A Traveler’s Journey Through Japan At The Dawn Of Coronavirus

Below is a first-hand account of traveling in Japan in February 2020 as the Coronavirus had started spreading through the region. Our good friend Jordan and his wife Monica recount their experience of what it was like to be in Japan as tourists before Coronavirus was announced as a pandemic. Here, they share with us what was being done in the country as Covid-19 started to become a serious issue along with the overall attitude and mood before the world realized this pandemic would force once of the biggest pauses in history.

Before Coronavirus Changed Everything

My wife and I had been wanting to travel to the land of the rising sun for years. Japan had been on both of our bucket list places. Despite landing there during an inflight emergency, we never left the plane so that ‘visit’ didn’t count. Everyone I had talked to who had been to Japan had an amazing experience. The people, the food, the bullet trains, the scenery and culture were all reasons we wanted to go. My wife and I have been to multiple Asian countries before. Either separately or together; Philippines, South Korea, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, and Singapore. Japan had escaped us both, but we finally had a reason to go when her brother was stationed in Okinawa at a US Marine Base. 

We had been looking for reasonably priced flights when Scott's Cheap Flights sent out an email for $500 round trip tickets to Japan. The only catch was that we had a 24 hour layover in Qindao, China. Normally, not a worry so we purchased our tickets through Vayama.com. We purchased our tickets in October and started planning our trip. At the time of booking, no one in the western world had heard of, or was worried about Covid-19.

Japan Tourism During Coronavirus

Photo Credit: Jordan Barry

As the trip got closer, the news that China was dealing with a serious new virus was beginning to spread. Our parents were beginning to worry and, for that matter, so were we. Japan had a few cases of Covid-19, but most infections were still concentrated in Wuhan China. Nothing in Japan had closed yet and they were still allowing foreign tourists to enter the country so our plans hadn’t really changed at all. 

About a month before our trip, we got notice that our flights to Qindao had been cancelled. Vayama notified us that our refund would take approximately 4 weeks. (It has been 3 months and no word from Vayama. If they somehow emerge from these challenging times, I recommend not using them to purchase your flights).

We were still determined to visit Japan, so we purchased direct flights on American Airlines that were $1200 a person round trip. We pressed on.

Japan travel during Coronavirus spread

Before our trip, we got lots of messages asking us if we were worried about traveling during this time. Without a doubt we were a little worried, but the spread of the virus wasn’t like it was now. It was still fairly contained and the WHO hadn’t called it a pandemic yet. We packed approximately 20 N95 respirator masks in our luggage just in case, but we didn’t really prepare anything different for our trip. "Cover your mouth and wash your hands" were pretty much the standard rules that everyone recommended.  

Traveling In Japan As Covid-19 Picked Up

Once we arrived in Japan, we began to see the standard signs of “for your protection, staff will be wearing face masks' '. There were also copious amounts of hand sanitizer everywhere. Go through the JR Rail booth, sanitizer. Enter a restaurant, sanitizer. Hotels, Sanitizer. Everywhere we went, there was hand sanitizer available.

Perhaps that (along with the common use of face masks is how they were able to initially slow down the spread of the virus in such a dense area. (Since coming back to the USA, I have not been able to find any hand sanitizer for sale).

The first part of our trip happened as planned. Mostly a lot of short visits in the major cities due to hotels that couldn’t be cancelled. A day in Tokyo and another in Osaka. Things were a little slower since Japan had banned Chinese Tourists, but otherwise there was no panicking going on.

Japan Train Travel Coronvirus

While we were in Hiroshima visiting the Atomic Bomb Museum, Japan announced that it was closing schools for two weeks starting the following week. At that time, it seemed like a very drastic step aimed at ‘flattening the curve’, so that the 2020 Olympics could still happen in the summer.  People we talked to seemed to be slightly worried and parents seemed to be slightly inconvenienced at the idea of having to find childcare workers or letting their kids roam the streets.

Once we got to Okinawa, Twitter was beginning to show reports that popular places were beginning to close. National Museums and Tokyo Disneyland had closed. Two of our ‘must do’ events were closed including the famous team lab borderless museum, as well as Preseason Japanese Baseball closing to the public on the day which we had planned to watch a game.  

A lot of places were still open to the public, we just had to adjust our trip itinerary a bit. We still got to visit Hacksaw Ridge, the WW2 Military Tunnel system in Okinawa, as well as the incredibly beautiful and huge cave system (must visit). More precautions were being taken, but Japan was still operating.

It was actually very pleasant to be one of the few tourists out there. Very short lines and incredible hospitality. 

When we got back to Tokyo, we signed up for the Great Tokyo Cycling Tour. Our amazing guides said their tours are normally full; 10-20 tourists per tour on average. Besides my wife, myself and her dad, there was only one other tourist taking part in this tour. We bicycled around Tokyo visiting old Shrines and Temples. We visited the old fish market and had fresh sashimi and Waygu beef. We rode across beautiful bridges and by the new incredibly Olympic village being built. We climbed up promotion stairs and had lunch at a small cafe. We finished our tour at the Imperial Palace and surrounding park.

Travel in Japan During Coronvirus

Photo Credit: Jordan Barry

Normally packed with thousands of tourists on a busy day, there were probably less than a hundred people in the entire park. It was deserted. Our guides mentioned they were worried about the loss of income from the severe drop in tourism, but that they were glad to be able to experience Japan without the throngs of tourists that were normally there. 

I could go on and on about how great the trip was. As expected, the food was incredible. The sashimi was the best I have ever had and I probably ate my body weight in Gyoza. I knew Japanese beer was good, I just didn’t realize how good it was, especially after being poured by a machine that pours the perfect head.  Whenever I tell people about my Japan trip, I say that Japan is the only country that I have visited where I didn’t want to come back home after two weeks in a foreign country. Iceland was incredible, but it loses points for me due to the lack of late night food and state run alcohol shops that close very early.

How Travel Will Now Change Forever

I believe the total death count for this virus will be in the millions.  Mothers, Fathers, Daughters, Sons, and friends will perish but the world will eventually overcome.  

I don’t think we will ever be able to travel as freely as we used to. Gone are the days where you could purchase a last minute flight and visit a foreign country without some sort of visa or health check. It is a new world that we are in right now. One with social distancing, and ‘safer at home’ orders.  I am grateful that we got one last chance to visit a foreign land and I pray for everyone that my fellow nomads are able to resume traveling to distant and beautiful places. 

I am writing this report 3 weeks after we got back to the United States on March 6th, 2020.  The world has undoubtedly changed. International travel has essentially shut down. Airlines are going bankrupt, and millions are instantly unemployed.  Billions of people are quarantined and stuck at home. Forced to stay home via threat of fine or imprisonment. Parks and beaches closed. Picked supermarkets and hoarding of toilet paper.

Mass and instant unemployment. 

I am incredibly glad we got to experience Japan just before the pandemic. If we had known how bad it would eventually get, I’m not sure we would have gone. We didn't get sick while in Japan and thankfully we still haven’t gotten sick. No one could have predicted the situation we are all in. I pray it ends soon. We are in a new world.

 “The marvelous richness of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were no limitations to overcome. The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.”  - Helen Keller

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