Since Japan’s successful bid in 2013 to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, travel to Japan has ramped up — big time. Even before that, however, Japan was fast becoming an attractive travel destination.
It’s no surprise to anyone who’s been here. The gorgeous balance between tradition and modernity, pockets of serenity contrasting with dazzlingly frenetic activity, the cleanliness and efficiency of public transportation, the incredible food — we could go on and on!
These are all great reasons to visit Japan. Yet in many ways they are the exact reasons you should reconsider traveling to Japan during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
If you’re traveling for the sports and the spectacle, then you’ll probably enjoy the Olympics no matter where they’re held. But if you are traveling for the best possible experience of Japan, you’ll likely have a much more authentic experience traveling at any other time.
Remarkable Crowds in Tokyo & Beyond
Tokyo, and indeed Japan by extension, is perhaps best enjoyed when it’s quieter and less crowded.
Read more about the best times of year to visit Japan.
One of Japan’s most beguiling features is the peace and quiet you’ll find in both the cities and countryside — whether it’s exploring a gorgeous temple in Kyoto, or ducking down a small side street and wandering through off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods in Tokyo.
With the massive influx of visitors expected before, during, and after the Olympics — which officially take place from Friday, July 24 through Sunday, August 9, 2020 — expect to share Tokyo, Kyoto, and other of Japan’s best destinations with thousands upon thousands of fellow travelers.
Certain parts of central Tokyo are already crowded at the best of times, though wonderful pockets of tranquility can be found throughout the city. Regardless, congestion is nothing new to Tokyoites, and railway companies are no strangers to expertly handling masses of commuters.
But the average Tokyo train experience, especially at major hubs like Shibuya and Shinjuku, can initially seem overwhelming to most first-time visitors (though our guide to train travel in Japan should help).
Adding a huge influx of Olympics spectators to the millions of regular commuters (combined with the heat and humidity of peak summer in Tokyo) means you may not be left with the best possible experience of Tokyo’s legendary railway systems.
This may be exacerbated at stations near the Olympic venues, such as Harajuku Station near Yoyogi Stadium, and monorail stations on the Yurikamome Line for venues in the Odaiba area (here is a full list of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic venues).
Of course, you could walk to the sporting venues from one or two stations away — if you want to brave the sweltering heat!
Another option will be taxis and private transport, though expect them to be in very high demand (and traffic to be worse than usual, as well).
Japan’s Accommodations Shortage
With Japan’s striking rise in popularity as a destination, there has been a shortage of accommodations, though new hotels are being built at a torrid pace these days.
Especially during peak travel periods, finding accommodations can be challenging, and we expect the Olympics to be particularly difficult.
Official organizations, television networks, Olympic sponsors, and other major companies have been scooping up hotel rooms in massive numbers, meaning availability is already severely limited.
Accommodations in Tokyo are usually on the expensive side to begin with, and around the Olympics should spike dramatically thanks to extreme demand coupled with a lack of supply.
Even if you usually rely on Airbnb while traveling, it may be tricky to find accommodations during and around the Olympics. In 2018 the Japanese government clamped down on Airbnb, and there are far fewer legally compliant Airbnbs than there used to be.
Barring significant relaxation of these laws by the time 2020 rolls around, the lack of Airbnb-like options will simply add to the availability crunch.
It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Humidity
It’s a cliché that describes summer in Japan perfectly.
If your heart is set on visiting Japan in summer, the heat and humidity don’t have to be a dealbreaker, and you can just about cope by downing delicious kakigori (shaved ice), ice cream, and iced coffee and tea.
Plus, you can take a break from the sultry conditions by heading into the mountains, or to northern Japan, where the weather in summer can be significantly milder.
Still, if you have medical conditions that could be exacerbated by the hot and humid weather, this is something to consider carefully, as some are concerned that Japan could face a shortage of multi-lingual interpreters during the Olympics.
The Challenge of Medical Issues
The perceived Japanese language barrier is usually overstated, and even if you don’t speak a word of Japanese, this rarely hinders people from having a wonderful time in Japan.
Most signage in major destinations around Japan is now in Roman letters, and an increasing number of restaurants offer English-language menus. All this, along with the availability of translation apps — and the incredible helpfulness of Japanese locals — makes traveling in Japan a pleasure.
Yet navigating medical issues, challenging enough at home, can present a unique challenge while traveling, even in a modern country like Japan where the quality of care tends to be excellent.
Issues such as heat stroke could be a real concern for some, especially considering that the Tokyo stadium has no air-conditioning. It is hoped that the organizers will plan for challenges like this, but it is not unreasonable to expect that the system could become overburdened during the Olympics.
There are other reasons to consider not supporting the Tokyo Olympics, as well. With the significant expense for the public, and the impact on local populations and older neighborhoods slated for destruction, it’s not surprising that some locals oppose the event.
Unless you’re especially passionate about the sporting events, and attached to the idea of attending the Olympics, we sincerely believe you’ll have a much richer and more authentic experience of Japan by visiting at another time.