Golden Week in Japan

Crowded intersection during Golden Week in Japan

TommL / Getty Images

Every year, thousands of foreign travelers manage to stumble right into the middle of Golden Week in Japan, intentionally or not. They learn the hard way that the Golden Week holiday period is the busiest time to be anywhere near the archipelago.

In Japan's tourist epicenters, where personal space is already a precious resource, travelers during Golden Week find themselves competing with many of Japan's 127 million residents on the move. Local residents are very keen to take advantage of a rare, week-long vacation. Hotel prices in a country already known to scare budget travelers get even uglier. People form long queues for parks, attractions, and public transportation.

Japan is undoubtedly enjoyable in spring but consider your trip timing. Only make plans to travel to Japan during Golden Week (usually around the end of April to the beginning of May) if you're willing to pay more, cram onto trains, and wait in long queues to buy tickets and see sights.

Dates for Golden Week in Japan

Golden Week technically begins with Showa Day on April 29 and concludes with Children's Day on May 5. However, the actual days off from work are usually moved around to create a long five-day weekend.

Many Japanese people take vacation time before and after the holiday, so the impact of Golden Week can stretch to around ten days. As a general rule, you can expect that the last week of April and the first week of May will be busy throughout the country.

Unlike many holidays observed in Asia, each of the festivities during Golden Week is based on the Gregorian calendar, so the dates are consistent from year to year.

China also celebrates two separate weeklong vacation periods known as Golden Week, but the Chinese festivities have nothing to do with Golden Week in Japan and do not occur at the same time.

The Golden Week Holidays

Four consecutive public holidays stretching from the end of April to the first week of May prompt businesses to close as millions of Japanese people head out on vacation. Trains, buses, and hotels in popular places throughout Japan become saturated because of the boom in travelers. Flights climb in price due to higher demand.

Golden Week also coincides in a few 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, Constitutional Memorial Day, Green Day, and Children's Day. 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 or the Shogatsu New Year celebration. But clustered together, they make a great excuse to take time away from work and celebrate spring with a bit of travel.

Showa Day

Showa Day kicks off Golden Week on April 29 as the annual observation of Emperor Hirohito's birthday. Emperor Hirohito ruled Japan from 1926 until his death from cancer in 1989. The word showa can be translated as "enlightened peace," and Showa Day is recommended not necessarily as a day to glorify Emperor Hirohito but rather as a day to reflect on and think about the turbulent 63 years of his era. Showa Day is primarily considered a day of rest, and many office workers get a long weekend when the holiday falls on Friday or Monday.

Constitution Memorial Day

As the name implies, the second holiday of Golden Week, celebrated on May 3, is a day set aside to reflect on the start of democracy in Japan when the newly approved constitution was declared in 1947. Before the "Post-War Constitution," the Emperor of Japan was the supreme leader and was considered to be a direct descendant of Amaterasu, the sun goddess in the Shinto religion. The new constitution named the emperor "the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people." The emperor's role as head of state was made ceremonial, and a prime minister was made the head of government. Many locals reflect on the value of democracy in the Japanese government on this day, and some national newspapers publish features about the current state of affairs regarding the constitution.

Green Day

This holiday, meant to be a celebration of nature, actually began in 1989 on Showa Day as the day to observe Emperor Hirohito's birthday (he famously loved plants), but the dates and labels were moved around in 2007, shifting Green Day to May 4. Many Japanese citizens use this holiday for trips to the countryside.

Children's Day

The last official holiday of Golden Week in Japan didn't become a national holiday until 1948, even though it has been practiced in Japan for centuries. Dates varied on the lunar calendar until Japan switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1873 and settled on May 5.

On Children's Day, cylindrical flags in the shape of carp known as koinobori are flown on poles. The father, mother, and each child are 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.

koi shaped flag during the Japanese event, Children's Day.

k-ko / Getty Images

Traveling During Golden Week

Transportation is at capacity during Golden Week, and room prices skyrocket to accommodate the influx of Japanese travelers. Rural destinations off the tourist path aren't as affected by Golden Week, but trains and flights will be packed as people leave big cities and return home to visit their families.

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 popular holiday and choose a more ideal time to explore the country. Traveling through Japan just two weeks before or after the holidays will make a world of difference in the crowds and prices, so it's worth moving your dates around if you're flexible.

Suppose you do plan to vacation in Japan during this hectic time. In that case, you'll need to book your airfare and accommodations well in advance, and it may be a good idea to try to purchase train tickets before you land if you want to visit more than one popular city on your trip. You can also book reservations at some restaurants and even buy tickets for some popular attractions before you arrive to ensure you get to see everything on your itinerary.