UPDATE October 2021

[Original report here] [May 2020 update here] [December 2020 update here]

KANcycling hasn’t posted a COVID update for many months because, in practical terms, so little has changed. Despite the ready availability of vaccines, and depressing as it is to recognize, the reality is that for most people the overall situation is substantially unchanged from a year and a half ago. Let’s go back to our good news bad news checklist:

The good news:

• The ubiquitous lockdowns will be eased as of October 1 in all areas. For the first time since April, there will be no lockdowns anywhere in the country.

• After a mystifyingly slow start, Japan’s vaccination campaign is finally well underway, and more and more people are getting vaccinated. (Nearly 60% of the population was fully vaccinated as of September 30.) Japan has also issued its own “vaccine passport” and the documents (so far paper only) are available free of charge from local government offices.

• The entry requirements for returning residents have been eased further. (More on that later.)

However most of the other news is disappointing:

• Tourists are STILL not permitted entry from any country, and are very unlikely to be allowed in freely anytime soon.

• As in other countries around the world, the surging Delta variant dashed hopes for a return to normalcy during the summer. The latest lockdown was instituted in the face of the worst outbreaks since January. Case numbers skyrocketed, and although they have come down significantly, they remain a cause for concern since medical facilities are still under severe strain. (Ironically, the high transmissibility of the Delta variant may be crowding out other variants that could be more resistant to vaccines.)

• Living with the Delta variant means that, even for fully vaccinated people, poorly-ventilated indoor spaces should be avoided unless everyone there is known to be vaccinated (since breakthrough infections do occur). And that makes going to restaurants or bars potentially problematic. Yet all of those places will reopen fully with no restrictions on October 1, and this can be expected to cause another rise in infections, through the degree of the increase is not yet knowable.

• Travel out of Japan and back again is still very difficult. The Japanese vaccination passports have not been very useful so far. Although around two dozen countries recognize them to some degree and allow Japanese residents to avoid some entry requirements, most countries do not. To take Hawaii as an example: the state of Hawaii doesn’t recognize foreign vaccinations, and therefore a PCR test is required for entry (just as in the case of an unvaccinated person), so having the vaccine passport provides no advantages.* And the vaccine passport is no help to returning citizens and residents, either: they still need to get a PCR test prior to boarding, and they’re still subject to a two-week quarantine upon their return (and can’t even take public transport home from the airport).

* Reportedly the U. S. policy will be changed to require vaccination for entry to the U. S., meaning the vaccine passport will be needed — but the negative COVID test will also still be required.

• Although all restrictions will be lifted as of October 1, there is nothing to suggest that case numbers won’t start to go up again as people once again flood bars, restaurants and entertainment events — and as it gets colder.

• The government eased quarantine restrictions for returning residents who are fully vaccinated, recognizing the vaccine passports of other countries). But in most cases, the quarantine will only be reduced from 14 days to 10 days. As Reuters correspondent Mari Saito succinctly puts it, “The 'loosening' of restrictions appears to be limited to people re-entering the country, reducing the amount of time fully vaccinated people spend in quarantine, and getting rid of some hotel quarantine requirements.”

• Thus there has been no change in the policy of barring tourists from entering the country. Moreover, since the testing requirements as well as the quarantine and ban on public transport upon return are unchanged, in practice this also prevents the vast majority of Japanese people from traveling abroad as well. For example: suppose you want to take your spouse and two children somewhere overseas. Unless you’re going to one of the relatively few countries that currently recognize Japan vaccine passports, each member of the family must be tested prior to boarding — and even the national health insurance does not cover COVID tests. That’s around $300 each for each member of the family just to get into the foreign country (and travelers must also be tested prior to boarding the return flight.) And working parents will be unable to go to work or take public transport for two weeks after they return. This effectively makes overseas travel impossible for most people.


So. as we always ask: what does this mean for the future? The government’s vaccination target is to have 80% of the country vaccinated by November. Assuming that this is possible (and although it sounds unlikely, it’s certainly not impossible), will that change anything? Kyodo News reported early in September that the Keidanren, Japan’s largest business lobby, has been trying to get the Japanese government to eliminate the quarantine for overseas visitors (and presumably returnees) who are fully vaccinated. Needless to say, that would be a game changer — since, presumably, there would be no reason to keep vaccinated tourists out.

But, realistically, nothing is likely to happen until after the next prime minister is selected. [Update: well, that didn’t take long — already done as of September 29.] And since the quarantine has already been reduced slightly, it will probably be some time before any further changes are made. So we can expect to wait for awhile longer, probably November at the earliest. Much will depend on the infection numbers and how quickly they begin to go up again. Hopefully, with increasing vaccinations, we will not have a repeat of the tremendous spikes that occurred in July and August.


For people who are already in the country, here is the advice we gave in the May COVID update about cycling in Japan’s “new normal.” It’s still our recommendation, although the wiping down of things can be de-emphasized a bit and the proper wearing of close-fitting masks should be re-emphasized:

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

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.)

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.

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.

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.)

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, kissing or even 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 others and 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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