Traveling in Japan Has Changed—Here's What to Expect – AFAR Magazine

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Later this month, after two and a half years, the border to Japan will finally fully reopen. Japan has been cautious about its border during the pandemic: It wasn’t until June 2022 that travelers with authorized tour groups could enter the country; in September, the rule was changed to allow visitors who worked with a Japan-based travel agent.

Come October 11, any independent tourists will at last be able to travel to (and around) the country as they please, as long as they adhere to a few remaining COVID protocols. Visitors are expected to be fully vaccinated with one booster shot or have a negative COVID PCR test result taken within 72 hours of departure. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (MOFA) maintains a list of countries that are coded by color for entry requirements, and requirements for entry do change by color. (All visitors from a “red” country have to take a PCR test upon arrival and quarantine for three days.) The current entry cap of 50,000 arrivals to Japan per day will be lifted and All Nippon Airways, one of Japan’s two major airlines, has pledged to increase international flights and staff to meet demand.

COVID-19 cases and deaths are remarkably low in Japan compared to other countries: Japan has 21.5 million recorded infections since the onset of the pandemic, with 45,286 deaths—a case fatality of 0.2 percent (compared with 1.1 percent in the United States), per Johns Hopkins University. The country was quick to recognize that COVID-19 was spread through aerosols and adopted strict masking practices and improved ventilation systems nationwide.

After a record 31.9 million visitors in 2019, Japan saw just 246,000 travelers in 2021. Not only is there huge pent-up demand after two and a half years, but the weak yen, the lowest in 24 years, also makes Japan a bargain for most international travelers. Expensive sushi, wagyu marbled beef dinners, and high-end hotels are more affordable now.

But that’s not all that’s changed. Even though the country is opening up, there are still many pandemic-era norms that Japan adopted that remain in place. Here’s what travelers can expect on their next trip to Japan.

Arriving in Japan

To expedite your arrival to Japan, be sure to have your physical vaccination certificate on hand. There is an online Fast Track system established by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW). Download the MySOS app and upload the required documents; your screen will turn blue or green when all information has been submitted, and you’ll receive a QR code to show to authorities at customs and immigration.

Masking

The Japanese government continues to strongly recommend masking, and use is ubiquitous and expected, especially indoors when parties are speaking. Despite an initial government suggestion requiring tourists to wear masks in hotels and restaurants when not eating, hoteliers pushed back, saying that it would be difficult to enforce—thus masks are not technically required in hotels and restaurants. Masks are also not required outdoors but encouraged if you aren’t able to maintain social distancing.

In Japan, where consideration for others is a big part of the modus operandi, masks are worn to protect oneself but also as a courtesy and sign of respect for those around you. Most businesses have signs at the front of the shop requesting visitors wear masks. If you’re not ready to wear a mask to respect local customs, consider waiting to visit Japan.

Ventilation and disinfection

Japan was quick to understand that ventilation was key to preventing the spread of COVID-19, so many trains and restaurants still keep windows open—if they are open, it’s best to leave them be. Across the country, air dryers for hands in restrooms have been turned off to avoid blowing germs. You may want to do as the locals do and carry around a small hand towel to dry your hands—these can be purchased at department stores or 100-yen shops, discount outfits that stock everything from clothing to coffee.

A majority of stores have hand sanitation stations at their entrance and exit. It’s common practice to sanitize before going into a public space.

Temperature screenings

Temperature screening remains popular across the country, and many shops have installed sensor monitors to automatically take guests’ temperatures as they enter. Smaller restaurants will also take diners’ temperatures before allowing them to sit.

Social distancing

Social distancing remains in practice throughout the country, with signs encouraging people to maintain a distance of six feet. The common approach is to keep some distance from the person in front of you if in a queue, and if speaking in public, to keep your voice down. While fans can attend sporting events, cheering in a loud voice is discouraged (clapping is OK).

Operating hours

Many shops, restaurants, and bars closed during the pandemic, including several at Tsukiji Market that relied on tourists. Because more people are working from home and not going out after the work day, some restaurants now have shortened opening hours, so it’s best to call ahead. Another good reason to call ahead: Japan has strict rules around COVID exposure, and if one person tests positive for COVID, colleagues are considered close contacts and asked to quarantine—which means the restaurant may not have any staff.

To maintain social distancing, many restaurants now have fewer seating options, so make reservations for a restaurant when possible.

Cash versus credit

During the pandemic, more shops started accepting credit cards to reduce contact between customers and staff, but keep in mind that many stores are still cash only. It’s best to always have some Japanese yen. In major cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, it’s possible to get Japanese yen from ATMs, but many won’t accept foreign cards; it only becomes more difficult as you move into the suburbs and countryside. On the ground in Japan without yen? Worry not: More than 26,000 ATMs at 7-Eleven convenience stores across the country—including at Narita International and Tokyo International (Haneda)—do accept cards issued overseas. Another resource is Japanese post offices, which have ATMs that accept overseas cards. To locate a post office, look for an orange T with a horizontal line over it.

Getting around

Wearing a mask on public transportation and in taxis remains a common practice.

For ease of transport, travelers may want to purchase a prepaid, reloadable Suica card to use on trains, subways, and buses in Tokyo; it’s also accepted as a form of payment at many convenience stores. Simply tap in and out when using public transportation to save yourself the time of purchasing a ticket for each ride. If you’re planning to be in the country for an extended period, the Welcome Suica is a special prepaid card that works for 28 days. It is sold at Narita, Haneda, and major train stations in Tokyo. The Welcome Suica does not require a deposit, typically required for prepaid cards.

As of May 2020, travelers riding the shinkansen—or bullet trains—need to reserve a special seat if they have “oversized” baggage: anything between 160 and 250 cm (63 and 98 inches, essentially any bag larger than a carry-on suitcase).

Sustainability

Since the start of the pandemic, stores now charge for plastic bags. Consider packing a reusable bag of your own or picking up one after arriving. Disposable wooden chopsticks—or waribashi—are used at many restaurants, but traveling with your own pair of chopsticks in a carrier reduces waste. You can buy these at 100-yen shops or at chopstick specialty shops.

The atmosphere

Much of bustling Tokyo has been quiet since the border closed—Tsukiji Market and the glitzy Ginza shopping district in particular—and many in hospitality are looking forward to welcoming back tourists. The biggest changes that visitors will find is almost everyone is masked and because some people are working from home, the trains are not as crowded during rush hour.

And while some venues have closed, there is a lot of new to be excited about: In Tokyo, Koffee Mameya Kakeru serves flights of coffee and coffee cocktails, and Shibuya’s Tokyu department store’s depachika basement food floor was renovated. There are also new hotels that opened for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, including the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Otemachi, Tokyo Edition Toranomon, and Aloft Tokyo Ginza. The gardens remain as manicured as ever, and the temples are still quiet retreats. In Kyoto, parts of the city that were packed with travelers—including the Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kinkaku-ji, and Nijo Castle—are quiet. All in all? It’s an excellent time to visit Japan—but please, wear a mask.


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