What Is Golden Week In Japan? – Everything You Need To Know To Plan Ahead

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How does one week beat out all the other 51 weeks of the year and be hailed as the Golden Week in Japan?

In a country known for overworked salarymen (a term for white-collar employees) passing out on the sidewalks from utter exhaustion, a day off is an oasis in the seemingly endless dessert of deadlines. Now imagine having a long break from all that and you have yourself a golden week. Indeed, there is no name more appropriate for this cluster of Japanese holidays.

Find out why this week’s so golden, when it happens, and how tourists can make the most out of this golden opportunity.

Why It’s Named That Way

The name itself is influenced by the term ‘Golden Time’, which referred to the timeslots of radio shows with the highest listener ratings back in the day similar to what we mean by primetime. Because so many people took time off during this interval and were free to do leisurely activities, recreational businesses naturally experienced spikes in their sales. A managing director of Daiei Film Co. Ltd, Japan’s major film studio, is credited with having coined the term.

When is It Exactly?

Japan has a total of 16 national holidays a year and in comparison to other countries, this isn’t bad at all. Technically speaking, they’re actually among countries with the most holidays. Who would’ve thought? But Japanese work culture can be quite intense and people don’t usually ‘unplug’ from work, even during the holidays. In fact, they don’t go back to their hometowns often and only do so on either Golden Week, Obon (お盆; a Buddhist occasion for paying respect to one’s ancestors), or the New Year’s Holiday. With the Obon festival lasting for 3 days and the New Year’s Holiday duration being highly dependent on one’s employer, the Golden Week is their best bet for some legitimate downtime.

It usually begins on the 29th of April until the first few days of May, and it happens during this time because they celebrate 4 holidays within this time period. It technically isn’t always a week, though and can last for up to 8-10 days. Here’s a little bit of information about the four major holidays that comprise this golden week:

April 29th

This day has had its fair share of name changes as its significance has more or less evolved throughout the course of history. The Japanese consider the birthday of their emperor as a national holiday (in a day known as Tenchō Setsu 天長節, its original name or as it is currently called, Tennō Tanjōbi 天皇誕生日) and this date started out that way as it was Emperor Hirohito’s date of birth. After his reign (1926–1989), they kept it as a holiday, but renamed it to Greenery Day (みどりの日 Midori no Hi), a day to be one with Mother Earth and be grateful for all her gifts. This was done as a tribute to the late emperor’s love for nature. In 2007, it was once again renamed to Shōwa Day (昭和の日 Shōwa no Hi), a day to contemplate over the 63 rather turbulent years of Emperor Hirohito’s reign.

May 3rd

Constitution Memorial Day (憲法記念日 Kenpō Kinenbi), as its name suggests, is a holiday that commemorates the passing of the 1947 Constitution of Japan and people are called to look back at their history and the meaning of democracy. Let’s be honest, it’s not exactly the most eventful of holidays, especially for tourists, but the National Diet (Japanese legislative body’s headquarters) is made open to the public only on this day.

May 4th

Originally a Citizen’s Holiday (国民の休日 Kokumin no Kyūjitsu), which is basically a generic name given to a regular day that is turned into a holiday just because it’s sandwiched between two national holidays. This is actually a law in Japan, how cool is that? But when the above mentioned Greenery Day was changed to Shōwa Day in 2007, they decided to move the former to this day. It’s a great day to get your daily requirement of fresh air, as most if not all national parks throughout the country have free admission for the day. Don’t forget to check out public gardens or zoos in the area too because they might also be free. This day also coincides with an important global holiday, so while you’re at it, exclaim ‘May the fourth be with you’ to everyone you see and spread the good vibes to galaxies far far away.

May 5th

While technically everyday should be children’s day, this day is considered Japan’s official Children’s Day (こどもの日 Kodomo No Hi). This last day of the Golden Week is spent to respect each child’s individual personality and wish for his or her happiness. It’s known by other names, such as the Feast of Banners because they celebrate this occasion by raising Koinobori (鯉のぼり), which are carp-shaped streamers that look like swimming fish when the wind passes through them. Kois or carps are used due to their reputation of being resilient and determined fish.

While technically everyday should be children’s day, this day is considered Japan’s official Children’s Day (こどもの日 Kodomo No Hi). This last day of the Golden Week is spent to respect each child’s individual personality and wish for his or her happiness. It’s known by other names, such as the Feast of Banners because they celebrate this occasion by raising Koinobori (鯉のぼり), which are carp-shaped streamers that look like swimming fish when the wind passes through them. Kois or carps are used due to their reputation of being resilient and determined fish.

