Are you traveling to Japan? Here’s what Americans need to know.

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After welcoming a record number of foreign visitors in 2019, Japan has 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 to return.

The first step in the gradual reopening was a trial run in May. Fifty visitors from four countries, including the United States, came for guided group tours. In June, Japan extended this opportunity to 98 countries with low coronavirus infection rates while maintaining complex and strict entry requirements.

Given the laborious steps to get permission to enter Japan, potential visitors “must be willing to do the work,” said Catherine Heald, co-founder and CEO of Remote Lands, a luxury tour operator specializing in road trips. Asia.

Japan Immigration Services Agency only 252 tourists entered the country in June (compared to almost 32 million in June 2019). That number rose to around 7,900 in July.

“The lack of foreign tourists is palpable,” Yukari Sakamoto, writer of By The Way Tokyo City Guide and author of “Food Sake Tokyo,” said in an email.

Mandy Bartok, a Tokyo-based tour guide, says the slow reopening has been a burning issue; current protocols have come under criticism. Still, tours are filling up fast, said Jeffrey M. Krevitt, vice president of marketing for Inside Travel Group, owner of InsideJapan Tours.

If you’re thinking of 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

Even though the number of people allowed to enter Japan has increased, access is “very limited”, according to the US Embassy in Tokyo and consulates in Japan.

International travelers, regardless of their vaccination status, are allowed if they are “sponsored by a travel agent and/or part of an authorized travel party located in Japan”. You don’t have to join a tour group; guided independent travel is also permitted.

In any case, you must be accompanied at all times by your licensed guide or group leader. They don’t have to eat every meal stuck with you, but expect the side dish to be taken seriously.

“They have to sit you down and note what seat you’re in and just be responsible for you,” Heald said.

“And…after dinner, you can’t just go out and walk around the bars and do whatever you want unless your guide is with you,” she added.

This is only part of the entry requirements.

The Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) has a traveler’s checklist on its website covering six steps: booking an approved guided tour with a government-registered company or guide; apply for the eVisa; take a nucleic acid amplification test for coronavirus within 72 hours of leaving for Japan; download an app to save your test results; obtain a QR code for immigration; and purchase travel insurance.

There are no quarantine requirements for US travelers, but those who have traveled to other countries within 14 days of traveling to Japan may be required to test on arrival or quarantine.

“To be very honest, [the requirements] change frequently and are implemented, shall we say, inconsistently,” Krevitt said. “It’s a very cumbersome and long process.”

The US Embassy warns the same and recommends travelers check the latest regulations on the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

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What to know about coronavirus protocols

There are signs of a return to normal in Japan. As people start to return to offices, “morning rush hour trains are starting to feel crowded, just like in pre-pandemic times,” Sakamoto said. However, there are new rules and etiquette that visitors must follow.

If you hate masking up, a trip to Japan isn’t for you. According to government guidelines, foreign tourists are required to mask up in community settings unless they are outdoors and able to distance themselves from others, exercise outdoors in a park or they are indoors and not talking to anyone. Failure to follow masking guidelines may result in a request to leave Japan, Bloomberg News reported. Additionally, the U.S. Embassy states that “failure to meet mask-wearing standards reflects badly on foreign residents.”

Chris Carlier, who is based in Tokyo and runs the popular Twitter account Mondo mascotssays while there aren’t many official masking restrictions for locals, “almost everyone” still wears masks in public, whether indoors or outdoors.

In situations where masking isn’t possible — such as when eating or using public baths — etiquette is to avoid talking to avoid spreading droplets.

Other changes visitors may notice are signs outside shops and restaurants asking customers to bring masks and hand sanitizer dispensers and temperature-taking kiosks in businesses, according to Sakamoto. Some restaurants take the temperature of diners before sitting down.

Festivals, sporting events and cultural performances are once again welcoming attendees (with masks), sometimes at reduced capacity and/or with socially distant seats. At some events, like wrestling matches and baseball and soccer games, fans have been asked not to cheer — although those rules are starting to loosen up. Applause is allowed.

Sakamoto says it may confuse foreigners to see strict precautions, but notes that unlike the United States, it is still rare for Japanese people to have contracted covid. “For most of us, it’s still something people are afraid to catch,” she said.

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

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

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

Another plus: “All those restaurants that used to be impossible to get into, now they’re easier to get to,” Heald said.

Relax, this is not the future of Japanese tourism

Bartok says that given the supervision requirements, visitors should expect to have their time micromanaged and travel restricted. Sakamoto also noted that with a chaperone, visitors won’t have much freedom to roam and explore like they would before the pandemic.

Because of this caveat, “I would tell foreign visitors to wait a little longer before planning their visit to Japan,” Kakurinbo Temple Lodge co-owner Junko Higuchi said in an email. But she hopes “the situation will change quickly” so that travelers have more autonomy.

Carlier says those wishing to focus their visit on visiting temples, shrines and museums might find now a convenient time to travel to Japan. But if you want to meet new people, attend local festivals, or explore the nightlife, he recommends waiting another year or two before visiting.

Hannah Sampson contributed to this report.

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