photo ball fall foliage

Traveling to and from Japan During Covid-19: High Risk, High Stress, is it Worth it?

It has been too long since my last blog post, thanks to JLPT studies and the grind of looking for a job here…😩

I really wanted to write about the beautiful fall colors in Hiroshima and the delicious grill-it-yourself oyster huts in Itoshima, but for now those stories will have to wait as there is a more pressing topic on my mind: Traveling During Covid-19, Omicron edition.

The Travel Dilemma

This post is about my current experience/dilemma/thoughts regarding travel to/from Japan during Covid-19. To be honest, I have recently been a ball of anxiety trying to decide if I should travel or not, and attempting to find clarity in what the future holds. (Unfortunately no luck with the latter).

photo ball fall foliage
Too bad this photo ball can’t also tell the future

The situation is bringing back less than fond memories about all the trouble it took getting into Japan almost exactly a year ago.

At the very least however, hopefully this story will be interesting to those who are unfamiliar with Japan’s current “state of affairs” when it comes to Covid-19 procedures and international travel.

Some Backstory

Regarding travel and Covid-19 in Japan, over the last few months, things were starting to look up. Japan’s case numbers had plummeted from summer highs, vaccination rates were steadily climbing, and travel measures were slowly being relaxed.

Japan’s Covid-19 infection count from JHU CSSE COVID-19 Data

Although quarantine was still mandated, vaccinated travelers could in theory get a shortened stay (14→10 days), and new residents were given the okay to enter Japan for the first time in months. It looked like a glimmer of light was at the end of the long, long tunnel.

concrete tunnel

Riding on this wave of hope, I bit the bullet and booked tickets to return to the US at the end of the year. Even this booking was a headache as I had to account for my school holiday schedule, mandatory attendance measures, quarantine days, and limited flight schedules into Fukuoka. (This last part is important as you can only quarantine in the location of your first port of entry.)

The Announcement of the Omicron Variant

On November 24th, 2021, the positive outlook turned bleak. Omicron, a new, highly mutated Covid-19 variant immediately became a topic of worldwide concern. In the blink of an eye, Japan’s rules stiffened and the doors that were just beginning to open were once again shut.

Visualization of the coronavirus causing COVID-19

New students, workers, and the likes were barred from entering, entire countries were added to a denial list, and a government-mandated hotel quarantine of 3, 6, 10, and 14 days became implemented for regions all over the world.

With just three weeks to go before my trip, I felt like I had been thrown into a sea of uncertainty, doubt, and confusion.

In the Sea of Uncertainty

Recently, I think I have developed a slightly unhealthy addiction to reading the news as I constantly search for updated articles at every given moment of the day hoping something new will help sway my decision one way or the other.

crop black businesswoman reading newspaper near modern building

I have been trying to gain as much information as possible about Japan’s handlings throughout the rest of the pandemic, future case count forecasts around the world, as well as experiences from recent travelers. Even with all of this, the same situation stands: there is no telling what the future holds and how governments will react to it.

It is exhausting to decide what the “right decision” is, mentally, financially, and futurewise. Because of this, I have been avoiding discussions about my travel plans with friends and family because it is just too much to keep continuously discussing.

The Rules and Procedures are in Flux

Most of the uncertainty stems from all of the changing rules and procedures (who is allowed back in Japan, how long and where must they quarantine, etc.)

This Facebook group, Return to Japan Support Group has over 36K members and has been an extremely valuable resources for keeping up with the changes and being able to learn through others’ experiences. (While this group has been great, more official sources of information should also be referred to: MOFA)

Re-entry

Currently, almost all new foreigners are barred from entering Japan. However, those who already have resident status may in theory leave the country and still re-enter.

The large exception to this rule applies to 11 countries (Eswatini, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Malawi, South Africa, Lesotho, Angola, Mozambique, and the Republic of the Congo). In this case, even with a valid residence card and a re-entry permit, travelers are still not allowed to enter.

brown map on map

Quarantine

In the last month, the quarantine situation for me has changed from being able to be free after 10 days, to requiring a 3 day hotel quarantine at a government designated facility + 11 days of self quarantine at a private residence for a total of 14 days.

With the way that cases are increasing in the US, I wouldn’t be surprised if the hotel quarantine is extended to 6 or even 10 days.

white bedding cover beside brown wooden side table

In addition, every few days, even more locations are added to the mandatory hotel quarantine list or the number of required days is extended.

An emerging problem is that the government is now facing a shortage of available rooms, especially around the Tokyo area. Many travelers who land in Tokyo have had to take a domestic flight to other prefectures like Nagoya and Fukuoka for their hotel quarantine, after which they are flown back to Tokyo for the remaining isolation period.

jetstar plane flight under blue sky

With more countries being added to the hotel quarantine list and the rule of “If you are on a flight with someone who has tested positive for Omicron, you are automatically considered a close contact and must also hotel quarantine”, I can see this shortage becoming a really big issue.

Naturally, one way to mitigate the situation is to further limit the number of inbound passengers which would equal more flight cancellations and difficulties with rebooking.

To top off quarantining logistics, since I can’t stay at my current housing for the private residence quarantine, I need to book a separate lodging. The changing hotel quarantine rules make it that much more difficult to judge exactly what days to reserve.

