Golden Week is just around the corner, and you still haven’t made your plans. Who wants to sit at home for the full 10-day holiday while other people are off sipping coconuts on Hawaiian beaches or slurping down bowls of pho in Southeast Asia? Not me, that’s for sure. So here are 5 last-minute Golden Week ideas for those of us who have missed the cheap flights, but still want to make full use of the break.
For some reason or another, I can never seem to make my Golden Week plans before the crowds in Japan do. Especially this year, with the abdication of the Emperor creating an unprecedented 10-day holiday, the masses had already started booking 6 months on advance. The result is by the time I start to make plans (usually 2 months in advance), I am faced with nothing but inflated airline prices to any destination during Golden Week. Hotels in Japan tend also tend to be booked out, and prices fairly exorbitant depending on the location.
If you fall into the category of not being able to take additional days off work, and aren’t in the habit of planning holidays half a year in advance, then I have 5 last-minute-ish Golden Week ideas for you!
Most of these are tried and tested by yours truly, over the many years I have lived and worked in Japan.
1. Make day trips
Last-minuteness: Day before or on-the-day
This is probably the easiest and most recommended thing to do for last-minute Golden Weekers. If you live in Tokyo, there’s so many places you can easily reach in 1-2 hours by train or bus. And these places are a complete escape from city life. Furthermore, in most cases no prior planning is required – you just wake up, decide you want to go, and hop on the next train there. Although, to maximise your time, it’s best to head there in the morning as early as possible.
Popular day trip or weekend destinations like Enoshima and Kamakura, Mt. Takao, Jogashima (Miura Peninsula), and even Hakone can be done with minimal planning. With direct trains from main Tokyo hubs like Shinjuku, it’s very easy and straightforward. You can read my top 10 recommended day trips from Tokyo here.
May is also the time in spring when popular and highly Instagrammable flower spots like Hitachi Seaside Park and the Fuji Shibazakura Festival site come alive. These are a little further from Tokyo and train/bus departures may not be so frequent, so I recommend you plan your connections in advance in this case. Having said that, these spots expect crowds during Golden Week, so tend to run additional buses and transport options during the holiday. In any case, it pays to do your research.
2. Travel to less popular spots in Japan
Last-minuteness: 2 weeks – 1 month in advance
While popular holiday spots and resorts in Japan tend to be expensive during Golden Week, you may be surprised at how reasonable hotels are in places slightly off the beaten path. Plus train fares (even Shinkansen) stay constant throughout the year, so you won’t be subject to inflated prices. They may be more crowded on some routes, but if they come frequent enough you can always hop on the next one. Or if you really need to catch a particular bullet train or Limited Express, you can purchase a Reserved seat in advance at the ticketing machines or over the counter. Or just head to the platform early and line up.
What constitutes as a “less popular spot” no doubt varies from person to person. Furthermore, it is rather fluid and will likely change as Japan becomes an increasingly popular travel destination, and “repeaters” search for things beyond the Golden Route. However, for purposes of simplicity, in this case I am referring to the regions of:
- Tohoku – Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi, and Yamagata Prefectures
- Chugoku – Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, Tottori, Shimane and Okayama Prefectures
- Shikoku – Kagawa, Tokushima, Kochi and Ehime Prefectures
- Kyushu – Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Oita, Saga, Kumamoto, Miyazaki, Kagoshima Prefectures
For my first Golden Week in Japan as a working adult (10 years ago!) I did exactly this: I travelled to the Chugoku Region of Japan using only trains and buses, and stayed in budget or business hotels that were more than reasonably-priced. It worked out really well, and I had no problems with crowds.
The friendly deer of Miyajima and the Tottori sand dunes, both key highlights of the Chugoku Region.
3. Go overseas by boat
Last-minuteness: 1-2 months in advance
Flights too expensive? No problem, just go by sea!
Japan has a number of international ferry/jetfoil routes to South Korea, China and Russia. Departure ports vary depending on the route and ferry company, but none include Tokyo. Therefore, this plan works best for people living in West Japan, specifically those living near Hakata (Fukuoka), Shimonoseki (Yamaguchi), Kobe (Hyogo) or Sakaiminato (Tottori). Going through all the routes in detail would take a post of its own, so I will just mention a few of the main ones.
The JR Kyushu Beetle jet ferry is an awesome route from Hakata to Busan (South Korea) that I highly recommend. It departs 3 times daily and only takes 3 hours each way. While you should book as early as possible to secure your seat, the fare, just like JR trains, remains constant throughout the year. Which means you won’t get ripped off during Golden Week, woohoo! Once in Busan, you can take the bullet train up to Seoul in around 2 hours, or explore other parts of the country. You’re out of Japan, so hotels should not be at peak prices.
There is also a ferry that serves the Hakata-Busan route called Camellia. It departs once a day and takes around 6-9 hours. You can get more information here.
