(for update click here)

It’s now early May 2020 and Japan is in the midst of the annual Golden Week holiday period, though one unlike any that we have experienced before.

We’ve been delaying our report on this until we got some clarity, but finally the parameters of the domestic travel advisory in Japan for the near future have become clear. The morning news today (5/4 JST) announced that the “Special Advisory” that was set to end on May 6 will be extended until the end of May. (Although it had been rumored that the authorities were considering an extension for “about a month,” we suspected that they would probably not extend a full month until 6/6, and it turns out we were right.) In addition, the number of prefectures for special cautionary measures will be increased to 13. So travel within and between those prefectures will be “discouraged” (although not made illegal).

(For the record, the 13 prefectures covered by the special advisory are Hokkaido, Ibaraki, Saitama, Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa, Ishikawa, Gifu, Aichi, Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo and Fukuoka.)

So what does that mean for cycling in Japan?

This is actually multiple questions. Can you come to Japan to cycle, is it safe to do so, and what precautions should you take?

The first question is the easiest. At present, in most cases, you can’t even get into the country. Here’s a list of the countries from which you’re not even allowed into Japan (from https://covid19japan.com/):

Even if you managed to get permission to enter the country, you would need to quarantine by spending the first 2 weeks at “a location designated by the quarantine station chief” (according to https://www.japan.travel/en/coronavirus/) — normally this means a specially designated hotel. And you will not be allowed to take any public transport during that period.

OK. But if you’re already here, or you managed to get in and spent the first 14 days in quarantine, can you cycle?

In a word, yes. Roads are obviously still open. In addition, trains and many buses are still running (although some on reduced schedules), so you could carry bagged bikes on them — and although the government might not approve of this, they have not made it illegal. So at present there are no physical or legal barriers to traveling around by bicycle.

OK. But is it safe to do so?

That’s a judgment call. As of this writing, infection rates are dropping in every location except Tokyo (which went for several days with only double-digit confirmed infections but has now gone two days in a row with around 160 new infections per day). It is precisely because the number of daily infections (and deaths) has not declined far enough in the judgment of the authorities that the lockdown has been extended.

There are other aspects to consider. Just because you could get to a cycling destination doesn’t necessarily mean you’d be welcomed there — people in regional areas are justifiably fearful of outsiders bringing the virus into their communities, so even though it’s hard to imagine people expressing outright opposition to your presence, they might not be as happy to see you as they would be normally. Accommodation options may also be limited for that reason, or simply because proprietors have closed their establishments for the foreseeable future.

Also note that a huge number of festivals, facilities and so on have been canceled or closed because of the emergency — see the list at the https://www.japan.travel/en/coronavirus/ link. Parks, museums and libraries are reportedly set to reopen, although this will probably be on a case-by-case basis.

That being said, there’s an argument to be made that cycling is one of the safest ways to navigate this strange time in our global history. A solo or small-group cyclist is “socially distancing” pretty much by definition — you’re traveling by yourself, away from direct contact with others, and out in the open air where the virus is least likely to be around. Compared to pretty much any other activity, you’re least likely to be infected by COVID-19 when you’re on a bicycle in the outdoors.

So how should you go about doing that safely?

On a bicycle touring trip, your main times of concern will be when you need to come in contact with other people or places where other people have been — in other words, accommodations, meals, and public transport travel (if you need to take it).

For accommodations, camping could be (COULD be — see below) the safest option — “outdoor” activities are currently enjoying a huge boom in Japan based on their perceived safety. And although it was a very chilly spring, the weather has warmed up enough to make camping a comfortable option. However, we say “could be” because Japanese campsites can be crowded, which of course would defeat the purpose of choosing this option — and camping in other than designated campsites is not officially sanctioned. So you should probably be prepared to stay in inns or the like if need be.

Meals are much more straightforward. Japanese restaurants tend to be small and rather poorly ventilated, which is of course exactly the type of place you should avoid right now — but convenience stores are everywhere, and they have inexpensive fresh “bento” box lunches for sale in abundance. Buying one of these and eating it by yourself would definitely be the safest option (although way, way less delicious than eating in Japan normally is!). Obviously you should take the same precautions you would anywhere: don a mask when near other people and wash or sterilize your hands frequently, especially when entering and after leaving an establishment and when first entering a room at an inn.

You should be particularly careful on public transport. We would recommend traveling by train rather than on buses or planes (which are more confined and have fixed seating). Boarding trains at off times and choosing free rather than reserved seating can give you more options to choose a different location if the one you’re in suddenly gets crowded with people (you can always pay for a reserved seat later, unless the train is full, and in that case you wouldn’t want to be on it anyway). We would recommend wiping down armrests and hang-straps with alcohol-based wipes before touching them — and of course wash or sterilize your hands after you disembark.

Lastly, what can we expect in the future?

As the saying goes, predictions about the future are hard, so take ours with a grain of salt. Unless things change dramatically, it’s difficult to imagine that the government will keep the current full (voluntary) lockdown in place past the end of May. We can probably expect things to gradually open up after that. However, the easing is likely to start with domestic travel within and between prefectures, with many international travel restrictions remaining in place. Overall, you can expect the Japanese government to be very cautious about opening up to international tourism, and to go slowly. So it may be difficult to come here from other countries for awhile.

This may change if widespread testing begins (like others, we’ve been mystified as to why Japan has been reluctant to make testing widely available). An extensive nationwide Test, Trace & Isolate program might give everyone more confidence in opening up and going out in public, and might hasten the end of restrictions on international tourism.

But whatever the future holds, one thing is certain: eventually we will get through this. So in preparation for that day, let’s try to keep up our spirits — in cyclist terms, let’s all try to be the “oikaze” for one another so we can all get to the end of this journey safely.


COVID-19 and Cycling in Japan

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