Words that elicit varying amounts of joy and horror depending on your work-life balance, Golden Week is one of the busiest times to travel in Japan.
While this may sound great for a second, what it actually means is crowds, rocketing ticket prices and even more crowds. If you don’t fancy paying the quadrupled plane fares and have missed booking a space on the bullet train, avoiding the crowds is often the best you can hope for. With that in mind we have some tips to make it as peaceful as it can be.
What exactly is Golden Week?
First things first, there is no actual gold involved—except that required to get you on a flight anywhere exciting that is. Instead it received this nickname thanks to the proximity of four national holidays which take place on fixed dates (not moveable ones like Easter, for example). Known as Ogon Shukan in Japanese (黄金周) it usually refers to the following days:
- April 29th: Showa Day (referring to the previous emperor’s birthday)
- May 3rd: Constitution Memorial Day;
- May 4th: Greenery Day
- May 5th: Children’s Day
This year, however, in celebration of Emperor Naruhito’s ascension to the throne, May 1st is a one-off, extra holiday. While this seems innocuous at a glance, it turns this smattering of holidays into a 10-day mega break. This is thanks to a rule in Japan that any regular day sandwiched between two national holidays also becomes a holiday—great right? So in total, the combination of two weekends, four traditional national holidays, one bonus national holiday and a day in lieu (as Children’s Day falls on a Sunday) means ten days off! While this would be a big deal in most countries, in Japan it is quite literally causing chaos. Hospitals will close along with banks and shops (although not all of course).
The double-edged sword
In any case, for many professionals, this sounds like a great time to take a vacation. Doesn’t it? Sure, but that’s what everyone else is thinking as well. That means, roads, expressways, and trains meant for long-distance travel are congested; plane and bus tickets get sold out easily; hotels get fully booked quickly (and prices are high); and you can expect mega-crowds at almost every tourist spot. Many Japanese professionals are so busy that even though they have paid holidays, they either don’t or can’t really use them, so public holidays are the best chances for them to travel. Some avoid the Golden Week crowd by traveling overseas, though.
So, what do you do instead?
If you want to take the risk and go to Japan’s major tourist spots at about the same time as everyone else, by all means, go ahead—especially if this is also one of the rare times that you can travel. But if you want to enjoy Golden Week in Japan while avoiding the crowd, stay right where you are!
This might be a good time to explore Tokyo. Even if you’re a long-term resident, you might see a side of it that you previously hadn’t known. Perhaps you might also want to use the holidays as an excuse to try something you haven’t done before, even if it’s something as simple as visiting your neighborhood sento (bathhouse), or spending the night at a capsule hotel. Here are some activity suggestions for Golden Week:
1. Visit Tokyo’s less touristy spots
Shitamachi refers to the downtown areas of Tokyo that were traditionally considered working-class neighborhoods. Until now, they still look and feel more traditional than, say, the glitzy neighborhoods of Roppongi and Hiroo, and are great places for souvenir shopping, since shitamachi were historically the domain of merchants.
Some examples of Tokyo’s shitamachi are Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi (collectively known as Yanesen), Monzen-Nakacho, and Kita-Senju. Aside from shopping, these areas are usually dotted with small temples and shrines (like the stunning Nezu Shrine), making for good walking tours. If you were hoping to see the sights of Kyoto but don’t fancy facing the crowds, here are 5 spots that’ll get you closest to it.
You might also want to consider suburban Tokyo: the neighborhoods along the Chuo Line—Nakano, Asagaya, and Kichijoji—are vibrant but not crazily so, and they have shopping streets where you might find some bargains. Kichijoji is also home to the large Inokashira Park, in case you want to enjoy some greenery.
Tokyo’s hipster neighborhoods of Daikanyama, Jiyugaoka, and Shimokitazawa might also be worth checking out for fashion, art, and cafe enthusiasts.
2. Check out some events
Luckily, there’s no shortage of things to do in Tokyo during Golden Week. For one, there are plenty of events for you to get acquainted with Japanese culture and those from further afield as well.
- If you want to eat Hawaiian food and see the hula and other traditional dances, Venus Fort in Odaiba is holding its annual Hawaii Festival from April 27th to May 6th.
- The Ome grand festival in western Tokyo will help you with the ‘get out of town’ itch and offers parades and performances on the 3rd and 4th of May.
- The Cambodia Festival at Yoyogi Park Events Square from May 3rd to 4th.
- If you’re feeling inspired by Greenery Day you can take part in a river cleanup on the 6th and do your bit to reduce waste in the world.
- One of the biggest events will be the Meiji Shrine Spring Grand Festival which runs from April 27th to May 6th with lots of different highlights.
- Tokyo Rainbow Pride, a celebration of Tokyo’s LGBT community, has grown in scale and will run from the 28th to 29th. Anyone is welcome to join in, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
- If you’re willing to travel a bit farther, head to Fuchu—which is still part of Tokyo, albeit a bit further out—for the Kurayami Matsuri at Okunitama Shrine, which will be held from April 30th to May 6th. The main event will be a procession of mikoshi (portable shrines) in the darkness starting at 6 pm on May 5th, which will be followed by a return procession from 4 am–8 am on Sunday the 6th.
- There’s also the Wisteria Festival held at the Kameido Tenjin Shrine from April 14th to May 6th which is a great chance to see some of the most beautiful wisteria trees in Tokyo.
You can also see some spring colors by visiting some of the other flower festivals in or around Tokyo. Lovely weather and lovely blossoms make for a good combination. And for more things to do during Golden Week, visit our events guide.
But if you really want to go someplace beyond Tokyo…
3. Take a day trip nearby
There’s still no guarantee that these places won’t be crowded, no matter how close they are to Tokyo, but there’s still a good chance that they won’t be as crowded as, say, Kyoto or Osaka. (Expect some crowds at flower festival sites, though.) We have a great list of 25 of the top day trips to choose from and five other bullet train trips if you fancy trying out the famed train—although they will be busy. If you’re looking for inspiration, some of the nearest prefectures might have a few places to explore:
- Kanagawa Prefecture: Enoshima, Kamakura, Isehara, Hakone, and Yokohama
- Saitama Prefecture: Chichibu and Kawagoe
- Gunma Prefecture: Kusatsu
- Tochigi Prefecture: Nikko
- Yamanashi Prefecture: Kawaguchiko
- Ibaraki: The Ushiku Daibutsu
This post was originally published in 2015. Last updated: April 25, 2019 by Lily Crossley-Baxter.
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