Not so much a week as 4 distinct national holidays within 7 days of each other, Golden Week is one of those all too rare times on the Japanese calendar when even the most dedicated of “company men” (and women) will have to take at least a few days off.
For me, I’ve managed to negotiate a pretty sweet deal with my new boss, meaning I will get 6 consecutive days off in the beginning of May. From April 30th to May 5th I am on vacation.
toyohara on Flickr
I often joke with my friends, that one of the reasons why Japan is the greatest country in the world is because it’s the only country I know where “Star Wars Day” (May 4th) is actually a designated national holiday!
Of course the May 4th holiday in Japan has nothing to with that famous galaxy “Far, far away”, but nonetheless it’s nice to have some time off.
However, as I have mentioned in previous articles, during peak holiday times such as Golden Week, or Silver week in September and especially Obon in August, foreign travel and even some domestic travel within Japan becomes prohibitively expensive. So good luck finding a hotel if you haven’t booked at least 6 months in advance!
That being said, with a little bit of research and a sprinkling of good fortune, you could still find a very nice little getaway in Golden Week that isn’t going to break your back in a financial sense.
Here are some suggestions for you to consider:
Don’t travel far, just make a series of day trips.
tsuda on Flickr
With this kind of holiday, taking trips to far flung areas of Japan, the kind that would necessitate a flight or taking the, admittedly luxurious, Shinkansen bullet trains, is going to severely eat into your budget, and that is assuming that you can even manage to book tickets this late in the game. With that in mind, depending on where you live, you may want to consider travelling to local areas only, those within a 2 or 3 hour commute by local or express trains. In the case of Osaka, where I currently live, this could include the likes of Kobe, Kyoto, Nara and Wakayama. Each of these places has their own unique charms, cultural aspects and sights to see.
If you are in Tokyo or the surrounding area then you could enjoy some beautiful ocean views and hiking down in southern Chiba Prefecture, or head over to the culinary and cultural delights of Yokohama’s sprawling Chinatown. Or why not travel out to Yamanashi and enjoy something a little more rural?
gullevek on Flickr
Chris Lewis on Flickr
If you don’t mind a little bit more travel, then Tochigi Prefecture and the various historic curiosities of Nikko await. Incidentally, Nikko also has some absolutely incredible onsen hot spring baths to enjoy, with splendid mountain-scape and forest views giving it that wonderfully romantic atmosphere.
Herry Lawford on Flickr
Spend one day at a time in different places.
Although much is said about the difficulties involved in getting a hotel reservation around Golden Week, if you aren’t too fussy about the actual hotel you stay in and you are prepared to be a bit flexible, then there is a relatively easy solution to this problem. Finding a reservation for a 4 or 5 day stay is near impossible, but staying 1 or 2 days is relatively easy, especially if you are checking in or leaving on one of those dates that isn’t actually a designated national holiday.
So, try to plan a trip where you may spend 1 or 2 days here and another couple of days elsewhere. Not only will this make finding a room a lot easier, it will also allow you an opportunity to explore a greater diversity of locations. For example, last summer I spent 1 night in Shiga, followed by a day of cruising around lake Biwa by boat, and then a couple of days hiking in the mountains of Kyoto Prefecture. Not only was it great fun, it was also relatively inexpensive.
Use local websites to make a reservation.
Ok, so for this to work you will need either a high level of Japanese ability, or a very helpful and patient Japanese friend to support you. Basically, the larger websites that most people use for their travel bookings around the world will always charge a premium to customers booking internationally. In truth, these companies are banking on the fact that you as a tourist are ignorant of local prices and also of how room costs are calculated.
However, it is also a fact that a number of hotels in Japan do sometimes take a “localist” approach, i.e. they keep a certain number of rooms back for domestic customers. You’ll notice I said “domestic” and not “Japanese” for this is not the product of some draconian discrimination. Rather it just means that you’ll need to have enough Japanese ability to read the necessary kanji required to make a full reservation online using a Japanese booking website. This is where your Japanese friend can help. By going through local sites and local booking agents, not only are you likely to make significant savings, you also stand a better chance of getting a room at a hotel long after most of the international agents are saying “sold out!”
If possible, try to vary your dates a little.
With Golden Week especially, the timing of your hotel reservation is crucial. As I said, there are 4 holidays as part of the “Golden Week” but they do not run consecutively and most Japanese people will have to work a couple of days in between. If you can time your reservations to check-in on those “normal working days” then it will be much easier to find a place to stay, especially if those dates fall on a weekday.
With these simple steps hopefully you can enjoy a great Golden Week this year.
Wherever you go, whatever you do, and whoever you are with, I hope you have a great vacation!