A Quick Guide to Golden Week

The Golden Week vacation period is almost upon us. Named for a cluster of four public holidays that fall together within a week during late April/early May, Golden Week earns its name because of the opportunity for leave provided to the nation’s overworked professionals. 
Often considered the year's best chance for the Japanese to travel, many workers stretch their time off by taking an extra day in the days in-between, potentially having up to ten days' break. With an estimated 23.4 million locals expected to travel up and down the archipelago during Golden Week, travel over this period is always congested. Delays are common and lines are long. Accommodation is often booked up a year in advance. Hotel rates skyrocket.

Peak Crowds Come and Go During Golden Week -- Photo from Flickr cc by Scott
The Golden Week holidays are:
Showa Day (April 29)

Birthday of the former Showa Emperor (Hirohito), who passed away in 1989. Before Hirohito’s death, the day was said to provide a time for reflection on the Showa Era (1926-1989). Greenery Day (May 4) was celebrated on this day up until 2006.
Constitution Memorial Day (May 3)

This holiday commemorates the adoption of Japan’s postwar Constitution on May 3, 1947.
Greenery or Arbor Day (May 4)

Gardens such as Showa Kinen Park Waive Entrance Fees on Greenery Day -- Photo Courtesy of JNTO
This date has long been celebrated as a public holiday, but Greenery Day formally took root in 1989 after the Showa Emperor’s death. Emperor Hirohito harbored a particular fondness for plants and nature, and many zoos, parks and gardens waive their entrance fees on this day. The current Emperor and Empress take part in tree and seed-planting ceremonies on May 4; don’t be surprised to see many Japanese following suit.
Children’s Day (May 5)

Flying Koinobori Streamers for Children's Day -- Photo from Flickr cc by Rumpleteaser
First established in 1948, this day is a celebration of children’s happiness. With Hina Matsuri aka Girl’s Day celebrated on March 3, this day is commonly associated with the Boy’s Festival. Expect to see brightly coloured carp or koinobori streamers festooned around the country, and displays of regal samurai dolls, both of which are meant to symbolise power, hardiness, and success.

Golden Week Hits & Misses

If you'll be travelling here during this time, Japan has no shortage of places to visit. While some spots are must-sees or typical favourites, most can be missed during overcrowded Golden Week. Instead, avoid the masses and make an effort to search out some of the nation’s lesser-known charms:

Harajuku's Takeshita Dori Street, Crowded at the Best of Times -- Photo from Flickr cc by pwyliu
The typical must-see:

Harajuku is considered a hotbed for young subcultures and uniquely Japanese fashions. The birthplace of kawaii culture and many other fashion trends, for people-watching, Harajuku can’t be beaten.
Why you might want to avoid it:

Although Tokyo resident numbers disperse during Golden Week many rural Japanese come into the big city during this holiday. Takeshita Street is crowded at the best of times. Admittedly, increasing rents are driving some of the most innovative stores out of the area.
The alternative:

Quirky Fashions as Found at Kita-Kore -- Photo by Jane K
Located in inner-west Tokyo on the JR Chuo and Sobu lines, Koenji is considered a haven for  Tokyo countercultures and boasts a high concentration of highly-curated vintage and second-hand clothing shops. On the north side of the tracks look for the Kita-Kore building, an enclave of quirky yet on-point fashion shops that count pop star Lady Gaga among its customers. The best time to go is late afternoon on weekends as opening hours are irregular.

Expect More Crowds at Kinkaku-ji During Golden Week -- Photo by Nathan Hosken
The typical must-see:

Postcard perfect, Kyoto's iconic Kinkaku-ji Temple is quintessentially Japanese and one of the country's most popular buildings. Although its history dates back to 1397, the current structure was built in 1955 after an arson attack destroyed most of the temple. (Literary buffs will know this event inspired novelist Yukio Mishima's The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.)
Why you might want to avoid it:

Because of it's immense (but well-deserved!) popularity, Kinkaku-ji Temple is always crowded. Golden Week just makes the problem worse.
The alternative:

Hirano Jinja Shrine, a Quiet Golden Week Alternative -- Photo from Flickr cc by PV9007
Kyoto is brimming with historic temples and shrines. Over 2,000, according to estimates, but most visitors only see the city's top five. With a little ingenuity and planning, create your own trip to explore some of Kyoto's less familiar spots. Although possible to get around the city by bicycle, instead focus on a specific zone to avoid the hordes. If temple fatigue is a worry, make sure to mix your itinerary up.

World-famous Hakodate Night View -- Photo from Flickr cc by かがみ〜
The typical must-see:

Connecting Japan's main island of Honshu with Hokkaido, the Hokkaido shinkansen opened with great fanfare in late March 2016. The port city of Hakodate is famous for its seafood, as well as the vantage point offered by Mount Hakodate to view the area's spectacular scenery.
Why you might want to avoid it:

As a newly opened service, the Hokkaido Shinkansen -- and Hakodate -- are already coping with a heavy influx of domestic visitors.
The alternative:

Cranes in the Morning Mist -- Photo from Flickr cc by Alpha 2008
JR Rail Pass holder or not, if you're visiting Hokkaido and have a penchant for journeying by train, plan on visiting the southeastern area of Kushiro. Primarily known for its marshlands, Kushiro is home and breeding ground to the Japanese crane. Yet the area is also famous for its onsen (hot springs) and shopping,  as well as boasting a well-respected indigenous culture museum.

Fukuoka is Famous for its Hakata Ramen -- Photo from Flickr cc by Matthew Klein
The typical must-see:

The cities of Fukuoka and Kitakyushu on Japan's southernmost island of Kyushu are popular for their museums, ramen, and temples and shrines. Transport hubs for travelers primarily from Asia, these urban centers draw surprisingly large numbers of tourists.
Why you might want to avoid it:

Although the G7 Summit is being held in Ise Shima, Mie Prefecture later this year, a number of umbrella meetings are being held throughout the country. Along with the many visiting dignitaries comes heightened security. The G7's Energy Ministerial Meeting is due to take place in Kitakyushu City at the beginning of May.
The alternative:

A Saga Specialty: Tofu Boiled in Local Hot Springs Water -- Photo Courtesy of JNTO
If you're heading down to Kyushu, why not stopover in nearby Saga Prefecture? Saga is famous for its Arita porcelain, is home to soothing hot springs, and boasts incredible scenery, making it an ideal location for a southern getaway.
 Still unsure what to do? Roughly half of Tokyo deserts the megalopolis during Golden Week, making it the perfect time to (re)acquaint yourself with the city. 

Jane K