Ahhh, it’s upon us. The most wonderful – and dreaded – time of the year. No, not Christmas. Not even Obon, the summer holiday that sees Japanese returning to their ancestral homes in droves. Rather, I am talking about Golden Week, the string of holidays that falls between April 29th and May 5th/6th.
So, you’re coming to Japan during Golden Week? Or you live here and finally have some time off of work? First time experiencing the Golden Week madness? Below are some pros and cons for why this is the best and worst week to travel the archipelago.
Let’s start with the pros …
1. Festivals, festivals, festivals
Throw a dart practically anywhere on a map of Japan and you’ll find a festival being celebrated during Golden Week. From flower viewing events (think wisteria or azaleas), a cultural event or historical parade for Children’s Day or simply a city’s celebration of specific populations (Tokyo’s Hawaiian festival comes to mind), you’ll have no shortage of things to do. But don’t plan on celebrating alone. With many Japanese off work, these events will be packed.
2. An empty capital
To be honest, Tokyo is the best place to be during Golden Week. Yes, I am talking about that city of over 12 million people. From late April to the end of the first week of May, it feels like half of the population leaves, meaning museums, gardens and even some of the more popular restaurants will be yours to enjoy without rubbing elbows with the rest of the city. My first year of living in Tokyo, I noticed that almost everywhere felt strangely deserted, except for the perennially popular neighborhoods of Shibuya and Harajuku.
3. Flowers in bloom
Everyone raves over the cherry blossoms, but I feel Japan gets even prettier as she “ages” into summer. The first week in May is the prime viewing season for flowers like azaleas, tulips and the delicate wisteria. You can even catch some late-blooming cherries up north in Tohoku. While flower parks themselves will be packed (good luck getting a photo at places like Ashikaga’s wisteria display), you’ll catch plenty of petals just on side streets, public parks … and in neighbors’ gardens. 🙂
And now the cons …
1. Packed trains
A long time ago, before I knew any better, I planned a weekend in Nagano for my husband and I over a three-day Japanese holiday. The trains on the return trip to Tokyo that Monday were so crowded, we ended up standing for half of the nearly three-hour journey back to the city. Golden Week is ten times as bad. Expect major lines, no reserved seats left and even (gasp!) possible delays. Bring plenty of patience along with your rail pass.
2. No chance of making reservations on the fly
If you are hankering for a holiday in, say, the hills of central Japan, but haven’t made any plans, too bad. Most Japanese make their reservations for Golden Week anywhere from 3-6 MONTHS in advance. If you do find rooms still available at your desired destination, expect to pay a premium for them. Do NOT show up in a destination expecting to score a room that night.
3. Highway tie-ups
I love my car but for Golden Week, I think it will stay securely parked in my lot. Two years ago, I asked a friend to venture out to Oita Prefecture with me on May 3rd (smack in the middle of the holiday) to visit the Kuju Flower Park. Even though it was a Friday, it was a gloriously sunny day and the flower park happens to be on the opposite side of the Mt Aso area. And since it was a holiday, EVERYONE in Kumamoto was headed to Mt Aso. Not only did it take us four hours instead of the usual two, but the lines for the convenience store bathroom were nightmarish. Keep your adventures VERY local. Or take the train. But see above. Doh! Sometimes you just can’t win.
Golden Week has both challenges and rewards. If you’ve made plans to be here during those days, just take a deep breath and make the most of it. Even on the tough days, Japan is a great place to be!