What Touristic Travels in Japan are Really Like in Summer 2022
Interview of a Travel Agency Manager in Japan
If you are a regular reader of Kanpai, you may already be aware of the fact that tourism in Japan (finally) (partially) resumed on June 10th after 2 years and 3 months of complete borders closing. Admittedly, the new travel conditions come with constraints, such as the requirements of being "sponsored" by a travel agency and always accompanied by a guide there. Depending on the travel agency selected to organize your trip, it is nonetheless possible to spend a very interesting travel, with an exclusive experience at hand.
As a reminder, the article below explains the whole process to travel to Japan with a tourist visa since the end of spring 🌸.
We wanted to get concrete feedback regarding this new type of trip to Japan, so we talked to Sebastien, the expatriate manager of Keikaku, a travel agency enabling its current and prospective clients to travel under these conditions.
Do you have inquiries for trips to Japan since the implementation of the new travel conditions?
We did not expect that, but we had a lot of inquiries from prospective customers and clients since early June. They are directly handled by our office in France. One thing is certain: despite the current limitations, Japan is as attractive as ever. However, only a few of these inquiries actually end up in a travel. The main obstacle is the guide’s part: either clients refuse to be constantly monitored, or the required cost is too high. And you definitely don’t want to cheat: if controlled without a guide, the traveler is to be deported and risks a 15 years ban from the Japanese territory.
There are two main types of inquiries, depending if the clients have already bought their flight tickets or not.
- If they already have their flight tickets, they often got discounts and since they have to pay more they prefer paying for a guide now rather than for a surcharge on their ticket next year (providing there will be an easing on the borders’ closure until then).
- Clients who have nothing booked yet but have a very comfortable budget and can afford to decide on a trip at the last minute to enjoy the exclusivity. As a matter of fact, with these constraints and the Chinese citizens being prevented from traveling, there are currently almost no foreign tourists in Japan. To the point that the Japan National Tourism Organization even communicates along these lines:
日本には、外国人に人気の高い観光スポットがたくさんあります。— 日本政府観光局(JNTO) (@JNTO23750265) July 26, 2022
What are the conditions imposed on this type of travel?
You should know that Keikaku is one of the few travel agencies to offer tailored travels and despite the current Covid 🦠 restrictions, the customers are the ones deciding on their trips. For example, there is no obligation to follow a precise schedule thoroughly planned in advance. The only thing we ask is that the client let us know where and how long they stay at each destination so we can arrange for our guide’s accommodation. Moreover, we do not organize package tours nor mandatory itineraries as we are still offering a tailored-made travel. That is why many customers choose us after they have booked their flights and hotels. And naturally, all prefectures in Japan are accessible.
Some customers imagine the guide as inflexible and imposing visits, with strict schedules or even perceiving fees on sales in certain shops, but this is not how we work at all. We never operated like that and are not likely to do so anytime soon!
In my opinion, the biggest downfall for travelers is that they can’t have free time during their trip beside the hotel 🏨. I have a specific example in mind, a summer camp group I just accompanied, with 20 young people who had to stay together almost all the time, while the supervising adults and the guides did not have many occasions to rest.
Is it difficult to go to Japan given the current conditions?
It all depends on who you are in business with, as the travel agency is the referent that determines the travel conditions in compliance with the Japanese immigration’s rules. Like I said, at Keikaku, we do our best for the most flexibility and to adapt as much as possible to our customers’ requests. Of course, we cannot accept that our clients be without a guide, although there is some tolerance. For example, in parks or shopping malls, we try not to be on the clients’ tail and leave them some space using a Pocket Wi-Fi to get in touch with them at anytime.
The main point to pay attention to is to start planning early enough, for two reasons.
- Before getting a tourism visa, the customer must have received their ERFS certificate, that we send as a PDF document about 24 to 48 hours after the signature of the travel agreement. Then, the customers must contact their nearest Embassy or Consulate to book an appointment (or to check the relevant visa application process) and go there in person to submit the visa application. Delay may vary especially in summer with the staff’s holidays.
- On the guides’ side, given that each group of travelers must be permanently accompanied by a guide there, their availability quickly diminishes, especially in peak season. Almost all of our guides have already been booked for July and August, and their availability is already reduced for October and November.
In any case, this system requires the customer to be well informed beforehand. For example, we have been called by travelers who were denied boarding their plane ✈️ for Japan as they had left unprepared. Anyone can buy a flight ticket to Tokyo and many think it means they can travel freely, but it is not the case at all: there are many other types of visas beside tourism, and one must also take into account the Japanese who can travel freely.
What is the budget necessary to comply with these conditions?
There is indeed a "tourist surcharge" related to the constraints of the Japanese immigration. Keikaku offers a package including all the costs implied: the ERFS certificates, the guide’s salary and all their expenses (transport, food, accommodation, activities). The service’s price is strongly related to the client’s itinerary and the season, but usually cost around several hundred dollars per day. It is a very high budget and therefore the number of eligible travelers is limited; on a side note, I would not be surprised if it was a voluntary move from the Japanese government.
