I travelled in Japan during March and April of 2020. Yes, you read that right, during the first few months of the Coronavirus pandemic. I hadn’t planned for it but events caught up with me. It turned out to be a very interesting experience. I will gladly share my story with you.
Rewind to December 2019. I impulsively decided I wanted to travel to Japan and preferrably as soon as possible. I remember saying ‘because you never know what the future holds’. I didn’t realize how prophetic those words would prove to be. I got the ball rolling and March 3rd I was on a plane to Japan. At that time most Belgians considered the Coronavirus to be mostly a Chinese and Italian problem. I remember people worrying about us going to Japan, where ‘all that Coronavirus was going around’. My travel companion and I left Belgium and entered Japan without any problems.
We spent March travelling around Japan. A few days in Tokyo, a few days in Kamakura, ten days in Toyotashi with friends, a road trip around Wakayama province. To be honest we hardly noticed the pandemic. Yes, everyone wore mouth masks but that is not so unusual in Japan. Other than the obligatory container of hand desinfectant at every entrance, things seemed to be just fine. Come mid March we did notice a decrease in the amount of tourists. We visited Yoshino, a world famous spot for cherry blossom viewing, with hardly anyone around. The Shinkansen was also less crowded, which made it easy to get an unreserved (and cheaper) spot.
The first time things got a bit hairy was when my travel compagnon had to catch his flight home at the end of March. His flight from Fukuoka was cancelled and it took several hours on the phone with the airline to find an appropriate flight. Late at night he found out that he had to catch a plane in Tokyo the next day. Did I mention we were in rural Shikoku at that time (see the star on the map), with three days left on our itinerary and plans to hand in the rental car in Hiroshima? Fortunately Japan is the mecca of customer service. We called the car rental company and arranged to hand over the car the next day in nearby Okayama. The excellent Shinkansen train service, which runs about every fifteen minutes all day long, makes it possible to get from Okayama to Tokyo in 3 and a half hours. Other than cutting the plans for our final few days short, things turned out fine.
At this point I seriously debated whether I should try to get home as well or remain in Japan for another month, as I had originally planned. My main concerns were falling ill and not receiving the appropriate care, and being stuck in Japan when the time came to go home at the end of April. As for that last concern, having to extend a stay in Japan did not seem off-putting to me in the least. As for my fear of falling ill, I promised myself to be very careful about exposure. Realizing that I had friends in Japan that I could rely on to ask for help if things got really bad also helped. So I decided to stay. And boy, am I glad I did.
I had a wonderful time in April, even despite the Coronavirus pandemic becoming more noticeable. One could even argue that the unusual situation in April made for a unique experience with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. I had originally decided to spend the first half of April in Kyoto. A scheduled stay in Toyotashi in the second half of April was cancelled so I actually ended up spending all of April in Kyoto. How did the pandemic become more noticeable in April? Museums were closed. Restaurants started closing earlier at night. The streets became emptier. But most shops and restaurants remained open. I spent my days walking around the city, visiting shops, restaurants and temples. I took several lessons in tea ceremony, kintsugi, chashaku making and sewing. Early on I connected with a group of fellow tea-people, consisting of foreigners and Japanese alike. They had a habit of hiking in the mountains around Kyoto several times a week and I gladly joined them.
Halfway through April, a nationwide state of emergency was declared. Some shops closed their doors, others remained open. A lot of temples and public gardens started closing too. Fortunately the breathtaking nature around Kyoto was still ‘open’ and by that time I had really gotten a taste for hiking. I followed the pandemic news on the English language news website for Japan called Kyodo News. Incidence of Covid-cases in Kyoto prefecture was very low, with most cases concentrated in Tokyo and Osaka. The first wave of Covid infections was actually quite mild in Japan. The current situation is a whole other story unfortunately.
However the most noticeable effect of the pandemic for me was the complete lack of tourists. Visiting Kyoto without the crowds of tourists was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I had world famous spots all to myself. The bamboo forest in Arashiyama was deserted. The orange gates at Fushimi Inari seemed to be there just for me. I sat at Tofukuji temple for an hour without anyone else passing by. I saw the cherry blossoms along the Philosopher’s Path while enjoying the peace and quiet. I fell completely in love with Kyoto during that month. I feel so grateful for the wonderful experiences that I had and the lovely people that I met, some of whom I am lucky enough to call my friends now.
Alas, April drew to an end and the time came for me to return home. Getting home did prove to be a bit of an adventure but that is a story for next time.