Golden Week marks a string of holidays around the start of May in Japan. With three official days off, many people take the opportunity to use a few of their precious vacation days (nenkyu) to travel or otherwise relax for an extended period. This year, the holidays fall on Monday, Thursday, and Friday, so with just two days of nenkyu one could easily go on a 9 day trip. This has made the Golden Week holidays one of the biggest travel periods in Japan, like Thanksgiving in the States. Though schools will be open Tuesday and Wednesday, many teachers will go on trips around Japan, or abroad, and many students too, will travel with their parents.
The travel aspect of the holidays are so pervasive that only minimal interest is paid to the reasons behind the holidays themselves. The holidays too are interestingly timed with the Japanese school year. The start of a school year likely the busiest for teachers and students as new teachers struggle to learn their jobs and plan for the year. The first weeks are full of meetings, planning, and getting to know staff and students. The Golden Week provides a much-needed rest for many after the stress of moving to new jobs or dealing with new recruits.
April 29- April 29th is Showa day in memory of the previous Emperor. The current reign is Heisei, but Showa lasted until 1989. Since this year’s holiday falls on a Sunday, the next day becomes the Public Holiday. During the Emperor’s reign this day marked the Emperor’s birthday. While the holiday remains in his memory, there is a different holiday for the current emperor’s birthday on December 23.
May 3- The current Japanese constitution was promulgated on May 3, 1947. The yearly anniversary is marked by another Public Holiday.
May 4- Greenery Day is an almost arbitrary holiday designed so that the people did not have to work between two holidays. This day is now meant as a day to enjoy nature, but was originally just a name used to replace “Emperor’s Birthday” after his death and the ascension of his son. Perhaps the somewhat arbitrary nature of this holiday feeds the tendency to enjoy the days off rather than as a remembrance of any specific event.
May 5- Children’s (aka Boys) Day is the most visually apparent part of the Golden Week holidays. This holiday has a long history and tradition in Asia, celebrating the wish for prosperity and health for children. Traditionally this holiday was only for boys, with a separate holiday for girls called Hina Matsuri. The current public holiday, however, now includes all children. Generally, homes with children will display carp pennants for each child in the family. The carp pennants waving in the wind look like they are swimming, and symbolize the hope children will be energetic (genki), healthy, and persevere. Special mochi treats are given to the children as well.
Many schools also display the carp banners to wish for good luck and happiness for their students in the coming years. The banners are often raised in late April and stay up through part of May or beyond. On the day, children get to play and are often presented with presents symbolizing health and strength.
Another common Children’s day item is to display samurai for each son. I visited a local potter and his display had one for each of his three sons. He told me that this day isn’t an Okinawan holiday, but instead comes from mainland Japan.
More on Golden Week
Many industries rely on the upswing in travelers and tourism during this brief but important season. The holidays mark the beginning of the summer seasons, drawing many to beaches and towns that rely on tourism. Many travel agents, hotels, and airlines run specials to attract the vast crowds of domestic and international travelers, and many popular tourist destinations will be crowded.
A few years ago I traveled to the Kansai area (Kyoto, Nara, Osaka) during golden week. We were able to do it affordable by using hostels, trains, busses, and cheap airfare. Just about every major area we went to had major crowds, but we were still able to see and experience the sights due to the great management and planning around the areas. In addition to the major areas, we found many interesting, less known areas that turned out to be far less crowded, but just as enjoyable. If you’ll be traveling during Golden Week, I highly suggest visiting less known places as a way to escape crowds and have really memorable experiences.
One note of caution. Busses, trains, traffic, and airports will likely be far more crowded than usual. Be sure to give yourself extra travel time in case of delays or just simply being unable to squeeze into a standing room only bus!
Of course, not everyone travels during Golden Week. Many families simply spend the time together or meet friends. In Okinawa, many families take the opportunity to hit the ocean for the first time, or to have bbq with relatives. This is also something kids might enjoy more than the traveling. They can swim, play, eat, and then light off fireworks as dusk settles in. Sparklers are a common Golden Week addition.
In Okinawa especially, some parties might even have a watermelon. A popular game that started in Okinawa is to blind fold a contestant, spin them around and then give them a stick to attempt breaking open the melon.