Travel

Hatsuhinode: Where to see the first sunrise of the decade

by Russell Thomas

Contributing Writer

Ready yourselves not just for the first sunrise of the new year, but the first sunrise of a new decade. For the significance of the rising sun has a long history in Japan.

In 607 AD, Empress Suiko sponsored a diplomatic mission to Sui Dynasty China. Of the varying messages and correspondences the mission carried with them was one that began with this salutation:

“From the Tenshi (Son of Heaven) of the land where the sun rises, to the Tenshi of the land where the sun sets …”

Widely attributed to the partially mythical Prince Shotoku (574-622), this is said to have angered Emperor Yang (569-618). Implying the two rulers were equal in stature was one thing, but flaunting favorable time differences was apparently a step too far.

Whether the message had been well-intentioned or intentionally assertive is not the important thing here: This was the first time that Japan had been referred to as the epithet that everyone knows and loves today: “land of the rising sun.”

Japan’s relationship to the rising sun doesn’t stop at this phraseological moniker: The actual name of the country — just in case you didn’t know — is Nihon (or Nippon), which literally means “sun origin.” Amaterasu, the kami (god) whose name means “shining in heaven” and from whom the current emperor is supposedly descended, is the sun goddess of the Shinto pantheon.

With this poignant solar background, it follows that experiencing the first sunrise of the new year is momentous in Japan. As with hatsumōde (the first shrine visit of the year), hatsuhinode (first sunrise) is up there in the recognizable tableaux of shōgatsu (new year) celebrations; it has even been depicted in Edo Period (1603-1868) woodblock prints.

And just as there are good spots for all events in Japan, there are good spots for hatsuhinode — Tokyo and its surroundings no less than anywhere else.

The Inubosaki Lighthouse sits on the Inubo cape near Choshi's Hill Observatory. | 'SHIFT' VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / CC BY-SA 3.0
The Inubosaki Lighthouse sits on the Inubo cape near Choshi’s Hill Observatory. | ‘SHIFT’ VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / CC BY-SA 3.0

Choshi Hill Observatory

Chikyu no Maruku Mieru Oka Tenbokan or “Hill Observatory Where the Earth Looks Round” in the town of Choshi is one of Chiba Prefecture’s top sunrise sites. As the name implies, the curvature of the Earth is visible here thanks to its 330-degree ocean panorama.

For a hatsuhinode bonus, Choshi’s specialty jumping taiko drummers, Choshi Hane-daiko, will perform their hatsu-uchi (“first hit”) alongside a lion dance at the very moment sunrise occurs (a few minutes earlier than in Tokyo) and again at 8 a.m, if you miss the first show. Alternatively, head to Kimigahama beach for a sunrise fronted by islets and the cape’s famous 1874 Inubosaki Lighthouse.

Take the JR Shiosai 7 Limited Express from Tokyo Station to Choshi Station and change for the Choshi Denkitetsudo Line, alighting at Tokawa (¥4,550, two hours 15 minutes) and walking 15 minutes to the observatory; get off a stop earlier at Inubo and walk seven minutes to Kimigahama; www.choshikanko.com/tenbokan.

The view across Haneda Airport at sunrise, with Mount Fuji as a backdrop. | SATOKO KAWASAKI
The view across Haneda Airport at sunrise, with Mount Fuji as a backdrop. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

Jonanjima Seaside Park

Getting your hatsuhinode fix from anywhere on Jonanjima, Ota Ward, might seem a stretch at first; like much of Tokyo Bay’s reclaimed terra firma, this “island” is a grid of recycling companies, logistics firms and offices of heavy industry. However, with an unadulterated sea view from Tsubasa Beach, watching the sun peek over the hazy horizon of the bay is just about as urban Tokyo as you can get. It’s also a transport-lover’s dream, with seagoing vessels rolling in and out, and Haneda’s air traffic jetting off and touching down across the water to the south.

From Tokyo Station, take the JR Yamanote Line to Hamamatsucho Station, change to the Tokyo Monorail and ride it to Ryutsu Center Station (¥510, 22 minutes); there, catch the 23 bus from Ryutsu Center-mae bus stop to Jonanjima-4-Chome (¥220, 17 minutes), then walk 5 minutes to reach Tsubasa Beach.

