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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: February 2023 | Transition

Japan, Finally!

Richard Goodwin


  • Richard Goodwin recounts his fondness for Japan dating back to 1966 and details his recent trip in November 2022, returning for the first time in three years, since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • After regular visits from 2005 until COVID restrictions, Goodwin and his wife were eager to return to visit their grandchildren in Japan.
  • This time the trip included new COVID protocols and they experienced changed flights.
  • Despite challenges, the trip was successful.
  • Since their last trip Japan changed—more touchless technologies, fewer tourists, prevalent use of masks, and a warm welcome from merchants and hotel staff.
Japan, Finally!

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I first visited Japan in 1966 returning from a 13-month tour on and in the DMZ of Korea.  I immediately fell in love with the Japanese people and culture.  I never thought I would have a chance to return.  Fast forward 39 years, I had married, had children, divorced, and remarried.  In 2004, my stepson moved to Japan for work giving my new wife and I the opportunity to visit Japan.  Little did I realize that my new wife would grow to love Japan as much as I did.

My wife and I visited on average once a year between 2005 and COVID.  We now have grandchildren in Japan who are growing up too fast, just like our other grandchildren.  When COVID travel restrictions hit we, like everyone else, were precluded from visiting Japan, while our grandchildren continued to grow.  My wife tried five different times to visit between 2019 and 2022.   Each time the trip was canceled for one reason or another.  In May 2022, speculating Japan had to reopen sometime, we bought tickets for a trip commencing in early November.  We watched with great anticipation as restrictions worldwide began to ease.  Japan, for many reasons, was slower than other countries to reopen.  By September 2022 we had hotel reservations, plane tickets, were looking at itineraries and communicating with family.  Then we got the good news, Japan was reopening in October 2022.

We got to Tokyo, Japan, November 9th, traveled to Kyoto and Seoul, then returned on December 1st.  We found some things were still the same, other things were not.

Prior to 2019, our flights from LAX generally departed late morning or early afternoon, arriving in Tokyo late afternoon.  We fly American Airlines, where my wife and I have almost 4 million frequent flyer miles.  In May 2022, we booked a flight we had taken regularly in the past, leaving around noon, arriving late afternoon at Haneda Tokyo International.  Tokyo has two international airports.  Haneda is closer to downtown Tokyo and a convenient ride to our hotel.  Tokyo Narita is farther from downtown Tokyo, but closer to the grandchildren.  We were set – so we thought!

In early fall, we got a message from American that our original flight was canceled, rebooking us on a flight leaving about midnight and arriving in Tokyo first thing in the morning two days later.  When I was young taking the “Redeye” was no big deal.  At my age, 80, I need a regular sleep pattern.  Nonetheless, we took the “Redeye,” skipping a day and arriving in Tokyo on the 9th.

When we first booked our flight to Japan, there were several COVID protocols we had to deal with, including obtaining a Visa from the Japanese Embassy.  We filled out the paperwork, had pictures taken, and FedEx’d everything to the Japanese Consulate in San Francisco.  While our paperwork was in transit, Japan lifted COVID restrictions and effectively reopened the country on October 11th.

In October 2022, Japan had some COVID requirements, so we downloaded “MySOS” and “Verifly,” filled in the information on our COVID vaccinations, and prepared for the flight.  Both ”apps” generated a QR screen to present to Japanese Immigration verifying our vaccination status.  Other than COVID protocols, there was nothing unusual about our flight preparations.  Japan has since discontinued use of both “MySOS” and “Verifly” and eased most restrictions for entry and uses.  As of January 2023, Japan is using “Visit Japan Web” available at

We got to LAX early on the evening of November 7th and headed to the Admiral’s Lounge.  It became obvious there were several flights leaving LAX headed to Asia around midnight.  Boarding was uneventful, the plane was almost completely full, and we departed for Japan.

Many people on the plane wore masks, but they were not required.  The flight crew reinforced the message that masks were optional.

We arrived at Tokyo Haneda about 6 a.m. in the morning of November 9th.  Our experience with Japanese customs and immigration is they are very efficient, even if you did not have your vaccination paperwork in order, which we did.  There was one line for entry, another for “transit” (i.e., those with connecting flights).  Customs went very smoothly, for some reason immigration was slower with a long line taking about an hour to clear, probably due to the other flights arriving at the same time.  Japan used a lot of facial recognition to check temperature and facilitate identification for entry and exit of the country. 

We finally cleared customs and immigration and entered the arrival section of the airport.  The first thing we noticed is virtually EVERYONE was wearing masks.  While Japan had lifted the mandatory requirements, everyone in the terminal, on the trains, and at the hotel were wearing masks.  Our experience has been that Japanese people who are sick normally wear masks, others do not.  In November 2022, virtually everyone wore masks, except at our hotel where they were optional.

We had anticipated the need for masks, so my wife and I had purchased several prior to our trip with pockets allowing insertion of N95 filters.  We were able to use and change masks frequently.  Most people we observed wore the small thin blue surgical masks.  We also carried small bottles of hand sanitizer, which we used frequently.  We noticed we were not the only ones who wiped down surfaces prior to sitting, or frequently washed our hands.

On occasions when we dined out, we noticed staff were sanitizing the tables and chairs between customers.  There we containers of sanitizer in stores, near elevators, etc.

After three years we were struck by how merchants and hotel staff were excited and grateful to see us return.  We generally stay at the same hotel in Tokyo, and everyone greeted us warmly when we arrived.  As we continued visiting and shopping, merchants who recognized us also greeted us warmly with hugs and handshakes.

Japan hosted the recent Olympics but had few visitors due to COVID.  We noticed many of the train stations had been remodeled, and new rail cars were in use.  In October 2022, many tourists were returning, but China and a few other countries still had travel restrictions so most of their tourists were absent.  In Kyoto it seemed like there were about 1/3 to ½ of the tourists we had experienced in the past.  Even many of the sites in Tokyo seems less crowded.  Trains were not as full and tourist sites were not as busy.  Rush hour is still rush hour.

Our flights to and from Korea were uneventful, though most people checking in and, on the plane, wore masks, as did the cabin crews.  In Korea our experience was fewer people wore masks, but masks were still prevalent.

One event which really brought home the economic impact of COVID was our experience in the departure area of Haneda preparing to board our flight to LAX.  Almost half of the entire departure area was cordoned off and not in use – there were clearly not enough passengers to justify opening the remainder of the terminal.

Customs and immigration on return to LAX was a breeze.  We signed up for Global Entry System.  After exiting the aircraft, we walked through the airport, found the sign for Global Entry, walked up to a TV screen, it turned green, someone called our name, we walked through Customs, down to immigration, got our bag, and out the door.  That simple.

So, what big changes did we notice in Japan?  A big change toward “touchlessness [SG1].”  Most restaurants have a QR code on or near the table.  Point your smartphone, take a picture, and  read the menu on your smartphone.  Most merchants have gone to touchless credit cards.  If you have a chip in your credit card, you tap the reader and you’re done.  Japan discourages tipping - Japan takes great pride in giving excellent service – tips are not expected.  One less thing to sign and touch.  They do print receipts, but everything else is touchless and effortless.

The subway and trains have used cards for years, doing away with paper tickets.  You walk up to the turnstile, tap the reader with your card, and walk through.  You can recharge the card at a machine, again avoiding touching something other than a machine, which you can wipe down.  Many people were using their smartphones, even their Apple watches to pay or use the subways.

As I said, there were noticeably fewer tourists and patrons during our visit.  Everything else seemed the same.  We are preparing for our trip next fall – our grandchildren will be another year older.