Saturday, December 3, 2022

Traveling to Japan? Here’s what Americans need to know.

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After welcoming a record number of foreign visitors in 2019, Japan imposed one of the strictest border closures in the world during the pandemic. More than two years later, the country is slowly starting to allow tourists back.

The first step in the gradual reopening came as a test in May. Fifty visitors from four countries – including the United States – came for group tours. In June, Japan expanded that option to 98 countries with low rates of coronavirus infection while keeping entry requirements complex and strict.

Given the arduous steps involved in getting approval to enter Japan, potential visitors “have to be willing to do the work,” said Catherine Heald, co-founder and CEO of Remote Lands, a luxury tour operator specializing in trips to Asia.

Japan Immigration Services Agency reported that only 252 tourists entered the country in June (compared to nearly 32 million in June 2019). That number rose to about 7,900 in July.

“The lack of overseas tourists is noticeable,” writer and author of Food Sake Tokyo By The Way Tokyo City Guide Yukari Sakamoto said in an email.

Mandy Bartok, a Tokyo-based tour guide, says the slow reopening has been a hot topic; current protocols have been met with criticism. Still, the tours are filling up quickly, said Jeffrey M. Krevitt, vice president of marketing for Inside Travel Group, which owns InsideJapan Tours.

If you’re thinking of planning a trip to Japan, here’s what you need to know before you go.

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What are the travel restrictions?

Although the number of people allowed to enter Japan has increased, access is “very limited,” the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and consulates in Japan said.

International travelers regardless of vaccination status are allowed if they are “sponsored by a travel agent and/or are part of an authorized travel group located in Japan.” You don’t necessarily have to join a tour group; Independent guided travel is also allowed.

Either way, you must be accompanied at all times by your licensed guide or group leader. They don’t have to eat every meal glued to your side, but expect them to take companionship seriously.

“They have to sit you down and take note of what seat you’re in and just be responsible for you,” Heald said.

“And … after dinner, you can’t go out and wander around the bars and do whatever you want unless your guide is with you,” she added.

This is only part of the entry requirements.

The Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) has a checklist for travelers on its website that covers six steps: booking an approved guided tour with a government-registered company or guide; eVisa application; taking a coronavirus nucleic acid amplification test within 72 hours of your departure to Japan; downloading an application to record test results; receiving a QR code for immigration; and purchasing travel insurance.

There are no quarantine requirements for US travelers, however those who have traveled to other countries in the 14 days prior to their trip to Japan may be required to be tested on arrival or in quarantine.

“To be quite honest, [the requirements] they’re changing frequently and being implemented, shall we say, inconsistently,” Krevitt said. “It’s a very laborious and lengthy process.”

The US Embassy warns of the same and recommends that travelers consult the latest regulations through the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan.

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What you need to know about coronavirus protocols

There are signs of normalcy returning to Japan. As people begin to return to offices, “morning rush-hour trains are starting to feel full, like in pre-pandemic times,” Sakamoto said. However, there are new rules and etiquette that visitors must follow.

If you hate masking, a trip to Japan is not for you. According to government guidelines, foreign tourists are required to wear masks in community settings unless they are outside and able to distance themselves from others, are exercising outside in a park, or are distancing themselves indoors and not talking to anyone. Failure to follow masking guidelines could result in being asked to leave Japan, Bloomberg News reported. Furthermore, the US Embassy says that “non-compliance with mask wearing norms reflects poorly on foreign residents”.

Chris Carlier, who is based in Tokyo and runs the popular Twitter account Mondo the mascotsays that while there aren’t many official masking restrictions for locals, “almost everyone” still wears masks in public, indoors or outdoors.

In situations where it is not possible to mask – such as when eating or using public bathrooms – the etiquette is to avoid talking to avoid spreading the droplets.

Other changes Sakamoto says visitors may notice are signs outside stores and restaurants asking customers to wear masks and hand sanitizers and temperature-taking kiosks at businesses. Some restaurants take the diner’s temperature before seating.

Festivals, sporting events and cultural performances are welcoming back attendees (with masks), sometimes with reduced capacity and/or socially distanced seating. At some events, such as wrestling matches and baseball and football games, fans have been asked not to cheer – although such rules have begun to be relaxed. Applause is allowed.

Sakamoto says it can confuse foreigners to see strict precautions, but notes that unlike the US, it’s still rare for people in Japan to get Covid. “For most of us it’s still something people are afraid to touch,” she said.

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Van Milton, a Kyoto-based guide for InsideJapan Tours, says that the spirit of “omotenashi” hospitality – caring for guests – is even stronger after so many years of closed borders.

“From the family that runs a small ryokan in Hakone to the local owner of a ramen noodle shop in Osaka, people are happy to have visitors come back,” he said in an email.

On the company’s upcoming tours, travelers will experience many of the activities they can have in 2019, such as eating street food in Osaka, visiting samurai castles, staying at traditional ryokan inns, taking taiko lessons drumming and soaking in hot spring baths.

Another benefit: “All those restaurants that were impossible to get into are now easier to get into,” Heald said.

Relax, this is not the future of Japanese tourism

Bartok says that given the surveillance requirements, visitors should expect their time to be micromanaged and their movements restricted. Sakamoto also noted that with a companion, visitors won’t have as much freedom to wander and explore as they would have before the pandemic.

Because of this warning, “I would tell overseas visitors to wait a little longer before making plans to visit Japan,” Kakurinbo Temple Lodge co-owner Junko Higuchi said in an email. But she hopes “the situation will change rapidly” for travelers to have more autonomy.

Carlier says those interested in focusing their visit on seeing temples, shrines and museums may find now an opportune time to travel to Japan. But if you want to meet new people, go to local festivals or explore the nightlife, he recommends waiting another year or two before visiting.

Hannah Sampson contributed to this report.

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