UPDATE February 2022

[Original report here] [May 2020 update here] [December 2020 update here] [October 2021 update here]

The past few months have been a rollercoaster in Japan. After weathering the late summer Delta wave with spectacular success (daily case numbers dropped to double or even single digits in most prefectures), the Omicron wave has resulted in the highest infection rates of the entire pandemic: thousands of new cases daily in many prefectures, and more than ten thousand daily in the major cities. Quasi-states of emergency are in effect in Tokyo and 12 other prefectures and Japan will decide in the next few days whether or not to extend them (our prediction is that they’ll probably be extended until the end of this month).

At the same time, progress has been made on accelerating booster vaccinations, and the quarantine period for reentry of Japanese citizens and non-Japanese residents has been cut from 14 to 10 to 7 days. And now the Japanese government is moving to ease entry restrictions for some nonresident foreign visitors.

What does all of this mean in terms of the prospects for the future? Let’s go with our usual good news, bad news format.

The good news:

• Despite the current high case rates, Kyodo News and other outlets report that Japan is considering easing the ban on entry for some nonresident foreigners as early as next month. The Nikkei business daily reported that more than 1,000 nonresident foreigners per day would be admitted and this would soon rise to several thousands. However, this is expected to focus pretty exclusively on people entering the country for the first time for business or study reasons, not tourism. Priority for workers would go to “researchers and engineers, as well as workers who provide a ‘public benefit.’”

• Japan is also considering cutting the quarantine from the current seven days to three days or less for visitors have been both vaxxed and boosted and have a negative COVID test.

• Vaccination rates in Japan are quite high, and after a slow start, Japan has accelerated its booster injection program and now offers mass injections (with the Moderna booster) in addition to its regularly scheduled (but moved-up) individual injections that use primarily the Pfizer vaccine.

• In other countries, the Omicron wave has tended to burn itself out more quickly than the other waves, and there are signs that this might be happening in Japan. Okinawa and Hiroshima. two of the prefectures where the wave started early due mainly to infections from U. S. military personnel, have shown a steady decrease in infections in recent days, so the wave may have started to recede in these areas.

The bad news:

• As noted above, the daily case numbers have been breathtaking. Yesterday alone Tokyo had more than 13,000 new infections, and Osaka’s were almost that high. Hyogo, which near the end of last year was down to single-digit daily increases, recorded 4,629 new infections yesterday. Note that these numbers do not include people who never bothered to go to a doctor or other place to get an official test and self-tested (or simply self-isolated) at home.

• The relaxation on first-time entry for nonresident foreigners seems to be pretty tightly targeted to business people and students. Tourists are not included in the group of visitors to be admitted beginning in March, and nothing has been said about when they might be let in.

• The requirements for overseas travel for Japanese citizens and residents have been eased considerably in terms of the number of days of quarantine required upon return, and may be eased further, but the expense of testing and the existence of a quarantine period remain unchanged — so travel out of the country is still a practical impossibility for the vast majority of people.


So. as we always ask: what does this mean for the future? Although it is difficult to imagine when daily case rates are this high, the Japanese government does seem to be expecting this wave to recede in the near future. Japan began the Omicron wave with extremely low case numbers, and that has provided a large cushion for the expected dramatic increase in case rates due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant. The strain on medical facilities has increased but seems manageable at this point. And death numbers remain very low compared to many other countries: Japan just passed 20,000 deaths for the entire pandemic (by contrast, the United States, admittedly an outlier among developed nations in terms of COVID infections and deaths, currently registers that number every 7 to 10 days!). There are signs that the wave is receding in the prefectures where it first crested, and that may be part of the government’s thinking in its announcement of the easing of the entry ban for business travelers and students.

If we were to make a prediction, it would be that, barring any new variants or other unexpected developments, Japan may begin to open up to tourists sometime this spring, perhaps in the latter part of the spring, when the Omicron wave has pretty much subsided and more of the population has received a booster shot. We’ll monitor the situation closely and will try to post any encouraging signs that we see.   


For people who are already in the country, we’ve modified the advice we gave in the May COVID update about cycling in Japan’s “new normal” — de-emphasizing the wiping down of surfaces and re-emphasizing the importance of wearing close-fitting masks of the proper type and the need to still be very careful of poorly-ventilated indoor environments.

(UPDATED February 2022)

If you plan to travel by bicycle in Japan, 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, be sure to put on the mask.)

DISINFECT. Wash your hands as often as feasible. You might take along alcohol-based disinfectant and tissues, or sanitary wipes, and wipe the things you need to touch that are touched by many other people. And, again, wash your hands as often as feasible.

In hotels or inns, it’s probably no longer necessary to wipe down every surface, since the overwhelming evidence is that COVID is spread via aerosols rather than surfaces. Still, we’d wipe down doorknobs and light switches. And In youth hostels or other low-cost accommodations, even if you’ve been vaxxed and boosted, you should probably still 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 still be the safest option. The problem 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. However, vaxxed and boosted people are well protected against severe outcomes, so they may feel willing to take relatively small risks. If you decide to eat in some restaurants, it would be best to choose a place with outdoor seating or with a table next to a window that can be opened. If indoors is your only option, try to choose a place with high ceilings, relatively wide spaces between tables, and relatively few patrons (go at off times if possible).

On mass transit, ALWAYS wear a mask (to avoid infection and to make other commuters comfortable), and try to stay away from other people and avoid rush hour times. Previously we recommended traveling by train rather than on buses or planes (which are more confined and have fixed seating), but vaxxed and boosted travelers can probably use any means as long as they remain masked. And of course, if possible 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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