It’s not ideal to spend a week in Japan with a Cher song stuck in your head. Still, these last seven days I’ve been walking around Kyoto, around Hamamatsu, and around Tokyo humming the same chorus to myself: “If I could turn back time…”
Because being in Japan right now is like turning back time. Remember Australia about a year ago? Remember the way we thought about COVID-19 back then, the way we treated it, the way we planned our lives and our lifestyles around it? That’s Japan, now.
Getting into Japan as a foreign tourist is very reminiscent of getting into Australia back in December last year. Then, Australia had the DPD, the dreaded, buggy app that every prospective entrant into the country had to deal with, to register all of their personal details and upload their vaccination certificate and scan their passport and start the whole thing afresh for every trip.
Now, Japan has Japan Web, a less-buggy website that performs essentially the same function, and is equally laborious – this time with the extra spice of cross-cultural confusion. You get there, in the end. But it’s a process.
And then you begin your journey to Japan and once again, you’ve turned back time. Masks are still mandatory on Japanese airlines. Announcements over the aircraft PA say things like, “Please take measures to avoid the infection”, and my favourite: “Please refrain from drinking a large amount of alcohol and talking in loud voices.”
(A tour guide I had in Kyoto a few days later laughed at this. “Yeah,” he said. “They’ve figured out what causes COVID in Japan: having fun.”)
All the old pandemic measures still exist in Japan. There are still temperature scanners at most hotels, at some restaurants and some attractions. Hand sanitiser bottles can be found pretty much anywhere you turn. A sticker on a dining table in Haneda airport warned me: “Please eat without talking.”
And mask compliance in Japan is slavish, to put it mildly. Seriously: everyone is wearing masks, all of the time. Inside buildings, on buses and trains, everyone is wearing masks, of course. But outside in the fresh air they’re also wearing them, despite it not being an official requirement.
The Japanese government has even urged people to take their masks off when they’re outside, but no one seems game to be the first to do it. So, if you decide to visit, bring one. Bring several.
I’m not saying any of this is necessarily a bad thing. You could point to the current wave of COVID-19 cases in Australia and say we should be a lot more like Japan. Maybe a few masks and some hand-san wouldn’t be a terrible idea.
And if you’re a little wary of travelling during the pandemic – for whatever reason – Japan may just be the ideal destination. This is not a country that is ignoring COVID-19, not pretending it doesn’t exist anymore. Very much the opposite. Travel in this country and you are constantly aware of the predicament humanity finds itself in. It’s taken very seriously.
There’s a flipside to the story though. You find yourself thinking: just how useful are all these masks? Very few people in Japan wear KN95s. They’re mostly standard surgical masks or even old-school cloth masks, proven to be far from effective against the Omicron variant. And how necessary are they really in the open air?
Case numbers aren’t low here, either. Australia’s 7-day average caseload for COVID-19 is currently about one per 1667 people. Japan’s is one per 1136 people.
It all feels just a little performative, coming from a year into the future. It feels like people here want to make a show of doing the right thing, regardless of how effective it actually is. It’s like the lengthy scrubbing ritual that’s required before you step into an onsen bath – you might already be pretty clean, but you have to show that you’re taking things seriously.
This may all sound as if Japan isn’t much fun to travel around at the moment, but that’s definitely not the case. Fun hasn’t been entirely outlawed. There are still plenty of good times to be had.
Those onsens are still open, for starters. You can go and poach in a mask-less human stew for as long as you please. Attractions are now open, you’ll just need to cover your face when you visit. Restaurants are back running as normal.
Even izakaya, those treasured, casual Japanese bars, are back in full flight. In fact, if there’s anywhere COVID-19 ceases to exist in Japan, in the mind’s eye at least, it’s in an izakaya. Here, the food and drinks arrive, the masks come off, and suddenly it feels like everything is back to the way it was.
Should you still visit Japan right now? Yes, absolutely. There are so many reasons to; plenty, in fact, that make it perfect.
The masks aren’t that big a deal. And the other precautions fade into the background pretty quickly.
However, if you end up wandering around with visions of Cher riding a cannon on a US navy ship, it’s not my fault.
The writer is travelling in Japan with assistance from Kyoto City Tourism Association and Toyooka City