May 3, 2019

The Week of Gold

Golden Week is an annual string of holidays in late April and early May. It's one of the worst times for overseas visitors to Japan to travel.

The flag of Japan and a chalkboard that reads Golden Week

It’s the very beginning of May and for the first time in longer than I can remember, I actually have nothing pressing to do. As I write this, I’m lazily lounging about in one of Tokyo’s many Starbucks. All around me, families and groups of friends alike are smiling as they enjoy exploring the man-made island of Odaiba. Partially out of addiction to social media, and partially out of boredom, I check my ever-faithful iPhone to see what’s up on Instagram. As expected, my feed is inundated with shots of bikini-clad friends who are off in Guam, Hawaii, etc. As I close the app to get back to writing, I find myself thinking that none of this would be all that surprising if it weren’t a Tuesday.

Now anyone who is even remotely familiar with workaholic Japan is likely wondering what the hell is going on here. After all, in a country notorious for working its staff to death (quite literally in some tragic cases), it’s shockingly out of the ordinary for people to be enjoying themselves. Where are all the ubiquitous black suits and obligatory late night drinking? The short answer? Golden Week. Officially kicking off on April 29, this much celebrated period is marked by a steady string of national holidays. You can see the full list here on the Wikipedia page but for most Japanese, the only important matter is that they don’t need to clock in at the office. Hooray!

As you might imagine, Golden Week is a very popular time for many Japanese workers to make travel plans as scheduled time off is rather difficult to secure. In fact, on average, Japanese tend to use only a small fraction of their vacation days every year. Rather than unplug and recharge, Japanese employees are seriously concerned about the burdens they would place on coworkers and instead opt to simply slog through without taking vacations. Of course, those in the travel industry are highly aware that Golden Week is one of the only periods during which time Japanese will take trips liberally and thus adjust their prices accordingly. Still, despite exorbitantly high rates that seem downright extortionist, flights, trains, and hotels are often fully booked. Imagine that!

All of this has serious ramifications for inbound tourism though. Honestly, when it comes to Golden Week, I cannot think of a worse time for a foreign tourist to visit Japan. Want to use that JR Rail Pass? Good luck with that! You’re going to need to wait in line for hours just to hop a bullet train and even when you do, plan on standing for the entire trip. Looking for someplace to stay overnight? Expect to see quotes that are at least two to three times higher than the going rate. Be sure to keep that AMEX Black Card handy. Seriously, as much as I absolutely LOVE to travel, even I stick close to home during Golden Week. It’s really that bad.

Technically speaking, Golden Week is actually not a week long period. Instead, the week consists of a string of national holidays that fall on set days. Depending on how these days link up with the weekend, the number of consecutive holidays can change every year. This year though, there will be an unprecedented ten days off in a row and many overworked Japanese are taking advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Why does 2019 have so many concurrent days off? Well, in addition to the stars aligning in regards to the holiday and weekday interplay, this year also marks the ascension of a new emperor and the start of a new imperial age, the Reiwa period (2019-present day). To commemorate it, Abe added an additional day to this year’s Golden Week.

Carp streamers fly around Tokyo Tower for Children’s Day during Japan’s Golden Week

So, what are you poor schleps who actually have to travel during this period to do? Luckily for you unfortunate fools, I have some advice here. Despite the fact that I should have known better, I too have make the mistake of trying to take advantage of this period in the past. On that note, here are five tips that I suggest you keep in mind if you absolutely must travel during Golden Week.

  1. Book Way in Advance
    If you know that you’re going to be visiting Japan during Golden Week, you can mitigate some of the damage by booking well in advance. Japanese usually start making travel plans for Golden Week approximately three to four months prior to the start of the holiday period. If you can book before that, you’ll have a better selection to choose from.
  2. Time Your Transit
    When it comes to long distance transportation such as the bullet train, try to get as early a start as you possibly can. The later in the day you wait, the more crowded things will be. If possible, take one of very first departures in the early morning to dodge as much of the hordes of travelers as you can.
  3. Avoid the Mainstream
    These days, places like Kyoto are already far over capacity. Now, imagine adding thousands of Japanese domestic tourists to the mix. It’s not a pretty sight. Rather than ruin your experience by trying to force visits to popular attractions, instead, I suggest checking out any of the hidden gems that I cover on this blog.
  4. Enjoy Tokyo
    One of the strangest things about Golden Week is that Tokyo is surprisingly devoid of crowds. Though the metropolis is notorious for being overly populated, it becomes a virtual ghost town (comparatively speaking) during Golden Week due to the fact that everyone is traveling. Honestly, it’s one of my favorite times of the year to just chill out and do absolutely nothing.
  5. Celebrate the Week
    One of the most enjoyable aspects of Golden Week is that a number of annual festivals are scheduled throughout the week. Of course, seeing everyone is off from work, this makes a lot of sense. You’ll find the Meiji Jingu Spring Grand Festival in Tokyo as well as the Owari Tsushima Wisteria Festival over in Nagoya. If you must visit during Golden Week, do some digging in Google to see what else you can find!

In closing, while traveling during Golden Week might seem like a masochist’s dream, there is a bit of a silver lining here. Given everyone in the damn country convenes to take trips during this much celebrated week, the period immediately following is often a wide-open opportunity for those able to take advantage of it. You see, in stark contrast to the hectic scene just prior to Golden Week, the period directly following is marked by mass vacancies. If you can stall your travel plans until mid-May, you’ll be able to save a serious amount of cash.