In addition to New Year in January, and August’s Obon Festival (to honour family ancestors), the three Japanese national holidays that are observed for most or all of a week also includes Golden Week; a period between April 29th and May 5th containing four public holidays.
The Japanese tend to believe themselves lucky to receive as many public holidays as they do, though in truth the country is decidedly mid-table in this respect compared to other nations, whilst being somewhat bottom-table as far as statutory paid leave entitlement is concerned. For these reasons, many people take paid holiday at this time to fill-in the gaps between public holiday days, with some companies closing down completely, making it the longest holiday period of the year.
The Golden Week Calendar’s Red Days
The four public holidays of Golden Week are:
• May 3rd – Constitution Day (Kenpo Kinenbi) to commemorate the date of adoption of the post-war constitution in 1947.
• May 4th – Green Day (Midori no Hi) to celebrate nature and the environment. Prior to 2006, this used to be celebrated on April 29th but was moved to allow for the formation of Shōwa Day, and to satisfy the new legal requirement that declared any single day falling between two public holidays must also be a public holiday.
• May 5th – Children’s Day (Kodomo no Hi) – effectively boys’ day – when families express hopes for their sons’ success in life by displaying samurai dolls and hanging carp streamers outside. The equivalent girls’ day is held March 3rd.
As you can see, non-holiday April 30th, and March 1st and 2nd lie between Showa Day and Constitution Day, and it is these three days that some Japanese may elect to take as part of their 10 days annual paid leave entitlement in order to extend their total Golden Week break. However, for this year (2018), workers will only need to use two of these days to extend Golden Week (it is probably a good idea if you look at a calendar to understand what I mean).
Because April 29th falls on a Sunday in 2018, its public holiday status is therefore shifted to the 30th, meaning that only March 1st and 2nd are not official holidays. Furthermore, for anyone who doesn’t normally work on Saturdays, a long weekend from April 28th to March 30th is created at the beginning of Golden Week, with a four day holiday from May 3rd to 6th at the end of Golden Week. Take March 1st and 2nd as paid leave and that’s potentially nine days of holiday.
Looking at the calendar for 2019, the Golden Week holiday is potentially ten days, assuming one doesn’t work Saturdays, and takes the three days from April 30th to May 2nd as paid leave! Having said that, not all employers will look kindly on requests to take additional paid leave at this time, especially if you’re a newcomer to your company, so check carefully what you can get away with before you go rushing to the travel agent.
A Piece of Cake
Sounds great, doesn’t it, all this potential holiday time on your hands; you definitely won’t want to squander it, especially as the Japanese weather will be at its mildest. However, every man and his dog will be faced with the same happy dilemma, and the entire country will be on the move in one direction or another, so crowds are an inevitability that you’ll have to factor in to whatever plans you make. You may, as the former Shōwa emperor once remarked, have to endure the unendurable, though I don’t think he was necessarily talking about Golden Week.
At the peak holiday travel times – May 3rd (outbound) and May 5th and 6th (inbound) – both the domestic and overseas air and ferry terminals will be at their busiest, so too the major railway and Shinkansen hubs, whilst the highways will be subject to often severe delays and tail-backs. Popular tourist locations, theme parks and exhibitions, etc., will also involve longer than usual queues for the whole of Golden Week. At least, this is the main thrust of internet articles about Golden Week.
But these are more the concerns of foreign tourists who, perhaps having arranged their holiday in Japan during Golden Week by accident, will understandably want to minimise the amount of dithering and floundering they’re forced to do. For we expats, being made of sterner stuff, tempered in the crucible of long office hours and packed commuter trains, Golden Week is, and should rightly be, a most welcome piece of cake!
It’s probably unwise to approach the Golden Week holiday on the grounds of which is likely to frustrate you the most: crowds or delays. For one thing, all those people you’re certain to bump shoulders with at Golden Week don’t just evaporate the rest of the year; Japan’s infrastructure is always busy, its cities always densely populated. In addition, barring natural disasters or inclement weather, Japanese transportation runs so precisely on time, you’d think Mussolini was running the show.
More important, then, whether you intend to spend the holiday in Japan or abroad, you should make advance bookings for train/plane seats and accommodation your main concern. Accommodation in Japan quickly becomes fully-booked for Golden Week, often months in advance for the really popular destinations. It will also be more expensive during Golden Week, so don’t expect any advance booking bargains (but don’t rule them totally out either).
