The Japanese are great travelers. You find them all over the big tourist destinations at certain times of year. But while they used to go abroad at the first available chance, they now stay in Japan. If they travel at all. The pressure to make money and provide for their families has become greater since the depression, which hit Japan as well. Many families now stay at home or go to a destination in Japan - to save money.
If they can, they take a short trip inside Japan with their kids. Typically, that happens during the school holidays, in July/August, March/April, and over New Year. Each school determines its own holidays, so there may be some variation. But since the holidays are also vacations for the teachers, and the school year officially starts in April, schools try to spread the vacations to save the teachers sanity.
Hot spring new year
Japan has a normal calendar year like the rest of the world, and the Japanese new year happens at the same time as new year in the rest of the world. But it is not the huge public celebration it can be in other places, it is a time for reflection and to reconnect with family. It is more like Thanksgiving in the US or Christmas in northern Europé than it is new year.
In the old Buddhist calendar, the new year was also a time for restarting and taking stock of your life. And your business, and everything else. Today, all businesses (except convenience stores and hotels) are closed. Banks close their ATMs. Even though the business year for most companies runs from April 1 to March 31.
It is only for a few days but it still means that nothing happens as families go home to eat the traditional new years cooking and soba noodles in the new year.
Hotels used to make roaring business as families went for a few days relaxation at one of the ubiquitous hot spring resorts that dot the Japanese countryside. Now the visitor streams have diminished to a trickle. Which of course opens opportunities for foreign visitors, even if most of the ski resorts around Japan have not yet started the season yet.
Five days vacation
When stores and banks open again there are still a few days of vacation left, and most stores offer a "secret bag" (fukubukuro) to first-come, first-served customers. You pay a certain sum but you do not know what is in the bag. Yo may be lucky and get something more valuable than what you paid for.
People travel to different department stores and shops to get the best bargains, and fill up the local trains during those few days. They end with the coming-of-age celebrations when the people who turned 20 (the age of maturity in Japan), when they dress up in their best kimonos and go to be saluted by the major of the city.
And then it is back to work. The Japanese work more than people in other countries, and the government has even tried to mandate that people must use at least five vacation days per year, in addition to the public holidays which have been spread out over the Japanese calendar to give people at least an occasional long weekend.
Three legit weeks
People do not travel much until the school vacations in March, when families try to go on trips together - these days more often to their grandparents than to Europe, Hawaii or Australia, which used to be the favorite destinations of Japanese travelers.
Since they would have to take a vacation, the Japanese corporate employees, usually known as salarymen, may not participate in the activities of their children. They may be saving their money and time until the first week of May, which actually starts with a holiday in April. This week, which usually has three holidays in a row, is known as "Golden Week" and is one of the three weeks in the year when "salarymen" feel it is legitimate to take a vacation (the other two being New Year and the Obon vacation in August). So of course they want to take families on a trip, if they can afford it.
Mountains or sea
Trying to go somewhere between the last few days in April and the second week in May is like traveling in treacle. But then suddenly they disappear and roads and trains are back to normal. Which is crowded but survivable. You and your children will even get seats without asking.
Then the rainy season starts and the retirees stay home. Now foreigners start showing up, filling up the trains to popular destinations after the commuters have gone. Even as the rains increase and there are at least a rainshower every day, the sprinkling of tourists increases as the sweltering of summer turns hotter and hotter as the typhoon season starts. The japanese go either to the sea or the mountains over the two long weekends in July and August - the holidays are appropriately named Montain Day and Sea Day, and whether to go to one or the other is what Japanese families argue about.
August starts with a holiday and continues with the traditional week of dancing and caring for the graves of close relatives known as obon.
Not a legal holiday
Legally speaking, obon is not a holiday. Separation between state and religion is stringently enforced. But that does not stop people from going away. Even if they do not go very far. Those who reasonably can take a week off to go to their ancestral homes, going back again to Tokyo a couple of days later in what is known as the U-turn. Roads and railways, and to a lesser extent airports, get crowded. The Japanese do not usually profess to a religion, but during Obon week they all become Buddhist.
The Obon week also losely coincides with school vacations. The weeks before and especially after is when Japanese schools, and even kindergartens, go on field trips in various places across the country. With the amazing train network that Japan has, it is easy to make day trips. If they are old enough to stay overnight, there are hostels which will accommodate them. Staying in dormitories has a long tradition in Japan, and in a country with paper walls, privacy has always been scant.
New year fresh start
Obon week over, the Japanese again return to their normal rut until September, when a collection of several holidays during one week, known as Silver Week, is intended to drive consumption. When the yen was expensive and travel was cheap for the Japanese, it actually worked. But after the crisis hit, the Japanese cut back on their travelling. Including Silver Week.
When those who traveled return, they go back to work. And they work hard, until December comes around. While Christmas is not a holiday in Japan, the Emperors Birthday on December 23 is a vacation day, but the following days people are busy wrapping up the year and closing everything, so they can make a fresh start in the new year.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning four and a half - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on email@example.com, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.