Now daughters may feel a little bit left out after reading this, but do not fret because this holiday, which also happens to be formerly called Boy’s Day (Tango No Sekku; 端午の節句), has its female counterpart, Doll’s Day (Hinamatsuri; 雛祭り) on the 3rd of March. Nowadays, though, both sons and daughters are honored during Children’s Day, which I think makes it a better bonding experience for the whole family than having it separated.

Silver Week

Luckily for the Japanese, every 5-6 years, the Golden Week is trailed by a Silver Week, which may not be as long, but is definitely still very much anticipated. It takes place when the stars align and the Respect for the Aged Day, on the third Monday of September, and the Autumn Equinox Day, on the 22nd or 23rd of September fall around a weekend, creating a 5-day long holiday. Locals can look forward to one happening this coming 2020.

Platinum Week

Just when you thought that things couldn’t get any better than gold, 2019 ended up being an even more special year in what was later dubbed as a Platinum Week. Talk about fancy! The public was blessed with a longer vacation thanks to the inauguration of their new emperor, Naruhito, after the abdication of Emperor Akihito on April 30th of the same year. This Japanese imperial Transition Day (May 1, 2019) was consequently designated as a national holiday. Given that both April 29 and May 3 were already holidays, April 29 and May 2, as a result, became Citizen’s Holidays. This one-time occurrence was so rare that local employees didn’t even know how to handle so much free time. It actually led to some problems, especially for those who were working and subsequently needed to leave their children in day-care centers. There are always two sides to everything.

Things to Consider during Golden Week

Although Golden Week sounds inviting when planning a trip to Japan, bear in mind that it is a national holiday and so you will be vacationing along with the locals, on top of the many tourists that visit the busy areas. Expect large crowds, especially for popular destinations and food establishments. Factor in the waiting time in train stations, buses, and other forms of transportation. They’re all operating on full capacity, so expect long queues and possible delays. Give a buffer time of at least one hour to make sure you get to where you have to be on schedule. Patience and understanding are of utmost importance!

Be flexible. With so much going on, things are bound to go wrong. Just be positive because detours often make for the best memories. Activate your JR Pass beforehand. This is particularly useful for larger groups because an activated pass allows you to reserve your seats for your entire trip ahead of time. Activation is valid for 30 days until you use it for the first time, so head on to a ticketing office nearest to you and inform them about your itinerary as soon as you can.

Foresight! Foresight! Foresight! Plan ahead and make reservations as early as you can. If you’ve made up your mind about traveling during this time, think fast and arrange everything as early as 6 months in advance. This way, you get relatively cheaper rates too! Hotel rooms, plane tickets, car rentals, and pretty much every commodity or service with seasonal prices are more expensive than usual. It is the peak season after all.

This is a mass exodus of people towards their hometowns, so any form of transportation popular destinations or residential areas will be packed. Because everybody’s heading home, Tokyo trains are somewhat less packed than usual, but the same cannot be said for malls and popular attractions. Traditionally, May 3rd, 5th, and 6th are the busiest days for traveling because people will be returning to their hometowns and heading back to their workplaces during these dates.

Go against the tide. Plan your trips in the opposite direction of where most people are going. Travel to Tokyo in the beginning of the ‘week’ and then outside the city center when the locals are going back to work. You can also consider traveling in the middle of the week too. To be on the safe side and steer clear of the Golden Week congestion entirely, block off one or two days before and after the specified Golden Week dates.

Do your research on the dates because if one of them happens to fall on a Sunday, the following Monday automatically becomes a holiday. Similarly, if you are planning a trip in September, it would be advisable to check if a Silver Week is happening during that Year.

It’s the season to be jolly! Golden Week is the time to enjoy local festivals, parades, and cultural celebrations. Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu Spring Grand Festival (明治神宮春の大祭) and the Owari Tsushima Wisteria Festival in Tennogawa Park (Nagoya) are particularly popular. The weather is typically pleasant at this time, which makes traveling on foot and visiting outdoor scenic sites all the more enjoyable.

Lastly, holidays mean promotions! Check nearby museums, parks, gardens, and zoos because you just might be able to get in for free.

Enjoy The Holiday

There are very few things in this world that are better than having some free time to go back home and do whatever you want with the people that matter the most to you. It could be that this very promise of a hard-earned period of relaxation is what drives Japanese people to work as earnestly as they do. Tourists who are up for the challenge are bound for a memorable and exhilarating ride because you get to feed off of the positive energy of all the people around you and enjoy alongside the locals themselves.

Take the plunge and experience this uniquely Japanese holiday that certainly gives a whole ‘nother meaning to the phrase ‘Go for gold’!

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