Golden Week is never a good time to travel in Japan. Tickets are scarce, discounts are impossible to find. Japanese media shows packed Shinkansen trains and traffic jammed expressways. But somehow Golden Week nowadays doesn’t feel like the Golden Week of the early 1980’s. Back then Golden Week, Obon and New Years were the only big vacation times and everybody travelled, salaries also bought a lot more. These days people have the luxury of many national holidays to choose from, but proportionally less salary to travel with.
There was a kind of thrill traveling in ridiculously vacation packed transit back then that is hard to experience now. And crowds were younger with families in tow with something always going on. In my stupid youth I thought I could find the ‘real Japan’ and avoid the crowds. It was years before I realized that ‘real Japan’ was a fool’s quest that prevented me enjoying special moments in special places with special people.
My father and mother came to Japan just before Golden Week 1984 for a company event. I had been in Japan for 6 months in an exchange program and met up with them in Shizuoka where a new manufacturing plant had been built. The local president arranged lodgings for our trip with a stay in Atami during Golden Week. I don’t remember the name of the hotel but it was a typical Showa style family place with everybody in yukata and kids running everywhere. The walls were thin, the food was blah, the husbands were slightly drunk, the wives scolded kids, the onsen baths were packed, and our room had view of the ugly backside of the hotel next door.
In my mind I thought my knowledge of Japan was enough to navigate a nice quiet outing the next day to see some ‘real Japan’. We headed to Hakkone in jam packed trains, a jam packed bus and finally a jam packed ropeway. The summit was covered in clouds and crowds. Completely defeated I took my parents back to the awful Atami hotel. The next day they got on a Sunrise bus tour and I went back to Osaka, later meeting up with them in Kyoto for a wonderful and magical overnight stay at the famous Sumiya Ryokan.
And yet, through the years we’d always laugh, ‘do you remember that awful Atami?’ The magical Sumiya memories slowly faded, but not awful Atami. My mother loved her one and only visit to Japan and never made it over again. Years later I had to the chance to take my father and family friends on some wonderfully crafted and unique Japanese travel experiences that my partner spend months planning, the kind of trips you only get to do once or twice in a lifetime. My father always had a great time but as the years advanced even those memories faded. But not Atami. Even in his last years we still laughed about Atami. Now that my parents are gone there’s nobody to laugh with anymore, but the worst memories of Atami are now the best memories of all…and they still make me smile.