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By The Way
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Everything you need to know about traveling to Japan

How to navigate travel restrictions and coronavirus protocols

(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)

After welcoming a record number of foreign visitors in 2019, Japan instituted 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 trial run in May. Fifty visitors from four countries — including the United States — came for guided group tours. In June, Japan expanded that opportunity to 98 countries with low coronavirus infection rates while keeping entry requirements complex and strict. On Sept. 7, Japan began allowing up to 50,000 visitors to enter the country per day, including tourists without a guide but made their travel arrangements through a tour company.

The most lenient change came Oct. 11, when Japan began allowing individual visitors to enter visa-free.

The move took away a key barrier to travel, says Jeffrey M. Krevitt, vice president of marketing for Inside Travel Group, which owns InsideJapan Tours. His company has seen demand increase dramatically in the last months, even before the rules relaxed.

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Yukari Sakamoto, By The Way Tokyo City Guide writer and the author of “Food Sake Tokyo,” said the lack of tourists has been palpable. Japan’s Immigration Services Agency reported that just 252 tourists entered the country in June (compared with nearly 32 million in June 2019). That number increased to about 7,900 in July.

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

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What travel restrictions are in place

As of Oct. 11, international travelers are allowed to enter Japan with a valid vaccination certificate or a negative result of a covid test taken within 72 hours of departure.

They don’t need to be chaperoned by a guide or part of a tour group, which was previously a requirement. Short-term visitors that were exempt from visa requirements before the pandemic, which includes travelers from the United States, will no longer need to apply for tourist visas.

On Sept. 7, Japan lifted the testing requirement for boosted travelers who have had three vaccine shots. There are no quarantine requirements for U.S. travelers, but those who’ve traveled in other countries in the 14 days before their trip to Japan may be required to test on arrival or quarantine.

The U.S. Embassy recommends travelers consult the latest regulations through Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

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What to know about coronavirus protocols

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

If you hate to mask, a trip to Japan is not for you. According to government guidelines, foreign tourists are required to mask in community settings unless they’re outdoors and able to distance from others, are exercising outdoors in a park or are distanced indoors and not speaking with anyone. Failure to comply with masking guidelines may result in being asked to leave Japan, Bloomberg News reported. Additionally, the U.S. Embassy says “failure to adhere to mask-wearing norms reflects poorly on foreign residents.”

Chris Carlier, who is based in Tokyo and runs the popular Twitter account Mondo Mascots, says although there aren’t many official masking restrictions for locals, “pretty much everyone” still wears masks in public whether inside or outside.

In situations where it’s not possible to mask — like when you’re eating or using public baths — the etiquette is to avoid talking to avoid spreading droplets.

Other changes Sakamoto says visitors may notice are signs in front of shops and restaurants asking customers to mask and hand sanitizer dispensers and temperature-taking kiosks at businesses. Some restaurants take diners’ temperature before they sit down.

Festivals, sporting events and cultural performances are welcoming attendees back (with masks), sometimes at reduced capacity and/or with socially distanced seating. At some events, like wrestling matches and baseball and soccer games, fans have been asked not to cheer — although such rules are beginning to soften. Clapping is permitted.

Sakamoto says it may confuse foreigners to see strict precautions, but notes that unlike in the U.S. it’s still rare for people in Japan to have gotten covid. “For most of us it’s still something that people are afraid of catching,” she said.

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How to dine and explore

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

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

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

Another perk: “All of those restaurants that were impossible to get into, now they’re easier to get into,” said Catherine Heald, co-founder and CEO of Remote Lands.

Relax, This Isn’t the Future of Japanese Tourism

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.