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Like most countries around the world, the pandemic continues to have a significant effect on Japan. The nation weathered a fourth wave of COVID-19 earlier this year, which has put a strain on the health system — a problem further compounded by a slow vaccination rollout.

Since March 2020, Japan has implemented a strict border policy to curb the spread of the coronavirus, even denying entry to long-term and permanent residents (while still allowing Japanese citizens to leave and enter freely) at first. These constantly evolving regulations posed a problem for all non-Japanese trying to enter the country, and continue to impact entry for international students and tourists. Meanwhile, many international residents in Japan remain wary of airline travel, case numbers abroad and the financial risks of getting stuck overseas.

Still, the wanderlust is getting hard to ignore and people are now considering international travel to visit family and friends (or even to get a vaccination). There’s lots to keep in mind when planning a trip — both when leaving and returning to Japan.

Understanding travel risks

The issue of whether or not to travel abroad is a multifaceted one. Each individual’s background and circumstances are going to differ, but understanding the risks of both inbound and outbound travel can help make the decision a little easier.

Some nations may be easing restrictions for travelers from Japan, but international travel remains stilted; even for those kept apart from loved ones for an extended period of time, non-essential travel is still not recommended.

According to the World Health Organization, “there is no ‘zero risk’ when considering the potential importation or exportation of cases in the context of international travel.” Traveling internationally invariably means spending time in the vicinity of other people, waiting in security lines, at baggage claim and at immigration.

There’s also the moral side of international travel to contemplate. Findings from a recent study conducted by a team of medical student researchers from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, indicate that international travel had the biggest impact on increases in death rates globally. But it is the specific destination that will have the largest impact on the risk of spreading COVID-19.

While official government advice currently warns against all travel, that does not mean that you cannot travel: You just need to be prepared for the process, recommends Breana Rivera, a Japan tour specialist at All Japan Tours.

“Always know what restrictions are in place at each location, have emergency numbers written down and when traveling, know the nearest hospital or COVID-19 testing location to you,” she says, adding that travelers should make sure to purchase travel insurance and could look into working with travel agents to take care of the finer details.

“Japanese residents who wish to travel overseas should also do their research ahead of time and know what restrictions are in place upon arrival into a foreign country, as well as the arrival back into Japan,” Rivera says.

Re-entering Japan

A variety of border enforcement measures for arriving in Japan are currently in place, depending on the situation in the country individuals are traveling from. If you’re a Japanese national or resident then you may re-enter Japan, but you must adhere to a strict set of criteria, a series of COVID-19 tests and a period of quarantine.

Recent arrivals to Japan have reported long waits at the airport: Some have detailed upward of nine hours to progress through the multiple COVID-19 screening stages. Complaints include no access to food or water during the wait; inadequately prepared airport staff dealing with various paperwork and visa situations; and families with small children left without appropriate support.

One such recent arrival is Emily Inaba. She flew from the United States to Narita Airport in order to spend time with her family in Japan. Inaba was concerned about transmitting the disease, but being vaccinated helped dampen her fears of contracting or spreading the virus. “The maze of paperwork, however, really intimidated me,” Inaba says. “Not many can say they’ve traveled during a pandemic prior to COVID-19. I knew it would be a completely different process and have a lot of red tape.

“The arrival procedures in Japan were very smooth. Though there were about 20-plus mini checkpoints, I had all my forms printed and was confident that they were filled correctly. Instructions and workflow by Narita staff were also clear and organized,” she says, reporting a “notably quick” two hours to get through immigration.

These “mini checkpoints” at the airport include COVID-19 questionnaire forms, saliva test stations, an app station — where MySOS and other mandatory tracking apps are tested and checked multiple times — and a COVID-19 results room.

Danni Yu recently flew to Japan from England to reunite with her Japanese partner after spending 15 months separated by COVID-19 restrictions. Being very concerned about the process of traveling during the pandemic, Yu says that traveling internationally at the moment is “very tough.”

“The pre-departure test, arrival procedures and quarantine have made traveling both expensive and time-consuming — not to mention the mental stress it puts on people,” she says, adding “I wish I didn’t, but I will have to travel again.”

Yu explains that it took about six hours to enter Japan, and another two to arrive at the quarantine hotel and finish check-in: “(I had to quarantine) in a very, very small room and the window could not open — I almost felt claustrophobic.

“On the other hand, it’s only three days and the hotel is paid for,” she says.

But for some travelers, like Larisa Redditt, the process was not as straightforward. She left Japan in December to travel home to Brazil, due to a family emergency. “There were many (flight) reschedules,” she says, leaving her in Rio de Janeiro for more than a month extra.

Her four-day journey back to Japan was a jumble of slow connections, first to South Korea via Atlanta, where she was told her connecting flight to Osaka was canceled. “They wanted to send me back to the U.S.,” Redditt says, who was also concerned about her eligibility to fly as her PCR test was five days old by that point. But after a call to Japanese Immigration, she was able to board a flight to Fukuoka, instead.

“Be prepared for not being able to come back to Japan exactly when you planned,” she advises. “Always have a Plan B for every step of the way.”

Information vacuum

As Redditt’s circumstances illustrate, sometimes travel is inevitable, and finding concrete advice and information is difficult. The Return To Japan Support Group has filled the void left by a mountain of overcomplicated guidelines, with many detailed write-ups from people sharing their experiences and asking advice from travelers in similar situations.

The private Facebook group, founded by corporate accommodation firm MetroResidences, was originally set up to support residents stuck overseas due to travel restrictions, and has clocked up over 20,000 members since it was set up in July 2020.

If you really do need to make a trip, the key to traveling during COVID-19 is all about being prepared.

“With ever-changing information regarding COVID-19 and the safety of travelers, we recommend following along with news networks (and) official government sites, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” Rivera says. If you’re planning to travel abroad, there is also the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Safety Information Distribution Service (though this is only available in Japanese). Register your trip with your local embassy, if such a service exists — Americans can use the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program — to get country-specific alerts and advice while abroad.

For returnees to Japan, the consensus across the Return to Japan Support Group is to be organized. This can save a lot of time and stress, especially after a long flight. Above all, paperwork should be correctly prepared — even little misspellings or omitted middle names can cause delays and confusion.

“Give yourself ample time to research, prepare and triple-check your documents and accommodations,” Inaba recommends. “I spent about a month and a half in advance preparing with research prior to (traveling).” She also suggests printing documents and itineraries, as opposed to showing screenshots from your smartphone.

“Ultimately, take your time and breathe,” Inaba says. “If you’ve done your research … you will be OK regardless of what happens.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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