Number of Entries into Japan

As the borders were just beginning to loosen in November, Japan increased the cap of inbound travelers from 3,500 → 5,00 per day. Once Omicron was announced however, the number was reduced back to 3,500. This limited number of travelers means fewer flights and a higher possibility of flight cancellations.

airline flight schedules on flat screen televisions

PCR Tests

For return to the US, the testing window for a negative PCR test was recently changed from 72 hours to 1 day. Many clinics can’t ensure this quick of a turnaround so the options for testing centers are limited and expensive.

red and black stick on white round plate

What is the Precedent?

All of the new rules and restrictions bring back a surge of unpleasant memories as Japan enacted similar (though even harsher) rules earlier this year. During that time, many people found themselves locked out of Japan for over half a year, facing crippling setbacks both financially and career-wise.

face mask on luggage

For the most part, people were able to return to Japan if they had left before the ban took place.

Additionally, Japan received extremely critical backlash from other nations for the unfairness of this policy which exclusively affected foreign residents and not nationals.

With these points in mind, there is the hope that 1) Japan would be discouraged from fully implementing this kind of ban again, and 2) if they do implement it, as long as you leave before the ban they should still let you back in.

Speculating like this can go on forever though, and the reality is that there is no way to tell what will happen until it does.

Worst Case Scenarios

The most complicated and risky part about my situation is that my current visa expires extremely soon, (March 2022.) This means that if Japan closes its borders to re-entries (which happened last year and applies to 11 African countries right now), I would have until March to get back to Japan to renew my visa.

This may seem like a long time away, but Japan is known for being notoriously slow with reopenings and policy changes.

If I am unable to return and my visa expires, I will have to go through the entire process of obtaining a COE (Certificate of Eligibility) and new visa, something that takes multiple months, pages of documentation, and trips to the embassy.

typewriter on table

Not to mention I will need to work with my school to get an adjusted school schedule, and months of prepaid housing and health insurance would go by unused.

There are several other bad scenarios:

  • Getting a positive covid test before my flight back to Japan. The likelihood of this is increasing as Omicron spreads. In this case, I will have to pay for the flight rebooking + getting a new flight might be difficult as there are very limited seats and flights available. Additionally, I would have to reschedule my quarantine reservation and work with the school to justify to immigration the reason for my lengthy absence.
  • Flight canceled by the airline. This is more likely to happen if Japan imposes a stricter no-entry rule or reduces the daily amount of allowed entrants (perhaps because of a shortage of hotel rooms or an increase in Covid-19 cases.) Getting on a new flight, (especially one to Fukuoka) could prove to be very difficult. Same as above, I would need to reschedule my quarantine reservation and work with the school to report to immigration the reason for my lengthy school absence.
  • The US is put on the no-entry list. If the US is added to the no-entry list (where even for those with valid re-entry permits are denied), then I would have to look at either waiting out the ban or consider flying to an unbanned country and staying for two weeks before heading for Japan.

So, Is it Worth the Risk to Leave Japan?

It is somewhat surreal and equally terrifying to me that I am this unsure about such a big international trip that is less than 3 days out.

For the past three weeks, I have been flip-flopping every day on my decision depending on the news I read, who I talk to, and which scenario I let play out.

My brain is swirling with never-ending what-if scenarios, calculations of all the added costs, processing of new information, and speculation on future policies.

I would feel more at ease if my visa wasn’t expiring so soon, but after talking with my school and immigration, there is nothing I can do short of canceling my trip.

So I’m faced with the same questions: Is all of this (the uncertainty, expenses, risk of losing visa validity) worth it to travel home for less than 2 weeks? Going off “precedent” and the odds that things might not be that bad, should I take the chance and just hope? Or is it better to just stop overthinking and trust that life will eventually work itself out, and it’s more important to see loved ones since I have the chance?

question marks on paper crafts

It is pretty clear that the safest and smartest decision would be not to travel. But a part of me also can’t shake the idea that life is short and sometimes risks must be taken.

So Am I Flying?

Well the answer is: I still don’t know. Now that I’ve written all of this out it definitely seems like cancelling is the way to go. But part of me just can’t seem to pull the trigger. I’ve missed home so much that being this close just makes me want to go all the way and accept what happens.

Either way, before jet setting, the first steps are to get my PCR test, and if it’s negative, see if my flights are still scheduled as planned.

If I end up getting on a flight, well then I guess you can expect a part two to this post. (Fingers crossed it’s not about being stuck outside of Japan!) 😬


Update

The morning after writing this post I decided to officially cancel my trip. Getting all my thoughts and the reality of the situation in writing and shared with loved ones helped me reach this decision (and ended up being very therapeutic.)

The main drivers for cancelling were:

  1. The extremely close date of my visa expiry which meant no wiggle room if things took a turn for the worse
  2. The current trajectory of Covid-19 spread in the US and around the world. The likelihood of getting Covid-19 while abroad / during travels seemed to be be increasing which would impact my already precarious situation. Additionally, even after returning to the US, these concerns (catching Covid-19, Japan enacting new rules, etc) would prevent me from fully enjoying my stay.

After more than three hours on the phone with Chase Travel Rewards, I’m happy to say I should be getting a full refund of my flight and no cancellation fees. (I did not expect this at all).

For those who are in a similar predicament of uncertainty and confusion, I feel your pain and am wishing you the best in reaching your own decision.

Now I’m looking to enjoy the holidays with friends in Fukuoka and hope for a better situation in 2022!

Christmas Decorations in Hakata, Fukuoka
Christmas Decorations in Hakata, Fukuoka

If you are interested in learning more about living in Japan, be sure to check out these other posts!

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