ORIGINAL STORY PUBLISHED MARCH 2021 – UPDATED late October 2022
Independent travellers are finally being allowed back into Japan visa free from many countries including Australia. And I’m in line to go! Almost back to pre-covid conditions, but not quite!
I originally published part of this story in MARCH 2021 – updating it last September. I decided on another fresh revamp, as I’m currently discovering some of the Covid hoops you need to jump through to realise your holiday in Japan.
A lot has changed in Japan since the pandemic hit, and the virus still should be a major consideration in planning a trip there. All 47 prefectures, except Okinawa, reported a rise in the number of new cases over the week through Wednesday, October 19, and concerns are growing about an eighth wave of infections with the country opening its doors to tour groups and independent overseas visitors.The vaccination rate in Japan is plateauing and the movement of people increasing throughout the country.
New infections across the country during the week to Oct 19 rose 35 percent from the previous week, according to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
On the plus side, Japan remains very cautious about Covid, and there’s currently a lot more protections in place than you’ll find elsewhere – like perspex partitions on cafe/restaurant tables, and close attention to cleaning, hand sanitising and social distancing.
Masks are not mandatory in Japan, and the National Government there lately has been suggesting that they are no longer needed in outdoor spaces where there are no crowds. But the Japanese are resisting this idea, so if you wander around without a mask, you will stand out.
The first flow of independent travellers into Japan this month have been a mixed bag of masked and maskless visitors. I won’t debate the benefits or otherwise of masks, but will make this point – if you contract Covid in Japan, you will go into compulsory 7 days of quarantine. Maskless in your hotel room for a week – what fun! An unexpected interruption for you travel plan (load up some books and television series on your iPad because there’s not a lot of english programmes on hotel tv’s).
Rest assured, your covid infection will be detected as hotels and many businesses are still carrying out temperature checks.
I have asked one Tokyo hotel what happens if I get Covid while staying with them. They confirmed I could continue to stay for my booked time, but quarantined in my room. I’m not sure what happens to my partner if he doesn’t catch it. Quarantined with me or looking for other accommodation?
What happens between hotels, or with other hotels – I don’t know. It’s the elephant in the room. I guess I’ll find out if I get Covid. No doubt the Government authorities will be notified, and I’ll get instructions. Well, that would be a good blog story to tell! What else will I do stuck in a hotel room!
Most importantly, if you plan to travel to Japan – life will be a lot simpler if you are well vaccinated. Otherwise, you’ll need to undergoing testing for Covid.
You can front up at the border in JAPAN with paperwork, but you can expect a simpler process if you have downloaded and activated the Japanese Government MySOS app, processing all necessary paperwork through that prior to leaving your home.
MJ and I are registered on the app – but not without difficulty. When you fill out various questions and upload your vaccination proof, you will achieve success if the app turns blue. Apparently, all you have to do is show the ‘blue’ approved app to the quarantine officer on arrival, and off you go to enjoy your Japanese holiday.
You need to input your passport details and your international quarantine certificate into the app. Yes – INTERNATIONAL CERTIFICATE – not the National one, Aussies. The INTERNATIONAL one is easily downloaded from Medicare. The Japanese accept three vaccinations from approved suppliers – will it confuse them when they see my five vaccinations?
My first advice is that you don’t go fiddling with the app too early before your trip. It probably won’t work, as it needs approvals along the way, and currently Japan is dealing with that a lot with the upsurge in travellers. Secondly, things are changing daily with Japan’s entry requirements, so ensure you are up to date.
Back to the app – who remembers that old 1950’s song – the little blue man? It’s an ear worm in my head right now after tackling the MySOS app. My phone has turned blue, and I’m good to go for entry into Japan!
Turning blue indicates that my entry application and vaccination status has been confirmed and accepted. You have no idea the elation I felt when this happened as we encountered frustrating twists and turns along the way.
Like – naming where you are staying in Japan and where you would quarantine, along with your contact details in Japan. This question is a bit outdated, stemming from restrictions that were in force before this month. But it is still there and the app doesn’t have enough room to fit in all my accommodations in Japan. So, on email advice from Japanese authorities, I finally just inputed the first hotel I’ll be at. That worked.
