Visiting Japan Post-Covid | 12 Things to Know Before You Go

8 min readFeb 17, 2023

After three years of closed borders, Japan is open again and ready to welcome back the world. But a lot has changed over this long interval, destinations have opened and closed, and a lot of pandemic habits are sticking around longer in Japan than elsewhere. If you’re heading to Japan for the first time, or the first time in a while, here’s what you’ll want to keep in mind before hopping on a plane!

① Indoors, Masks Are Still a Must!

Japan has had a habit of wearing masks since long before the pandemic — when sick or trying to ward off the country’s nasty waves of pollen — and perhaps it’s no surprise that the masks have stuck around. Due in part to a certain amount of government encouragement, mask-wearing is slowly decreasing, especially outdoors. But in shops and restaurants, or on trains and buses, going maskless will earn you some serious side-eye. In some situations, you may even be kicked out of a building! Make sure you’ve always got a mask available, and if you run out, just run to the nearest drug store or “konbini” (convenience store).

Yes, even the maiko (geisha) of Kyoto have been wearing masks.

② Hand Sanitizer and Temperature Checks Are Still Common

When the covid pandemic began, hand sanitizer and thermometer stations became a part of standard entrance procedure for buildings of all kinds, all over the world. In Japan, the days are gone when staff stood at the entrance to strictly require temperature checks and sanitization, but some places don’t want to let the hand sanitizer go.

Thermographic cameras are everywhere, although people tend to walk past them a little too quickly these days.

③ Plastic Bags Will Cost You

Not all the changes of the past few years have been connected to the pandemic, and this one had been in the works since before the infections began to spread. Because, despite Japan having a reputation for strict recycling, tourists will know that Japan has a bit of a plastic packaging problem. It doesn’t look like that’s going to change anytime soon, but in the summer of 2020 the government decided to take one step towards reducing plastic use: charging for plastic bags at most stores. Cashiers now ask each customer something along the lines of:

(Reji-bukuro irimasu ka?)

Which means:
Do you need a bag?

Locals have had a few years to get used to the change and the inconvenience, and reusable shopping bags in Japan have become very cute and compact. Most people either pay the 3~12 yen for a bag, or they just carry a reusable shopping bag around. So don’t panic if the Japanese cashier asks you a question, they’re probably just asking if you need a bag (袋/fukuro) or want to use a point card!

④ Acrylic Barriers Are Still Up

Large acrylic screens, big vinyl sheets, and other pandemic-era barriers are still found in many Japanese eateries, like this beef bowl shop. (Ichiran must have had it so easy.) In all kinds of shops, cashiers are often on the other side of some kind of plastic, which can sometimes make it a struggle to hear soft-spoken restaurant staff. Some shops are slowly doing away with infection prevention methods like these, but don’t be surprised if you still find yourself politely shouting through a sheet of plastic!

⑤ High-Tech Ordering Is on the Rise

While not an entirely new concept, tablet-based electronic menus and ordering systems became much more common thanks to the pandemic’s emphasis on avoiding face-to-face interactions. Just a few clicks on the picture-filled menus will send in an order, making them a popular choice among customers and serving staff. Unfortunately for travelers visiting the country, some restaurants only have their electronic menus in Japanese (or maybe some automatic translations that are hard to parse). Udon restaurant Tsurutontan, shown above, only has Japanese electronic menus in their Roppongi location. Fortunately, you can always call over a waiter to help you out! Some restaurants might even have English-language paper menus available.

⑥ Japan Is Increasingly Cashless

In Japan, cash is king! Or at least it was until a few years ago. Perhaps it was just a matter of time, or maybe it was due to infection prevention measures (money is pretty filthy), but the last few years have seen cashless payment methods go from a rare surprise to a standard option. Credit cards are increasingly common, and mobile payment options like Line Pay, Rakuten Pay, Merupay, or (most commonly) PayPay are frequently accepted even at small local shops. Perhaps most convenient for travelers visiting Japan is the use of IC cards for payment, like Suica, Icoca, or Pasmo, offered by JR and other transportation companies. These can be used to breeze through the barriers at train stations, but they can also be used to pay at shopping malls, restaurants, and more places than you might think.

(Of course, cash-only places are still around! Carry some cash with you, or check before ordering!)

⑦ You Might Find Yourself in a Japan Taxi

Toyota’s “JPN Taxi” was designed to cater to an international customer base, with a shape made to resemble a classic London cab and an original release date planned for shortly before the planned Tokyo Olympics. As you might remember, the Olympic Games did not go on as expected, but the spacious new Japanese taxis hit the streets anyway. Tokyo taxi fares were also adjusted to try to appeal to the wave of expected tourists arriving in the city, after being previously dubbed “scarier than a horror movie.” They’re still not cheap, but the minimum fare (for the first 1.052 km) is now only 410 yen, which is a significant price cut. If you need to travel a relatively short distance with a lot of heavy bags, taxis are a lot more practical than before.

In a JPN taxi, you can actually pay right from the back seat. Convenient!

⑧ There’s Something Gone from Shrines

For travelers aiming to admire the beauty and tradition of Japan’s many Shinto shrines, there’s good news and bad. The good news is that, since visiting a shrine mainly involves walking around the grounds outside, the pandemic left them mostly untouched. The bad news is that the “mostly” didn’t quite cover the shrines’ chozuya (手水舎), or hand-washing fountains. You might think that a hand-washing station would be a great thing during a pandemic, but unfortunately, chozuya traditions involve picking up shared ladles and even washing your mouth with the water and spitting it out. The result is a lot of waterless fountains, and some chozuya have been adjusted to be used without communal ladles, like the one above.

⑨ There’s Just One Maskless Moment

Masks might be common in Japan, but there’s one particular situation where you can take off your mask in public without fear of judgment: picture time. Of course, some people are so used to their masks that they forget to take them off to say cheese, but most people will reveal their dazzling smiles for just a moment while they pose for pictures, and then pull their mask right back on. Others go for the mask-beard look, dragging the mask down to their chin during picture-taking sessions.

Masked photographers, but maskless models.

Adults have recently taken to bemoaning the fate of children, saying “when they grow up their face will be hidden in all their childhood pictures!” But these dedicated kids don't really seem to mind.

⑩ See the Long-Awaited Return of Tax Free

During the pandemic, there were legally no tourists in Japan, which meant that duty-free shops and tax rebate counters in big shops no longer had any use. Inevitably, they closed down while the country was closed off, and have only started to return with the sudden rebound in tourism. Long time no see, duty free!

⑪ Currency Exchange Machines Have Moved

The lack of tourists in Japan spelled the end for currency exchange machines just like it did for duty-free shops, but tourists, tax refunds, and currency exchange locations are all on the rise, often in brand new locations. Souvenir shoppers will be happy to hear that this automatic machine can be found in front of the Don Quijote in Asakusa.

⑫ Shh! We’re Eating!

“Mokushoku” was one of the less effective infection prevention measures attempted during the pandemic, but you’ll still see signs of this kind in some eateries. Mokushoku literally means silent eating (黙食), and the catchy phrase gave birth to a series of spin-offs. During the pandemic, some people started referring to mokuyoku (黙浴/silent onsen bathing), mokutore (黙トレ/silent gym training), and mokukara (黙カラ), which does literally mean silent karaoke, although in practice it was supposed to be karaoke without screaming your spit all over the room. Travelers arriving in Japan will find that none of these policies have taken root in the intervening months and years, but the signs persist!

It took years, but Japan is finally back open to tourists, and now that you’re all updated, you should be ready to go! Not sure where to go first? Check out our Japan travel recommendations for every month of the year!

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