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Interview with Thierry Maincent, the chairman of Japan experience

We’ve all heard the news: Japan has finally reopened its borders to the world. In the wake of this announcement, how does the tourism situation look in Japan and what should we expect for 2023?

The situation looks great! Demand has been significant, despite the high prices of air travel. It’s not at pre-pandemic levels just yet, but this is to be expected – people tend to plan ahead when it comes to traveling abroad. Most likely, the number of tourists will continue to increase as the year goes on, and I expect the usual peaks during the hanami (cherry blossom viewing) and koyo (autumn leaf viewing) seasons. After all, the people’s love for Japan hasn’t faded at all with the wait. If anything, it has caused them to long for the country even more.

With travel conditions being very much the same as before the pandemic, now’s the perfect time to visit Japan!

What is your favorite time for traveling to Japan
I would personally say spring, more precisely the second half of May. Not only is the weather great, you’re also avoiding the crowds of tourists that come to see the blooming cherry flowers. The days are longer too: even at 7:30 PM, the sun is still out.

Depending on what you’re looking for, the other three seasons each have their own charm. Outdoor enthusiasts, for instance, will love summer, relishing in the opportunity to visit Hokkaido’s national parks or the Japanese Alps. Those who enjoy milder temperatures will appreciate autumn, especially with the beautiful sight of red-orange trees. And Japan’s winters are very underrated. Despite the snow, the air is pleasantly dry, and the skies clear and sunny. The many festivals and celebrations that are held at that time also help liven up the days!

No matter which choice you make, though, it’s best to avoid Japan’s national holidays – that is to say, Shogatsu (the Japanese New Year), Obon (around July or August) and Golden Week (from April 29 to May 5). The major sightseeing spots get very crowded, filled with locals enjoying their vacation.

If a tourist does decide to travel at these moments, are there any hidden gems you can recommend
If you’re traveling to Japan for the classic cherry blossom viewing, try strolling through the Kamo river banks on a weekday morning. With almost no one in sight, you’ll appreciate the magical sight of the pink trees all the more.

For untouched natural landscapes, head south of Kyushu, to the island of Yakushima, home to the most beautiful primary forest of Japan. Some of the trees are more than 1,000 years old! Many of the smaller islands are also a joy to visit, especially those in the Seto Inland Sea. For instance, Ogijima is very reminiscent of an old fishing village.

And if you’re feeling adventurous, you can try your hand at climbing to the temple of Ikumo. What awaits at the top of Mount Engyo is the breathtaking sight of Mount Hakusan and the Sea of Japan. The few people who manage to reach it will find themselves warmly welcomed and housed by the meditating monks.

Many people are already planning their trip. Are there any cultural differences they should be aware of before traveling?

The Japanese greatly value politeness and discretion, and many of the cultural differences tourists will encounter hinge on these values. As people will rarely get angry even when offended, the best way to learn local customs is to observe and imitate. Here are a few pointers that can help.

First, rules and laws are strictly followed in Japan. You won’t find anyone ignoring pedestrian signals, even when no cars are in sight. Nor will you find anyone smoking in the streets: specific areas are designated for this purpose.

A shop owner putting their arms in the shape of an X means they are denying entry to you. Don’t take it personally – it’s likely that they consider their English insufficient to properly welcome you. If you have tattoos, though, it can help to wear covering clothing, as exposed tattoos are associated with the Japanese mafia, the yakuza. Avoid leaving tips; this is considered insulting in Japanese culture.

Littering the streets is frowned upon. Since there aren’t many trash cans in the streets, bringing a small bag for your trash is a good idea. Likewise, avoid eating your food on the streets.

Japanese politeness also extends to public transportation of all kinds. Avoid talking loudly or making phone calls, and allow passengers to disembark before boarding a train.

What about travel requirements
Most of the travel restrictions that were in force during the pandemic have been relaxed. Visa waivers have been reinstated for 68 countries, including the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, and EU. Travelers with at least three COVID shots are no longer required to take a PCR test; those with less will still need to present a test result obtained within 72 hours of their departure. You can also save a lot of time at border control by pre-registering on the Visit Japan Web service. Last but not least, if your credit card doesn’t include health insurance that covers medical expenses and hospitalization, I strongly urge you to apply for a third-party health insurance.

Do you have any good deals for travelers on a budget
I consider the train to be the best way to get around Japan. With the Shinkansen bullet trains, you can travel from one end of the country to the other in just a few hours, and with the regular trains, you can easily reach more remote locations while enjoying great panoramic views! These two types of trains create a dense network that effectively covers the country.

Train fares quickly add up, though, so if you think you’ll be taking the train a lot, I recommend the Japan Rail Pass, which allows for unlimited travel on most trains for 1, 2 or 3 weeks. Or, if you’ll be doing the bulk of your sightseeing in one particular region, you could look into the Regional Passes. Some of them even provide other advantages: the Hakone Free Pass, for instance, gives discounts on tourist attractions in the area it covers. Japan Rail Pass holders can also directly board trains without stopping by the Ticket Office, making their travel more flexible.

Groups of more than 3 people should also consider renting a house. Not only will the experience be more authentic, it’ll also be cheaper than booking separate hotel rooms, especially in expensive cities such as Tokyo.

Japan Experience is the first European tour operator to specialize exclusively in Japan. Can you tell us more about your activities?

We are a team of Japan enthusiasts that dedicate our time and energy to promoting the country differently, far from the usual clichés. We strive to inspire both those planning to travel to Japan and those simply looking to learn more.

For over 40 years, we’ve been devising new, unique ways for you to discover Japan. Whether you’d like to organize your trip yourself, or let us handle all the details, you’ll find everything you need on our website, from information and advice to activities and full tours. And if you’d like more personalized advice, we’ll gladly welcome you at one of our local offices in Paris, London, Madrid, Berlin, or Tokyo!

After all, for us, Japan isn’t just a destination – it’s what drives us on a daily basis.