It’s the annual Golden Week dilemma when living in Tokyo: should you travel during the string of public holidays in early May, or stay put? Getting out of Tokyo sounds good, until you realise that a few million other Tokyoites probably have the same idea… But is a ‘staycation’ the best way to make the most of the holidays?

Should you stay or should you go? Weekender has some tips to help plan your Golden Week in Japan.

Hitting the road?

The crowds will be intense almost everywhere you go, but there’s still a lot to be said for a Golden Week away. All across Japan, everyone’s in a holiday mood. The country exudes an infectious Golden Week camaraderie despite the crowds.

If you do plan on venturing out of Tokyo, be sure to book ahead. Get reserved seats on trains, and double check all your accommodation reservations. Book tables at any restaurant you want to visit. Don’t leave anything up in the air. If not planned with military precision, Golden Week travel can be a trying experience!

Don’t try to go anywhere by car or highway bus. If you do, the only thing golden in your week will be the sunbeams reflecting off the windows of the cars in front of you, as you all enjoy a 40km traffic jam. Go by train. But if you are set on a road trip, take the train out of Tokyo and pick up a rental car at a local station outside the city.

Japan’s more famous tourist destinations will definitely be busy. Kyoto, Hiroshima, the Mt Fuji Five Lakes area, Hakone and Nikko, though worth seeing, will be teeming with people. If you want a bit more peace and quiet over the break, consider one of these lesser-known destinations:

Maruyama/Ginzan Daira

Maruyama Ski Resort (pictured, below), in Niigata’s Okutadami region, operates on a unique schedule: the resort actually closes between January and March because it gets too much snow! The slopes reopen in late March for a bit of spring skiing, and snow conditions are decent even in Golden Week. You can also try out snowshoeing, or take a dip in the hot springs, on the nearby Ginzan-daira plateau. Maruyama is a four-hour drive from Tokyo (Golden Week traffic could double this!) or a 90-minute ride on the free shuttle bus from Urasa station (1h 42m by bullet train from Tokyo Station).

For more info click here.

Maruyama Ski Resort

Iya Valley

About 900 years ago, warriors from the Heike clan, who had just lost a bloody battle to their arch-rivals, were looking for a quiet place to flee to. They settled in Shikoku’s isolated Iya Valley, building their own vine bridges to cross the region’s deep gullies. Even if you’re not fleeing your sword-wielding enemies – hey, who has a boss that bad? – Iya is still a great escape. It’s the complete opposite of Tokyo: clean air, stunning mountain views, fresh fish caught in nearby rivers (go rafting for a closer look at these!), miles of mountain footpaths and villagers who seem to have all the time in the world. Iya is 90 minutes by car, or by bus and train, from Tokushima city Tokushima itself is an 80 minute flight, or a six hour train ride, from Tokyo.

The Iya tourist site has info in English here.

Staying in Tokyo?

The magic of staying in Tokyo for Golden Week is that while you do nothing, the city around you transforms. As Tokyoites depart in droves for the holidays, visitors from the rest of Japan come here. Iconic Tokyo sightseeing spots like Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Ueno Park or Harajuku fill up with Japanese from across the country. Everyone’s relaxed and smiling—quite a change from regular working-week Tokyo. Steer clear of the commuter route, and check out these gems.

Cycle in Yanaka

Golden Week offers a chance to explore parts of Tokyo you don’t have time to see otherwise. If you want to explore a new part of the city, head to the Yanaka/Nezu/Sendagi (“Yanesen”) district near JR Nippori Station. Yanesen escaped most of the World WarII bombing, so it’s full of old wooden temples. In recent years young artists have moved in and opened small shops and galleries next to the neighborhood’s Showa-era candy shops, and its bustling Yanaka Ginza shopping street. Rent a shopping bicycle from Taito ward and check it out (¥200/24 hours; several locations). The staff of Yansen Tourist Info offer helpful English advice and information, and bilingual maps and leaflets with more restaurant and shopping tips are easy to get hold of.

The Taito city website in English, or the Yanesan tourist site offer more info on the area.

La Qua

Lounge at La Qua Spa

If your idea of a holiday is taking a hot bath and sitting in a lounge chair with some magazines and a cold beverage, pay a visit to the La Qua spa, near Tokyo Dome. La Qua (pictured, right) is an adults-only oasis with hot spring baths, lounge rooms, restaurants, spa treatments and massage rooms. You can stay a few hours, or even overnight, and you’re not required to do anything but relax. Just check in, change into the loungewear provided, and loll away the day.

See the La Qua website here.

Take a hike in Chichibu

Though not quite Tokyo, Chichibu, in the northwest of Saitama prefecture, is a great day-trip destination. Accessible via Seibu Railways’ express train from Ikebukuro (78 min, ¥1,530), Chichibu offers relatively crowd-free (there’s plenty of room for them to disperse!) day hikes in the nearby mountains – and check out the annual flower festival which turns the hills of nearby Hitsujiyama Park pink. It’s also home to the 34 sacred temples along the route of an ancient pilgrimage, and Mitsumine Shrine, an ornate Shinto shrine deep in the mountains with its own hot spring.

Seibu has lots of tourist information, as well as ticket information and timetables on its site, click here.

So whether you stay in the thick of things in Tokyo, or head off the beaten track, Weekender wishes you a happy and restful holiday. Good luck with the travel planning – and let’s all hope for sunny weather this Golden Week!

Annamarie Sasagawa