But then it wanted the address of the hotel, and I tried copying it off the hotel website. But there were difficulties with that. It didn’t accept the full address noted on the hotel website, and it took a few tries of adjusting the address before the app accepted it.
Then it wanted my seat number on my incoming plane. Well, initially I didn’t have that because I’m flying with a my airline’s partner and hadn’t been given it. Someone must have seen that difficulty with other incoming passengers, and eventually I got the all important seat number that allowed me to progress with the app.
The app currently also indicates it wants to contact you once you are in Japan. But that has also been abandoned, and you can ditch the app once you are across the border.
The other important thing to remember to ensure your phone, with the app, is working on arrival so you can show it to border officials. Some may choose international roaming with their own network, while others may choose to load up a Japanese sim. These are on sale at Japanese international airports, but I’m unsure if you can access them to show the blue app before ‘crossing’ the border. In our case, MJ will have international roaming, so I will hotspot off him to show my app. I also will have a SIM purchased in Australia.
Failing that – I’m always prepared for hitches in my plans – I’ll go with the alternative to the app entry – the good old-fashioned way – line up on arrival in Japan with my vaccination international certificate, my passport and other papers at the ready to show.
This supposedly would be a long and tedious process. Where-as the app entry is supposed to be a smooth olympic paced arrival. And why is this important? Because, apparently you can’t access toilets after leaving the plane until you ‘across the border’. Ouch! Clearly, whoever determined that is under the age of 50!And besides, you know how it is – you don’t want to go until you know you are not allowed to go!
I will be a little annoyed if that ‘show your papers line’ at the airport is shorter than the App line. I reckon they should include the Japanese MySOS app in season 2 of Squid Game.
Never ever travel without good travel insurance. And these days that insurance should have good Covid coverage. You wouldn’t want the bill from a Japanese hospital if you ended up there with Covid and had no insurance.
Until recent weeks, you had to show that you had covid insurance coverage when entering Japan. It hasn’t come up on the MySOS app, so I’m not sure if that’s necessary now. Have proof anyway!
I am reminded of a case I encountered in a middle eastern country in the 1970’s where a young Australian, without insurance, was not being allowed to leave a hospital until he paid his bill. He’d travelled numerous times without insurance, despite having a long standing illness, and had been continually bailed out by the Australian Government when his illness forced him to seek medical attention. He hadn’t meant to be in this middle eastern country, but the plane he was travelling on ,en route to Europe, stopped there to get medical attention for him. I happened to be staying with one of the embassy officials at the time, and was told the Australian Government could no longer help him as he ignored advice and continued to travel without insurance. So he was stuck there, his hospital bill mounting day by day, and his family were not in a financial position to assist. I never heard the end of the story, because I moved on before the situation was resolved.
OTHER THOUGHTS – JAPAN RAILWAYS
Rail is my principal way to get around Japan. Well thought out rail travel in Japan is a worry free and enjoyable way of transport in Japan, especially for first time visitors. Japanese trains are clean and comfortable, they run on time, and are part of the Japanese experience that all travellers must try! And who doesn’t want to try riding a sleek, fast Shinkensen (bullet train) and some of the lovely little regional trains. Or a cute theme train like the Hello Kitty bullet train introduced in 2018! OK, I am not a fan of cats, but I threw that one in for the cat lovers. There’s an interesting range of theme trains to choose from, and for the well heeled, some amazing luxury train experiences. Most of those luxury and special trains aren’t covered by the JR pass, but with a few you can pay the difference of a standard cost and the luxury cost.
I’m relieved to see railway companies in Japan have in place a wide range of Covid measures including ready availability of hand sanitisers at major stations, masks worn by station employees, thorough disinfectant cleaning, and good ventilation replacing air constantly within trains – some every six to eight minutes. Efforts are made to distance passengers from each other, and masks are required on board. I’m ok with that. I’ve always found Japanese trains to be immaculate anyway, but good to know extra measures are in place.
