As this first-hand experience shows, entering Japan as Omicron fears rise is no easy task, even for Japanese natives. One man behind the front lines of Narita airport breaks down his experience.
A Nightmare at Narita: Entering Japan After Being Fully Vaxxed
- While all foreigners (other than those with certain visas) are still prohibited from entering Japan, Japanese nationals are able to return home.
- To prevent the Omicron variant from getting into Japan, immigration has imposed mandatory quarantines and a number of heavy-handed procedures to monitor all returnees.
- Although normally very quick and efficient, the process for re-entering Japan has become somewhat of a nightmare.
So What Made Entering Japan So Dreadful?
Like the famous song says, all I wanted was to be able to promise my family “I’ll be home for Christmas,” but, due to Japan’s draconian immigration procedures, the second half of that famous tune, “…if only in my dreams” is fast becoming reality.
Due to the speed with which the new Omicron variant is multiplying throughout the world, it seems as though almost every country in the world has begun issuing various protocol measures to limit the spread of this virus. Japan is no exception. Japan’s so-called mizugiwa taisaku (水際対策) or border controls have largely helped to prevent the Omicron variant from getting a foothold in the country. For fully vaxxed returnees like myself who have already received their booster shot and tested negative both before and after flying home to Japan, the new policy seems extreme.
After having arrived at Narita Airport at around 6 pm on Sunday, December 19, the government ultimately ended up putting me in a tiny hotel room near the airport where I am still in the middle of quarantine. To give you a sense of what this experience has been like thus far, I have been keeping a diary to document this ordeal, which has to date been the worst travel experience of my life.
Passing through immigration and customs is usually no big deal, but the coronavirus has changed everything.
I am a dual-national, and, although I am currently studying in Europe, my official residence is still in Japan. Thus, while Japan remains closed to visitors from most of the world, as a Japanese citizen I am allowed back into the country. (For a while back in November, though, the current government briefly advocated a policy of preventing its own citizens residing abroad from returning.)
I am fully vaxxed, a received my first two doses of the Pfizer vaccine back in April and May. I got my booster last month, and all of my documentation is up-to-date.
Because I have returned to Japan from Denmark, a hot spot for the Omicron variant, I must quarantine in a government-sponsored hotel for 6 days and nights vs. the normal 72-hour policy for those coming from most other countries.
Before beginning my journey in Copenhagen last Saturday (local time) I dutifully tried to stay at home in somewhat of a self-imposed self-quarantine and completed the pre-boarding Covid-19 testing regiment, which produced a negative test result.
Therefore, I was, essentially, “good to go” immediately before heading home to Japan.
Arrival at Narita Airport
After touching down at Narita Airport, I was quickly transported into the byzantine process of downloading applications, being tested again for the coronavirus, waiting to receive the test results, passing through immigration, waiting to retrieve my checked luggage, clearing customs, and waiting to board a bus before finally arriving at my new “home-away-from” home for the next 6 days of quarantine, one of the cookie-cutter Toyoko Inns adjacent to the airport. Let me walk you through the play-by-play.
Sunday, October 19 at 5:55 pm
After hours of travel, my connecting flight from Doha, Qatar arrived just a few minutes before its scheduled arrival time. I thought,
“That was a good sign, right?“
Well, it’s complicated.
As I was sitting way in the back in economy class, I was, as usual, first told to remain patiently in my seat before being able to disembark. It was a precursor of being told “to hurry up and wait,” which would become the theme of the rest of the journey.
Sunday, October 19 at 6:10 pm
After my flight arrived at its gate we were all told to get our carry-on luggage ready and prepare to get off the plane. As is normal at the end of such long, transcontinental flights, all of the passengers who are anxious to get off subsequently fill all of the space in the aisle while retrieving their e-mail and text messages. It was not, however, long before I got the feeling that the amount of time spent in “traveler stasis” was starting to drag on.
Sunday, October 19 at 6:30 pm
Along with the 150 or so fellow passengers on my flight, I was corralled into the waiting area by the gate. This was not normal. Why was everyone simply waiting there rather than proceeding to immigration? I had sort of been looking forward to the long walk from the gate, simply to get the cramps out of my muscles.
