overseas holiday, Spa! (April 29-May 6) says there are still a few destinations that for, whatever reason, seem to be avoiding the usual swarms of seasonal tourists. These include Portland, Oregon, Krabi province in southern Thailand, Hanoi, Vietnam, the Republic of Palau and Vancouver, Canada.

Writing in Toyo Keizai online, medical reporter Junko Adachi provides four warnings to anyone planning a trip abroad during Golden Week, or to the FIFA World Cup, which will commence in Brazil from June 12. To guard against dengue fever in affected areas, insect repellent is a must. Also, avoid consumption of unboiled water (including ice cubes) and uncooked foods, as these can result in Type A hepatitis and intestinal distress.

“Carbonated mineral water is recommended, since the carbonation has a slight antibacterial effect,” says professor Atsuro Hamada of the Traveler Medical Center of Tokyo Medical University Hospital in Nishi-Shinjuku. “When purchasing bottled mineral water in developing countries, stick with established European or American brands, and ascertain the cap has not been tampered with.”

In addition, contacts with animals and particularly wild animals are strongly discouraged. Spelunkers who engage in cave exploration need to be wary of bats, which carry rabies.

Finally, risks of possible infection may await those who request piercings of earlobes or other body parts.