Don’t be put off by those reports of crowded train stations and trains in Japan. Ensure your day’s travel is outside of peak hours – anytime outside of 7am to 9am and between 5 pm to 7pm- especially important in these Covid times – and book your seat ahead of your journey. If it’s a major railway station, you’ll find there is usually a Station website with a good map. Very handy. Get to know beforehand the stations you’ll access so that you can move through quickly.
I’ve always found signage in English at railway stations is plentiful, and I’ve always been able to find an official on hand who speaks English. At major stations there is usually a tourist office. You will be surprised at just how easy rail travel is in JAPAN.
TRAIN OPTIONS and the JR PASS
I travel with the Japan Railways (JR) pass, offered by a collaboration of six companies within the JR group across the whole of Japan at a reasonable cost. There are also regional passes available if you are only visiting a particular part of Japan.
You need to buy your pass in your home country before your trip – but not too much before. The passes are only valid for three months from purchase. They become active once you validate them in Japan at a railway station.
In Australia, they are currently selling slightly below the cost they were back in 2020 for one week, two week and three week periods. They are readily available in Australia, but check various vendors as the price can differ.
I ‘ve always ended up with Sachitours, based in Sydney. They’ve offered the best prices when I’ve been looking, and are very efficient with a great service and fast delivery to Western Australia. They also sell a sim card for use on what is regarded as the best network in Japan.
JR rail passes are easy to use at railway stations in Japan. They eliminate the need to find money or buy tickets on JR services. But note: it’s advisable to book your seat (at no cost) for Shinkensens and Limited Express trains.
All shinkensens (bullet trains) are all run by Japan Railways, so are covered by your JR Pass with the exception of the Nozomi and Mizuho, along with the Sanyo and Kyushu Shinkansen Lines. The Pass doesn’t generally cover JR trains using railway tracks operated by other companies. A check that your pass covers the whole journey can be made when you are booking your seat. I’ve only ever run into this problem once – part of the journey was covered by my pass, part wasn’t. But this was an occasion when I hadn’t booked a seat, so I hadn’t received advice. I was running late for the train and went into an unreserved car. It caused a few complications, resolved with the help of other passengers who assisted me. I’ve always ensured I book a seat beforehand since! Lesson learnt.
Another mistake I’ve made was failing to book my forward rail journey, thinking I could ring from my mountain located hotel in Hakone when I was moving on back to Tokyo. It could not be done as I needed to show my JR pass in person to a railway official to make the booking. So it was back down the mountain for an unscheduled visit to a railway station to secure a booking! I wasted half a day! Probably I could have got a seat on the day I was going to travel as trains go very regularly in many areas. But better safe than sorry as my forward journey on that particular occasion was going to connect up with my flight home! Have not made that mistake again! Another lesson learnt.
Best of all, with your pass, if you accidentally board the wrong train, you can get off at the next stop and return on your JR pass. No extra cost! Same if you miss your train .. no financial loss. Just show your JR pass for the next one. I haven’t ever jumped on the wrong train, but I saw two Japanese ladies at Tokyo Station board a train only to find they were on the wrong one. They hastily got off with less than a minute to go before departure!
FIRST CLASS OR ECONOMY
You can buy First Class JR passes or Economy. However, with Shinkensens (bullet trains) you don’t need to get a first class seat (green class) seat – economy (standard) is luxurious and roomy enough! I can’t get enough of Shinkansens. Even for a long journey of four or five hours, they are comfortable and enjoyable.
As well as Shinkensens, the JR pass covers many local trains throughout Japan, including the Yamanote loop line around central Tokyo that is much like the London circuit line. The Yamanote line runs for more than 34 kilometres and provides access to a lot of well known attractions and suburbs in Tokyo.
For a long distance train, go to a train station and book your seat, showing your JR pass as you pass through to the platform areas. Ensure that you ask for a non smoking carriage if you are a non smoker, and note the requirements for luggage. Over a certain size, luggage must be put into a luggage car. This is a recently introduced requirement. I ensure I travel with a case that comes within the limit that allows me to take it into my carriage with me. Again – check on this before your trip. A lot is changing in these Covid times.
