How to Plan a Socially Distanced Trip to Japan
2020 was a year of unpleasant surprises and hardships for many people across the world. Amidst the global coronavirus pandemic, travel plans have had to be altered, rescheduled, or canceled. Vaccination proceeds apace in certain countries, but in many cases (Japan included), it will not cover all citizens for several more months. Public health authorities will be talking about avoiding the three C's (closed spaces, crowded spaces, close-contact settings) for a while longer. This article looks at how to properly maintain social distance when visiting Japan's three major tourist destinations: Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto.
May 06 2021
A Quick Note on Japan and Masks
Before we dive into things, it should be noted that Japanese people have been in the habit of wearing masks during flu season long before the covid situation. Mask-wearing is a common element of Japanese culture, and in Japan, masks are just as much a sign of courtesy, as a means to prevent the spread of infection. So, when in Japan, do as the Japanese do, and please don a mask, regardless of your personal beliefs. This holds especially in closed or crowded spaces like trains, shopping areas, or popular public places. Even if you're vaccinated, it wouldn't hurt to carry a mask with you and wear it in closed spaces.
Constantly Crowded Places in Tokyo
As Japan’s capital city, of course, Tokyo has a plethora of fun tourist destinations and activities, but as mentioned above, with a metropolitan population exceeding 30 million, to call it “crowded” is a huge understatement.
Here are a few places that are famous for their crowds. If you'd really like to visit but you're concerned about crowded spaces, it might be best to visit on a weekday morning. Fear not though, for we will also include a few suggestions to alternative places you may not have heard of, but are sure to love!
Ameyokocho is a popular market street that stretches from Ueno Station to Okachimachi, known for its open-air storefronts. It tends to be rather crowded at all times of the day, and particularly so at night, when the streets become packed with salarymen trying to drink away their troubles after a hard day at the office.
Just a quick 3-minute walk from the Asakusa metro station, Nakamise-dori is a famous market street that stretches from the Kaminarimon Gate to Sensoji Temple. It is well known for all manner of traditional Japanese souvenirs, from toys and knick-knacks to snacks like freshly made senbei (rice crackers). While it is an open-air area, it can get very crowded, to the point that you might have to physically squeeze through others. If you absolutely must see Sensoji, it is possible to circumvent Nakamise-dori and take the much quieter backstreets to the beautiful Buddhist temple.
• Takeshita-dori (Harajuku)
Harajuku's Takeshita-dori is a mecca of kawaii fashion and popular youth culture, popular not only with Japanese youth, but also with visitors from abroad looking to enjoy this wild spectacle and buy some trendy apparel. In the weekend, if you stand at the entrance to the street and look down the slope, all you will see is a throng of bobbing heads atop an ocean of humanity. What’s more, the shops on Takeshita-dori tend to be small and cramped, making proper social distancing nearly impossible.
• Kabukicho and Other Nightlife Areas
If you're concerned about social distancing, you might prefer to avoid the major nightlife quarters, with their bars, clubs, karaoke, and other forms of after-hours entertainment. These include Kabukicho in Shinjuku (known for its close-quarter bars and clubs), Roppongi (famous as a clubbing and nightlife town) and the Ikebukuro Station area (known for its bars and dance clubs).
If you just can’t stand the idea of staying inside at night, you can always get some drinks at a convenience store and find a park where you can chat with friends! (Open containers are A-OK in Japan.)
How to Avoid Crowded Trains in Tokyo
The words “Tokyo train cars” are nearly synonymous with “sardine cans”, and even as Tokyoites try to work from home as much as possible, certain lines still see a lot of traffic. Train companies have enacted various anti-infection measures, notably keeping windows open to maintain ventilation; this, combined with universal mask use, has meant that trains have not been significant vectors of infection.
But it wouldn't hurt to avoid the risk altogether if it's not too difficult, right? One easy measure is to stay away from the train system during the morning and evening commuter peak times. The morning commuter rush is between 7:00 am and 9:30 am, after which it is not too difficult to get an empty seat and maintain social distance.
As for the evening rush, if you can, try to avoid riding the trains between 5:30 pm and 7:30 pm. Things can even begin to get a little crowded from 4:00 pm and don’t really ease up until after 9:00 pm, so plan accordingly!
