Japan trip in 2020 - should we avoid the Olympics period?
October 26, 2019 9:55 AM   Subscribe

We're planning a 2-week trip to Japan in 2020. Should we avoid the Olympics period? Or embrace it?

My partner and I are planning a 2-week trip to Japan in 2020. I've been a couple of times before and mainly got to see central Tokyo. So we'd like to explore Tokyo and further afield. Very broadly we're hoping to take in lots of food, city strolling and shopping, sea and mountains, and maybe a theme park.

It's exciting! But our dilemma is whether to go in summer, or not-summer.

If we go in summer, we hope the Olympics means there'll be lots going on and a fun atmosphere (outside of the actual sporting events, because we know it's very unlikely we'll get tickets). But we're not sure how much of 'normal' Tokyo we'll miss out on because of things being closed, different or harder to do because of the Olympics. (And we know it'll be stiflingly hot.)

If we go in not-summer, we hope we're less likely to miss out 'normal' Tokyo things (and it'll be cooler). But we worry that not going to Tokyo during the Olympics will be a huge missed opportunity. And maybe the city will be in partial shutdown because of Olympics preparations and building works or recovery.

At the moment we're just looking at which of these might give us the best experience - outside of factors like cost, accommodation availability, etc.

I appreciate some of this is impossible to predict. But does anyone who lives in Japan have a sense of how things might look as the Olympics nears? Or anyone with experience of this in cities that previously held the Olympics?
posted by sleepcrime to Travel & Transportation around Japan (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I happened to luck into a last-minute ~2-week-long catsitting gig in central London during the 2012 Olympics. I'm from the US and had been to London before but for a short-ish trip, maybe like 5 days.

I had a ball! I enjoyed the carnival atmosphere in the city, I got to see a few events (I had tickets for a soccer game and a field hockey game, and I also got to see random road cycling timed trials and the women's marathon). The Olympic Park was bizarre and fascinating (only official Olympic sponsors are allowed to display their logos, so they were serving "Cup" instead of "Pimm's Cup" and the hand dryers in the bathrooms had white tape over their logos). There were pop-up events all over the city, hosted by everyone from embassies to Target (which did not and, I believe, still does not have any presence in the UK). There was a surprising amount of free entertainment/food/parties for London, though the lines/waits were often longer than I was willing to wait.

I also got to see lots of non-Olympic stuff; I went to some plays, I tried to go to every medical museum in the city, I hung out with local friends (watching the opening ceremonies in their local pub was absolutely delightful even though I was jetlagged and starving), ate good food. I went to Hampton Court and I walked the Seven Sisters. Oh and I flew home via Dublin and we were in the air when Irish boxer (and Olympic flagbearer) Katie Taylor won gold and the flight crew announced it and everyone cheered.

All in all it was a really enjoyable trip and I think the Olympics enhanced rather than detracted (and I am not a particularly pro-Olympics person - I was strongly against my own city's Olympic bid).
posted by mskyle at 12:21 PM on October 26, 2019

I wouldn’t necessarily rule out getting tickets, especially if you’re unfussy about which sports. At London 2012 we got tickets for the handball on day 1 and one of the athletics sessions. I don’t know how ticket sales vary outwith the host country (we were in the UK) but even though I know nothing about handball, it was awesome being in the Olympic Park on day 1 of the Olympics.

I think other central parts of London were maybe busier during the Olympics, but it’s London, it’s always busy (and the Olympic Park wasn’t too central, it was in East London on what had previously been a mess of scrap yards, disused dog tracks etc.). Most of all, I just remember feeling like a kind of magic spell of happiness had fallen over the city. We’re British, we were so sure we couldn’t do it and it’d all be a miserable failure. But as soon as we saw the opening ceremony, it was like everyone went “OMG! We’re doing it! This is going to be all right!” and just got swept away in the magic of it all.

Now I’ve done it, I feel like going to the Olympics is one of those things that would have been on my bucket list if only I’d known how good it was going to be, but I was lucky and got to go anyway.

