Every year, thousands of hapless travelers manage to stumble right into the middle of Golden Week in Japan. They learn the hard way that the Golden Week holiday period is the busiest time to be anywhere near the archipelago.
In tourism hot spots where personal space is already a precious resource, they find themselves competing with many of Japan's 127 million residents who are there to capitalize on a rare, week-long vacation.
Hotel prices in a country already known to scare budget travelers get even uglier.
Japan is certainly enjoyable in spring, but consider your trip timing. Only make plans to travel Japan during Golden Week if you're willing to pay more, cram onto trains, and wait in longer lines to buy tickets and see sights.
What Is Golden Week?
Four consecutive public holidays at the end of April and first week of May prompt businesses to close as millions of Japanese head out on vacation. Trains, buses, and hotels in popular places around Japan become saturated because of the boom in travelers. Flights climb in price due to demand.
Golden week also coincides in a few northern places with the annual spring celebration of hanami — the deliberate enjoyment of plum and cherry blossoms as they bloom. City parks are crammed with admirers of the fleeting blooms. Picnic parties with food and sake are popular.
The four holidays that make up Golden Week are:
- Showa Day: April 29
- Constitution Memorial Day: May 3
- Greenery Day: May 4
- Children's Day: May 5
As standalone holidays, any of the four special days observed during Golden Week wouldn't be too much of a "big deal" — at least, not when compared to other festivals in Japan such as the Emperor's Birthday on December 23 or Shogatsu, the celebration of New Year.
But clustered together, they make a great excuse to take time away from work and celebrate spring with a bit of travel!
When Is Golden Week?
Golden week technically begins with the Showa Day on April 29 and concludes with Children's Day on May 5. If any of the holidays fall on a Sunday, May 6 is sometimes tacked onto Golden Week as a "compensation holiday."
Many Japanese people take vacation time before and after the holiday, so the impact of Golden Week actually stretches to around 10 days.
Unlike many special days observed in Asia, each of the holidays during Golden Week are based on the Gregorian (solar) calendar. The dates are consistent from year to year.
Showa Day kicks off Golden Week on April 29 as the annual observation of Emperor Hirohito's birthday. Emperor Hirohito ruled Japan from Christmas Day in 1926 until his death from cancer on January 7, 1989.
General Douglas MacArthur demanded that Emperor Hirohito be allowed to keep the throne after surrendering at the end of World War II. His son, Emperor Akihito, took over the throne and title in 1989.
Constitution Memorial Day
The second holiday in Golden Week is Constitutional Memorial Day on May 3. As the name implies, it's a day set aside to reflect on the start of democracy in Japan when the newly approved constitution was declared.
Prior to the "Post-War Constitution," the Emperor of Japan was supreme leader and considered to be a direct descendant of the sun goddess in the Shinto religion. The new constitution named the emperor as "the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people." The most debated and controversial part of Japan's constitution is still Article 9, an article that prevents Japan from maintaining armed forces or declaring war.
Greenery Day on May 4 is a day to celebrate nature and show appreciation for plants. The holiday actually began in 1989 as the day to observe Emperor Hirohito's birthday (he famously loved plants), but the dates and labels were moved around in 2007.
After legislation, Greenery Day was moved to May 4. The former date, April 29, became Showa Day.
The last official holiday of Golden Week in Japan is Children's Day on May 5.
The day didn't become a national holiday until 1948, however, it has been practiced in Japan for centuries. Dates varied on the lunar calendar until Japan switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1873.
On Children's Day, cylindrical flags in the shape of carp known as koinobori are flown on a pole. The father, mother, and each child is represented by a colorful carp flown in the wind.
Originally, the day was just Boys Day and girls had Girls Day on March 3. The days were combined in 1948 to modernize and celebrate all children.
Traveling During Golden Week
Transportation is at its most crowded during Golden Week, and room prices skyrocket to accommodate all of the Japanese travelers.
Rural destinations off the tourist path aren't as affected by Golden Week, but trains and flights between will be full.
Just as Lunar New Year travel (chunyun) affects popular destinations throughout Asia, the effects of Golden Week also spill outside of Japan. Top destinations as far away as Thailand and California will see more Japanese travelers that week.
The only real way to avoid the traveling masses during Golden Week in Japan is to schedule around the holiday. Unless crowded places are the theme of your vacation, changing the timing by a mere two weeks will make a world of difference.