You can take your own food and drink on board Shinkansen. Your seat will have a fold down tray, much like you have on planes. And usually a food/drink trolley will come by. Without knowledge of Japanese you might find difficulty with these if the attendant doesn’t speak english. I usually buy my food and drink at the train station I’m departing from. I’ve recently heard some Shinkensen food trolleys sell special ice cream. I can’t say I’ve spotted this on my trips, but I’ll definitely be on the lookout to try one next time!
The other thing I plan to embrace more on my upcoming trip are Ekiban – bento boxes you buy at railway stations. Most are specific to particular regions, showcasing their produce. Most also don’t have any english on the boxes, so it can be hard to tell what’s in them. Luckily, on this trip I have uploaded google translator, a free app where I can photograph Japanese writing and it will translate it into English for me. I can also hold conversations with a non english speaking Japanese using this translator. Captain Kirk – I’ve arrived in the Star Trek age!
One ekiban I am particular interested in is the self heating type. Apparently, there is a little string on the box. Pull it, and within minutes the food inside is piping hot!
Would love to see these in Australia! How handy would they be for picnics! But I’m not holding my breath. Twenty years ago, when I first visited Japan, I embraced hot coffee in a can from vending machines. I eagerly waited their arrival in Australia, especially when I heard about hot soup and hot ramen in a can! I’m still waiting.
For a first time visitor, you’ll probably be touring popular tourist areas served by JR. A pass also covers JR buses and discounts at JR run hotels. I suggest for a first visit, keep it simple and travel with a JR Pass.
HOW TO VALIDATE YOUR JR PASS ON ARRIVAL IN JAPAN
When you buy your rail pass in your home country, you will be provided with a voucher. It is important that you do NOT buy your pass too early before your trip. Useless getting it six months in advance. They are only valid three months ahead of use.
When you arrive in Japan, you take your voucher to a JR rail office (at airports or rail stations) and have it validated. The JR rail offices are well sign posted. You will then be given a proper pass and that is active from the time of validation (not from the time you originally bought it in Australia). Don’t lose it! I’ll repeat that: Buy no more than three months ahead of your trip, and validate it on arrive at a railway station in Japan. Yes, you can take the very next train once it is validated, providing there are seats. So if you validate your pass at the JR office at Narita Airport, also book your Narita Express seat at the same time to take you to central Tokyo, an hour’s journey away. You do need to book your seat on the NARITA Express.
The Narita Express departs regularly, and there are good signposts to direct you to the railway station downstairs from the Arrivals hall. If you come into HANEDA Airport, much closer to central Tokyo, you can validate your pass there and use it on the Tokyo monorail for a short trip into the city. I’ve always been able to get onto the next service, and haven’t had to wait any more than about 20 minutes.
If you are arriving at another airport, you’ll need to check yourself if there is a JR service available from the airport. Most probably there is. You show your pass whenever booking a JR rail seat, and simply show your pass to railway officials to access rail stations/platforms. No messing around with ticket machines! I’ve heard that now you can also scan your pass to access a ticket from a machine. But I haven’t tried that, and I’ve been told by a railway official that I can stick with the old system of simply flashing the pass by an official.
Note: there is another railway company operating from Narita Airport. The Keisha Narita line is not covered by the JR pass. The Keisei group also has a range of passes and money saving tickets. But I haven’t used them, so that one is up to you to check out.
There are buses and taxis at the airports. You can check at the airport whether an airport bus goes to the area you are heading to in Tokyo. One route is to Tokyo Railway station in central Tokyo.
Sadly, the pandemic has seen a downturn in the service offered by one of my favourite Japanese travel sites, hyperDia on the internet. In the past, it’s been my bible in the past for checking out detailed Japanese train schedules, routes, travel and connection times as part of my trip planning. But the site a few months ago was no longer active. It now seems to have resumed with a limited free service, enough to get a rough idea of train service availabilities. But it’s not as good as it was. I’m hoping it that as tourism in JAPAN increases again, hyperdia will go back to the standard it was famous for in the past. There are some alternatives, but not as good.
These types of services are simply an aid when planning a Japan trip involving rail travel. You can get an idea, for instance, how often a service to a destination is provided for in a day. I always make my bookings directly with JR offices in railway stations. They have english speaking assistants and have always been extremely helpful.
