Golden Week - Japanese Chaos

A week of holidays both national and informal which combine to give 7-10 days break. Travelling is impossible as everyone makes the most of their vacation time. What is Golden Week and how can you survive it?

It is the turnover from April to May and, in Japan, Spring is well and truly here. The new school term has started and for university graduates, new jobs also begin. The Japanese have very few holidays other than public holidays throughout the year, many employees not even taking their allotted annual leave. But, at this time of the year, most enjoy a very pleasant break. It is said that the break is fortunate in combating "May Blues" which tend to hit despite the fine weather.

The May weather is mild and, although the cherry blossoms are over, the pale pinks and purples of spring flowers garland the trees and bushes and, with summer coming soon, it is the perfect time for a holiday. The lucky Japanese however, get 7 Ã 10 days off at this time every year which they name "Golden Week" (Gorudan Uiiku) in recognition of their good fortune.

Why "Golden Week"?

The name "Golden Week" was originally coined by movie companies to entice people into movies during the break - a "golden" opportunity to see them. However, Golden Week was gradually adopted as the catch phrase for the long holiday period by the public, most of whom don't remember its more commercial beginnings.

Golden week is actually a bit of a misnomer as the length of the 'week' depends entirely on what dates fall when. The week is formed by a number of different festivals and holidays which all happen to fall around the same time so it is tradition now to take the whole period from April 29th to May 5th. If weekends fall at the right time, this can stretch to 10 days. Most employers are happy to grant the Ã"non-holidayÕ days as an additional break although some companies continue to open either side of the actual holiday days despite the Ã"stop-startÕ effect of the holidays.

The festivals

The festival which falls on the first day of this week, May 29th, is 'Midori no Hi', Greenery Day, a national holiday which originally celebrated the birthday of Emperor Showa. Since his death in 1989, this holiday has been transferred to a day of appreciation of nature and the environment in remembrance of him. Midori no Hi is a little like Arbor Day although more formalised.

The second day is 'Kenpo Kinen Bi', Constitution Memorial Day, another national holiday which commemorates the inception of the Japanese post-war Constitution on May 3rd 1947. This day particularly emphasises the prohibition of war, human rights and the sovereignty of the people with the Emperor a symbol of the unity of the people. The new constitution replaced the Meiji Constitution and is based on the British and American constitutions. The Diet Building (Parliament) is open to the public and many talks are given about the role the Constitution has played over the last 50 years.

The final day is 'Kodomo no Hi', Children's Day, a national holiday celebrating the health and growth of children. Celebrated on May 5th, Children's Day is a Shinto festival that used to be for boys but has now been renamed to celebrate both boys and girls. Carp kites are flown above rooftops and in the streets and samurai dolls and armour are brought out and displayed. Special foods are eaten to promote the wellbeing of the child and pray for his or her future. While this is now a non-sexist festival, it is still very much a "Boys' Day" in reality and "Girls' Day" is still celebrated on March 3rd although it is not a public holiday.

As well as the "traditional" holidays, many companies also give May 1st (May Day) as a holiday and, since May 4th falls between two national holidays, it was also declared one and named 'Kokumin no Kyujitsu', a rest day. With all of these holidays one after another, it has become common for the whole period from April 29th to May 5th to be a break.

Golden week today

The Golden Week holiday is the longest Japanese holiday with the exception of New Year and one of the busiest for travel, both within Japan and overseas. The fine weather means that popular destinations are booked out well in advance and trains and other forms of public transport are crowded past capacity. Increasing numbers of Japanese are also taking advantage of this break to travel overseas. Planning where to go often has to happen a year in advance or there are no more places available.

Festivals and parades abound at this time with fireworks and 'mikoshi' (special floats), seen everywhere. While it is one of the best times to see Japanese culture and events, the sheer numbers of people travelling make this a good time to avoid hotels, restaurants, public transport and well-known shrines and temples. If you can work around this period, you are more likely to have an enjoyable visit.

© High Speed Ventures 2011