Another point of information that you might take into account is the 10 most congested stations in the Tokyo area (and, indeed, in the whole country). These are, from most to least crowded:
4. Yokohama (Kanagawa Prefecture)
8. Omiya (Saitama Prefecture)
For more detailed information, including an up-to-date list of the most congested lines in the city, you can look at the following article: Watch Out for Jam-Packed Trains! Make Your Journey More Comfortable By Avoiding Tokyo's Rush-Hour Traffic
Alternatives to the Train: Walking and Cycling in Tokyo
Despite being a huge city, many famous areas in Tokyo are well within walking distance of one another. To list a few examples:
- Tokyo Station to Ginza is about 10 minutes on foot;
- Ginza to Tsukiji is about 12 minutes on foot;
- Ueno to Akihabara is about 20 minutes on foot;
- Shibuya to Omotesando is about 15 minutes on foot;
- Roppongi to Tokyo Tower is about 20 minutes on foot;
- Naka-meguro to Daikanyama is 10 minutes on foot.
Walking is not only a good way to maintain social distance, but it also gives you a more intimate feel for the city. You might even encounter a hidden shrine or delicious restaurant on your way from one location to the other!
Alternatively, there are also a few bicycle rental options to help you avoid crowded trains and get around Tokyo. Much like walking, cycling opens up the possibility for serendipitous encounters with less popular places and side streets. Read 9 Rental Bike Services in the Tokyo Area You Should Try for some ideas!
Alternative Destinations Around Tokyo
It might seem like we're lopping off large chunks of your Tokyo itinerary for the sake of avoiding crowding, but thankfully, there are a wide range of lesser-known places that you can enjoy! For anyone looking for quieter places to enjoy in Tokyo, consider the following options.
Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi
Experience the charm and familiarity of old-school Tokyo in Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi, a cluster of neighborhoods to the south of Nippori Station. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a leisurely walk, street food, and the occasional cat! For more information, check out Top 13 Things to Do in Yanaka - One of Tokyo's Most Charming Little-Known Neighborhoods.
Tokyo’s Japanese-Style Gardens and Parks
Part of keeping in line with social distancing is avoiding closed spaces with poor air circulation, and there is no better way to accomplish this than by spending time in the great outdoors! In addition to its great museums, restaurants, and shopping, Tokyo is also home to a number of magnificent parks and gardens, often nestled discreetly amongst the skyscrapers.
Without going out of the way at all, you can observe the distinctively Japanese style of organizing gardens, sometimes with landmarks like the Tokyo Tower or Skytree in the background! For more information on some of Tokyo’s best gardens, please check out The 7 Best Japanese Gardens Within Tokyo.
Another place you can look for beautiful outdoor sceneries is our article on Little-Known Tokyo Sakura Spots. Even if you're not visiting during sakura season, these are lovely locations where you can come in contact with Tokyo's natural side, like its flowers and waterways. The most important thing is that these places are outdoors and less well-known, so you shouldn't have to worry about large crowds during your visit!
Day Trips Outside Tokyo
Rather than spending all your time in the city, why not take advantage of the numerous wonderful places in the areas surrounding Tokyo? There are many towns and cities near Japan’s capital city where you can fully soak in Japan's history and natural landscapes. You can get to truly know the country much better than most international tourists, and because of the expansive and convenient train network, you can fill your itinerary with these trips without it being a hassle.
Mt. Fuji is an international favorite, of course, but there are seaside onsen towns like Hakone and Atami, classic Japanese townscapes like Kawagoe, and dazzling historic monuments like the Nikko Toshogu Shrine. For a fuller, more detailed list, check out The Top 10 Day Trip Destinations Within 2 Hours of Tokyo!
Go Camping (Or Glamping!)
One effective coronavirus countermeasure, of course, is to spend as much time outdoors as possible. And one excellent way to do this is by going camping: Japan is perhaps most renowned for its cityscapes and advanced technology, but some two-thirds of its area is forested! Our article on 10 Campgrounds in Japan includes a lakeside camping village in Kanagawa (just south of Tokyo) and a "treehouse village" in Tochigi (north of Tokyo).
If you'd prefer something more glamorous for your international vacations, then you can opt for "glamping"! There are numerous campgrounds in Japan that are far more upscale, outfitted with comfy tents or cabins and various amenities, although still in an environment that immerses you in nature. This article introduces you to seven glamping locations, five of which are easily accessible from Tokyo!
