Discover Japan’s most popular travel period and decide whether it’s the best (or worst) time for your own holiday.

Everybody loves an extended holiday, but most don’t love crazy crowds—which is why there’s a lot of love-hate for Japan’s biggest national holiday season, Golden Week. Golden Week is a cluster of four national holidays straddling April and May. Depending on the year, it runs anywhere between a week to 10 days. Workers will luck out this year, nearly maxing out with 9 consecutive days off. Most full-time workers are off these days, and it’s pretty much the only chance that Japanese have to take a leisurely, non-business-related trip. Millions travel during this period, so hotel and airfare prices spike, and trains, planes and highways across the nation are jam-packed with millions of travellers heading out to make the most of their precious free time. So you may want to avoid Golden Week if you’re planning a trip to Japan, unless you want to experience an authentically crowded Japanese holiday.

Each day has a symbolic meaning. The first, Showa Day (April 29), memorializes the challenging times Japanese went through during the Showa period (1926–89). The second is Constitution Memorial Day (May 3), which honours the ratification of Japan’s democratic constitution. Next comes Green Day (May 4), which celebrates the natural world. The most famous (and festive) is Children’s Day (May 5), which is marked by the well-known koinobori: colourful, carp-shaped windsocks that are hoisted into the air on bamboo poles starting in April. This last holiday is also known as the Boys Festival because it was originally meant to wish for the future success of young boys, but these days parents wish for the health and happiness of all their children. Despite the three-day gap between the first two holidays, most companies remain closed during this time, which is why it’s called Golden “Week,” even though it’s technically not a consecutive week.

But what makes the week so “Golden”? The name was coined in 1951 by the president of Daiei Film Co., when he noticed a big jump in box office numbers during these newly minted holidays, with more moviegoers showing up in May than they did for New Year’s or Obon. So why not call it “Silver Week” to mark this silver screen windfall? He chose Golden Week as a riff off “golden time,” a phrase that, back in the day, was used to describe prime time for radio program listeners. Whatever the inspirational metal, these holidays are precious baubles in a busy Japanese work life—and 2019 is looking even better, since next year’s Golden Week is going to be a full 10 days. Talk about priceless!

The golden rules

Golden Week holidays can be expensive and crowded, but here are some easy tips to make the most of your trip.

DO NOT wait’ til the last minute

Seats and beds fill up fast, so book your travel and lodgings at least six months in advance.

DO go off the beaten path

Seek out lesser-known rural tourist spots to avoid the biggest crowds, or explore big-city hidden gems.

DO NOT overlook the staycation

Not into big crowds? Take the time to stay home, put on your PJs and cosy up to a good book.

Illustration by Chieko Watanabe