Wheely fun: The Ferris wheel at Tokyo's Kasai Rinkai Park will be operating all night on Dec. 31 and into the early morning of Jan. 1. | COURTESY OF SENYO KOGYO CO. LTD.
Wheely fun: The Ferris wheel at Tokyo’s Kasai Rinkai Park will be operating all night on Dec. 31 and into the early morning of Jan. 1. | COURTESY OF SENYO KOGYO CO. LTD.

Kasai Rinkai Park

Opened in 1989, Kasai Rinkai Park in Edogawa Ward is the second-largest park in Tokyo’s 23 wards (after Mizumoto Park, Katsushika Ward). Built on reclaimed land, it’s a haven for waterfowl, home to the Tokyo Sealife Aquarium and, more pertinent to hatsuhinode, the Diamond and Flowers Ferris Wheel.

Named for its light shows, the 117-meter-tall Ferris wheel stays open for business on New Year’s Eve, and offers a prime vantage point for watching the first sunrise of the year. Who doesn’t want to see the glowing orb of Reiwa’s first New Year’s sunrise climb its way behind Tokyo Disneyland’s Cinderella Castle? For the less amusement park-inclined, Fuji and Chiba’s Boso Peninsula can also be glimpsed in all their Ganjitsu (New Year’s Day) glory.

Hop on a JR Keiyo Line local train from Tokyo Station to Kasai Rinkai Koen Station (¥220, 13 minutes). Admission free. There’s a midnight countdown — complete with lightshow — at the Ferris wheel; a ride costs ¥700 (open 10 a.m. Dec. 31 to 8 a.m. Jan. 1).

New Year's swim: Bathers take a first dip of the year in the freezing waters off Miyuki no Hama in Kanagawa Prefecture. | COURTESY OF ODAWARA CITY
New Year’s swim: Bathers take a first dip of the year in the freezing waters off Miyuki no Hama in Kanagawa Prefecture. | COURTESY OF ODAWARA CITY

Miyuki no Hama

This beach location in Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, is named after miyuki (an honorific word that denotes a rare “going out” of an emperor). In 1873, the Meiji Emperor and Empress visited fishermen on this very beach. These days, it’s a bathing spot and a New Year’s destination; sometimes both at the same time. Every year on New Year’s Day, minutes before sunrise, members of the Odawara Swimming Association go for a freezing first swim, called hatsu-oyogi, and pray for the safety of the sea.

From Tokyo Station take the Tokaido Line to Odawara (¥1,520, one hour 31 minutes) or the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen (¥3,810, 34 minutes), then walk 15 minutes to the beach.

Hot spot: Mount Takao is one of the most popular places to watch the sunrise near Tokyo, with crowds gathering in the early hours of the morning see first light over the capital and Mount Fuji. | GETTY IMAGES
Hot spot: Mount Takao is one of the most popular places to watch the sunrise near Tokyo, with crowds gathering in the early hours of the morning see first light over the capital and Mount Fuji. | GETTY IMAGES

Mount Takao

Mount Takao (599 meters) is an easily reachable (and therefore busy) bastion of nature where you can see the sun rise over Tokyo below, and get a glimpse of Mount Fuji dyed pink in the west. There’s a two-birds-one-stone convenience to Takao, with religious sites primed for hatsumōde scattered on the mountain, such as Yakuoin, a Buddhist temple dating back to 744. With ceremonies from midnight to 5 p.m., the main event is Geikosai, a light-welcoming festival that sees a sounding of horagai (conch shell trumpets) and chanting of sutras at sunrise. Wrap up warm: temperatures hover around minus 1 degrees Celsius.

Take the direct Keio Line Semi-Limited Express from Shinjuku Station to Takaosanguchi (¥390, one hour). Trail 1 is lantern-lit (one hour 50 minutes to walk); the cable car (¥490 one-way, ¥950 return; open from 3 a.m.) is easy on the legs, but the queue can take up to three hours.

Sunrise from Saitama Ohashi bridge, one of the more unlikely hatsuhinode spots near the capital.
Sunrise from Saitama Ohashi bridge, one of the more unlikely hatsuhinode spots near the capital.

Saitama Ohashi Bridge

The unlikely sunrise spot of Saitama Ohashi warrants a visit if you are a nature lover. Spanning the Tone River in Kazo, Saitama Prefecture, the bridge rewards dedicated train travel with a particularly stunning hatsuhinode — minus the crowds that come with the capital’s better-known vistas. Look east to the New Year’s first sunrise as it stains the sky above the glassy river pink and turns its banks and islets into inky silhouettes.

