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10 Things Agents Need to Know About Travel to Japan

Back in early October, Japan lifted its Visa restrictions on travellers from the United States and Canada, marking the full reopening of the country to foreign tourism. It’s a welcome return, but some things about the Japanese travel experience have changed.

Aren taking some photos of the Seto Inland Sea after cycling the Shimanami Kaido. (Courtesy of JNTO)

I recently visited Japan in mid-October at the invitation of the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO). I was lucky enough to visit Tokyo and explore some destinations that are off the typical tourist track, such as the northwestern coast of Shikoku and the islands of the Seto Inland Sea. It was great to explore the country again and witness the incredible Japanese hospitality that is so famous worldwide. It was also enlightening about what has and has not changed in Japan.

So to help you plan your clients’ trips to Japan, I’m sharing some feedback on travelling to Japan right now. These are 10 things you need to know about travelling to Japan heading into 2023.

What do travel agents need to know about trips to Japan for 2023?

Main street of Setoda on Ikuchi Island in the Seto Inland Sea. (Credit: Aren Bergstrom)

1. Japan Has Never Been So Affordable

The US and Canadian exchange rates are near all-time highs with regards to the Japanese Yen. As of this writing, $1 US was around 140 YEN, while $1 CA was around 106 YEN. That’s very strong, which means your clients can save big on everything from accommodations and shopping to eating out to transit. I experienced this in Tokyo, where everything from ramen to souvenirs was extremely affordable. A train ride from Tokyo Station up to the Tokyo Dome came to around a buck when converted. Some unforgettable shoyu ramen at Bizentei in Chiyoda was around 700 YEN. You’ll never find anything that good for that cheap in North America, so you and your clients should take advantage. It’s a great time to travel to Japan.

2. Cherry Blossom Season Is Going to Be Busier Than Usual (especially in Kyoto)

When spring of 2023 rolls around, it will have been four whole years since foreign tourists were in the nation for the cherry blossom season. Four years! That’s ages in the world of travel. And that means there’s going to be enormous demand for travel during the cherry blossom season. We’re seeing this at Goway with constant inquiries about visiting Japan in the spring. I was also told the same thing by tour guides, hotel operators, and other tourism professionals while visiting Japan. Everyone is bracing for one of the busiest hanami seasons ever, so be upfront with your clients: expect it to be busy, especially in Kyoto, where the city is smaller and there are fewer spots to view the cherry blossoms. Travellers are going to feel the capacity limits. On the other hand, Tokyo always contends with crowds and has many different areas to view the blossoms, so it’s always a good option, even in the midst of the busyness. Regardless of where and when they go, 2023 is going to be busier than usual, and seeing cherry blossoms is always dependent on the weather and other environmental factors. It’s never a guarantee. If your clients are dead-set on seeing the cherry blossoms, consider Spring Blossoms in Japan, which has set-dates on a convenient group tour.

3. There Are Alternatives to the Cherry Blossom Season

Shinshoji Zen Museum & Gardens near Fukuyama. (Credit: Aren Bergstrom)

Consider having your clients head to other parts of the country, whether Hokkaido or Kyushu or more southerly parts of Honshu, instead of the typical tourist routes. Another good option is for your clients to avoid the cherry blossom season altogether, travelling earlier or later in the spring. They’ll enjoy smaller crowds and more affordable hotel rates, especially in Kyoto. While they’ll miss out on the hanami excitement, they can still see beautiful flowers, such as the plum blossoms in February or the wisteria tunnels in May, which are gorgeous.

4. Masks Are Still the Norm

Your clients may not be thrilled to hear this, but they need to know that for the time being (and for the foreseeable future), masks are the norm in Japan. People wear them indoors or anytime they are talking or interacting with others. The Japanese are extremely polite and it’s become the polite thing to do to wear a mask while inside—not to mention the law of the land. So do what they do while in the country and wear a mask. Your clients should bring a pack with them and if they ever wonder whether they should or should not wear a mask in a given setting, opt for the discrete option and mask up.

Akihabara in Tokyo. (Credit: Aren Bergstrom)

5. There Has Been Some Turnover in the Travel Industry

Like in so much of the world (Europe especially), there has been a lot of change in the tourism industry in Japan. People have left the industry, other new people have started, and hotels and restaurants are staffing up at rapid speed to meet the growing tourist numbers. There will be some growing pains in the next while, which isn’t a big deal, but just something to be aware of. It’s good to pack some patience.

