Traveling to Japan in May and Golden Week
For those traveling to Japan in May, spring has finally begun and the change of seasons is palpable, both in terms of weather and the rhythms of Japanese life. The first week of May (actually April 29th – May 5th or 6th) is “Golden Week” in Japan. It is the longest holiday period of the year in Japan and typically a time when warm and wonderful temperatures return. This year was no exception and most of Japan enjoyed fantastic weather. During Golden Week in Japan locals flock to their favorite holiday locations with Hawaii and Taiwan among the favored international destinations this year. Within Japan, many Japanese travel to favorite resorts and rural areas, creating a fair bit of congestion along the way. Many instead elect to enjoy friends, family and great weather closer to home.
Like many around the world, the Japanese have embraced their holidays, even if most can’t name the actual four holidays of Golden Week. The holidays are:
Showa Day: The birthday of Emperor Showa who was a controversial figure due to his role in WWII. Most people don’t celebrate this but are happy that it is a day off.
Constitution Day: The anniversary of Japan’s new post war constitution that was put into effect on May 3rd, 1947.
Greenery (Arbor) Day: A vaguely defined holiday dedicated to nature, which officially came into existence to reflect the late emperor Hirohito’s (Showa) fondness of plants and gardens. Many public gardens and nature preserves have free admission on this day.
Children’s Day: Children’s Day is the only day of Japan’s Golden Week that’s a traditional holiday that’s widely celebrated. The day was celebrated for more than 1000 years as the Boy’s Festival or Tango no Sekku. The government changed the name to Children’s Day when they made it a holiday because Girls Day (March 3rd) isn’t a holiday. The rituals and celebrations of Children’s Day are related to samurai traditions that prepared boys for their role as samurai. Boys throughout Japan put out ceremonial samurai helmets in their homes in the days leading up to the holiday. Another decoration associated with Children’s Day are carp-shaped wind socks known as koinbori. These are related to a legend about a carp that swam upstream to become a dragon. The vigorous movement of koinbori in the wind represents a healthy and happy childhood. Millions of koinbori are put up all over the country for Golden Week in Japan.
Many people are put off by travelling to Japan in May due to the crowds and higher prices. We have a slightly different view. The Japanese love Golden Week, the mood is festive, upbeat, and it is a great time to visit even though there can be large crowds. The main difference at this time of year is that you’re actually travelling with the locals. It makes for some great opportunities to meet and mingle and enjoy the country. Traveling during this period definitely requires advance planning to help avoid crowds and inflated prices. But mostly, it requires a slightly different mindset and objective focused on enjoying Japan as the locals do, not as the foreigners do. Main tourist attractions are not advised during this period, but there are plenty of wonderful things to experience in Japan in May.
Broadly, we suggest two basic strategies – cities, and other islands. We recommend fully exploring Tokyo’s back alleys or one of the other big cities during this period. One other delightful bonus is that one of the six annual Grand Sumo Basho (Tournament) starts in Tokyo at the end of Golden Week in Japan. We highly recommend experiencing Sumo if you are in Tokyo then. The cities are not typically as crowded as usual and getting around is fairly straightforward as long as you avoid the major Tokyo hubs linking it to the rest of the country, mainly Tokyo station.
Kyoto is over-flowing with historic temples and shrines, but most visitors only see the city’s top attractions. With a little planning and creativity, make your own experience and explore some of Kyoto’s less familiar spots. Try renting a bike to get around town and focus on a specific area of Kyoto to avoid the congestion. And of course, there are lots of other little gems within Kyoto’s neighborhoods if you are willing to seek them out.
Experiences outside the cities requires some planning to get to and around but are well worth it. Try getting off the main island of Honshu and experience the fantastic nature of Hokkaido, the hot-springs and pottery of Kyushu, or Shikoku with its famous 88 Temple Pilgrimage and off-the-beaten-track rugged rural scenery and style.
Golden Week in Japan can mean more crowds, but you are actually traveling with the locals, the weather is typically wonderful and it’s a great time to explore the cities and back alleys.