Crowded Places in Osaka
Though not as huge and sprawling as its eastern cousin, Osaka is still one of the biggest and most populated cities to visit in Japan. Osaka is also home to a few of Japan’s most notable (and crowded!) tourist attractions. Here are a few places in Osaka you might want to avoid for the time being.
• Osaka Castle
Osaka Castle is the most visited place in Osaka. The castle itself has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times throughout its storied history spanning over 400 years. The most recent renovation took place in 1997, and it now houses modern conveniences and a museum on the inside. The surrounding park is also one of the most popular places to view cherry blossoms in the spring. As it is one of the most well-known and beloved spots in Osaka, it’s unsurprising that it would be crowded. For the time being, you might want to save Osaka Castle for a later trip to avoid close contact with the high number of visitors.
Arguably the heart of Osaka, the bustling street of Dotonbori encapsulates the spirit of this “City of Merchants” due to its lively and welcoming atmosphere, not to mention the broad and delicious selection of food available there. It is one of the most popular places to visit in Osaka, day or night, drawing huge crowds thanks to the stores’ enticing neon light parade. But for now, you might want to visit on a weekday morning or, if you want the full neon experience, past midnight.
How to Avoid Crowded Trains in Osaka
Osaka may not be as big and busy as the eastern capital of Tokyo, but it still sees its fair share of train commuters throughout the day. Osaka’s morning rush hour commute starts from around 7:30 am, but things start to get really crowded around 8:00 am, before calming down just after 9:00 am. In the evening, the pattern begins after 5:30 pm and hits its peak at 6:00 pm; riding the train becomes more tolerable again after 7:30 pm.
The busiest train lines in Osaka during rush hours are as follows:
1. Midosuji Line (Osaka Metro)
2. Kobe Main Line (Hankyu)
3. Takarazuka Main Line (Hankyu)
4. Chuo Line (Osaka Metro)
5. Nara Line (Kintetsu)
Alternatives to the Train: Walking and Biking in Osaka
As with Tokyo, much of what Osaka has to offer is clustered in a few areas:
• Umeda (near Osaka Station) where you can find the Sky Garden;
• Namba, close to Dotonbori, the America-mura, and other shopping streets; and
• Tennoji, which is near the Tsutenkaku tower, the zoo and art gallery, and the Abeno Harukas tower.
This means that you don't necessarily have to spend much time in transit!
Crowded Places in Kyoto
Finally, we have the old capital of Japan, Kyoto. It is home to some of Japan’s more beautiful temples and shrines, including 17 that are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This means a fair share of tourists! Indeed, Kyoto is the Japanese city that is most associated with the phenomenon of overtourism.
If you are looking to skirt the crowds, Kyoto’s quieter seasons are from January to February (when the weather can be rather frigid), and again in June (the rainy season). The most popular tourist season, meanwhile, is from October to the middle of December, due to the spectacular fall foliage in the area.
Once you're there, the most popular (and thus crowded) spots include the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, famous for its unique "stage-style" construction allowing for sweeping panoramas (pictured above), and the accompanying Ninen-zaka Street, a narrow pedestrian street lined with boutiques in quaint, classical buildings.
Kinkaku-ji is a beautiful sight - a temple coated in gold leaf standing peacefully above a pond - while the thousand torii gates at the Fushimi Inari Shrine are nothing less than one of the best-known images of Japan. The Bamboo Grove in Arashiyama is at a similar level of fame.
There's a reason these locations are as popular as they are, and it might almost seem pointless to go all the way to Kyoto and avoid these locations. This is, of course, a balance you'll have to strike yourself, but there are luckily other Insta-friendly spots that capture the essence of traditional Japan that are lesser-known by tourists. We'll cover these later!
Getting Around Kyoto
Like Tokyo and Osaka, you should do your best to avoid public transportation. The city buses in particular can get pretty crowded in Kyoto, so try to walk or rent a bike when you can. (Note, however, that Kyoto's roads can be quite hilly outside of the city centre.) If walking or biking is not an option for you, taking the subway is still preferable to the bus.
For more information on biking in Kyoto, check out A Guide to Cycling in Kyoto & Rental Bicycles.
