Coming back to Japan these days is a tricky business.
On November 30, 2021, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida enacted stricter measures for people entering the country. It also halted the issuance of new visas.
Since November 30, Japanese and foreign residents arriving from an Omicron high-risk country list must stay in government-arranged accommodation upon arrival for a period of three, six or ten days. The list is long, and there is a complete one here.
As someone returning from Italy to Japan, I had to quarantine for six days in a hotel and then complete quarantine for eight days at home.
In mid-December there were reports of returnees being driven away from Tokyo, to Fukuoka, Sendai or Nagoya, as hotel capacity for coronavirus-related stays in the capital reached breaking point.
What was my experience going to be like?
Here are some of the things I learned during the six days of government-supervised hotel quarantine, from arriving at Narita International Airport to returning home to my apartment in Tokyo.
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Getting to Narita: Paper, Paper, Paper
In Italy, you often have to ask questions and check everything so that in general things go as planned.
In comparison, arriving in Japan and doing all the paperwork was a wonderfully smooth experience.
From the moment one lands at Narita, passengers are escorted in an orderly fashion off the plane and through the airport. Various forms need to be filled out, documents checked, mobile phone apps downloaded to report your health status and location during quarantine, and the “on arrival” PCR test needs to be performed.
Every step was smooth and there was little to no waiting except for the waiting time for the PCR test result.
When told “Congratulations, your PCR test was negative!” passengers exit the health screening area and finally pass through immigration, only to find that even their luggage is neatly stacked next to the conveyor belt. Lest you think you are then free to go, stop and think again. You and your fellow travelers (who have tested negative) are taken through customs and onto a bus, only to be sent to a hotel for mandatory quarantine.
The whole process took just under three hours.
My bus had just over ten people on board and the driver took us to a Toyoko Inn (hotel) in Mito City, Ibaraki Prefecture, about a 2 hour drive.
Pin, Pan, Pong: your lunch is served
The hotel room looked very much like an average business hotel in Japan. Clean and simple, it had a double bed, desk, bathroom and not much extra space.
But with wi-fi, a TV, and maybe some entertainment in the suitcase (a video game console? or maybe some crochet?), the days go by surprisingly quickly.
There was enough room to do some basic exercises on the floor and you could use a blanket as a mat.
Amenities included a kettle and hairdryer, and there were cleaning products if one wanted to clean the room during one’s stay.
From an official quarantine perspective, everyone receives an automated video call once a day and is asked to confirm their location several times a day.
Every three days, passengers are asked to take a PCR test in the morning. Scheduled at 6 a.m., it’s a nifty way to get people tested before they have a chance to eat or drink anything, but it can be a little tricky for those who don’t like to start early.
Of course, you can’t talk about being in quarantine without mentioning the main concern for most people: food.
Three times a day, with almost Swiss punctuality, a bento box hangs on your doorknob for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The quality of the food was good and enough to fill me up for the six days I was there, without craving snacks between meals.
It may not be your cup of tea, but there was something fried in almost every meal (including breakfast). Sometimes there were also some interesting combinations, perhaps in an attempt to make the food more breakfast-like (pancakes with potato salad filling, anyone?).
Overall though, no complaints about the food. For picky eaters, it is true that the food was cold when it was delivered. I recommend picking up your food as soon as it’s delivered. Sometimes the white rice could still be hot!
Your diet will likely be a standard Japanese meal, with green tea or miso soup on the side. If there are other cravings (in my case, it was coffee), passengers can either bring it with them or order it online for delivery. Haneda Airport recently introduced lockers where passengers can pick up items they ordered from Amazon before heading to the hotel.
Did I mention the best part? Hotel stay and food are completely free.
Learn from the online community
On Facebook, there is a support group for returning to Japan. It includes articles on everything from visa application to quarantine hotel experience.
This latest content overwhelms the stream these days. Basically, only those with resident status can enter the country, and many now have to go through hotel quarantine.
One of the most entertaining topics is watching online what other people have done on their return trips. It turns out that you can learn a lot from these posts.
There are those who go so far as to buy equipment to heat up their food. Many share their dining experiences, including tips on what to expect and what to bring with you.
Sharing humorous compilations of daily robocalls – where travelers confirm their location – is also popular. We recommend that you consult this page: sharing is caring.
The Prodigal Return: Freedom
The most difficult leg of the journey was, oddly enough, the last leg of the drive home.
On the last day of the hotel quarantine, passengers take a PCR test. If the result is negative, they are free to proceed to the next step, at least.
Travelers are taken by bus from the hotel to Narita Airport, where they are obliged to take one of the authorized modes of transport to return home. (One of the many forms of documents signed before being cleared by immigration is a passenger’s promise to follow these rules.)
The options? Rent a car and drive yourself, hire a pre-arranged taxi (you cannot get one from a public taxi rank), hop on an authorized train or take a special bus to a hotel where you are a registered customer.
This makes the return trip expensive. If one takes the train-pre-arranged taxi plan (as recommended on the site), the total ends up being ￥20,000 JPY (175 USD). One-way rental cars can also be expensive, depending on the provider. And let’s not talk about hiring pre-arranged taxis in Narita, which is in neighboring Tokyo prefecture.
Final Thoughts: Not a Very Sustainable Mode
The Japan Immigration Services Agency released a report in October 2021, stating that in the first six months of this year, just under 650,000 people came and went from Japan. This includes 199,086 Japanese who left the country and 459,415 foreigners who entered Japan.
On average, this means that around 3,500 people entered per day. The figure is likely skewed for January 2021, as many foreigners entered that month, before new restrictions were enacted.
Even so, it is mind-boggling that such a huge operation is carried out for thousands or even hundreds of people a day.
This realization sheds light on why Japan’s borders are not open to short-term visitors or new immigrants at this time: it would be difficult and costly to keep such a system in place if many more people are entering Japan. .
Indeed, when the flow of people increased from normal – including during holidays – passengers were sent to hotels in Sendai, Nagoya or Fukuoka. Some were sent to university dormitories.
Additionally, the limited quarantine-approved modes of transport available in Tokyo mean that it is inevitable that many will break the rules, especially when exiting Narita after hotel quarantine. In recent months, the Skyliner train has been added as an option for transportation from Narita to the Tokyo area. Before that, and now if you don’t live along this rail line, the only viable modes of transport are rental cars or pre-arranged taxis.
Are there any upcoming changes?
It will be interesting to see what changes will be made to this system in the coming months, especially as the health impacts and risks of Omicron become clearer.
Some business leaders have called for a relaxation of border measures. If this happens, the current model may no longer be feasible.
What options could be considered?
For those infected with mild symptoms, send less to government-paid quarantine hotels.
Quarantine periods may also be shortened in the future, which will affect the current hotel quarantine schedule.
Additionally, on January 15, Prime Minister Kishida announced the shortening of the quarantine from two weeks to ten days for those in close contact with COVID-19 patients and those returning from abroad.
The situation is fluid. But, in the meantime, if you find yourself quarantined in a hotel in Japan, rest assured: all is not so bad.
RELATED: Welcome to quarantine country! Strict security measures are not unique to Japan
Author: Arielle Busetto