Apr 7, 2018

Worth it during Golden Week? Off-peak Shimoda visit begs question about destinations across Japan

A midweek, off-peak trip to a calm and easy Shimoda on Japan’s Izu Peninsula might damn travelers with a glimpse of what this nation’s holiday destinations can offer outside of the impending Golden Week leaving them to address the annual question of whether or not taking a trip during the holiday chaos is worth it. Or even possible. 

Worth it during Golden Week? Off-peak Shimoda visit begs question about destinations across Japan photo

How lucky to be able to take off for a couple of days on the Izu, that craggy and verdant peninsula pockmarked with glorious beaches (by Japan standards) and hot-spring towns. And on a weekday no less.

In a land where holiday time is largely given to the collective, and free holidays are saved for graduations and visits to the doctor (if they are taken at all) a midweek getaway is unheard of by many here in Japan, and in this case served as brutal reminder of the impending chaos and barely sealed tension that Golden Week is soon to bring.

Destination - "mid-week" Shimoda

Izu Shimoda, with its history of swashbuckling foreign merchant vessels and geopolitical negotiators, is now a base for holidaymakers wanting beautiful beach exploration, surfing, light strolling, and on-board-the-bateaux posing. All just a couple of hours by train from Tokyo.

Worth it during Golden Week? Off-peak Shimoda visit begs question about destinations across Japan photo

(Perry Road, Shimoda)

It's the kind of sightseeing, pleasure-seeking arsenal that should keep a place busy for most of the year but midweek and still over a month away from Golden Week (although school's out for the year), Shimoda's primary urban and historical boast, Perry Road is pure delight. There are few people here to spoil the quaint charms of this old street lined with old houses and gas lamps, ambling along both sides of a languid canal. And we're the only ones at a street cafe chowing down on some naughty, but gluten-free, pancakes for lunch.

A post-breakfast stroll to pretty Nabetahama Beach west of town, and from there along the stunning pathway scratched out of the rocks of a headland that loops south of the town, flirting with the green ocean waters, reveals all but a handful of other visitors (although the shabby-looking Shimoda Aquarium seemed to be doing a stiff trade).

Worth it during Golden Week? Off-peak Shimoda visit begs question about destinations across Japan photo

(Elevated view of the path that navigates the rocky headland south of central Shimoda)

From Shimoda's end-of-the-line train station it takes about 10 minutes by bus to the small town of Shirahama which fronts a much-hyped swathe of "white" sand beach (the closest to Tokyo by many accounts). During Golden Week, almost every grain of this celebrated stretch of sand will be covered in Hello Kitty beach mats and the soles of an army of young lads with Hurley board shorts halfway down their backsides as they nampa their way across the beach. Midweek and out of season though, even Shirahama's famed surf breaks look like they could accommodate a few outsiders, and out of the water there is plenty of space to spread out.

Worth it during Golden Week? Off-peak Shimoda visit begs question about destinations across Japan photo

(Quiet line up at Shirahama)

This is the Shimoda that people in Japan come to see but comparatively few actually realize. Emphatically not in Golden Week at any rate.

"Shimoda was a bustling port where "three thousand ships came and went."" reads a guide to Izu Shimoda published by the city itself. While the ships being referred to may all be in a state of "went," the world's largest city (only some 160 km to the north) and tens of millions of workers from Tokyo and across Japan all on holiday at the same time is the kind of combination that will see Shimoda more than bustle over the course of Golden Week and quickly lay waste to ideas of peace, quiet, and wide open space.

You see, Golden Week is arguably the big one when it comes to taking trips in Japan. The collection of apparently arbitrary national holidays clustered together at the end of April and early May are free from the twin burdens of family and tradition which saddle those other lengthy (as much as we can call them that in Japan) holiday periods -- Obon and New Year -- which see a nation of family saloons hit the highways for a couple of nights in the musty confines of grandma and grandpa's place.

Golden Week then is something of a free-for-all; a pick n mix of holidaying possibilities for those who've got the money and the patience. Both of which are needed in spades as prices in Japan soar and even this nation's staggering ability to wait in line is stretched to an irritable limit.

So this isn't a guide to travel around Shimoda (there are plenty of those around) we're just holding up the destination as a starting point for questions of whether or not travel in Japan is worth it during Golden Week, because we happened to have been there recently, out of season, and have been somewhat damned by a glimpse of the way things could be if so many of us weren't funnelled through the same holiday windows.

There are myriad of Shimodas across Japan and there are millions of travelers right now asking themselves if they're prepared to endure the frustrations of visiting them, even if Golden Week presents the only opportunity to do so before retirement. And this doesn't even take into account those who have already made their choice to go having booked transport and accommodation probably sometime last year.

Is travel during Japan’s Golden Week worth it? Let us know in the comments

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