From Tokyo Station, take the Utsunomiya Line to Kurihashi and change for the Tobu-Nikko Line Local towards Shin-Tochigi, alighting at Shin-Koga Station (¥1,160, one hour 20 minutes); from there it’s a 49-minute walk to the bridge along Prefectural Road 46. By car, it’s just over an hour’s drive from central Tokyo.

The view of Tokyo Skytree from Sunshine 60, once Japan's tallest building.
The view of Tokyo Skytree from Sunshine 60, once Japan’s tallest building.

Sunshine 60

Another indoor hang-out. The observatory at Sunshine 60, dubbed “Sky Circus,” is a 360-degree extravaganza of city views from the 60th story of what was once Japan’s tallest building. This 251-meter-tall Ikebukuro lookout is in prime position for watching the first New Year’s sunrise of the decade illuminate Tokyo’s sprawl. Space is limited (600 people) and tickets must be purchased in advance.

From Shinjuku Station take the Yamanote Line to Ikebukuro Station and walk 13 minutes to Sunshine City (¥160, 31 minutes total); advance tickets ¥2,000 (¥1,500 if you have the annual Skypass; children under 3 go free); sunshinecity.jp.

Morning glory: Tokyo's Rainbow Bridge lit up at dawn. The Telecom Center Building offers views across the bridge and Tokyo's skyline. | GETTY IMAGES
Morning glory: Tokyo’s Rainbow Bridge lit up at dawn. The Telecom Center Building offers views across the bridge and Tokyo’s skyline. | GETTY IMAGES

Telecom Center Building

Though its 21st-floor observatory may not boast as impressive views as other, taller buildings in the capital, it does offer up sunrise views of Tokyo Bay and the Boso Peninsula, complete with views of the Rainbow Bridge and retro-futuristic Fuji TV Building. While seeing the first sunrise of 2020 from inside a building is a plus for anybody who dislikes standing in the cold (chairs and tables for sitters, as well), do come suitably attired to queue outside.

From Shinbashi Station, take the Yurikamome Line to Telecom Center Station (¥390, 19 minutes). The observation room is on 21F (admission ¥500); bit.ly/toktelecom.

Tokyo Gate Bridge is a relatively quiet spot to watch the sunrise in Koto Ward. | GETTY IMAGES
Tokyo Gate Bridge is a relatively quiet spot to watch the sunrise in Koto Ward. | GETTY IMAGES

Tokyo Gate Bridge

Tokyo Gate Bridge — also known as Kyoryubashi (“Dinosaur Bridge”) since it looks like two dinosaurs facing off — is a relatively quiet spot in Koto Ward. From neighboring Wakasu Seaside Park there’s an elevator up to the bridge’s sidewalk where you can await 2020’s first light. Once dawn is in full swing, head back to the park and admire the bridge — maybe with Mount Fuji in the background.

Take the Keiyo Line from Tokyo Station to Shinkiba (¥170, 12 minutes); then catch a cab (around ¥1,400, 9 minutes) or walk 54 minutes if you’re feeling sprightly. Wakasu Seaside Park has a cycle path for those on two wheels.

Tokyo Tower at dawn | GETTY IMAGES
Tokyo Tower at dawn | GETTY IMAGES

Tokyo Tower

This classic late-1950s viewpoint (and emoji-worthy symbol of Japan) is a much-loved locale for hatsuhinode. It is hard to beat the views of Tokyo Bay from the two-story Main Deck (150 meters) — or Top Deck (249 meters), if you can justify the money. Yes, it gets very busy, and it will cost you your yen, but seeing the first sunrise of the year with the jinkōtō (artificial islands) of the bay and its skyscrapers is a cool affirmation of Tokyo’s metropolitan, and coastal, credentials. There’s a shrine, Tower Daijingu, on the second floor of the main deck for your hatsumōde needs, too, complete with tower-shaped votive tablets.

Take the Mita Line from Otemachi Station to Onarimon (¥180, 23 minutes) and then walk six minutes to Tokyo Tower. Main Deck admission ¥1,200 (commemorative medal for the first 2020 people); Top Deck admission ¥5,000 (includes commemorative medal and bag); tokyotower.co.jp.

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