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I went to Japan over the holidays, where I felt at times like I’d been thrust back into the bowels of 2020, a place I feel no one should ever want to go, but I admit that I should not have been as surprised as I was.
Japan has tighter requirements for entry for foreigners than many other countries in Asia. The government maintained a restrictive Visa requirement into October 2022. This is gone now, but for entry in 2023, one must still show either proof of “full vaccination,” which includes at least one booster (three shots), or a PCR test within 72 hours of one’s arrival in the country.
This is, by the way, less stringent in some ways than the rules posted for people flying into the United States, as all non-citizens on flights to the good ol’ land of the free, home of the brave, must show proof of vaccination—no PCR test option available—with only a few exceptions. (I have never said US policies are driven by logic).
Regardless, once through the customs gauntlet of Japan, I found the Japanese themselves aren’t just into vaccines. They are still heavily invested in wearing masks in all public spaces, including in parks and on sidewalks.
Per the state in which I live, this was really wild to me. Masks are not even required at my doctor’s office anymore, and I haven’t owned one in months and months and months.
Of course, I admit while I was in Japan, I was only asked to don a mask myself at a tiny number of attractions: a national palace, an art museum, an aquarium, and a Buddhist temple. For the most part, the Japanese leave the gaijin (outsiders) completely alone, and I would never voluntarily play along with the Covid costuming unless a request was directly extended to me to wear a mask when going into a building. Then I’d shrug and take the piece of paper offered to me because… well… Japan is not my country. There are no traditions of freedom and nonconformity in this island nation. This is a place with signs that request “modest talking” in restaurants and on trains with strong implications that even whispers might be too loud unless there is an emergency… like someone needs CPR or something. So I discovered these people do not make me angry in the same way as Americans clinging to Covid hysteria often do, especially since I understand that masks have been a part of Asian culture that long precedes a pandemic. I hold people from other countries to a different standard, I guess, and I am from a part of the world where being polite is poured into children as much as sweet tea, so when in Tokyo….
That said, when I went skiing in Nagano, I truly felt I’d fallen through the looking glass. Almost every person there who was Asian was masked up for Covid, yet a glance around at the people made me feel like I was revisiting my childhood in the 1970s, during which I spent a great deal of time enjoying ski slopes in California back when California was still a paradise.
Can you guess what absurdity I observed that made me laugh?
The vast majority of Asian skiers/snowboarders I saw barreling down tree-lined runs at high speeds while strapped to what are essentially sticks on their feet were “protected” against a virus that doesn’t transmit in cold temperatures in the wild, yet they weren’t wearing helmets on their noggins.
Now, don’t get me wrong.
I absolutely believe in the right of individuals to make personal risk assessments in every situation, including on mountains, but this particular juxtaposition of chosen “safety gear” was a bit jarring.
Regardless, Japan is a gorgeous nation, and this wasn’t my first (or last) trip to the Land of the Rising Sun. However, if showing vaccination records and wearing masks and observing intellectual inconsistencies bother you, you may want to opt instead (for just a wee while longer) for tickets to Thailand.