I was hesitant to promote the fact that I am traveling Japan by bicycle during this strange time we find ourselves in for many reasons, including the fact I can understand why people wouldn’t agree with it. That is why my first post will be explaining the situation here in Japan regarding corona and why I made the decision to go on a cycle tour during a global pandemic.
Japan declared a state of emergency before the lockdown was announced in the UK. Around February time the island I was living on, Hokkaido, was the first to be affected. A state of emergency was put in place, but according to Japanese law they could not enforce a lockdown or tell businesses to close. I continued to work in the bar as it remained open and life seemed to go on pretty much as before, for me anyway. The state of emergency was then lifted from Hokkaido as cases seemed to peak, before it was announced again a few weeks later, this time with the rest of the country. Panic seemed to set in a bit more this time as we learned more about what was going on. The bar announced its closure and most of my friends decided to return home, as our home countries began to see the effects. When the UK announced lockdown the state of emergency had almost been lifted in Japan. I was also faced with making the decision of giving up on my dream of living in Japan for a year and returning home, which very almost happened.
However, after much consideration I decided that I was in as safe a position here in Japan than I would be at home. I had comfortable and private accommodation, an amazing support network from my boss and the team at the bar, travel insurance and the Japanese national health insurance.
Not being able to speak Japanese I understand that I miss what is going on with the national news, but I do try to keep informed. The figures in Japan remained extremely low in comparison to other countries. People started to realise though that the amount of tests Japan were doing in comparison to the likes of South Korea were a fraction. Storming ahead with plans for hosting the Olympics this summer, people started to ask if the government were covering up the real cases so they could still go ahead. As soon as they eventually made the decision to postpone the Olympics until 2021, cases suddenly shot up. However, to date, the figures still remain significantly smaller than other countries. To give an idea, Japan’s population is 126,462,189 with 982 deaths, compared to the UK with a population of 67,897,720 and 44,819 deaths (source: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/?utm_campaign=homeAdUOA?)
There are lots of suggestions about why this is the case, but from my understanding it is still puzzling experts. A big factor in this could be due to the culture of low physical contact, as shaking hands or hugging even your friends is uncommon practice. Japanese people are also extremely hygienic, with masks and alcohol spray upon entry into shops common place long before the pandemic.
Today, the country has come out of the state of emergency as cases once again seem to have flattened out (although as I’m writing this cases have been on the rise again in Tokyo the past few days). There are protocols put in place but not as much as what the UK is seeing. We have for example, stickers marking social distancing on the floors in supermarkets and plastic sheets around cash points to separate you and staff. Another big thing to be aware of is that Japanese people are extremely good at following rules. The country remains strictly closed for any foreign visitors, but with little movement for some business trips and people that might have family here etc and it doesn’t seem like that will be changing anytime soon. I arrived in Japan last September (pre-corona) and if I left the country, I wouldn’t get back in.
The fact that the Olympics have been postponed is a huge blow to the economy and it seems it will be a while until they see any international visitors again. Therefore, domestic travel between prefectures has been resumed and actually encouraged by government campaigns. For example, myself and every resident in the country recieved a subsidy of 100,000 yen (about £750) and there is talk about issuing tourism vouchers to help with costs of holidays, in the hope to see some form of tourism within the next few months.
I spent the worst of the state of emergency in a very secluded lake house which would have seen limited contact regardless of the pandemic. My original plan for this part of my trip was to go travelling around the main island Honshu, but this obviously didn’t happen. I had a fantastic few months in Hokkaido, and I almost feel like it is my home now (only second to bonnie Scotland of course). However I also realised that time was ticking on my visa. I am currently on a Working Holiday visa which allows you to travel and work freely around the country but is only valid for one year. In normal times, this cannot be extended and is a one off. Even if I returned home I could not “pause” my visa and use the remaining time in the future. Mine will expire in September, one year after I arrived in Japan. With that in mind and the state of emergency lifted, I started to get itchy feet again. Traveling in stuffy trains and planes did not seem the most responsible way to go right now, hence the bike touring idea being born.
I am very aware that we are still in the midst of a global pandemic. A lot of the time I am on my bike in the middle of the Japanese countryside, nowhere near anyone else. However when I am in towns and cities I am trying to respect the local corona measures as much as possible. This includes wearing masks, constantly washing hands and practicing social distancing (which is also perfect for when you haven’t had a shower or onsen in a few days…)
There was never going to be a better time to start this perhaps crazy journey. The universe has thrown a lot at me this past year, so with that in mind I decided it was now or never. It just makes it that bit more interesting I guess.
Mask selfie on the ferry