Crowds in Japan are back to pre-pandemic levels and the weak yen almost guarantees that they’ll only get worse. Luckily, with a little extra planning, you can avoid the crowds and lines almost entirely. Here are all the details.
- Avoid the busy months of March/April and October/November.
- Consider September, February, May and June.
- Don’t pick up your Japan Rail Pass at the airport (wait until you get to the city).
- Go to ticket offices or machines early or late in the day.
- Use a prepaid IC card for local transport and purchases.
- Stay in quieter neighborhoods.
- Ride the Kodama shinkansen for shorter trips.
- Avoid the “big” sights.
Line for ticket machines at Kyoto Station © Chris Rowthorn
Go in Winter, Late Spring or Early Fall
The best way to avoid crowds in Japan is to avoid the peak tourist seasons, which are centered around cherry blossom season (late March/early April) and fall foliage season (late October to the end of November). Here are the months to avoid if you don’t like crowds:
- Second half of October
May is my favorite month to be in Japan: the weather is warm but not hot, it’s not too crowded and prices for accommodations are down from their April peaks. June is also good – it’s cheaper than May and it can be hot but it’s usually manageable. Summer (July and August) are simply too hot for most people and I cannot recommend visiting Japan then unless it’s the only time you can come.
The crushing heat of summer breaks in mid-September and visiting any time from mid-September to mid-October is great. Prices are reasonable, it’s not crowded and the weather is usually warm and stable.
Once fall foliage season ends in early December, the crowds disperse and the prices drop and stay low until early March. You can visit Japan right through the winter and, with the exception of northern Honshu, Hokkaido and high altitudes, the cold really isn’t too bad (think Washington DC or Paris in winter). February is an awesome time to visit: prices are rock-bottom for hotels, many tourist spots are nearly empty, and the weather is just starting to warm up a bit. Here are some good times to visit if you don’t like crowds:
- Mid-September to mid-October
- Early December to early March
Don’t Activate Rail Passes at the Airport
Line for JR service office at Haneda Airport © Chris Rowthorn
The classic beginner’s mistake is to activate a Japan Rail Pass (if you have one) at the airport upon arrival. The lines for the JR travel service centers at the main airports (Haneda, Narita and Kansai) are almost always long and you probably won’t use your pass much during your first few days in country (especially if you’re staying in Tokyo for a few days). And, who really wants to deal with this formality after a long flight? If you have a digital Suica or Icoca, you can use it to get into the city without waiting on any lines. Otherwise, just buy an individual ticket into the city (vending machines are usually faster than ticket offices for this). See the following section for when and how to activate a Japan Rail Pass.
Pick Up or Activate Your Japan Rail Pass in the City
JR East Travel Service Center at Tokyo Station © Chris Rowthorn
As noted above, if you have a Japan Rail Pass, you should activate it in the city (for most people, that will be Tokyo). If you’re flying to Japan from North America, you will usually arrive in the late afternoon and the following morning you will likely wake up around 5am due to jetlag. Use this early waking to go to the nearest JR office and activate your Japan Rail Pass. See the following section for opening hours of Tokyo and Kyoto stations. And note that you can set your pass to become active on a future date. So, for example, you could take care of this errand on your first day in Tokyo, then explore the city using an IC card like Suica or Pasmo for a few days, and then your Japan Rail Pass becomes active the day you leave Tokyo to explore the country.
Pick Up Tickets, Buy Train Tickets and Make Train Reservations Early or Late in the Day
Line for ticket counter at Kyoto Station © Chris Rowthorn
Lines at ticket machines, ticket offices can be very long during peak times in Japan (from around 8am until 6pm). However, ticket offices and machines are open for a few hours on either side of peak times and if you go outside of peak times, there may be no lines at all. Here are the opening times for ticket machines and ticket offices at Tokyo and Kyoto stations:
- Ticket office (Yaesu exit office): 5:30am to 11pm daily
- Ticket machines (Yaesu exit machines): 5:30am to 11pm daily
- Ticket office (Karasuma exit office): 6:30am to 9pm daily
- Ticket machines (Karasuma exit machines): 5:30am to 11pm daily
As noted above, you’ll probably wake up very early on your first full day in Japan. Take advantage of this to get to a JR office before it gets busy. Some offices limit reservations and ticket sales to three trips, but others are flexible. If you’re lucky you can buy or reserve tickets for your entire trip with one visit.
Get a Prepaid IC Card Like Welcome Suica, Pasmo Passport or Icoca
This is the Welcome Suica card
If you really hate standing on line, these cards are genius. You can use them for all local travel and almost any other small purchase you make at shops, convenience stores, restaurants and vending machines. Since you can ride all local JR trains and private lines with them, you’ll never have to wait on line to buy train tickets for local travel. And, if you are one of those lucky people who has a credit card that works with SmartEX, you can buy shinkansen tickets and ride the shinkansen with just your iPhone, which is the Killer Japan Travel Hack.
Stay in Less Crowded Neighborhoods
The Okura Tokyo
I’ve been recommending that people stay in places like Shinjuku and Shibuya in Tokyo to enjoy proximity to shopping, dining and entertainment. Likewise, I’ve recommended that people stay in downtown Kyoto for the same reason. For most people, these are still good choices, but if you really hate crowds, you should consider staying in quieter but still relatively convenient areas.
In Tokyo, consider quieter areas like Nihombashi, Marunouchi, Imperial Palace area, Meguro, Ebisu or Ochanomizu. Here are some hotels in Tokyo that are in relatively quiet neighborhoods but still convenient for exploring the city:
Great Tokyo Hotels in Quiet Neighborhoods
Genji Kyoto hotel rooftop garden overlooking Kamo-gawa River
In Kyoto, consider staying near the Kyoto Gosho, around Gojo-dori Street (but no further west than Horikawa-dori Street) or in parts of southern Higashiyama away from Gion and the temple district. Sanjo-dori Street on the east side is close to downtown but avoids the crowds and is also a good choice for the crowd-averse.
Great Kyoto Hotels in Quiet Neighborhoods
These days, the Nozomi shinkansen (the fastest ones on the Tokaido/San-yo line that runs between Tokyo to Hakata) are often packed. If you don’t have to go far on this line, you will have no trouble finding seats in the unreserved cars on the slightly slower Kodama shinkansen, which run once or twice an hour. They stop more than the Nozomi, but if you don’t have far to go, the time difference is negligible. For example, if you’re going from Kyoto to Osaka, Kobe, Himeji or Nagoya, the Kodama is a good choice if you dislike crowded trains. Likewise, if you’re going from Tokyo to Odawara or Atami, the Kodama is a great way to escape the crowds. Basically, if your ride is going to be an hour or less, consider taking the Kodama shinkansen.
Avoid the “Big” Sights
In Japan’s tourist cities, you’ll usually find that all the major sights are packed with tourists in the busy seasons. However, often just around the corner from the famous sights you’ll find quiet sights that are almost completely ignored by the tourists. Here are a few examples:
For more tips on avoiding the crowds in Kyoto, check out How to Escape the Crowds in Kyoto.
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Kyoto guide
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability on Booking.com – usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Kyoto
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, you might save money with Japan Rail Pass – see if it's worth it for you
- A prepaid Suica card makes travelling around Kyoto easy – here's how
- World Nomads offers simple and flexible travel insurance. Buy at home or while traveling and claim online from anywhere in the world