To be honest, I am not sure if my post is still relevant after I’m done writing because Japan has been making changes to their immigration policy every two weeks. We have come a long way from waiting and anticipating the grand entry to Japan and I’m glad to say that I persisted and made it to Japan, albeit for a short 4D4N trip over the past weekend.
The information I am about to share is accurate as of 15 September 2022. Any regulation changes after that may or may not be updated so a huge disclaimer is to do your due diligence before making any decisions or purchases.
After a long 2 years battle with Covid, Japan government has finally decided to open up their country to tourists, at. a. very. slow. pace. That being said, it is still faster than Taiwan, Hong Kong and China -> probably the 3 most stringent countries regarding COVID-19 (Hey we are already 3 years ahead in 2022 right now). 3+ months ago (mid/end May), Japan suddenly announced that they are looking into allowing tourists into their country if they book and enter via a tour package. The announcement came rather abruptly, without much prior knowledge for the tour agencies, as I was left ‘unanswered’ by many of the local Japan travel agencies I enquired with. Many of them told me that they were still waiting for the official instructions before taking any action to sell tour packages. About 1 – 2 weeks before the planned re-opening date in mid June, they complicated procedures, which involved pre-arrival PCR testing, ERFS issuance and visa application at your local Japan embassy and a lot of paperwork preparation by the tour agency hosting your travel. There had to be detailed itinerary submission, with accommodation hotel clearly indicated and which tour guide or tour company is responsible for the health and safety of the traveller.
Well, being rather desperate to visit Japan again, I contacted about 8 tour agencies and did not get a favourable response for the ‘private tour’ that I wish to have. The only quotation I received was $6,000 for a 7-day land tour itinerary. *ouch*
Anyway, I believed that the reception of such restrictive tours was pretty poor and the government went on to further relax the rules. From 7th Sep, vaccinated and boosted travellers will no longer have to do PCR before entering the country and you no longer have to be on a ‘guided’ tour (chaperoned by a guide). The only thing was that you still have to approach a travel agency to do up your paperwork (which was necessary for Visa application) and get them to book your accommodation. They still had to be responsible for your health and safety and report to the officials should anything go wrong.
So.. there were the ups and downs for this trip. The 7th Sep rules relaxation was only announced after we paid and committed to a tour group that we signed up for back in July. The saddest part of it all was that we had to make payments in USD and USD was at an all-time high. urgh. The happy thing was that we did not have to fork out extra cash (~$100) for the super risky pre-departure PCR. In addition, arriving to Japan on the 8th meant we had the freedom to do anything we want (and not follow the guided tour), as long as our tour guide is informed of where we were heading to.
All in all, the price we paid for the tour was pretty pricey in exchange for the services we have received but I guess that’s just Japan’s way of letting their tour agencies cash in to make up for the non-existential sales of the past two years.
‘Value’ of the tour – 3,200Y x 2 Airport Limo Transport + 27,000Y (4 night accom, twin sharing) + 2,000Y breakfast (500 per day) 3,000Y Suica Card + 240Y (Hamarikyu Garden) + 1,260Y (Asakusa/Odaiba Cruise) = 38,400Y
Anyway, I guess we probably overpaid like 4 to 5X, but that is inclusive of 5D of tour guide services, plus the effort that is required for them to prepare the paperwork documentation for visa application, plus the risk they take on (to refund if the visa application fails). That being said, I don’t regret my trip to Japan because it was nice to see it in its ‘raw’ state with minimal tourists.
Changes in Japan (Since my last visit 4 years ago in 2018)
- Consumption tax (VAT) has increased from 8 to 10% since 1 Nov 2019, but remains at 8% for food items and other stuff. Given that you’re a temporary tourist in Japan, you will be entitled to tax-free purchases if you exceed 5,000Y in a single transaction. It would be good for you to plan and consolidate your purchases to make use of this benefit.
