Flying to Tokyo amidst the pandemic

Traveling to Japan amidst COVID-19

Travelife Magazine Publisher Christine Cunanan The Frequent Flier

Hello from Tokyo, having flown into Narita Airport last night on Japan Airlines. The four-hour flight from Manila was surprisingly normal, save for the face masks and the alcohol spray in the washroom. In fact, business class was approximately 80% full and the menu and drinks list remained the same.

Lunch onboard Japan Airlines

So I chose my usual Japanese o-bento lunch with a glass of Perrier and just one shot of ume-shu. Ume-shu is a Japanese plum liqueur drink and I love this on the rocks. I haven’t had one in months so I thought a celebratory drink in-flight was in order, after three long months on lockdown in Manila.

This flight was my first sense of normalcy in three months. And it gave me a little bit of hope that the future may not have to be the doomsday scenario we all have been expecting.

Lunch onboard Japan Airlines

Is Japan accepting tourists?

Mind you, Japan is not accepting tourists yet. In fact, I don’t think it will do so for a long time. So those of you with visions of walking around Ginza or exploring the temples of Kyoto will have to wait a little longer. The only persons allowed entry into Japan are Japanese nationals, permanent residents and individuals with valid reasons for entry. It’s quite strict and those without the right documents will not even be allowed to check-in.

Traveling to Japan amidst the pandemic

Let me outline the process for those who want to know what flying is now like in the time of COVID-19. First, I rang up the Japanese embassy and got a helpful diplomat on the line. He basically gave me the information I have already written here. No tourists are being accepted into Japan, and not all foreigners with resident permits or work permits are being allowed in as well.

“If you have the right documents, you can leave for Japan anytime,” the diplomat told me in Japanese. “Japan Airlines only has one flight a week now (instead of its usual five flights a day) and it’s only to Tokyo’s Narita Airport. If that’s fine with you, you can just book your ticket and go.”

Flying to Japan amidst the pandemic

Entering and leaving Japan during COVID-19

There’s also an interesting clause for those who are actually allowed entry into Japan. Once you enter, you will not be allowed to return if you decide to leave Japan again. So basically, I’m stuck in Tokyo until the end of the pandemic. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The vetting process prior to actually checking in didn’t end there either. I booked my flight online and then called Japan Airlines in Manila to re-check the rules for traveling to Japan. To make sure I was going to be allowed entry into Japan upon arrival, I had to send JAL photos of all my documents so they could double-check with Tokyo authorities.

What the airport is like

NAIA Airport in Manila during the pandemic

The airport itself was a ghost town. The JAL lounge was not operational so I arrived just in time to check in and walk to the plane. No travellers were wearing PPE suits either in Manila airport or Narita airport, so I don’t know how useful PPEs are going to be for flying. As for me, I wore my usual black travel shirt and yoga pants and used a raincoat as a PPE. It works exactly the same as a PPE.

Questions for passengers arriving into Japan

Prior to arrival, the JAL stewardess interviewed each of us to take note of who was transiting to another flight, who had a car waiting, and who needed to quarantine at a hotel near Narita Airport. The government discourages arriving passengers from taking any public transportation for 14 days. So those without access to a car and a home in the Tokyo vicinity need to book a hotel and a private hotel pick-up.

I have a home in Tokyo and I had my Range Rover waiting in the airport driveway so I was among the first allowed out of the airplane. The first step was a lengthy interview process. The interviewer checked all personal details and also wanted to make sure we knew our responsibility to quarantine.

Japan is not imposing legal restrictions regarding staying home for 14 days. However, the airport staff in PPEs impress upon you the moral responsibility to avoid using public transportation and to stay home at all costs.


Taking the COVID-19 PCR test

Then it was time for the PCR test, which was conducted in a corner of the airport. I’ve only done the rapid tests so I was completely unprepared for the discomfort of the PCR test. A long swab stick is stuck deep into your nose for five seconds, and it must have had some solution on it because it stung.

Having finished the PCR test, we went on to immigration and customs. However, these are standard for arrivals even pre-COVID. Interestingly, almost every other step of the way, an airport staff approached me to ask in Japanese whether I had a private car waiting for me at the airport. They definitely wanted new arrivals to avoid public transportation.

Going home from the airport

All in all, it took me two hours from landing to walking through my own front door foyer in Tokyo. This included the 70 kilometer drive to Tokyo from Narita. Plus all the time it took to load my seven pieces of luggage into the car. Yes, I checked in 200 kilos of luggage yesterday, traveling to Japan amidst the pandemic.

What life is like in Tokyo

Tokyo itself was largely normal, which was extremely refreshing after the war-time atmosphere of Manila. People were wearing masks but life seemed basically normal. Some restaurants were open, supermarkets and convenience stores were operating, and I could hear children’s laughter.

The latter was especially noticeable to me, after three months of living in a city where children had been locked up and practically silenced. Here in Tokyo, the children are walking along the street outside my house and they are laughing.

So, yes. I’m writing this to show everyone still living under some form of government or psychological lockdown elsewhere in the world that another kind of existence is possible. There is some kind of normal life after a pandemic. Or at least a semblance of normalcy in spite of it. It is possible to live with the pandemic, instead of in fear of it.

Read more stories about traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic in Travelife Magazine.