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26 April 2013

Today is unofficially the start of what is known in Japan as Golden Week. A string of four national holidays interspersed over seven days, it’s one of the longest periods of collective time off in the Japanese calendar. The normally holiday-shy Japanese shut up shop and head off on their travels, most spending money on trains, planes and hotels in Japan and boosting the economy while they’re about it.

For anyone thinking of travelling over the holiday period, travel company JTB has come up with some hair-raising statistics. It’s predicting that a record number of people will be travelling between now and 5 May – 22.8 million to be precise, the highest figure since they started recording these things in 1969. Most of those holidaymakers will be travelling in Japan, each apparently set to spend ¥35,900 (€270), an increase of nearly 3 per cent on last year. As with most things these days, the buoyant mood and rise in spending is being attributed to the uplifting effect of prime minister Shinzo Abe’s monetary policy. Whatever the reason, the domestic travel industry is banking on a busy time.

So powerful is the impact of the Japanese traveller’s yen that neighbouring countries scrutinise Golden Week plans as closely as anyone in Japan. Narita, Tokyo’s main international airport, is expecting 753,000 people to pass through during Golden Week, likely to be heading to popular destinations such as Hawaii, Guam, Thailand and Singapore.

Bilateral tensions are hitting some places. China is not as popular as it was thanks to the ongoing friction over the Senkaku Islands. South Korea too, which had been reaping the rewards of a high yen and a decade-long fascination in Japan with Korean music and TV dramas – Korean travel agents are anticipating there will be 11 per cent fewer Japanese coming to Korea during Golden Week. They blame political tensions between the two countries. Far more significant in deterring wary Japanese travellers is Seoul’s proximity to North Korea.

Even the Australian beef industry takes a view on Golden Week, saying that while the holiday is usually a good time for Australian and US beef, this year there will be no such lift since the weakening yen has seen the demand for imported beef drop.

As for the four official holidays, it’s a mixed bag: Showa Day, to celebrate the birthday of Emperor Showa; Constitution Day to commemorate the new Japanese constitution in 1947; Greenery Day, which celebrates the environment; and lastly, on 5 May, Children’s Day, a popular holiday marked by carp streamers fluttering in the breeze across the country.

Golden Week is Japan at its most relaxed, although staying at home and avoiding the travel crush might be even more restful.

Fiona Wilson is Monocle’s Asia bureau chief.


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