- In my fuzzy memories of Japan, they used to staple a tax refund slip and fold it into your passport. They will have this tiny red chop to make a mark (to proof that the passport and slip was ‘stamped’ at the same time) and you’re supposed to surrender the slips to the customs officer before/after you clear airport’s immigration. They no longer do this now. There will be this device that they will scan your passport and input the necessary details within. Whenever you opt for tax-free, your items would be packed into a transparent sealed bag, where you are not supposed to open it before you leave the country. The items that you purchase may be subject to checks at immigration/customs. In my earlier visits to Japan, I did abide by these rules but as time went by, there were inevitable instances where I had to open the bag for packing purposes. That being said.. I have never gotten my items checked in all my past trips, including the most recent post-covid one. There’s still a risk after all, so just make the decision that you can be responsible for.
- Japan yen has tanked significantly this year. It has devalued against the USD significantly which makes it more appealing to the tourists (if your local currency hasn’t tanked together). In my past trips to Japan, it had always been about 80 to 90 yen per 1 SGD, but right now, we are looking at 100-102 yen per 1 SGD. This means that whenever I see the price in Japan, I can just cross out the last 2 digits. But guess what, as a result of the ‘cheaper yen’, I think everything felt cheaper relatively and.. I ended up spending even more money. On a side note, I was approached to do a ‘tourist’ survey at the airport, which made me reflect upon my spending for the trip and gosh, I am pretty shocked at the expenses (for a 4 day trip) but, oh wells i guess this is what revenge travel is all about =p
- Your old hunts and familiar sights may no longer exist! One significant change I noticed was that the old harajuku station had been torn down in Aug 2020, for failing to meet fire safety standards. Apart from that, I do see several of my ‘starred’ locations in google map disappearing to just addresses. Sometimes, it is indicated as ‘Permanently Closed’, but many times I’m just left with a string of addresses with no explanation. Another alarming thing for my friend was that Tokyu Hands was no longer at Sunshine City (at Ikebukuro). I actually didn’t have time to visit the places I’ve been before, with the exception of eating the chain ramen shop, Ippudo. (I am team-ippudo, not a fan of the more popular ichiran)
- THEY STOPPED PROVIDING FREE BAGS (in many places like convenience stores) since July 2020, and it has reduced plastic waste by half!! This is definitely an initiative I support and it has successfully been rolled out in New Zealand, Korea and perhaps Taiwan too? It can be annoying at times (cause you just refuse to pay) but it wasn’t a huge issue for me as I always carry a shopping bag around when I travel. Japan has also toned down on their ‘over the top’ packaging (I remember buying 1 item in Disneysea and they gave me 3 qty of packaging after I said it was a gift). I love this initiative but it will definitely take time for some people to adapt to.
- Tourist spots are empty. The most starking emptiness for me was seen at Tsujiki outer market (Note: The old one with the tuna auction has shifted). We visited on a Friday morning and the lanes were sorrowfully EMPTY. The 100Y egg that I always eat had NO QUEUE at all (normally there’s a long queue) and the scallop seafood shell shop had 0 business too. I guess the locals don’t really frequent such fish markets and there were some empty units spotted too. On the other hand, things looked rather normal on the streets of Shinjuku and Shibuya. Perhaps it was 30% less crowded than before, but it was still bustling with life and activities. When we went to Asakusa (Senso-ji), there were local crowds (students etc.), but compared to the past, it was probably 50% less crowded.
I think that’s about all the changes I can remember for now. I’m still doing the throwback updates on my IGS so if you’re keen you can continue reading about my adventures over there.
Japan is one of my favourite travel destinations and I’m so happy to have made the effort to get myself into the country, before it truly opens up further with the reinstatement of visa-free travel. It was nice to enjoy the less crowded sights and streets and there’s some joy within me to be spending money in a country that deserves to #takemymoney. While filling up the visa application form prior to my embassy visit, they had a section where we had to fill the number of times (with dates and duration) we have visited Japan – which was 6 times for me in the past 7 years. Gosh I miss this country very much and I’m thinking.. of the next trip already.
Rushed out this post in case people are planning to visit Japan soon. Not sure if I will follow up with expenses plus photos piece but I’ll post things up on Instagram.
If you’re feeling Japan after reading this post and you don’t want the feeling to end, you can catch up with my past blog posts about Japan.
Cheers and happy weekend everyone 🙂