Many readers noted that I spent an extended period of 2020 in Japan, and have requested me to write up what happened and took place in Japan during the first wave of COVID-19.
I have decided to write perhaps five or six articles about my experience living in the country for those six months and will begin how this all started back in March.
The beginning of 2020 was quite usual for me. I spent Christmas in Finland with my family and then flew to Mexico City for the New Year to meet friends from the US.
After Mexico, I spent a couple of weeks in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro before making a short trek back to Helsinki and then a brief tour of Switzerland, including skiing in Verbier.
Johannesburg came next and a week with friends in Cape Town that had made reservations at all the fancy restaurants in the area.
The highlight of February was three nights in the Falklands where I flew from Cape Town via Luanda and Sao Paulo.
The first COVID-19 related experience was taking my temperature and rubbing hands with alcohol during transit in Luanda. This was my first time flying on the Angola’s national airline, TAAG. The price was right for their first class, but paying for business would have made more sense ($500 – oneway from Cape Town to Sao Paulo via Luanda).
Santiago de Chile was business as usual in February, and I managed to check out the new AC Hotel that is part of the Costanera Center.
There were no COVID-19 related measures either in Auckland or Sydney in mid/late-February. The Park Hyatt Auckland was not yet open (much delayed), and I decided to check out the Shangri-La in Sydney (awful) and Sofitel Darling Harbour (fantastic).
I often take the Sydney – Perth flight on Qantas business to get 140 TPs on BA’s program (more than 2,000 miles) before taking a Cathay flight to Hong Kong. The new Ritz-Carlton in Perth is excellent, and the DoubleTree is good (has a lounge).
The COVID-19 measures started when I arrived in Hong Kong. The express lane for frequent visitors where you swipe your passport was closed. There might have been a requirement to fill out a form to the regular immigration. The above one is from the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong.
The hotels in Hong Kong had curtailed their services, and occupancy rates in early March were abysmal. I managed to enjoy the Ritz though (first stay) while the Hyatt Centric was only so-so.
The COVID-19 situation and travel requirements were becoming more stringent at this time. I had planned to fly to Japan for Sakura on Tuesday but had to bring the flight two days forward because the country was starting to require (no closure of border yet) 14-day quarantines for all arrivals starting at 12:01 AM on Monday.
I believe that the Cathay Pacific flight I was on was likely the last to land before the requirement was put in place just before midnight. Japanese immigration had some questions where I had been, but otherwise, the experience was as usual.
I had planned to stay in Japan for ten nights and perhaps most of that in Kyoto, staying at the new Park Hyatt and enjoying Sakura.
Flight change and cancellation emails started to roll in from Cathay Pacific (my next destination was supposed to be Bangkok), and Hong Kong also banned entry to the region.
The situation in Europe was becoming dire in March, and people in the US were fighting over toilet paper and hand sanitizers.
The western world had gone crazy while I was enjoying my daily 5 to 15 mile walks around Kyoto enjoying the Cherry Blossom season.
I decided to extend my stay in Japan, perhaps up to the 90-day limit allowed, and stay put in Kyoto.
Life was mostly normal in March and April – only the tourists were missing that most, outside of tourism businesses, were not missing.
The old Kyoto vibe was back.
Hyatt Regency Kyoto, where I had decided to stay for an extended period, decided to close (they have yet to open), and I was the last guest to check out.
I moved to the Westin that turned to a Compensation Clinic-case (read more here) when they also decided to temporarily close the hotel (they already reopened in June).
I moved to the then very quiet Crowne Plaza (the hotel is so-so, but the price was right).
After two months in Kyoto back in early May, I decided to go to Osaka for a week or so before going to check out the new Park Hyatt in Hanazono (Niseko). My plan at this point was to leave before the 90 days was up.
When I was in Sapporo, the Japanese government announced that those visiting the country could extend their stay by an additional 90 days due to COVID-19 related travel difficulties.
The closest immigration office in Hokkaido would have been Sapporo, but visiting it before my flight to Naha in Okinawa would have been challenging. I decided to deal with this Naha, where the immigration office, based on a Google search, was within walking distance from the Hyatt Regency.
At the time, I hadn’t yet decided if I was going to stay for another 90 days, but thought that it would be an excellent option to have. I could then decide close to early June, whether it was the right time to fly to Europe or not.
The stay extension procedure was straightforward, and I was done in less than 30 minutes. The funniest part was to write a mini novella about the circumstances why the extension was required, and you were essentially given a blank piece of paper.
The agent only wanted to confirm how I was going to support and pay for my stay in Japan. I told her that from my savings, and that was it. I just had to buy a stamp (payment), and my application was processed.
The hardest part of my stay in Japan was when the Starbucks stores briefly closed for roughly a three week period in April/May (I like to type away with my laptop at them). Otherwise, life went mostly as usual in Japan. Most stores, cafes, and restaurants open with measurements place.
I was saddened about what took place in Europe and North America in late spring. The virus was spreading, affecting many with mandatory quarantines while my life was close to normal.
The hotels were open with adjusted services: such as bento boxes instead of lounge buffets. No fight over whether my room or suite was cleaned daily (they always are), and close to everyone at the hotels and outside were wearing face coverings.
I also learned that the Japanese government could rarely order businesses and citizens to behave in a certain way due to laws instituted after the second world war. They can only strongly suggest that bars should close by midnight, and people should wear a face mask. It does appear to work quite well in Japan.