Time travelling to Japan

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No travel to Japan for a whole year. It’s the longest I’ve stayed away since 1998, and it’s starting to make me fidgety. More and more, I find myself zoning out of my inbox and imagining myself back in my second home, surrounded by familiar and longed-for sights, smells and sounds.

Travel is going to be different after Covid, and so is Japan. But in what ways? Strangely enough, despite all that’s changed in the past 20 years, I suspect that visiting post-pandemic Japan will be a bit like stepping back in time — for a brief period, at least.

Wide angle shot of the entrance to Chinatown in Yokohama at sunset
Yokohama in December 2020 – Ryuji/Pixta

Japan at the turn of the millennium

It’s the year 2000. The Nokia 3310 is the undisputed king of the burgeoning mobile phone market, Bill Clinton is seeing out his final year playing his saxophone in the White House, and the world has yet to be spun off its axis by the events of 9-11. This is also the year that my university friend, Simon, and I started InsideJapan Tours, with the mission to share the joy of Japan with the world.

Young man wearing sunglasses stretches his arms in front of traditional torii gates
A young Alastair on a visit to Takayama in 2000

Back then, Japan’s 1990s bubble had just burst, but it was still the world’s second biggest economy — pumping out cars, Sony Discmans, precision-engineered cameras and gorgeously sleek flat-screen TVs. A little bit of Japan was in nearly every home across the Western world, and yet in tourism terms it still felt exotic and expensive — somewhere a friend of a friend might have been to once, on business. To visit felt like being in on an incredible secret. This was the most amazing civilisation on earth, and nobody knew about it!

Passersby walk around in Akihabara during the first decade of the year 2000
Akihabara Electric Town in the early noughties

As I (somewhat haphazardly) led my first clients around the country as a novice tour leader, we were greeted by the Japanese with a friendly but bemused nervousness. A linguistically challenged group of foreigners, eager to slurp down bowls of ramen and have our first taste of real sushi, we were a source of constant surprise and curiosity — from our willingness to have a go with chopsticks to our bizarre dietary requirements (“You don’t eat meat? Not even bacon?”).

The dawn of mass tourism

Two decades later, Western tourists were no longer a novelty in Japan’s most popular destinations. Visitor numbers had soared, with over 30 million foreign arrivals in 2019. Japan featured prominently at the top of holidaymakers’ bucket lists. You might even say it had gone mainstream.

Inevitably, this meant the “Japan experience” had changed. A lot of the changes have been positive, making Japan more accessible to more people than ever before. A proliferation of boutique experience providers now enable visitors to try their hand at everything from tea ceremony to theatrical sword fighting. All major destinations are now well signposted in English, and museums offer multilingual headsets. Where we used to have to translate the menus for our favourite restaurants, now every establishment has its own — not just in English, but in Chinese, Korean, and even Spanish. Even vegetarians are now well catered for!

Smiling waitress wearing traditional clothes serves sake to a group of customers in a Kyoto restaurant
Yasaka Tempura Endo in Kyoto, always welcoming guests from all over the world

But as we’ve seen the world over, from Machu Picchu to Venice, too many tourists are a bad thing. I’ve been dismayed with the Japanese government’s obsession with numbers. 20 million, 30 million, 60 million – a seemingly endless ratcheting up of the inbound travel conveyor belt. Of course, even in 2019 you could still step away from the tourist trail and find a Japan as-yet untouched by mass tourism — but visit only little-known destinations and you’ll miss out on some of the best of Japan. Kyoto and Tokyo will always be special, no matter how popular they become, but at a certain point I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic for the days when my small group of intrepid tourists had them all to ourselves.

Looking past the pandemic

The pandemic has, of course, changed everything. At the time of writing, no tourists have arrived in Japan since April 2020. The clackety-clack of suitcase wheels on the pavements of Tokyo is gone, and its thousands of restaurants and hotels are eerily quiet. Even in Kyoto, that most over-touristed of Japanese cities, locals have begun to miss the buzz that tourists bring, and businesses are hurting in their absence.

Uncrowded shot of Tokyo's famous red gate, Kaminarimon, during the state of emergency in January 2021
Kaminarimon minus the crowds, Asakusa, in January 2021 – Ryuji/Pixta

But this is all temporary. When borders finally re-open, I believe that Japan will, once again, offer the best of that experience I had with my clients all those years ago. A chance to be a post-Covid pioneer, and to bask in the warmth of all that pent-up omotenashi (Japan’s unique version of hospitality). To be one of those first few returning visitors to see the maples of Miyajima resplendent in the red, orange and gold of autumn; to celebrate the dawning of a pandemic-free spring under the cherry blossoms; to look around and feel incredibly lucky that all this is once again available to be experienced and cherished.

For a while at least, I think we can pretty much guarantee there will be far fewer visitors from overseas in Japan. But this isn’t just a numbers game.

Stock photo of two paper cranes, with the words "Japan Social Distancing" and two hearts between them
Japan in the post-Covid world – patchii/Pixta

We anticipate that “low-touch” trips are going to be increasingly popular in the post-Covid world, with visitors choosing to stop in fewer places but spend longer in each. Join this movement and you’ll be rewarded with a richer experience, with plenty of time to really get beneath the surface   Previously overcrowded destinations such as Kyoto’s Gion district or the floating shrine gate of Miyajima Island won’t be deserted (the Japanese love to travel in their own country), but they will be calmer, quieter, and feel much more special for it.

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