6. Custom Itineraries Take Some Turnaround Time

As a result of the staff turnover in Japan, the process for booking Japanese vacations is more protracted than it was prior to the pandemic. At Goway, our local partners are very busy dealing with the high volume of requests and training new staff members, so they have a slow turnaround time. Most custom quotes take around a month. So not only do your clients need to practice some patience, travel professionals do as well. Everyone is trying their best and wants to create unforgettable memories in Japan, but at the moment, things take more time than is ideal.

7. Take Advantage of the MySOS Fast Track Entry to Skip Quarantine

There are also some ways to speed up things and make the travel experience easier in Japan. One of them is to take advantage of the fast pass system for quicker arrival at the airport. Japan currently requires three doses of WHO-approved COVID-19 vaccines for all foreign travellers. To speed up the vaccination approval process on arrival, your clients should apply for MySOS fast track entry to skip any quarantine measures. The online system is a bit archaic and takes half an hour to fill out, but essentially, if your clients answer all the questions beforehand and upload files showing their vaccination and passports, they’ll get a blue clearance. Just make sure they do this over a week in advance of arrival to allow for the review process, as all vaccination records are reviewed manually. Once they arrive in Japan, they’ll just show the blue MySOS page to the proper officials during the immigration process and they’ll get to skip most of the lines and any unpleasant testing or quarantine.

8. Use Rail Passes & Fund Cards

It’s also smart to take advantage of any ways to make transit easier throughout the country. Japan Rail passes are famously of great value and still a must-have for any traveller. As for getting around in the cities, your clients can consider buying a Pasmo or Suica card to make it easy to pay for all subway and local train rides. The cards are also good to use at many convenience stores and shops. They can even hand in these cards at the airports before departure and get a refund on the deposit and any unspent funds (Suica has a small refund fee). Also, if your clients are travelling by shinkansen (bullet train) through the nation, know that there are weight and size limits for luggage on board: 30kg and total dimensions up to 160cm (sum of height, width, and length). For larger items, travellers can still bring them on board (up to 250cm total dimensions) but need to reserve the back seats (Row 1) of a shinkansen cabin. The luggage is then simply stored in the space behind the row.

9. Local People & the Travel Industry Are Excited to Welcome Foreigners

Exterior of the Palace Hotel Tokyo. (Credit: Aren Bergstrom)

This is perhaps the most important, and certainly the most optimistic, news in this whole piece. Japan is thrilled to have foreign travellers come and visit again. Wherever I went in Japan, people were happy to see a foreign face visiting and were more hospitable than ever (that’s really saying something in a country as hospitable as Japan). I had locals invite me to see their home gardens, chefs pose with me in restaurants, and kids come up simply to say konnichiwa (hello) or ohayo gozaimasu (good morning). And this was all with COVID concerns still a real thing across the country. People are thrilled to have tourism back!

10. There Are New Hotels & Attractions

And the industry has prepared for this day. New hotels have been built across the country (many were constructed in anticipation of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics) and there has been an impressive refurbishing of the older properties. Things seem new and sparkling across the nation. There are also more attractions to see than ever before. Super Nintendo World opened at Universal Studios in Osaka in March 2021, offering everyone the chance to race Mario Karts or punch jump blocks in real life. Ghibli Park also opened near Nagoya, recreating rides and environments from the beloved movies of Studio Ghibli (such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro).

It’s truly an exciting time to visit Japan. Your clients will love exploring it in the coming months and years and the Japanese will love welcoming them. Just keep in mind these aforementioned points and an unforgettable Japanese vacation will go as smoothly as can be. And when you’re ready to start planning, get in touch with a Goway Destination Specialist.

This article was written in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization.

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Aren Bergstrom

You might say that Aren was destined to become a Globetrotter after his family took him to Germany two times before he was four. If that wasn’t enough, a term spent in Sweden as a young teenager and a trek across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand confirmed that destiny. An independent writer, director, and film critic, Aren has traveled across East and Southeast Asia and Eastern and Central Europe. His favourite travel experience was visiting the major cities of Japan’s largest island, Honshu, but his love for food, drink, and film will take him anywhere that boasts great art and culture.

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