We were next instructed to fill out what seemed like duplicates of the same entry forms that had already been distributed on board the flight. I went ahead and filled in the details and submitted my documentation. I was issued a small stamp of paper with a number on my passport. There were no further instructions for the next hour or so. We all just continued to wait calmly.
Sunday, October 19 at 7:30 pm
Just as I was remembering the classic line “many are called, but few are chosen,” my number was called, along with approximately 40 other people. We had, apparently, been formed into a sub-group of passengers.
The next step turned out to be rapid saliva testing. Unlike most Japanese who rarely if ever get tested for the coronavirus, I was used to this type of test. It had become somewhat of a routine, having lived outside the country since before the pandemic.
Sunday, October 19 at 7:45 pm
After submitting my saliva, I was told to follow a series of signs which led the way to the next station. We were told to sit down and listen to an explanation by several staff members who explained how to download and apply for the multi-page documentation required for people entering Japan. I learned that I would be expected to use these documents every day for the next two weeks to report to the Japanese government my location and body temperature. Along with the others in my group, I kept moving from station to station with minimal instructions.
Sunday, October 19 at 8:30 pm
After being told “to hurry up” we all ended up waiting for another 45 minutes or so before learning how to download and use each application for our mobile telephones.
Next was another station where we were told to fill out an online questionnaire to record the flight number and local contact information. It thought,
“Hadn’t I already done this?“
Maybe so, but the information was, apparently, needed in triplicate.
Sunday, October 19 at 9:00 pm
I finally arrived at yet another bullpen to retrieve my test results. At this point, it was approximately 3 hours since landing in Japan.
This is where the nightmare really began…
It was a while before anyone was called. Nobody was called by name. As a welcome measure to protect personal privacy, we were only identified by our ID number.
I knew from previous experience–including previous visits back to Japan during the pandemic–that the rapid saliva testing should only take about an hour. Thus, my test results were probably ready by about 8:45 pm, but it seemed like an eternity until my number was called. At one point both the numbers immediately before and after my number were called. I thought,
“What did this mean? Was I positive? How could that be? Did I catch the virus on the plane or in transit?
Another thing that got on my nerves was the fact that it seemed as though several other groups of passengers–possibly from other flights–kept coming and going. I speculated,
“Why were the numbers of all of those people called right away? Why am I stuck in ‘testing purgatory?’“
It was getting close to midnight, and I was becoming really nervous about my test results.
Sunday, October 19 at 11:00 pm
Instead of having my number called, an airport staff member simply advised my entire group that all of us had tested negative. I reacted,
“Great! What a relief, but why aren’t we moving? “
After a total of 5 hours that had elapsed thus far, my group and I finally thought we “were out of the woods” and be able to go get our suitcases, clear customs, and head to our assigned hotels. That was, however, not the case.
We were told that there had been “complications” with the transport to the hotel and that we would have to wait “a little longer” until moving to the next station. I thought,
“What the….! How complicated could it be to arrange for a bus?“
Like in Squid Game, some of my fellow passengers got frustrated with some of the staff members. Although I was fuming on the inside, I decided to play it safe and remain silent and appear calm.
We were each issued one SoyJoy protein bar, one CalorieMate snack, and a bottle of water. We were also asked politely to continue to wait patiently. Nobody was able to let any of us know when we would be allowed to leave the airport.
There were more complaints, which is not something that you often hear in Japan. If this were America, I can just imagine the long line of people screaming at the ground staff. For some reason, I was reminded of a scene from my dad’s favorite movie, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, when Steve Martin attempted to rip a new one for a rent-a-car agency representative but ended up out of luck because he had thrown away his rental agreement.
Sunday, October 19 at 11:30 pm
As time went on and more people began to complain, we were offered sleeping bags to get some rest on the floor of the airport. While it felt good to be able to stop having to sit in a chair and stretch my legs, the only problem was that these sleeping bags were too small for someone taller than 6 feet (183 cm)!
It could have, however, been worse. Although it might have been that some of my fellow passengers simply refused a sleeping bag, it appeared as though there were not enough sleeping bags to go around. I had, in a sense, lucked out.
