Japan is a densely populated country, with Tokyo being one of the largest cities in the world. Rush hour trains and subways in Tokyo are known for being overcrowded, with “pushers” being used at some stations to get everyone inside the carriages.
Japan has become a more popular tourist destination in recent years. In 2018 there were 30 million visitors to Japan, compared with 10 million just five years ago in 2013. At the most popular times of the year, cherry blossom and autumn foliage seasons, it can difficult to get a hotel room in Kyoto and there are queues at major sights.
All this combines to cause some visitors to worry about crowds and how they will cope. There are a number of ways to minimise the impact of crowds on your trip.
Think about the seasons, and consider whether you want to visit during a peak season.
If you’re really keen to see cherry blossom or autumn foliage, plan your itinerary so that you’re going to some less well-known or popular places as well as the major places. For cherry blossom, you could look at going to Hiroshima, or Fukuoka and other areas of Kyushu for a less busy experience than Kyoto.
Within Kyoto, some places are significantly more crowded than others. When I visited in autumn last year, Tofukuji was very busy but nearby Komyoin, a small temple with a lovely garden, was tranquil with only a handful of visitors.
Include more than just “top 10”or “must see” sights in your trip.
These sights are in every guide book and every travel article, so they attract crowds of visitors. One of the biggest mistakes made by first-time visitors to Kyoto is trying to visit Fushimi Inari, Kiyomizudera, Kinkakuji and the Arashiyama bamboo grove all in one day. Not only are these popular and crowded, they are spread all over Kyoto. Navigating Kyoto by train, subway, bus and taxi to get to all these places is going to add to the stress of the crowds.
Including some less famous places will give you a break from the crowds, you will get to see some interesting and beautiful places, and you’ll get an experience beyond the package tour itinerary.
Avoid the rush hour.
It’s your holiday so relax and enjoy it. Sleep in, linger over breakfast, and avoid taking public transport before 9am. The evening rush hour is a bit more spread out, between 4pm and 8pm. If you want to start early, perhaps because you have a long day trip planned, taking subways and buses before 7am will avoid the crowds.
Above all, allow for adequate time to get from one place to another, and for queueing at popular sights. This may be for buying tickets, seeing a special exhibit, or using the toilets. Google Maps provides a popular times indicator for sights and restaurants, which you might also like to use in your planning.
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For further information, the ebook Japan Just for You is a practical step-by-step guide to planning your trip to Japan, starting with developing your own personal trip concept. It’s now available on Apple, Amazon and Kobo, with other ebook stores to come soon.