Alternative Destinations Around Osaka and Kyoto
Lesser-Known Destinations in Kyoto
If you head to Kiyomizu-dera and find the crowding to be unpleasant, you can instead head to any of the dozens of other temples, museums, or workshops in the same Higashiyama district. Our article on the Karasuma Area (essentially the city's downtown) also gives you a long list of smaller temples, riversides, and gardens like Shinsen-en.
The city of Kyoto is also quite broad! On the southern end of Kyoto is the district of Fushimi, well-known for its sake brewing; here is a one-day model course of the area. Also take a look at this electric bike tour through the natural sceneries of southwest Kyoto!
Regional Day Trips
The Kansai area is filled with historically significant travel spots, and you should definitely visit them if you can! It is a treasure trove of temples and shrines, medieval monasteries like Hiei-zan, castles like Himeji Castle, and natural sights like the Amanohashidate sandbar, one of Japan's Three Great Views. Both Lake Biwa and the Sea of Japan provide beautiful sights, while the latter also offers excellent seafood.
Here are 8 major travel spots for the historically-minded; here are 5 excellent weekend getaway destinations; here are 10 onsen spots; and here are 5 areas you can explore on bicycle. There's no shortage of possibilities, and they offer you a different side of Japan than what tourists often see.
To the west, Okayama Prefecture (only an hour from Osaka by bullet train!) also offers many relaxing nature spots and beautiful cityscapes. Check out this article on 15 Awesome Photogenic Spots in Okayama!
Go On a Pilgrimage
Camping is also an option for the Osaka-based traveler (see the link above), but if you're in western Japan, you have another, much more distinctly Japanese option: going on a pilgrimage. There are two main options.
One is the Kumano Kodo, located in Wakayama Prefecture to the south of Osaka. It is a centuries-old network of pilgrimage trails that connected Osaka and Nara to the "Kumano Sanzan", a group of historically important shrines. Even the most accessible route takes two days to traverse, and because of this level of commitment, you will not find yourself having to navigate large crowds. It is, however, absolutely worth it, and the trail's UNESCO World Heritage Site designation is proof of that. This journey through the profound, still wilderness will forever be imprinted in your memory.
The other is the Ohenro, the cycle of 88 temples on the island of Shikoku that traces the steps of the 8th-century monk Kukai. The full endeavour requires some 40 days to complete - infeasible for most travelers - but what you can do is take a two-hour bus from Osaka to Tokushima, then spend two days going around the first nine temples.
General Guidelines for Social Distancing
Now that we’ve covered three of Japan’s most popular cities, here are some places and activities all across Japan that come with crowding risk.
Hostels and Capsule Hotels
Capsule hotels are a distinctly Japanese style of lodging, and many visitors to Japan are eager to try out these honeycomb-like lodgings that feel like a peek into the future. However, because capsule hotels consist of close quarters, often with only a curtain to separate you from the other guests, the more covid-anxious among you might prefer to avoid them. The same goes with hostels, which carry much the same risk as capsule hotels.
Speaking of enclosed spaces, game centers (or video game arcades), pachinko parlors, most bars (izakaya) and karaoke are all crowded and close-contact settings. These types of establishments are often crowded and don’t have the best air circulation. If you have your heart set on trying out some of these activities, please try to limit your time, keep your travel party small, and make good use of hand sanitizer, which you're likely to find at the entrance of all of these places. Carrying a travel bottle of hand sanitizer or a packet of sanitizing wipes can't hurt either!
Adapting Your Plans to the Times
In terms of general resources, you can read our article on What Times Should You Avoid When Visiting Japan, as well as the "Traveling Safely in Japan" page we've set up in response to the pandemic: we list hundreds of stores and spots and the specific virus countermeasures they've undertaken.
And lastly, before you fire up your traveling spreadsheet to input all of these socially-distant locations, check this article on the current state of border closures. (As of publication, non-residents are not able to enter the country.)
As we wait for the end of the pandemic, social distancing and responsible travel choices are still crucial, so please keep this in mind when planning any trips. Hopefully, the suggestions in this article will help you stay safe as you navigate Japan!
If you want to give feedback on any of our articles, you have an idea that you'd really like to see come to life, or you just have a question on Japan, hit us up on our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.