UPDATE May 31, 2020  [original report is here]

As of the end of May 2020, Japan has lifted the lockdown advisory in all parts of the country. Like many, we’ve wondered if this is a bit premature in some areas: daily new cases in Tokyo are still in the double digits, and Fukuoka is currently undergoing a new outbreak. Nevertheless, the advisories are at least temporarily lifted, and locally a lot of offices and other businesses are resuming regular operations starting June 1.

However, the international tourism situation is unchanged. The government is reportedly “studying” the question of how to open up the country to non-Japanese visitors, but no decision has been made, and so Japan is still not allowing people from most countries around the world to enter the country. (This even applies to long-term foreign residents of Japan who have permanent resident status: people who were out of the country when the outbreak hit have not been allowed back in.)

So if you’re not in the country now, you’re not likely to be getting in anytime soon. But for people who are already in Japan, what does the current situation mean for cycling?

At the very least, it means that people are no longer discouraged from traveling domestically, and there are signs that people are beginning to do just that. So not only are you able to move freely, presumably it will be more acceptable to do so (meaning you’re more likely to be welcomed at places along your journey).

On the other hand, the virus hasn’t gone away, and a vaccine is many months away. That reality will affect all types of travel including cycling. And in fact, it was just announced that the biennial (once every two years) “Cycling Shimanami” event that had been scheduled for October, which two years ago attracted 7,200 riders, will not be held. Organizers cited the fact that there are still no prospects for ending the pandemic. This is a sign that, no matter how much people talk about “opening up,” the presence of the virus will overshadow any decisions that are made about traveling or welcoming travelers.

So for the foreseeable future, “normal life” will be a new normal, and cyclists will need to recognize that reality. Here are some things to keep in mind when cycling in Japan during this time.

  1. Cycling is of course physically doable. Roads are open to traffic.

  1. Public transport is either in service or slowly coming back. Trains never stopped operating, but many bus companies had halted service through the end of May. You can expect most bus companies to slowly begin service again, probably starting in June. (Consult the websites for individual bus companies.)

  1. Most hotels probably remained in service, but many minshuku and other inns took a break; you can also expect these to reopen in many areas in the near future.

If you plan to travel by bicycle, we recommend the following:

  1. Above all: WEAR A MASK whenever you are near other people. This will accomplish two things: it will help to keep both you and others safe, and more importantly it will show people in rural communities that you understand the current situation and are taking the disease seriously. We can’t think of anything that will do more to ensure that your presence is accepted and welcomed in Japan. (Needless to say, don’t wear the mask when cycling in most cases; that would be painful and possibly hazardous to your health, particularly in the warm months. But when going slow in urban areas, and certainly when you get off the bicycle and are near people, put on the mask.)

  1. DISINFECT. Wash your hands as often as you can. (This is the advice we will all need to observe from now until a vaccine is developed.) Your watchword should be: operating room level sanitary conditions. Take along alcohol-based disinfectant and tissues, or sanitary wipes, and wipe anything you will need to touch. And then wash your hands just in case.

  1. In hotels or inns, WIPE DOWN every surface that you will need to be in contact with as soon as you enter (including door knobs), and do so again if anyone else has been in the room.  In youth hostels or other low-cost accommodations, avoid the dormitory room (even assuming such rooms are still open) and pay extra for a separate room.

  1. Regarding meals: the convenience store bento box lunch, eaten alone, would probably be the safest option, but at this point, particularly in outlying areas, the outbreak appears to be under control enough that you might be able to consider eating restaurant food. However, the problem still remains that small and rather poorly ventilated indoor locations are the most dangerous places for infection, and that describes most good places to eat in Japan. So it would be best to choose a place with outdoor seating or with a table next to a window that can be opened.  (If you can do so without giving offense, you might wipe down areas of the table in front of you where you’ll be sitting that you might have to touch.)

  1. On mass transit, always wear a mask (to make other commuters comfortable as well), and try to stay away from other people and avoid rush hour times. As we noted in our original report, 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). Wear a mask when on the train, and wipe any seat armrests as well as straps or poles that you need to hang onto before you touch them. And of course wash your hands as soon as you arrive at your destination.

Bottom line: Cycling in Japan is great and will continue to be wonderful as long as you take certain precautions. Remember that Japan offers distinct advantages over many other countries that are facing the need to live with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future. Japanese people are diligent about wearing masks, and for the right (meaning sensible) reasons: to avoid infecting other people as well. The culture itself is less physically demonstrable than many others (people bow rather than hugging or shaking hands), and despite what you used to see in train station bathrooms, cleanliness has been considered a social good since the most ancient days of Shinto purity rituals. All of these cultural practices are advantages when it comes to containing the virus, and they go a long way toward ensuring safe travels. Above all, Japanese are very conscious of their responsibilities to the society as a whole and will do whatever it takes to keep the virus in check. If you show people that you have the same level of commitment (by, for example, WEARING A MASK), people will  undoubtedly be glad to welcome you into their community.

COVID-19 and Cycling in Japan (Update)

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