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Hai, Japan’s now open

GINZA, JAPAN. A Mercedes-Maybach S-Class gently pulls up to the curb and an elderly man toting a simple reusable bag alights after his uniformed driver opens the rear door for him. Clad in a non-descript, almost drab-colored sweater, the man disappears into the bowels of a multi-brand watch shop. The rest of us are left shivering in a queue for a hard-to-secure (in Manila, at least) watch. “He’s probably going to buy something very expensive,” I whisper to my wife, who faintly nods in assent.

Truly, one of the happy consequences of the pandemic has been an uptick (ha-ha) of interest in old-school wristwatches — outside of ubiquitous smartwatch/activity trackers which had previously dominated that patch of human real estate. Cooped up at home and bereft of the joys and expenses of travel, many of us turned to all sorts of toys, watches among them. That doesn’t mean that we’ve forgotten our love for traveling; it’s just that we’ve learned to channel our passion elsewhere while being sheltered in place.

And now that the world has started to open up, we’re seeing the rise of so-called “revenge travel.” Indeed, judging from Facebook alone, a lot of people took the chance to pack their bags and go on vacation, whether here or abroad. My wife and I were among the latter — venturing out to Japan, which just fairly recently reopened its borders to the world. We were last there in 2019, primarily for the biennial Tokyo Motor Show, (she met me in the city, and I extended my trip so we could go out for ramen and more).

Traveling in the “next normal” is not exactly a shock to the system, but I guess you can put up with more things just to savor what has been denied you for the longest time.

Please indulge me with this piece which I hope will turn out to be useful for anyone wondering how it is like to travel to Japan these days — or travel out of the country, period.

First off, what do you need before you even board that plane bound for Japan?

Make sure you have a visa, of course. Or if you have one, that it’s still valid. There’s no timeout to account for the pandemic; that multiple visa kept ticking while you weren’t looking, and had your passport locked away.

My visa was thankfully still valid; my wife had to renew hers. We used a travel agency for the job, and it took six days for us to hear back from them. That accomplished, it was time to get to the other musts. There are a handful of pandemic changes that pad your list of to-dos. First, download and accomplish the MySOS app. This allows Japanese officials to vet you as a visitor. The most notable thing about this app is that it asks you to upload your vaccination details. If you don’t satisfy the vaccination requirements, you’ll be asked to upload a negative COVID test result (taken less than 72 hours before your flight).

After completion of the requirements, the app will tell you that your information is being reviewed. The app should turn to blue if everything is up to snuff. If there’s a problem with your application, it will be red. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enter Japan. Visitors with a red-hued app will be shepherded into a separate area where their credentials and vaccination status will be examined. So, it’s best to bring your actual vaccination certificate. You’ll be handed a pink piece of paper which means you’re cleared to proceed to the immigration officer.

The first thing we noticed about traveling to Japan is that Philippine Airlines now uses a smaller plane from the usual. I guess the carrier is on a wait-and-see mode on the volume of travelers. Our flight last week to Haneda was full; the flight back to Manila was not.

Those of you whose memories of Japan involve throngs of tourists everywhere will be surprised. Although the couple of days close to Halloween saw a surge in people; we suspected they were largely comprised of local travelers going to traditional convergence points such as Shibuya.

Outside of these days, many of the locals obviously went to work, and we saw some smaller groups of foreign tourists — among them some Filipinos, of course. But not once did we spy groups arriving in rented buses.

The onset of autumn in Japan brought a change in color in some of the trees, which had begun to flaunt their leaves in red, yellow, and orange.

A day after Korea’s tragic crowd crush incident in which more than 150 Halloween revelers perished in Itaewon, the police were in full force in Shibuya, the country’s (and the world’s) most famous pedestrian crossing. The police were on the bullhorn and public address system — ostensibly to keep people moving and to warn them against congregating in greater numbers. That was perhaps the greatest damper on an otherwise almost-back-to-normal Shibuya (at least as far as warm bodies were concerned).

We noted with not a bit of relief that many of our favorite shops and restaurants were still open (though quite a few establishments in Haneda airport’s pre-departure area had been shuttered), but now equipped with infrared thermometers and alcohol dispensers at the entrance, and as well as plastic dividers in some dining places. Mask compliance is pretty good — comparable to the Philippines, actually. All of the restrooms that we visited also had their hand dryers off ostensibly to help curb the spread of the virus.

Rarely did the highly efficient trains here get uncomfortably crowded, and people were masked up. The common practice of keeping quiet while aboard the train also appeared to be alive and well, save for a handful of noisy foreign tourists.

All said, while COVID has certainly done some forceful renovations here and there, the Japan you remember awaits you. The food is still excellent, and the people are mostly still patient and accommodating to people like us who occasionally get blissfully lost and don’t remember which platform to get on.

So, what are you waiting for?

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