Arriving on the heels of cherry blossom festivals, “Golden Week” refers to a week into which four Japanese holidays fall. Due to the ongoing festivities, many Japanese citizens take time off from work that week, if their business is not already planning to close during that time.
Golden Week Holidays and Dates
Although the specifics of the holidays have changed slightly over time, the seven days between April 29th and May 5th have been a prodigious time of celebration since the inception of the 1948 National Holiday Laws.
Shōwa Day – April 29
This holiday commemorates the birthday of the late Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito), who reigned from 1926 to 1989. Emperor Hirohito (posthumously named “Shōwa”) was the leader of Japan during World War II, as well as during many other tumultuous events for the people of Japan, and the world. Following Japan’s surrender in 1945, a new Japanese Constitution was formed, which, among other things, stripped the monarchy of state power while still preserving the monarch as the face of the government, similar to the British monarchy.
The reason for the continued celebration of the late Emperor’s birthday is an uncertain topic, just as the extent of his power and influence pre-dating the 1945 surrender is. To this day, the extent of Hirohito’s active involvement in the war, and even his opinion on the conflict, is hotly debated by historians. Many assert — as he himself later did — that most war-time decisions were made by his advisors. Others, however, believe that the Emperor had a greater hand in Japan’s war-time advances than he would like the world to believe after being spared the same fate as many other Japanese officials at the time.
This has interesting implications for the celebration of the late Emperor’s birthday. It is customary to celebrate the birthday of each reigning emperor in Japan. However, unusually, Emperor Hirohito’s birthday continued to be celebrated after his death. While the original purpose of the holiday was likely to honor Emperor Shōwa himself, the current, state-sponsored explanation for dubbing the holiday “Shōwa Day” is that it is meant to encourage the people of Japan to reflect on the turbulence the country experienced during the emperor’s reign, and the effort the Japanese people put forth to re-build.
Constitution Memorial Day – May 3
Constitution Memorial Day is celebrated in honor of the Constitution of Japan, which went into effect on May 3, 1947. On this day, Japanese citizens are encouraged to reflect on Japanese history and democracy. Due to this, in addition to the normal festivities associated with a national holiday, newspapers print articles on topical pieces about the day, Japanese citizens often attend lectures and speeches, and the National Diet Building is opened to the public.
Greenery Day – May 4
In 1989, as a result of Emperor Hirohito’s death, Greenery Day replaced Shōwa Day on the 29th of April. Greenery Day was created as a day to appreciate nature and as an homage to Emperor Shōwa, who was a nature enthusiast.
Until Shōwa Day was reinstated in 2007, May 4th was a “Citizen’s Holiday,” (also called a “Public Holiday”) which is the term for national holidays that are the result of an ordinary workday falling between two holidays, which then automatically becomes a holiday as well due to Japanese law. The resulting group of holidays is called “Silver Week.” With Constitution Memorial Day being held on the 3rd, and Children’s Day on the 5th, the 4th fell into this category. Due to the eventual re-establishment of Shōwa Day, Greenery Day was moved to the 4th.
Children’s Day – May 5
Children’s Day, as the name implies, is meant to celebrate the children of Japan. Previously, the holiday was called Tango no Sekku (Boy’s Day), and historically celebrated only the boys of Japan. In fact, many Japanese people still view the day as an occasion to primarily honor boys. Although the holiday was not established as an official holiday until 1948, the practice can be traced back to the Nara period (710-794 CE).
In the modern-day, the festival is traditionally celebrated by raising koinobori (streamers shaped like koi fish), to represent each member of the family and to bring luck to their children. Inside Japanese homes, samurai helmets and dolls are displayed, as well as Iris flowers. Traditional snacks for the holiday include kashiwa-mochi and chimaki.
Traveling in Japan During Golden Week
Popular venues and events are very crowded during Golden Week, so it is important to carefully plan activities ahead of time if you plan to attend. Furthermore, many of the most active destinations are spread across the country, so a Japan Rail Pass and detailed itinerary may be necessary to take it all in over such a short time.
Finally, it is equally, if not more important, to research Japanese etiquette and customs before visiting the country, especially for large, traditional events such as those celebrated during Golden Week. While festivities in Japan are as boisterous as anywhere else, the strong cultural value that Japanese people put on being polite and accommodating to others informs much of their etiquette and behavioural norms, so these are very helpful to be aware of.
To better place your full itinerary, it helps to know about some fun places, events, and activities that one can indulge in during Golden Week.
- Meiji-jingu Spring Grand Festival: Meiji-jingu in the city of Shibuya is a Shinto shrine honoring Emperor Meiji and Empress Consort Shōken. Throughout Golden Week solemn rituals honoring the spirits of the shrine are held, as well as art exhibits, theatrical performances, and musical acts.
- Ryokan: Ryokan are hotels in the traditional Japanese-style, which can be interesting for foreigners who want an immersive experience.
- Ueno Zoo: Ueno Zoo, located in the city of Taitō, is Japan’s oldest zoo, and offers free tickets to children on Children’s Day.
- Other Activities: There are many places in Japan that are interesting to visit during or outside of Golden Week.
- Onsen, traditional Japanese bathhouses, are very popular throughout Japan. (Although, be aware that there are often rules for entry.)
- Rock climbing is a great activity in many parts of Japan, due to the beautiful forested mountain scenery which can be found throughout much of the island.
- Japanese temples and shrines are unique monuments that are worth visiting for the experience, the cultural significance, and the scenery (shrines are well-taken care of and were built in particularly beautiful areas of nature due to the preference of kami for such places). A trip through Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nara is one way a visitor can take a tour of many of the most famous shrines in Japan.