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, and avoiding the crowds is often the best you can hope for, so we have some tips to make it as peaceful as it can be.
Golden Week (黄金周) refers to a cluster of holidays from late April to early May:
- Showa Day (April 29), referring to the previous emperor’s birthday;
- Constitution Memorial Day (May 3);
- Greenery Day (May 4); and
- Children’s Day (May 5).
The gaps in between mean that you never really get a literal week of holidays. If you’re lucky, though, the first holiday will fall exactly on a Friday (leaving only Monday as a regular day)—but next time that happens will be in 2022. This year it begins on a Sunday, which means that Showa Day will be observed on the Monday, giving a bonus day of holiday for those working.
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.
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 Hiro’o, 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.
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2. Check out some events
Luckily, there’s no shortage of things to do in Tokyo during Golden Week. For one, there are some events for you to get acquainted with other cultures.
There will be a Cambodia Festival at Yoyogi Park Events Square from May 3rd to 4th.
If you love mamen, then spend your holiday at the Ramen Girls Fest in Nakano (and yes, boys can go too)—it’s on from April 26th to May 6th.
The annual Cinco de Mayo Festival, which celebrates the Mexican holiday, will be held on the 12th and 13th this year at Odaiba’s Symbol Promenade Park/Yume no Hiroba (in case you had boldly assumed it would be on, you know, the 5th).
Tokyo Rainbow Pride, a celebration of Tokyo’s LGBT community, has grown in scale. What used to be a weekend-long event will be a week-long event (from April 28th – May 6th) at Yoyogi Park Events Square this year, with the highlight being a pride parade on the 7th. 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 6pm 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 15th 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 5 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
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