Of course, there are often discounts available on foreign hotel accommodation for advance bookings via the web, at least in places not normally visited by Japanese package tourists, as well as cheaper rail pass options in those locations. The point is, it can pay to start your Golden Week planning as far ahead as you can, if only for peace of mind.
What many foreign residents want from Golden Week is a complete change of country, either somewhere entirely new to them, or reassuringly familiar. Although Japan’s international air terminals can be a bit busier during Golden Week, they’re probably less so than at Christmas. Furthermore, with the advent of e-tickets and online check in, there’s actually much less queuing and waiting around these days. However, finding cheap Golden Week flights from Japan isn’t exactly easy.
It’s probably better to eschew destinations such as Hawaii, Guam, Seoul, Saipan, Shanghai, Taipei, etc., to which many Japanese package tours go, as both the flights and hotel accommodation will be higher than usual. It seems the whole world knows when the Japanese are on the move, and prices do rise appreciably for all locations popular with Japanese Golden Week travellers!
Look instead at the more off-the-beaten-track beaches and fleshpots of South-East Asia, those typically popular with back-packers, or destinations farther afield if you’re feeling particularly adventurous. It might be that locations in India, Cambodia, Laos, Latin America or even the West Coast of the USA will offer something that suits both your pocket and your comfort zone.
Assuming you were sensible enough to book accommodation in advance, flying to destinations within Japan can save you a great deal of time that you might otherwise waste riding trains, Shinkansen, buses or driving. And it’s becoming cheaper to see Japan with the number of LCCs (low cost carriers) now connecting major cities and regions.
Hokkaido, for example, is lovely at any time of year, with regular flights from Tokyo to Sapporo and Hakodate putting some of Japan’s most breathtaking scenery just a few hours away. Or maybe a visit to Osaka or Hiroshima, or to see Kyushu’s amazing Mt. Aso would make for an interesting change of pace. And don’t forget the beaches, snorkelling and water sports available in the semi-tropical Ryukyu and Yaeyama Islands.
What applies to air travel, applies just as much to Japan’s many Shinkansen and romance car services; book your seat in advance to be on the safe side (though demand is said not to be significantly higher during Golden Week). Many of these rail services can quickly reach places of interest or beauty spots for day trips too, should you prefer to take your Golden Week break as it comes.
Japan’s mostly two-lane highways can be gridlocked at the best of times, especially in bad weather or following accidents, whilst public holiday traffic jams can stretch for 30km or more with so many people leaving the big cities to visit tourist areas or relatives in far-flung prefectures.
But there is a way for motorists and intrepid travellers to beat the misery; travel overnight after midnight, or take a night bus (where available) when the highways are far less busy, arriving just in time for breakfast, and to take those sunrise landscape photos that draw so many ‘likes’ on Instagram!
Take it as it Comes
I often prefer to spend Golden Week closer to home in Tokyo, when my apartment building and the surrounding streets are eerily quiet, and even the normally busy subway trains have more than enough empty seats for everyone. From here, Yokohama is less than an hour away; Shinjuku just 20 minutes – so there’s plenty to see and do, and, of course, plenty of shops for clothes-hounds and gadget-heads.
Japan’s local rail networks are a great way to take impromptu day trips to places of interest. You might not always get a seat, and the destination might be crowded with people who had the same idea as you, but the holiday mood is always most agreeable.
With that nice holiday buzz in the air, I find it particularly relaxing to explore the quieter parts of Tokyo that I don’t normally see; the back alleys and traditionally working-class areas collectively referred to as shitamachi (down town). Places like Yanesen, Kita-Senju and Monzen-Nakacho are great areas for strolling, offering a fascinating glimpse of the city’s Edo period origins. They’re also good places to find traditional bars and eateries, cramped together in narrow streets, such as Shinjuku’s Omoide Yokochō (lit. Memory Lane) and Golden Gai.
A Final Thought
You can take with a pinch of salt all the horror stories you might read about Golden Week crowds, traffic jams, queues and prices; the simple fact is that if you work in Japan, you’ll appreciate the time off. Whether you enjoy yourself at the same time is up to you, so don’t leave making your plans until the last moment.