The other thing to contemplate is going to the Paralympics. In London, they were almost as big as the Olympics, but the UK is pretty unique in the scale of its Paralympic fandom. So you might find that offers some of the excitement without being quite as crazy busy. I love watching elite Para sports - all the different classifications and modifications just give it an extra dimension of complexity.
posted by penguin pie at 12:30 PM on October 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

I went in January a few years ago and loved it.
posted by brujita at 12:44 PM on October 26, 2019

You may want to look at hotel rates now if you're thinking of staying in Tokyo during the Olympics and will need a hotel room. I'll be at the Olympics for work and additional hotel rooms are already quite expensive/hard to come by.
posted by icaicaer at 1:08 PM on October 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

I don't know about the Olympics, but definitely do NOT be traveling by August 13-15. Obon is a madhouse. Like, I don't think it's a bad time to BE in a city; but they're just not days you want to be on a train/bus/etc. If you must, make sure you have an assigned seat and not an open car.
posted by Caravantea at 2:12 PM on October 26, 2019

the UK is pretty unique in the scale of its Paralympic fandom. So you might find that offers some of the excitement without being quite as crazy busy

I didn't go to any of the competitions, but I was in London for the Paralympics and there was a really positive energy.
posted by praemunire at 2:52 PM on October 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Tokyo in April was, for us, very pleasant. I would be less concerned about the Olympics than I would be of last year’s heat wave, which was terrifying. I will never visit Japan in summer.
posted by argybarg at 5:44 PM on October 26, 2019

You have already ticked the Tokyo is wicked hot in the summer box.

The Olympics are already messing with a lot of "normal Tokyo" stuff. At work we're trying to figure out how to reschedule things because the expectation is that people who live in Japan and will be planning six months ahead will have trouble travelling and getting hotel rooms in or near Tokyo.

Some stuff will likely just be cancelled. Summer Sonic 2020 music festival is already going on hiatus for a year.

Also, events are already getting shifted around, so there be less of the Olympic Village vibe of London 2012 that mskyle describes.

If you do decide to go, book rooms immediately. But, I'd recommend autumn (starting from around now most of the typhoons should be over) through December. It really isn't that cold. January is also very nice. Or, if summer time is best for you, skip the Tokyo area entirely--fly directly to Kyushu (Fukuoka is a great starting point) or Shikoku. So much to see and do on these less-traveled islands.
posted by Gotanda at 6:58 PM on October 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Ugh, no, I can't think of any reason to visit Tokyo in late July or early August. On top of the miserable and often deadly weather, next year it will be extra expensive, extra crowded and extra inconvenient.

Spring and fall are lovely though, and you can see all the new architectural masterpieces that are scheduled to open in time for the Olympics.
posted by Umami Dearest at 9:23 PM on October 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

To chime in, as both Gotanda and Umami Dearest have said, Tokyo in August is awful, like, hey, what's this white stuff on my shirt, oh, that's just the salt that was left after my sweat evaporated level hot. Like, don't rub your eyebrows until you've washed your face, because the salt in your eyebrows will lacerate the skin, and you'll feel it the next day when you start sweating again.

And yeah, there's obon, when pretty much everyone goes back to their hometown. It's the most expensive time to travel in Japan, and a lot of places in Tokyo close for at least a couple days during the period.

As for the actual Olympics, the government is trying to convince companies to let people work from home during the games to reduce the insane levels of overcrowding the train system will be dealing with. People have been encouraged, unless they have tickets to events, simply not to travel to Tokyo.

As far as trains go, to give you the idea of the coming horror, capacity for Japanese trains is thought of as 100% capacity means every seat is taken, and every hand strap is being used. There are train lines that reach 200% capacity every day (it is unpleasant), and for the Olympics, it's projected to be a lot worse.

So, basically, avoid Tokyo like the plague next summer. Spring is a great time to visit (cherry blossoms are kind of awesome, but fickle). Fall is great, if you manage to avoid any of the recent spate of fall-time typhoons. June is the rainy season, and that's what it does, all day, every day. July can be sort of nice, but it's still really hot. August is hell, and it's only getting worse every year. My vote would be end of March/early April, or late October/early November.

And don't forget the obligatory meetup when you come. Mefites from out of town are pretty much the only reason we actually have meetups.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:26 PM on October 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

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