Golden Week, or GW as it is commonly referred to in print here, is not actually a week! It refers to the series of holidays from the end of April to the beginning of May. The actual holidays are April 29th, May 3rd, 4th, 5th. April 29th is Showa Day to honor the Showa Emperor. May 3rd is Constitution Day celebrating Japan’s modern constitution.
May 4th is Greenery Day to pay respect to nature. May 5th is Children’s Day... that’s self-explanatory! Sometimes if the days line up well with a weekend it can be even longer. This year is a good example. Friday is the 29th as is May 5th. Some lucky people will be able to get off from April 29th to May 7th!!! (To be sure very few companies will offer that!) When this happens I have heard it referred to as Diamond Week!
Because of this it is the peak season for the Japanese to travel. Recently many travel overseas despite the fare being much more expensive than the off-season, but still all modes of travel in Japan are extremely crowded. So if you are planning a trip here around Golden Week I would recommend that you get to your destination before of the hordes begin to move.
A fact probably only known by trivia buffs is that the term ‘Golden Week’ comes from the movie industry’s reference to movie sales during that ‘week’ from back in the 50’s! In tea, May is when we change from the ro sunken hearth to the furo brazier. Chimaki and kashiwa mochi are popular sweets served, even though they can be a bit troubling to eat.
The kashiwa mochi is pounded mochi dough that covers a smooth - usually - sweet red bean paste. Or sometimes one that I prefer, that is a Kyoto flavor, is misoan. They are wrapped in an oak leaf that is considered auspicious as the old leaves of the tree don't change until new ones appear suggesting longevity and prosperity for your descendants.
The older chimaki comes in both sweet and savory wrapped in bamboo or iris leaves. It can be made from a variety of ingredients but one that is most sought after is made with kudzu. The sweet one is used for May. According to the lunar calendar, the month of May was referred to as the month of poison. The chimaki is considered a good luck charm that offers protection from disease. In its original savory form it was first served to the imperial family. You have probably seen the savory one at Chinese restaurants. The leaf of the sakura mochi I mentioned in the hanami article can be eaten but I wouldn't try eating the oak or bamboo leaves of the kashiwa mochi and chimaki!
The tea leaves are picked at the beginning of May and there is an event that pays tribute to the old tradition Ochatsubo Dochu Gyoretsu, a procession of large ceramic jars containing freshly picked tea leaves. From the time of the samurai the tea would be sent from Uji to Edo and many other domains across Japan. It must have been quite a sight to observe the procession as the jars made their way across the country to the various daimyo warlords from Edo to Kumamoto.
May 5th used to be called Boy’s Day or the Boy’s Festival. This is a time when many families fly koinobori carp streamers and display miniature sets of armor - there is even a parade of children dressed up as samurai - as symbols of strength and determination for their sons. Martial themes abound and there are many martial art demonstrations and tournaments at various locations around Kyoto. Actually my first visit was a GW many years ago to attend the prestigious Kyoto Tournament at the Butokuden near the Heian Jingu shrine.
I was living in central Japan and I came with my Nito Ryu sensei. I still remember vividly my participation in the tournament. It is held for four days, this year from May 2nd to May 5th. There are upper dan tests before and after the four day tournament. Another major attraction is the yabusame traditional Japanese archery on horseback at Shimogamo Shrine. There is also a demonstration there of many kobudo classical martial arts. Highly recommended.