The government’s Go To Travel campaign prompted plenty of skepticism ahead of its debut in July. Understandably so — new cases of COVID-19 infections were back on the upswing at that time and the whole push to help support the country’s ailing tourism industry felt far too early. Initial results appeared to reflect people’s trepidation, with domestic tourists choosing by and large to refrain from traveling.

While the program arguably hasn’t justified its ¥1.35 trillion budget, a look online suggests that attitudes toward the Go To Travel campaign — along with the recently launched Go To Eat effort — are shifting. Tokyo was finally included in the initiative from October and a growing number of people now appear to be taking advantage of it, with travel websites such as Rakuten and Jalan reporting that they were running out of slots.

Perhaps people are simply tired of staying home or maybe they’ve realized that this is their best opportunity to travel around Japan before a new wave of tourists inevitably return to clog the most popular destinations. Whatever the reason, the campaigns have gone from something that started online as moral panic (complete with man-on-the-street interviews courtesy of Asian Boss) to something people are interested in documenting… and, in some cases, use to their advantage.

While the bulk of the initial online reaction highlighted the aghast, one trend proved to be prophetic. YouTubers created practical video guides offering such things as an overview of the campaign and an explanation of how people navigate the quirky system of applying for a discount. Uploads then started to focus on the nitty gritty, and more kept coming as the months passed. One of YouTube’s most important functions in the online ecosystem is as a how-to depository — for those moments when people need to make a pasta sauce from scratch or remember how to tie a necktie — and the Go To Travel campaign has gone from something talked about in serious tones by news channels and always-engaged Twitter users to a potential lifestyle activity in pandemic times.

The next step for the once-besieged government campaign was to become something people eagerly took part in and shared online. Instagram was ahead of the curve in this respect, and it was arguably the only leading social media platform on which users fantasized about where they’d want to go instead of just condemning the campaign. That only intensified as Go To Travel kicked off, and thousands have shared their trips through #gototravel, a trend that carried over to short-form video app TikTok albeit with less overall content shared. Even Twitter, a site that tends to reward negativity compared to similar online sites, loosened up, with a fair amount of people sharing photos from their Go To trips.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most ambitious creations were uploaded onto YouTube. Alongside all those how-to guides soon came actual footage of people simply enjoying trips around the country. This type of content isn’t anything new, but after months during which a video like this would be heavily frowned upon given the pandemic, seeing people hanging out in hotels and flying felt somewhat cathartic.

YouTuber Onoda started out with instructional videos on how to utilize the Go To Travel campaign, before showing how consumers could really live it up. Others, like the person behind the channel aberage TV, documented every trip they took via the campaign, starting in Sendai and expanding farther afield. Plenty of lesser-viewed videos entered the ecosystem as well.

The Go To Travel campaign has since become a genuine source of feel-good content for creators across Japan. It’s no longer nearly as hotly contested as it once was, but a slight return to online normalcy in which mundane trips to the onsen have now become a source of fantasy for those at home. These days, it just hits harder.

Still, the situation has also produced some more clever moments. The Go To Eat campaign hasn’t been quite as hyped up, though it has generated some love on YouTube and beyond. The biggest story to emerge online relating to the campaign was how users discovered a way to earn money by dining at yakitori chain Torikizoku by using a specific online reservation site and ordering the bare minimum … and then receiving coupons upon leaving to use on a return visit. Customers were basically able to make money by eating out.

Torikizoku quickly changed its policy, but it was another reminder of life slowly returning to normal — people are always on the lookout for an attractive deal, but even a heavily discounted package won’t stop customers from trying to get the most out of the system.

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