Other train and bus operators in Japan
I’m getting more off the beaten track in my travels to Japan these days, so I also now look to options with other companies where JR doesn’t provide services. This applies to some areas of Tokyo and other cities and towns that you might want to access. For instance, the Tokyo metro isn’t covered by a JR Pass. But good deals on passes are available at stations including timed ones for 24 hours, 48 hours, and 72 hours. They are not expensive.
Many of these passes are available at ticket machines at railway stations. If you can’t figure it out, just ask an railway attendant. But frankly, they are pretty easy to work out with english options. The passes can be very worthwhile. There also is plenty of information on the Internet as most Japanese railway and bus companies have good websites in English.
Many of the popular theme, tourist or luxury trains in Japan are run by other companies. There are some amazing ones! Again, they have good english websites and many offer short term special passes available at rail stations in Japan.
Food on trains
As mentioned earlier, eating is ok aboard a Shinkansen and Limited Express trains. But it’s a no no – very much frowned on in city and metro suburban trains. In these Covid times, I’ll be circumspect about eating on a train if other passengers are close by, as it means removing my mask.
INSIDE TRAIN STATIONS
Yes, you’ve all seen those photos of super crowded train stations in Japan. How will you manage! Easily, with planning and a calm approach.
Remember to consult railway station maps, easily downloaded from the Station websites on the net, and if you can, visit the Station the day before to book your seat and map out your journey to your departure platform. With your JR pass, you can access these areas without extra payment, even if you are not ready to depart. I’d only do that at very busy stations such as Tokyo Station – there is great signage and help available there.
If you are at one end of Tokyo railway station, and need to move through to the other end, there is an alternative to walking through the station. You can walk around it! It doesn’t take very long and can be an interesting route!
Again: avoid travelling in peak times. Take a leisurely breakfast before starting your travel day. If you do have to tackle peak times, stay calm and remain methodical in finding your platform, carriage and seat. Get there early to allow yourself plenty of time. Once you are onto your departure platform, it’s easy pesy.
GETTING ON YOUR TRAIN
When you book your seat at a railway station, you get a carriage number and a platform number/letter. There are even feet often drawn on the ground where you queue up for your carriage. You will also get a seat number. Trains leave on schedule – so make sure you are there in plenty of time.
Note: There’s usually a ‘do not cross’ line on the platform, and if you dare to try before your train has arrived, there’s likely to be a terse warning announcement on the platform loud speaker.
You may not understand what is being said, but take it from me, stay on the correct side of the line!
Suburban trains and long distance trains usually make announcements in English, including directions about which side of the train to disembark. Announcements are also often made visually on screens in various languages. The overseas tourist is well catered for. Don’t be afraid!
Observe signs. There are plenty of signage in English and other languages to help you in main towns, cities and popular tourist towns. When in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask a rail or bus official. If they don’t speak English or your language, just point to your ticket. They’ll understand what you need – directions to your platform! I’ve had friends who managed to get lost in Tokyo Station after going for a meal at its many excellent restaurants there. They couldn’t find their Station exit! But they never approached any of the many railway officials to seek help. They tried to find their own way. Always ask for help when you need it.
I’ve found that Japanese people are much more willing in recent years to step forward to assist me if they think I require assistance. Twenty years ago on my first trip, they tended to be hesitant – not because they didn’t want to help, but Japanese people are careful not to intrude on your space or offer assistance if it isn’t actually needed. It is all about customary respect. On my more recent trips, I’ve found Japanese people reach out, even if they can’t understand english very well. I’ve had occasions when Japanese around me have sought out someone with english to help me.
The increase in tourism in Japan in the last decade, and a better understanding of visitors has assisted in that. Plus many more Japanese are learning English or other languages, and are well travelled themselves. English is also much more widely taught now to all Japanese school children. Hopefully, they are better than my school girl attempts at French and Latin!
On my first visit 20 years ago, I was having some difficulty about my rail ticket, and decided to stand up and ask loudly in my rail carriage (to my two sons’ horror) – “does anyone speak English?” “Oh, I do,” said the man sitting next to me. He had heard me discussing my problem with my son, but didn’t want to intrude. Once he realised I wanted help, he willingly assisted. His English was excellent.
