Traveling abroad in times of COVID
Despite the restrictions imposed by the Japanese government to curb the number of COVID-19 cases in the country, I was lucky enough to be able to travel abroad in February. Today I’m going to talk about this experience.
Going to Spain, my home country, was easy enough. I converted my Japanese proof of vaccination to a vaccination passport through an application released by the Spanish government. I filled a questionnaire and it took about five minutes. Once in Spain, they checked my vaccine passport and I was free to go.
Coming back to Japan, however, was considerably harder. Here’s where the roller coaster began.
The first thing that I had to do to be allowed back in Japan was to take a PCR in Spain. A vaccine passport was not enough. Booking a clinic online was relatively pain-free, and the process at the clinic took all of five minutes as well.
The problem is that the Japanese government’s instructions and what exactly the PCR results should state are not at all clear. More like the opposite of clear, they are purposefully obtuse.
We first had to download a form that the doctors were supposed to fill at the clinic, but we weren’t able to get it done, as the clinic where the sample is taken and the testing place are different. After much stressing about not getting the form filled, and after much digging thorough tweets by Japanese ministers, it turned out that the form was “optional”.
The official rules also stated that the PCR results should include the nationality of the person taking the test, even though that’s not standard by any means. It turned out that was also “optional”.
What I don’t understand is, when it comes to paperwork, “optional” is identical to “not needed”, and if it’s not needed why even include it as a rule in the first place? It just leads to unnecessary stress. It’s a baffling decision by the government that I can’t wrap my head around.
The second time when this came into play was at the flight check-in. When the ground staff found out we were headed to Japan, we were greeted with a frustrated (but humorous) “noooo!” The other ground staff members started teasing the one we got with a sarcastic “oh, you got Japan! Good luck!” Our ground staff asked (again, humorously) if we wanted to go to Hong Kong instead.
Then started the paperwork. The PCR, the unfilled form, residence card, phone application we had to download in advance… probably other things I’m forgetting. Again we had trouble with the “optional” things, until they called someone (possibly the Japanese embassy) and were told that they were… optional.
After about half an hour of this we were the last ones left and we had to run to our gate.
Once in Dubai, were our transit was, we went through something similar, except the staff there was less amused and more annoyed. There were less than 30 people flying to Japan on a Boeing 777, even though the plane has about 400 seats. At least the flight was comfortable, with both me and my wife having four seats to ourselves.
We thought things had been stressing up to that point, but the real nightmare started at Narita airport. The whole ordeal is a blur now – I think I was too tired to process anything – but we had to spend about 7h at the airport waiting, doing paperwork, setting up an application, taking a PCR, and showing the same documents to different people again, and again, and again… we must have gone through 10-15 different people, and believe me this is no exaggeration.
After finally getting our negative PCRs (again), we had to take a bus to our quarantine hotel. Yeah, despite having not one, but two negative PCRs, we still had to quarantine. The number of days depends on the country, at the time people from countries like the UK, France or the US had a six-day hotel quarantine, so we were relatively “lucky” in that regard. At the hotel we had to do a bit more paperwork, and remove any alcoholic drinks from our suitcases. Why, you ask? No idea. We were told it’s because some people drink at the hotel, but I’m not sure what the problem is with this. It’s not like we can meet people, after all.
We were lucky enough to get a Prince Hotel, I was dreading getting an APA hotel with its tiny rooms. In our case, the room was wide and kind of fancy. Unfortunately, it was still a terribly boring experience, since we couldn’t leave the room. Despite being incredibly tired and jet-lagged, we were woken up at 6am the next day. The several long, repeated, loud announcements (meals, PCRs), ensured that we couldn’t get a good night’s sleep.
On top of that, we had to deal with an application that messages or calls you 6 to 9 times a day. We had to describe our health condition, show our face for 30 seconds each time, or press the GPS button so that the government knows where we are.
The meals were OK, basically lunchboxes that you could get at a convenience store. Breakfast was too heavy for my liking, with rice and meat or fish. I don’t usually feel like butadon in the morning. I left a couple of meals in the fridge.
On the last day at the hotel, we took a PCR (again!) After the hotel quarantine, we were brought back to the airport. Yes, that’s right, even though the hotel was way closer to our home, we had to go all the way to Narita airport. From then, we had to take a special taxi service to our home, passing by the hotel again… not only that, but that taxi fare was 30,000 yen! We unnecessarily wasted 2h and a lot of money, but at least we were back home.
Once home, we had to quarantine for four more days, while still having to answer the app’s calls and messages. At least it was more comfortable than the hotel room, and with better food.
At the end of the day, was the trip worth it? Well, yes. I was able to see my family and friends back home after about two and a half years, and I had a great time there. I can’t wait to get back. But the whole process could have certainly been easier. The three negative PCRs on top of a week-long quarantine, despite being vaccinated, were a bit overkill. There could have been fewer steps to the process, and there should never be any “optional” paperwork.
It’s much easier to travel now, as long as you have a booster shot, and I do recommend going back home if it’s been a long time. But keep in mind the government doesn’t always make things easy or clear.
Hi, I’m Sergio.
I’m from Spain, lived in the UK for seven years and came to Japan in 2012.
I majored in journalism in London and have been teaching English in Tokyo.
I like traveling, cycling, photography, movies, and spending time with friends.
I wrote articles about life in Japan as a foreigner and anything that I might find interesting.
My email is ” email@example.com “, by all means contact me about anything!
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