Japan was one of the most reluctant countries in the world to re-open its borders after Covid. Now, after more than two years they’ve finally unlocked the door, but how has travel inside Japan changed, and most importantly, how will it affect your trip?
Mask Wearing Outside
If you’ve ever visited Japan before, you know how prevalent masks are. The majority of people wear them, indoors and on public transport mostly, and that’s before the pandemic. Since then, the public outlook on mask-wearing has become even stronger. The last time I was in Japan, in Tokyo, around 50% wore masks and the other half didn’t. Step outside in most cities now and you’ll find pretty much everyone with a mask around their face. It’s become the public norm, and something you should expect to do if you come over here as well.
While it’s not law, when it comes to wearing a mask indoors or on public transport, as I’ve said, you will be expected to follow suit. Don’t be surprised if you get a few awkward looks if you’re the only one with no face covering on public transport. The thing is, wearing a mask in the winter isn’t really a big deal, I find it keeps my face warmer anyway. Restrictions vary from resort to resort, but you should be ok not wearing one while skiing. That said, you’ll most likely find most Japanese people wearing a mask or face covering when waiting in line for the ski lift due to the close proximity. When it comes to wearing a mask outdoors the choice is yours, but it’s clear which way Japanese society has swung after the pandemic.
Mask Wearing in Hotels
Slightly more important than personal preference, the Japanese government has made it legal for hotels and inns to refuse guests if they don’t have a valid reason to not wear a mask while inside. The main aim of this bill is to create a safe and comfortable environment for all guests. After all, wearing a mask through common areas isn’t too much of a hassle as you’re probably not in them all that long anyway.
So, how will this affect your trip? First of all, you may be asked to wear a face mask or have your body temperature checked. Nothing to worry about, just be aware it might happen. Next up, if you have a fever or any current symptoms, you might be asked whether you’ve seen a doctor, or recently contracted some sort of disease. If you refuse to cooperate with anything that’s asked of you during your stay, you may be barred.
Finally, you’ll be asked to share your phone number and/or contact information as a way to trace any potential infection routes. It may seem like it’s all a bit over the top, especially if the country you’re travelling from has already stopped these kinds of measures, but the simple fact is that if your hotel decides to do this, you’re going to need to oblige, else you’ll risk being asked to leave.
Shinkansen Baggage rules
Getting your baggage from points A to B always requires thought when you go on holiday. With a destination such as Japan, likely fairly far away, that issue becomes amplified. Couple that with Japan’s new Shinkansen baggage rules, and ski carriage, and you got a potential logistical nightmare. Don’t worry though, let me explain when and where you may encounter these rules and if they’ll affect you or not.
For certain destinations, especially those closer to Tokyo, getting to the resort after the flight will potentially include the use of a bullet train (Shinkansen). They’re super fast, incredibly efficient, and spacious enough to handle all your baggage. Until now, there wasn’t too much of an issue carrying your big suitcases and ski bags, but that’s another change you’ll have to adhere to when travelling to your destination. If your bag is too big, you’ll have to make a reservation for one of the oversized seats. There’s between 22-42 depending on the train type, but if you’ve missed out you’ll have to wait for another train or pay a fine.
The good news for us skiers is that this rule only affects your standard baggage, so make sure you don’t pack too many salopettes! For sports equipment, which incudes boards and skis, you’re exempt from having to reserve specific seats. In any case, just make sure it’s not in anyone’s way.
I’ve been to Japan a number of times, and getting through customs has always been a little more involved than in other countries. Now, the usual fingerprint scan, landing card, and photo are met by a whole host of other measures designed to prevent the spread of COVID. When I arrived recently (10 October 2022), there were a number of checkpoints to get through from the plane to the other side of customs. One to check your vaccine status, another to check your MySOS app, one more to check your paperwork (Japan seems to love paperwork) and then the usual immigration steps afterwards.
These might start, depending on your airline, with mandatory mask-wearing on the plane. Not ideal, especially with the dry air but not the end of the world. Once you arrive in Japan, You’ll then be ushered through a specific route in the airport and asked to get your MySOS app ready. Bear in mind this may have the tendency to change in the future, but at present, you’ll need two vaccinations and a booster to enter Japan, if not you’ll have to do a test before you leave.
If you have to do the test beforehand, you won’t be able to use the app which means things may take longer for you. You can expect questions about where you’re going, how long you’ll be there, and your current health status.
If you have been vaccinated, remember to bring official proof. Check your country’s Japanese embassy website to find out the most up-to-date requirements for your trip. None of this is anything to worry about, but if anything, just make sure you give yourself enough time to catch transfers from the other side. The government had previously suggested booking hotels near the airport due to long waiting times if your flight was to arrive in the evening, but whether you do so is entirely up to you.
Whether you’re picking up your food supplies from a konbini or grabbing that shiny new pair of skis you’ve seen, the chances are pretty high that you’ll have your temperature screened. At the front of most shops, you’ll find hand sanitiser usually accompanied by a device that takes your temperature. You’ll see your face pop up in the video along with your reading floating above your head. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything, and as far as I’ve seen there’s no one actually checking to see whether you can come in or not (though they are allowed to by law), but just use your best judgement based on how you’re feeling.
In many cases, you can often side-swipe most of the devices if you want to. In a lot of the smaller stores, you’ll likely just find a spray bottle of hand sanitiser which you should be using, especially if you plan on touching anything. Another note to add to things like this, you’ll probably find a lot of the hand dryers in public toilets taped off (because of covid, for some reason). As such, plan accordingly if you need to and bring your own tissues or wipes. In Japan, people often use personal mini towels, but that’s up to you if you want to or not.
Contactless payment is slightly more prevalent
Japan might be extremely late to the party, but contactless and plastic money are inching their way further and further into everyday society. This push is in part because of the pandemic and increased hygiene standards, sticking to only cash would not have been the practical thing to do during a pandemic. But to Japan’s credit, they’ve been heading in this direction, albeit rather slowly, for a number of years now.
If you’re heading to a big ski resort like Niseko or Hakuba or passing through any of the big cities you shouldn’t have a problem using contactless in a few places. At the very least, there’ll be places you can use your credit or debit card, should you want to. If you’re headed to somewhere completely off the beaten track, Seki Onsen, for instance, you’ll be out of luck. In the majority of places outside the city, Japan is still a cash-based society. Make sure you carry around a few thousand yen in your backpack while you’re on the slopes just in case, it’s better to be prepared and not need it!
All in all, your trip to Japan won’t be that different from before the pandemic, but there are a few more rules to follow and certainly some things to be aware of before you go. There’s nothing like skiing through deep Japow, contemplating whether there’s actually too much snow, and wondering what ramen you’re going to devour for dinner. What great problems to have! If it was me, I’d wear a full-body hazmat suit if it meant I could ski in Japan, so these changes are nothing!
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