It is important to understand that the guide will work long hours daily and must travel everywhere with the customers, so the cost quickly adds up. Naturally, customers who only visit the capital during the low season will pay less that the ones who will visit a new city every 3 days during the high season. In the first case, we will assign a guide living in Tokyo to avoid accommodation fees. In the later case, we must pay the guide’s expenses for hotel, Shinkansen 🚅 tickets as they can’t use the JR Pass being residents in Japan. Consequently, the hourly rate of the guide is lower than during pre-Covid times.
One thing to note is that the larger the group, the more affordable per person the guiding service becomes, as the rate is the same regardless of the number of travelers. According to the Japanese immigration’s conditions, a group starts from 1 person to the infinite. Naturally, with a 15 to 20 adults group, we recommend having 2 guides!
Many of our customers who sign the travel agreement see the positive side of the constraint: they have in permanence with them a private English-Japanese bilingual guide who takes care of everything, and with whom them could already talk before the trip to prepare the visits.
Precisely, who are the travelers currently going to Japan?
Due to the cost explained above, there are very few couples and almost no solo traveler, but rather families or friends groups, considering that the price is actually bearable for 5 to 10 persons groups. Note that we never group together customers who don’t know each other for shared trips as Keikaku only offers private guide services.
As I said before, in the beginning we mainly had clients who had already booked their flights and Keikaku was just entrusted with the ERFS + guide to allow them to make this travel. There were couples, families and teenagers summer camps (see picture), who were very happy to hear the news on June 10! Lately, as the news of Japan’s partial reopening spread, prospective clients wanting to travel as soon as possible, even under these conditions, contacted us. Many, however adjust their accommodation reservations for apartment-hotels or serviced apartments to have a kitchenette in the room, so as to enjoy an intimate breakfast and/or dinner, without the guide.
We are asked almost each time how long will these current restriction last but nobody knows, that is why, as said before, we already have reservations made for winter 2022-2023 as clients want to make sure to go now that they are allowed to. If the restrictions are eased in the meantime, naturally, we will adapt the already signed travel agreements to lift the permanent guide obligation.
What is the current situation regarding Covid in Japan?
To be honest, at the moment of this interview (early August), the situation could be seen as worrying, with a Covid wave 2,5 times higher than the previous record. It is the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that we have so many cases among acquaintances and relatives. One is not considered contact case if permanently wearing a face mask, like teachers, so the official figures are probably underestimated. Fortunately, this 7th wave peak is in view and expected on August 6, and the severe cases are very rare.
Another good news is that all the restrictions we had until now were lifted. All shops and museums are open and even matsuri have resumed. The only noticeable hints are windows opened in Kyoto buses or the interdiction to put Shinkansen chairs face to face, even if food and drinks are still served inside the trains. In any case, there are very few impacts for travelers, and it does not prevent us to work at all. Covid is not really a concern for our clients, wherever they come from: they almost never talk about it. All our travelers gracefully abide by wearing the sanitary mask 😷, even if it is a habit somewhat lost in the West. On the other hand, the rule has also been eased, especially in the outdoor. That is why we don’t feel like chaperons when guiding, even though we are also Covid referents.
I could not help noticing however that some of my preferred addresses have closed down due to the tourism crisis related to the borders closing, for example the chocolate ice cream shop near Ginkaku-ji or the nikuman restaurant in Miyajima. A while ago, an article published in the Nikkei explained that 10% of the Japanese hotels and travel agencies had to close due to the Corona… The good side of it is the return of Japanese tourists in areas that were overwhelmed by the Asian-oriented consumerist sightseeing, for example in Osaka’s Dotombori and its drugstores that were "given back" to the locals thanks to the pandemic.
By the way, how do the Japanese and especially merchants react to the return of foreign tourists ?
Overall we got nice feedback, they are happy to see us again. Most of the Japanese are not aware of how close their borders are since they can travel overseas freely since 2020. But people working in the tourism industry are really happy. For example, the staff at Haneda Airport’s Japan Railways counter told me that it was almost 3 years since they last activated so many JR Pass ! It was even more friendly in tourist places and shops, I am thinking about a restaurant near the Philosopher’s Path where employees wanted to give us umbrellas as it had started to rain ☔️ while we were eating.
People come to us to chat, ask where we are from, in short the same things as in pre-Covid times. In Kyoto, I did notice a few glares, especially in transports, but it was quite rare and probably due to the fact that we were a large group. The other guides, working with families for example, haven’t told me about that.
Actually, "tourism" has already resumed since March with family visas in particular, and of course, expatriates who never left. We have been frequently encountering other small groups of foreign travelers for a few months now. But every body is really happy that international tourists could come back to Japan at last. The return to work is intense for the guides but it is really welcomed!