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Japan in celebratory mood at start of new imperial era

People celebrate the start of Japan's new imperial era Reiwa in Osaka's Dotonbori entertainment district in the early hours of May 1, 2019, as Emperor Naruhito ascends the throne. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Throngs of jubilant Japanese people celebrated the start of the new imperial era, Reiwa, in various events held across the country on Wednesday as Crown Prince Naruhito ascended the throne.

As the new era began at midnight Tuesday, countdown events, fireworks, and other festivities were organized to capture the country's celebratory mood, while security was tightened around the Imperial Palace and other major spots.

In the middle of an unprecedented 10-day Golden Week holiday for the imperial succession, Naruhito's ascent was celebrated in many different ways.

Masashi Egawa, a 23-year-old college student, came to Tokyo's Shibuya shopping and entertainment district, known for one of the world's busiest scramble crossings, where numerous people have celebrated the start of a new year in recent years.

"We want to shape an era in which more and more people can hold their heads up when they walk," said Egawa, wearing a Reiwa T-shirt.

Some Japanese couples got married at midnight, when the era name changed from Heisei, or "achieving peace" to Reiwa, meaning "beautiful harmony."

Elementary school children and their parents in the western prefecture of Okayama gathered to experience the name change "midair" by jumping all at once at a gymnasium.

In Fukuoka Prefecture, southwestern Japan, the only railway operator bearing the name of Heisei organized a countdown event on the day's last train bound for Saigawa Station early Wednesday.

"We want to continue running the train by doing something new in the era of Reiwa," said Kenichi Kawai, president of Heisei Chikuho Railway Co.

Social media was abuzz with the first change of an era name in three decades. Instagram users uploaded photos of themselves holding up a board with the two Chinese characters symbolizing the new era as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, often dubbed "Uncle Reiwa" by young people, did when he unveiled it on April 1.

On Twitter, one user said, "I became tearful" when Emperor Akihito delivered his last words at his abdication ceremony on Tuesday, while others expressed their gratitude.

Some users, however, took a more cool-headed attitude, with one saying the era name will "not change everyday life drastically."

For people who visited places linked to Heisei, Tuesday was also a mix of celebration and reminiscence.

A roadside service station in Gifu Prefecture, named Heisei, was packed with visitors from early in the morning, leaving its parking lot for about 200 cars full for the day.

"I'm surprised to see so many people out here. I hope that Reiwa will be a peaceful era without any natural disasters," said Fumio Konno, 78, who came from neighboring Aichi Prefecture.

The Tokyo Skytree tower, a famous tourist attraction in Tokyo, had "Thank you Heisei" projected by laser mapping for the last few hours of the era. At the break of Wednesday, the message changed to an image of Japan's national flag.

At Tokyo's Haneda airport, major Japanese carrier All Nippon Airways Co. held a celebratory event, handing out gifts to passengers boarding its last flight of the Heisei Era and first of the Reiwa Era, both to Bangkok.

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