By this point, the majority of my group seemed to have lost all hope of leaving before morning. Some people began preparing to sleep in their sleeping bags through the night, while others started to pace back and forth around the waiting room. I guessed,
“Would we really have to stay all night at the airport? I had heard about how some travelers who had arrived at Narita Airport had been subsequently shuttled to Fukuoka for their quarantine, but how could I have ended up in a group with no lodging at all? “
This just did not seem right.
Monday, October 20 at 1:00 am
After what seemed like yet another inordinately long wait, which must have been about 20 minutes, there was an announcement that our bus was here. I uttered under my breath,
It turned out that this bus was, however, to take most of the remaining staff members to a parking lot. It was not for our group. Once again, my mind triggered,
Some people simply started laughing at that point, as Murphy’s Law (Anything that can go wrong will go wrong) was in full force.
After waiting a little while longer, seemingly out of the blue another airport representative addressed the group requesting that we quickly collect our belongings and move towards immigration and customs. As I was literally running on an empty stomach and so tired that I could barely think at this point, I was somehow able to navigate through these routine checkpoints with relative ease.
Monday, October 20 at 1:20 am
I finally made it outside and thought,
“Damn! It’s cold here, but it sure feels good to get some fresh air–even if it was punctuated with the diesel exhaust from the waiting bus.“
I lined up my suitcase next to the luggage trunk and got a seat toward the front of the bus. Then, I proceeded to wait for the rest of my group composed of 40 or so fellow “travel veterans” to board the bus. I was thinking,
“Soon I’ll be able to take a hot shower and collapse in bed!“
Well, not so fast! The process of simply boarding the bus took another 45 minutes to complete. I almost lost it at this point.
“How could it take so long simply to get on a bus? Who are these people? “
While waiting on the bus it occurred to me that I did not know where we were going. There was no announcement about which hotel would house our group. Nobody told us what would happen next.
Finally, the bus driver pushed back from the curb. We were on our way!
Monday, October 20 at 1:40 am
…but wait! The bus simply took us to a separate terminal where we stopped, and the bus driver got off without telling us anything. Dazed and confused, we sat and waited about 20 minutes for just three more passengers to get onto the bus before finally heading toward the quarantine hotel, a Toyoko Inn adjacent to the airport.
Monday, October 20 at 2:15 am
Upon arrival at the hotel, we were then asked to wait on the bus for another 15-20 minutes because they had still not managed to check everybody in from the bus that had arrived shortly before us. Once again I thought,
“Par for the course! Hey, what’s just a few more minutes at this point?“
Once it was finally our turn to get off the bus and check-in at the hotel, we were seated in chairs and asked to wait as each person checked in. We were all were pros at this task. I uttered under my breath again,
“Bring it on!“
Monday, October 20 at 2:45 am
I finally got checked in and provided with a bento box for “dinner.”
“Hey, I’ll take it. Thank you very much!
By this point, I was, naturally, so wound up and eager to access WiFi that I did not actually get to sleep for another couple of hours.
Monday, October 20 at 5:30 pm
I woke up again more than 12 hours later to a slew of messages from my family and friends. While I was oblivious to the world my breakfast and lunch, two more bento boxes had apparently been delivered to my room, but they were gone when I opened the door. I was, however, able to receive my “dinner.” I thought,
“Hey, only another 15 or so more bento boxes to go before my solitary confinement would be up in 6 days! I wonder if they are going to switch up the menu every other day. Well, we’ll see.“
One message said that someone on my flight had tested positive for the coronavirus. The implication is that if it turns out to be the Omicron variant, then I’ll have to remain in the same hotel room for another 8 more days for a total of 2 weeks. I should find out my fate at some point soon. In the meantime, among other things such as the meaning of life, I’ll be wondering,
“Is shampoo or body soap a more effective laundry detergent when washing your clothes in the shower of a unit bath?“
Thanks for commiserating with me. I’ll go back to Netflix now.
As there is definitely no fireplace in my tiny room at the Toyoko Inn Narita Airport, Santa will probably miss me this Christmas. All in all, things could, however, be much worse. At least I am not infected. I am, moreover, unable to put others at risk, even if I did have the coronavirus. Yes, I am going to miss being at home with my family on the 25th, but “I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams!”