Every year, thousands of hapless foreign 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 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 certainly enjoyable in spring, but consider your trip timing. Only make plans to travel Japan during Golden Week (the end of April and beginning of May) if you're willing to pay more, cram onto trains, and wait in longer queues to buy tickets and see sights.
The Golden Week Holidays
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 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: 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!
By the way, the Golden Week holiday period in Japan has nothing to do with the two also-busy Golden Week holiday periods in China (one is part of Chinese New Year and the other is part of National Day on October 1).
Dates for Golden Week in Japan
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 can actually stretch to around 10 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 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. Lunisolar calendars are often used to determine dates for events (Lunar New Year and Nyepi are two examples), causing dates to change annually.
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. The word Showa can be translated as "enlightened peace," and Showa Day is recommended not necessarily as a day to glorify Emperor Hirohito but more as a day to reflect on and think about the turbulent 63 years of his era. Showa days is largely considered a day of rest and many office workers get a long weekend when the holiday falls on Friday or Monday.
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 in 1947.
Prior to the "Post-War Constitution," the Emperor of Japan was supreme leader and considered to be a direct descendant of Amaterasu, 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 emperor's role as head of state was made ceremonial and a prime minister was made the head of government. 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.
Many locals reflect on the value of democracy in the Japanese government on this day, and many national newspapers publish features about the current state of affairs regarding the constitution.
As the name hints, Greenery Day on May 4 is a day to celebrate nature and show appreciation for plants. The holiday 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, moving Greenery Day to May 4.
Meant to be a celebration of nature, many Japanese citizens use this holiday for trips to the countryside.
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 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.
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 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. Unless crowded places are the theme of your vacation, changing the timing by a mere two weeks will make a world of difference.
If you do plan to vacation in Japan during this hectic time, 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.
Keep in mind, though, that because this is one of the busiest times of year for Japan—especially since practically everyone is off work and out of school—you'll need to also plan ahead for additional travel and wait times once you arrive. For instance, you may find that the bullet train (the shinkansen) is overbooked to popular destinations like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka; in order to avoid the crowds, you may want to consider heading the opposite direction from where the locals are headed for vacation.