How to avoid crowds in Japan

Crowds! Dozens, maybe even hundreds, of tourists visiting the same exact site as us at the same exact time! Photographing popular destinations can be challenging when so many people appear in your frame, the yelling and/or pushing around you interferring with the supposed serenity of the place, the queues to get in and people blocking the way, no empty seats in the restaurants nearby... it's understandable that sometimes we'd just want the place to ourselves!

Here are some tips for avoiding crowds at tourist spots around Japan.
Todaiji in Nara is one of the most crowded places in Japan.

Wake up early!

If it’s a popular temple, museum, residence, castle or any other place with an opening time, you’ll want to be there as soon as it opens. If it doesn’t have an opening time because it’s outside, it’s a building, observation decks and scenic views, etc., go even earlier.

I know, you’re on holiday, you wake up early almost every other day to go to work / school and during your trip you just want to sleep in… but, it’s true that this is what most other travellers think as well! Because most people like to sleep in to at least 8:30-9am, then have a slow start, sit down for breakfast at the hotel, then have to take the train to get to the place, etc., many sites aren’t full of people too early in the morning. Tour guides and organisers also can’t really ask their group to start the day at seven, so many tour buses don’t arrive until 10-11am to the sites.

Try to cross off the most famous places before 10am, before 9am even better! This is simply the easiest way to have the place to yourself. Another option is to go later in the day, after dark.
Not even the deer were awake yet when I arrived to Miyajima!
Asakusa at 8am

Find a different, yet similar, place to visit

The closer to Tokyo and Kyoto, the more popular a place will be. Of course, when we pick our day trips we choose places that are closer to the cities we'll already be visiting. For example, if we have a week-long trip in Tokyo, we'll try to find an onsen that is close to the city instead of going all the way up to Akita for a day. That's why Ōedo Onsen Monogatari in Odaiba is often full.
Also, it's much more likely that we hear about the famous spots, and hence more crowded spots, before the other lesser-known alternatives. If you’re visiting Mt.Takao, route 1 is much more popular and crowded than Trail 6 or Inariyama Trail, because route 1 is the one everyone talks and writes about. Choose one of the others instead, with just a little sidetrack to the temple!
In reality, many of the places we visit will have other similar existing places around the country. If that’s an option for you, perhaps simply go out a bit further or look a bit deeper for those other options!
Crowded entrance to the bamboo forest in Arashiyama vs bamboo forest at Fushimi Inari

If you can, travel during low season

Japan's cherry blossoms are so famous that people from all over the world travel to the country in April to see them! Christmas and summer holidays in many countries free up people's schedules and many set off on a trip to make the most of their vacation days, often coinciding with holidays in Japan itself too. These factors are important to have in mind, travelling during high season will mean that, even if you try very hard to avoid crowds, you'll likely be seeing many all the same. Cherry blossom season, August and the end of the year are high season in Japan so, if you have the opportunity to choose, perhaps consider a different month!
Crowd calendar for the lines at Himeji Castle
If you do travel during high season, make sure to reserve your shinkansen seats just in case!

Avoid peak visitor times

Is it raining? Fantastic! Few tourists go outside in the rain, make the most of it and go to all the outdoor sites then. That's what I like to do, because I like rain, but even if you don't there are other options to avoiding peak times.

For example, the best way to avoid crowds at Mt.Fuji is to simply avoid the sunrise. Most people want to see the sunrise from the top and so the crowds arrive and queue up to make it to the summit at that time. If you plan to arrive to the summit during midday or the afternoon, there are much less people. Some sites will be crowded at certain times of the day and calm during others.
Waiting in line to get into the Hiroshima Peace Museum before opening time at 8:30am, during rainy season... sometimes crowds just can't be avoided!
Also, realise whether you'll be visiting mid-week or during the weekend! Weekends are always busier at popular tourist sites because kids and parents are free from school and work commitments, so weekdays are best for famous sites. However, have in mind that if it's an important historic place (Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima, Kamakura), it's likely there'll be many students visiting on school trips. In these cases, going in the afternoon, once the school day is over, will be best.

Nijo Castle at 9:30am, during a weekday.

Go for a walk!

Most people when visiting a site will stick to the main or touristy street, often the side and backstreets will have a completely different atmosphere and will be much emptier. Just take a turn and take the little street to the site instead! I also like to walk to a site if it’s around or under 30min, instead of taking the bus or train, it's nice to see a side of the city beyond its famous sites.

Do the route in reverse

Many do the Hakone Loop Line in counter-clockwise direction, stop at Fushimi Inari on their way to Nara, or do the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, stopping at Ryoanji and ending in Arashiyama. Going the other way or doing the latter activity first may mean slightly less people at the sites.

Embrace the crowds!

If you can't beat them, join them, as they say! With crowds come good things too, such as seeing visitors dressed in yukata or kimono, meeting fellow travellers to befriend, eavesdropping or joining a tour guide around a site... sometimes, a place is worth the crowds and all we need is a little patience.
A group of women arrive to Kamakura wearing kimono
How do you deal with or try to avoid crowds?

Sam Lesmana