On another rail journey on that first trip, I said ‘excuse me’ in Japanese as I sat down next to a Japanese lady. We spent the next hour in silence, until she looked across the aisle to where my son was writing a post card to his Japanese teacher in Australia. “Oh, he’s writing in Japanese,” she blurted out in surprise. “And you speak English,” I answered, also in surprise. Turned out she spoke excellent English, having lived in New York for some time. But because of that ‘excuse me’ I had uttered in my limited Japanese, she thought I was fluent in the language, but that I didn’t want to converse. So she respected that.
We had a good laugh when I told her I only knew about 20 simple words of Japanese! We spent the remaining hour of the journey having a great chat – in English! And she kindly check read my son’s Japanese on his post card for mistakes. His Sensei in Australia must have been very impressed with his effort!
Japanese trains are immaculately clean. And with Covid precautions, even cleaner now! It’s one of the wonders of Japan to see a Shinkansen arrive at a Station, with a crew of cleaners ready to access and clean it as soon as passengers disembark. They are super quick and efficient. In 2020, a 44 person crew could clean and inspect a 16 car Shinkansen in 10 minutes!
Sometimes, staff awaits at the train doors to collect your rubbish as you leave. If they are not there, please respect Japanese trains and take your rubbish with you. That applies anywhere in Japan. Take your rubbish with you until you can find a bin! That may not be an easy task, because there’s not an abundance of bins in Japan, and many are attractively disguised.
Pre trip, I access an abundance of travel brochures and guides from the Japan National Organisation JNTO in Sydney. Check out their site for downloading many of these.
They also will readily answer email queries, and will send free brochures and booklets from Japan’s various prefectures to you by snail mail. They have a lot more than you’ll find at your usual travel agency.
Unfortunately, most have not been updated during the pandemic, but new ones are now beginning to arrive such as the latest Tokyo Guide that I was sent this month.
It’s very worthwhile checking out their website and accessing the brochures/booklets when planning your JAPAN trip. The site has loads of information on destinations, planning your trip and up to date news from Japan
Another tip is to download the Japanese government’s english NHK TV channel app and watch its many and varied programmes. I have learnt so much about Japan through viewing NHK TV, and some of the places I’ve visited have landed on my itineraries after seeing them on NHK. Their international news service also happens to be first rate. I have the NHK TV on my iPad and phone, and also chrome it to our main television. I’m a very regular viewer. My main problem with watching NHK throughout the past few pandemic years is that it has showcased so many places to see in Japan, it was challenging to make choices for my upcoming trip. Ah, well – might have to go again next year!
WHERE TO GO
It is up to you and what interests you. But for a first time traveller to Japan, I would recommend an extended times in Tokyo and Kyoto – there’s so much to see and do. And you can use both these places as bases for wonderful day trips away from the city. In these pandemic times, I feel it’s best to book longer stays in the one accommodation rather than changing every few days.
A good tip is to check out tour brochures at your local travel agency, and follow their route! Your self planned, self booked independent trip will cost a lot less than guided tours, but their brochures contain lots of useful information.
The ancient capital of Nara is a good day trip from Kyoto. You can also do a long day trip from Kyoto to Hiroshima using your JR Pass if you are time poor. And definitely head off to the mountains for a long stay in Takayama in Gifu prefecture – a great base for exploring in the region including the wonderful Mount Norikua, the Hida folk village, an amazing mountain ropeway, the neighbouring quaint town of Furukawa and the historical thatched houses of Shirakawago. And then there’s .. well .. so MUCH to see.
Finally – please take the trouble to learn a few essential words in Japanese such as ‘thank you’. It will be appreciated. And if you are toting a camera, learn the words for ‘May I’ – to use when you’d like to take a photo of someone. Again, it will be appreciated and you’ll achieve some wonderful snaps – ī desu ka?
By all means, use a translator app – but do try to learn a little Japanese yourself.
I hope I haven’t put you off a Japan holiday with all this detail. All I can say is, from my previous trips to Japan, it’s worth the effort.
Find more detailed reviews of some of the places I’ve been to on my trips to Japan on this travel blog. There are 16 stories on Japan to read. Enjoy!