Spending a week in Japan with Cher songs on the back of your head isn’t exactly ideal. Still, I’ve been walking around Kyoto, Hamamatsu, and Tokyo for the past 7 days, humming the same chorus to myself: “If I could turn back time…”
Because being in Japan now is like stepping back in time. Remember Australia about a year ago? Remember how we thought about COVID-19, how we approached it, how we planned our lives and how we lived around it? That is Japan today.
Entering Japan as a foreign tourist is reminiscent of entering Australia in December last year. Then Australia has the DPD, a horrible, buggy app that every person entering the country has to deal with, register all their personal details, upload their vaccination certificate, scan their passport, And restart the whole process for each trip.
Now, Japan has Japan Web, a less buggy site that performs essentially the same function with just as much effort — this time with the added spice of cross-cultural confusion. You get there eventually. But this is a process.
Then you start your trip to Japan, and you go back in time again. Masks are still mandatory on Japanese airlines. The announcement on the plane’s public address said, “Please take steps to avoid infection,” and my favorite was: “Please refrain from heavy drinking and loud talking.”
(One of my tour guides in Kyoto laughed at this a few days later. “Yes,” he said. “They’ve figured out what caused COVID in Japan: have fun.”)
All the old epidemic measures are still in place in Japan. Most hotels, some restaurants and some attractions still have temperature scanners. Hand sanitizer bottles can be found almost everywhere. A sticker on a dining table at Haneda Airport warned me: “Please eat without talking.”
Mask compliance in Japan is slavish, to put it mildly. Seriously: EVERYONE is wearing a mask all the time. Of course, inside buildings, on buses and trains, everyone is wearing masks. But they also wear them when outside in the fresh air, although it’s not an official requirement.
The Japanese government is even urging people to remove their masks when going outside, but no one seems to be the first to do so. So, if you decide to visit, bring one. Bring a few.
I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing. You can point to the current wave of COVID-19 cases in Australia and say we should be more like Japan. Maybe some masks and some hand mulberry aren’t such a bad idea.
If you’re a little apprehensive about traveling during a pandemic — for whatever reason — Japan might just be the ideal destination. This is not a country that ignores COVID-19 and pretends it doesn’t exist anymore. Quite the opposite. Traveling in this country, you are constantly aware of the plight of humanity. People take it very seriously.
However, there is another side to this story. You find yourself wondering: just how useful are all these masks? Few people in Japan wear KN95. They’re mostly standard surgical masks, or even old-fashioned cloth masks, which have proven far from effective against the Omicron variant. Are they really necessary to be outdoors?
The number of cases here is not low either. Australia’s seven-day average number of COVID-19 cases is currently about one case per 1667 people. Japan has one for every 1136 people.
It all feels a bit performative, from a year in the future. It feels like people here want to do the right thing, no matter how effective it actually is. It’s like the lengthy ritual of scrubbing before entering a spa—you may be clean, but you have to show that you’re serious about things.
It might sound like traveling in Japan isn’t much fun at the moment, but it’s not. Fun isn’t outlawed entirely. Still have a lot of good times.
For starters, those hot springs are still open. You can poach as long as you want in the maskless human stew. Attractions are now open, you just need to cover your face while visiting. Restaurants are back to normal business.
Even those cherished casual Japanese bars and izakayas are back in full swing. In fact, if COVID-19 no longer exists anywhere in Japan, it is in izakayas, at least in the eyes of the people. Here, food and drink are served, the mask is taken off, and everything is back to the original state.
Should you still go to Japan now? Yes, exactly. There are many reasons; in fact, there are many that make it perfect.
Masks are no big deal. Other precautions will soon fade into the background.
But if you end up wandering around with images of Cher riding a cannon on a US Navy ship, that’s not my fault.
The author traveled in Japan with the assistance of the Kyoto City Tourism Association and Toyooka City
See also: Outliers: Eight countries that do things differently than others