Leaving from Kobe/Osaka in the Kansai region is the Shinganjin/Xin Jia Zhen Ferry which takes you to Shanghai in 2 days. As you will need to spend 2 nights on board, all bookings are for berths, with the cheapest a dorm-like 2nd class cabin for JPY 20,000 pp one way.
The route leaving from Sakaiminato (Tottori) is run by DBS Cruise Ferry. It goes to Donghae (South Korea) twice weekly, and onward to Vladivostok (Russia) once a week. Please be aware that if your passport is not issued from a country which has a visa-free agreement for Vladivostok, you will need to get a Russian visa to enter.
Extra travel hack: inflated flight prices during Golden Week only apply to flights to/from Japan. So once you’ve made your exodus by boat to South Korea or a third country, say hello to normal flight prices to any other destination!
4. Head to one of the Japanese islands
Last-minuteness: 1-2 months in advance
By the same vein as above, avoid domestic flights by taking a ferry route out to one of the many gorgeous islands that are part of the Japanese archipelago.
If you’ve left it really last minute (like the week before), it may be too late to find accommodation. You may be able to still book a camping spot, or if you know someone there, you can crash at their place. If you’ve got a month or so to plan, then it’s totally feasible. Especially since the peak period for the islands is actually the summer holidays (July – August), more than Golden Week.
If you’re based in Tokyo, the Ogasawara Islands and the Izu Islands are easily accessible and highly recommended. You can only reach the Ogasawara Islands by ferry, on their fixed schedule. This means if you go, you have to stay on the island for at least 3 days, as that’s when the return ferry departs. Given the journey takes 24 hours one way, you may as well spend as long as you can there.
For the Izu Islands, jetfoils and ferries leave daily from Takeshiba Port (which can be reached on foot from Hamamatsucho Station on the JR Yamanote Line), with the closest island, Izu Oshima, taking only around 1 hr 45 mins by jetfoil. All routes can be booked on the ferry company Tokai Kisen‘s official website.
Even better, if you’re based down south in Kagoshima, like I used to be, the sea is your playground. You can get ferries to a plethora of islands, all the way down to Okinawa. However, since you may not want to spend all of that precious Golden Week on a boat, I recommend you shoot a little closer to the mainland. Namely:
- Tanegashima (90 min by jetfoil/3.5 hours by ferry) – home of the JAXA Tanegashima Space Center, and a major surfing spot.
- Yakushima (2.5 hours by jetfoil/4.5 hours by ferry) – this forest-covered World Heritage Site is the inspiration for Princess Mononoke, and home to an over thousand-year-old cedar tree.
- Amami Oshima (11 hours by overnight ferry) – the largest of the Amami island cluster, this tropical paradise boasts one of the world’s largest coral reefs, and my absolute favourite Kagoshima dish, keihan (鶏飯).
And if all else fails…
5. Just chill and explore your city
The ultimate last-minute Golden Week plan. I understand that this may not be so interesting for those that live in the inaka or smaller cities, but odds are if you live in a decent-sized city, there are always hidden corners to explore. Here in Tokyo, we’re spoilt for choice. And best off all, since a lot of the Tokyo population has jetted off overseas on tickets they booked half a year ago, the town is a lot less crowded than usual. Some say it almost resembles a ghost town, but that may be a bit of an exaggeration.
I could go on and on about things to see in Tokyo, as there’s literally something for everyone. And there is always something on. Always.
So to avoid going off on a tangent too much, I’m just going to list a few significant events during Golden Week in Tokyo. Bonus: all of these are free!
- Exclusive to this year is the first public greeting by the newly enthroned Emperor Naruhito on May 4th. According to The Asahi Shimbun, “Naruhito will appear on the veranda of the Imperial Palace’s Chowaden hall with other imperial family members to respond to the large crowds expected to flock to the East Gardens to congratulate him.” So expect crowds, but head to the Imperial Palace to get a piece of the action.
- The annual Tokyo Rainbow Pride coincides with Golden Week, with the main parade held on Sunday, 28th April from 2pm. There will also be stalls at Yoyogi Park.
- Get free admission to Tokyo Sea Life Park on May 4th.
- The Odaiba Hawaii Festival is held throughout Golden Week, so enjoy some Hula dancing and Polynesian cuisine.
- See a range of traditional performances and ceremonies at the Meiji Shrine Spring Grand Festival throughout the week.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, so just search around for things you’re interested in and think outside the box! Just because you haven’t managed to plan something 6 months in advance for Golden Week, doesn’t mean you have to sit at home and watch Netflix for a full 10 days. Well, you can if that’s what you enjoy most, but I do recommend getting out once in a while. Especially since the weather is usually pretty perfect around Golden Week.
So, what are your plans?