In chronically overworked Japan, the Golden Week holiday period offers rare respite for the country’s work force. Each spring, from late April to early May, the country celebrates four nonconsecutive national holidays over a seven-day period.
With a new emperor set to ascend to the throne this year on May 1, however, the celebration will be extended to an unprecedented 10-day holiday period, known unofficially as Platinum Week.
While residents can look forward to a longer, uninterrupted stretch away from work, Platinum Week offers visitors a unique travel experience during a once-in-a-generation moment in Japan’s history.
From Golden to Platinum
According to Japanese law, a normal weekday sandwiched between two national holidays becomes a holiday itself. Thus, the creation of a one-time holiday this year on May 1 to mark Prince Naruhito’s accession to the Chrysanthemum Throne automatically creates two national holidays on April 30 and May 2. With the Children’s Day holiday falling on a Sunday, to be observed the next day, 2019’s Golden Week stretches uninterrupted from April 27 to May 6.
A New Emperor
Traditionally, Golden Week sees widespread emptying of major cities as many urban residents return to their ancestral hometowns to visit relatives and participate in local festivities, while others use the holiday for domestic or international travel.
On April 30, Emperor Akihito will formally abdicate his position, and on the following day, the new emperor will be bestowed with the imperial regalia and privy seals in a private ceremony, followed by an address to the prime minister and parliamentary representatives. These are among the many such formal imperial transition events to be held over the coming months.
For those hoping to catch a glimpse of the new emperor in person, the inner grounds of the Imperial Palace will open to well-wishers for a public greeting on May 4 . (This is a late change to the palace’s original plans of not holding formal public events until October.) Traditionally, the inner grounds only open to the public on Dec. 23 and Jan. 2, when the Imperial Family greets visitors.
Anticipating large crowds on May 4, the Imperial Household Agency recommends visitors arrive to the Nijubashi Main Gate in the early morning to allow sufficient time to pass through security screening. The Main Gate of the palace is easily accessible on foot from Nijubashi-mae and Otemachi metro stations, as well as the recently renovated Tokyo Station. Checking the official I.H.A. site for details of the Emperor’s appearances, including timing, is recommended.
Elsewhere, the remainder of Golden Week will be in full swing with traditional events and activities.
Showa Day and Constitution Memorial Day (April 29 and May 3)
The comparatively subdued holidays of Showa Day and Constitution Memorial Day — designed to encourage reflection on Emperor Hirohito and Japan’s postwar constitutional order, respectively — are nonetheless draws for history buffs. Many use these days as an opportunity to visit museums, such as the National Showa Memorial Museum, which provides visitors a slice-of-life view in pre- and postwar Japan.
On May 3, Tokyo’s ornate National Diet Building, which houses the country’s bicameral legislature, also opens to the public for tours.
In Yokohama, the 67th-annual Yokohama Parade will feature a colorful procession of floats, costumed performers and marching bands through the port city’s Minato Mirai district. Post-parade, the nearby Cup Noodles Museum offers an afternoon of ramen-related activities for all ages.
Greenery Day (May 4)
Coinciding this year with the Emperor’s first public appearance is Greenery Day, a holiday dedicated to Japan’s natural offerings. To celebrate, many parks and gardens across Tokyo offer admission-free access to visitors.
The capital’s oldest garden, Koishikawa Kourakuen Garden, offers more than 15 acres of seasonal flowers, cherry trees and wisteria next to the Tokyo Dome.
Elsewhere in the capital, the sprawling Shinjuku Gyouen park — once exclusively reserved for the Imperial Family — offers free admission on Showa Day, Greenery Day and Children’s Day. The park provides excellent picnicking opportunities in the heart of Tokyo.
Meanwhile, Yokohama’s leafy Yamashita Park offers live street performances, flower exhibitions and sweeping views of the harbor-front skyline.
Children’s Day (May 5, May 6, observed)
The last of the Golden Week holidays, Children’s Day sees neighborhoods and cityscapes adorned with colorful koinobori carp streamers. In one notable event in the capital, 333 streamers are hung from Tokyo Tower — one for each meter of height — with festivities held at the tower’s base.
For those looking for a unique visual treat, or to escape the city crowds, the charming hamlet of Kanna-machi in mountainous Gunma Prefecture — 70 miles Northwest of Tokyo — hosts a famous Children’s Day festival in which 800 massive carp streamers are strung from a mountainside over the town’s river. Below, attendees can enjoy live music, children's’ activities and traditional Children’s Day and festival food against a scenic mountain backdrop.
While Japan can be notoriously expensive, Golden Week offers some of the steepest discounts of the year, providing an excellent opportunity for visitors to do some serious shopping. The department stores Takashimaya and Tokyu Hands, the fast-fashion giant Uniqlo and the electronics retailer Bic Camera, with stores located around the country, are noted for their promotions during this time, and are among the many retailers offering same-day refunds on Japan’s 8 percent sales tax.
Although larger retailers operate during their normal business hours over Golden Week, many smaller shops and restaurants close or operate on reduced hours for the holidays.
For those interested in exploring more of the country, Japan’s two main carriers, ANA and JAL, offer heavily discounted airfare packages, called Experience Japan and Japan Explorer respectively. Part of an ongoing, year-round campaign, these packages are a particular steal during the Golden Week period.
Available only to nonresidents visiting Japan with a valid return international ticket, these special fares range from $90 to $180 round trip; a massive savings on Japan’s normally pricey domestic itineraries. As an added bonus, domestic flights on ANA and JAL provide free in-flight Wi-Fi, and passengers are allowed the standard international luggage allowance — two free checked bags up to 50 pounds each — on all Experience Japan and Japan Explorer fares.
Popular Golden Week routes include flights to Sapporo, where cherry blossoms are expected to be in full bloom on May 2, and Ishigaki, a tropical island in the farthest southern reaches of Okinawa.
As an alternative to the often long Golden Week lines at the airport, the JR Rail Pass allows unlimited travel on local Japan Rail train lines, as well as on the country’s famed Shinkansen bullet trains. Available only to foreign tourists, a Rail Pass pays for itself after just one long-distance round-trip.
Available in seven, 14 and 21-day increments, the deal starts with a voucher, which must be purchased, either online or from an authorized travel agent, before one’s arrival in Japan. Once in Japan, the voucher must then be exchanged for the Rail Pass itself. On bullet train journeys, Rail Pass holders have the option of reserving a seat in advance, or opting for a seat in an unreserved car.
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