The Complete Guide to the Tokyo Olympics

Tokyo Olympic Mascots

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The Tokyo 2020 Olympics are sure to be one for the record books. The Japanese don't do anything in half-measures, so whether you compare Tokyo 2020 to the largely panned Rio 2016 games or even to London 2012, which seemed to go off mostly without a hitch, it's difficult to imagine there being a modern equivalent to what Tokyo promises to deliver the world in 2020.

Of course, this isn't just because of the events schedule or the venues Tokyo has purpose-built for the games. Japan is upgrading facilities throughout the country to accommodate tens of thousands of visitors, including with first-of-its-kind robot assistants in Tokyo. The games begin in just a few months, however, so let's spare the accolades and get right to the nitty gritty.

Tokyo 2020 Fast Facts

Looking for basic information about 2020, but don't want to get down in the weeds? Nothing wrong with that! Here are some fast facts about the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games:

  • Dates: July 24-August 9, 2020
  • Number of countries, athletes and events: 12,000 athletes from 207 countries competing in 324 events
  • Notable venues and zones: Tokyo 2020 will be split between the "Heritage Zone" (around and to the west of Tokyo Station, where the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were held) and the "Tokyo Bay Zone," which includes Odaiba Island. The most anticipated Tokyo 2020 venue is the New National Stadium, which is an updated, state-of-the-art version of the old one (also used during Tokyo 1964), where the opening and closing ceremonies will take place.
  • Estimated attendees: Local authorities have not released official estimates for Tokyo 2020 attendance numbers, but it's reasonable to conclude that at least 500,000 people will attend the games during the 16 days they run.
  • Associated events: The Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, where disabled athletes compete for Olympic glory, take place between August 25-September 6, 2020.
  • Mascots: Tokyo 2020's Olympics mascot is Miraitowa, which means "future" and "eternity" in Japanese. Someity, meanwhile, represents the Paralympics, and is both a reflection of Japan's famous somei yoshino cherry tree, and sounds like the English phrase "so mighty."

How to Get Tokyo 2020 Tickets

Like many aspects of travel in Japan, getting Tokyo 2020 tickets isn't a simple process, at least not on the surface. Here are the three basic ways to get Tokyo 2020 tickets:

  • Lottery for Residents of Japan: Initially, only residents of Japan are able to purchase Tokyo 2020 tickets, through a government-run lottery as described on the Official Tokyo 2020 website.
  • Remote Sales for Overseas Residents: After each lottery period closes, the Japanese government will release tickets to authorized overseas sellers. In the United States, this company is CoSport, which is also known as Jet Set Sports.
  • Last-minute online ticket sales: In Spring 2020, the Japanese government will open an online ticket portal, where locals and foreigners alike will be able to purchase Tokyo 2020 tickets on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Of course, Tokyo citizens will get a certain allotment of tickets; some might not use theirs, which means that even if Tokyo 2020 tickets are officially sold out there may be some available on the secondary market.

When to Book Your Flights

Both Japanese and foreign carriers start selling flights between 11-12 months ahead of departure, which means that flights to Tokyo 2020 started going on sale during the early summer of 2019. While the majority of Olympic-bound travelers will likely wait until early 2020 to purchase their flights, it's a good idea to start searching now to see where prices are, and to make a decision from there.

In general, a round-trip price of US$800-1,200 from the U.S. to Tokyo, in economy class, is considered average. If prices are around this price, you might want to purchases flights now. Otherwise, if you don't mind tempting fate and waiting, you could set a flight alert via tools like Google Flights or Skyscanner, which will allow you to receive a notification when and if prices on flights to Japan change.

Where to Stay

Tokyo Olympic accommodation, however, is another issue. While it's true that some ryokan guest houses and Airbnb apartments in and around Tokyo won't open bookings until six to nine months before the Olympic games, many hotels within Tokyo, from basic boutique properties to big-name luxury hotels, are already booked for many dates during the games.

This means, if you haven't yet booked your Tokyo 2020 accommodation, you have a few basic options. The first would be to wait it out—more rooms will open up, presuming you aren't reading this after about April 2020. The second would be to stay outside of Tokyo's city center, and ride transport into the city. Popular spots just outside the city include places like Kawasaki and Yokohama in Kanagawa prefecture to the south, and cities like Chiba and Ichikawa in Chiba prefecture to the east.

How to Get Around During Tokyo 2020

Tokyo has some of the most efficient and varied urban transport in the world, and that won't change during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Almost 9 million people ride the Tokyo Metro on a normal day; an additional half-million people won't strain the system too badly. Here are the major ways to get around Tokyo, during the Olympics and otherwise:

  • Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway: More than a dozen underground rail lines operated by two separate companies, but functioning together. Get a reloadable PASMO or SUICA card to use Tokyo's subway system seamlessly.
  • Japan Railways (JR) Lines: From local commuter services like the Yamanote Loop Line to cross-town services such as the Chuo-Sobu line, to the high-speed Shinkansen that runs basically everywhere in Japan to Tokyo Station, these lines are free to ride if you have a Japan Rail Pass. JR Lines also include the Narita Express.
  • Private Rail Lines: Including Tobu (whose services run from Ikebukuro to Kawagoe and from Asakusa to Nikko), Keisei (the Skyliner connects Nippori station to Narita Airport) and Keikyu, which connects central Tokyo to Haneda Airport.
  • Buses: From city buses (which are not as English-friendly as trains), to long-distance highway buses, the Limousine Bus service connect various locations around Tokyo to the city's airports. Note that due to expected traffic during the 2020 games, this can be a less than efficient way to get around.
  • Taxis, Uber and Japan Taxi: Whether you hail an ordinary cab or use Uber or homegrown Japan Taxi to order one from your phone, private cars are an on-demand if expensive way to get around in Tokyo. As is the case with buses, traffic during the Olympics can mean taxis will be more expensive and take longer.
  • Bicycle: Shops throughout Tokyo rent both ordinary and electric bikes, which can be a fun way to get around. Keep in mind, however, that due to large numbers of pedestrians on sidewalks, you might have to ride on the street, which isn't comfortable for all riders.
  • Walking: Tokyo is a mostly flat city whose main urban core is large, but not huge. If you plan to stay completely within either of the two main Olympic lobes, you'll largely get around on foot.

Notably (and perhaps surprisingly, given Japan's reputation for achieving goals), many infrastructural expansions that were planned for Tokyo 2020 have failed to materialize, most regrettably faster trains to Haneda and Narita airports. On the other hand, Tokyo 2020 will present a venue for Japan to introduce ALFA-X, the fastest Shinkansen bullet train so far, to the world.

General Tips for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Tokyo 2020 is a complicated topic, and will require at least as much time as remains until the Opening Ceremony to fully understand and digest. However, here are some basic tips about Tokyo 2020:

  • Be realistic: Even if you intimately familiarize yourself with the Tokyo 2020 venue map, you shouldn't expect to be able to attend more than 1-2 events per day, especially keeping in mind the excessive heat that's expected in Tokyo during the Olympics.
  • Take care of yourself: Speaking of heat, it's no joke, even if you're accustomed to hot summers. When in doubt, pop into a 7/11 or FamilyMart convenience store to get a respite from sky-high temperatures, or get a cold drink from one of Japan's millions of vending machines.
  • Sightsee early: Just because you're in Tokyo for the Olympics doesn't mean you have to constantly attend events. However, if you do plan to visit Tokyo attractions like Senso-ji temple in Asakusa or Tokyo Tower, go early in the morning or late at night to avoid Olympics-fueled crowds.
  • Get out of town: If you have a day where you don't plan to attend events or just need a break from the madness, take day trips from Tokyo to avoid getting burnt out on the city. Popular options include Nikko, centered around Tosho-gu shrine in the mountains of Togichi prefecture and Kamakura, which was once the capital of Japan and which is home to a massive bronze Buddha.
  • Bring plenty of cash: In spite of its technological sophistication, Japan is a surprisingly cash-centric society. Because you can generally only use credit cards to pay for hotels, nice restaurants and other large expenditures, it's always a good idea to have 10,000 to 20,000 yen on your person.

Where to Go Before and After the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Tokyo 2020 takes place during the middle of the Japanese summer, and while this hot (and often rainy) period isn't ideal for exploring many places in Japan, some are just perfect at this time of year:

  • Hokkaido: Whether you plan to frolic through lavender fields in Furano, go whale watching in Shiretoko National Park or enjoy a wild day at Asahiyama Zoo in Asahikawa, Japan's northernmost island is warm and mostly dry during the summer. Summer is also an excellent time to enjoy the various beer gardens of Sapporo city.
  • Tohoku: The northernmost portion of Japan's Honshu main island, Tohoku enjoys similar summer weather to Hokkaido. Warmth and sunshine are practically guaranteed here, whether you take a day hike to scenic Yamadera temple in Yamagata prefecture, or visit the Samurai town of Kakunodate in Akita prefecture.
  • The Japanese Alps: High and dry are one in the same in the Japanese summer, and the mountains of central Japan (which are just north of Tokyo) are a great place to be. Base yourself in Nagano (where the 1998 Winter Olympics took place) or the castle-town of Matsumoto, and take day trips to Kamikochi scenic area or through the historical towns of the Nakasendo Way.
  • Fuji Five Lakes: Whether or not you decide to climb Mount Fuji during the short period when it's not covered with snow, the lakes at the base of the mountain (and surrounding Yamanashi prefecture) are a perfect place to travel after the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Kawaguchiko is the best place to see Fujisan reflected in calm water, while Fujiyoshida's Chureito Pagoda provides one of the most iconic views of the mountain (if the weather is clear, at least).
  • Okinawa: Although this sub-tropical archipelago can be rainy during the summer, July and August are generally before typhoon season kicks in in earnest. What's better is that even top tourist spots like Naha city's Shuri Castle and Kabira Bay on paradisiacal Ishigaki island could be comparatively empty after the Olympics, since many Japanese people might decide to relax at home in the wake of the games.

Keep in mind that the farther you travel away from Tokyo before and after the Olympics, the less impact crowds from the games will have on your Japan travel, or its cost.

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