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Japan is slowly reopening to tourists: Here's how I visited without a group tour

Sept. 09, 2022
10 min read
Japan street
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Japan currently requires almost everyone without a Japanese passport to apply for a visa to enter the country. And for most of the pandemic, tourist visas weren't available.

Finally, in June, Japan began allowing tourists on guided package tours to apply for visas.

Visiting Japan on a guided package tour wasn't very appealing to me, however. I wanted control over what I saw. Plus, I wanted to redeem points and miles for my hotels and flights. I figured I'd wait to visit Japan until the country resumed visa-free entry for U.S. passport holders.

But late last year, my husband found and booked two ANA first-class seats on one of ANA's 777-300 aircraft with The Suite first class for a flight from Tokyo's Haneda Airport (HND) to New York. As the flight approached, Japan showed no signs of returning to visa-free travel, so we decided to visit Seoul on the trip instead. But we still wanted to fly from Japan on this aspirational, difficult-to-book award flight. So, we booked an award flight from Seoul's Incheon International Airport (ICN) into HND and planned to remain in the transit area until departing on our ANA first-class flight.

The issue: Limited award availability to Tokyo Haneda meant we'd need to spend almost 24 hours airside in HND.

Not wanting to spend the night in the airport, I started researching just how difficult it would be to get a tourist visa to enter Japan between flights. It turned out it was very feasible — and we could do mostly what we wanted while in Japan.

Here's what you need to know about how to visit Japan as a tourist right now.

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Find a travel agent located in Japan

To visit Japan as a tourist, you'll need a certificate for completion of registration to the Entrants, Returnees Follow-up System (ERFS) system before you can apply for a visa. Tourists can get this certificate from travel agencies in Japan. But, especially after the policy changes effective September 7, this may be the most confusing part of visiting Japan for many tourists.

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Based on the current Japanese regulations, there are two ways to be eligible for this certificate (and hence a tourist visa):

  • Book a package tour — including round-trip air travel to Japan and accommodation while in Japan — from a travel agency in Japan (you don't have to be accompanied by a tour conductor on this type of tour; this option is new as of Sept. 7, 2022).
  • Book a tour from a travel agency in Japan (your tour should have a set itinerary; a tour conductor must accompany you and manage your itinerary while you're in Japan).

We went with the second option — the only option when we entered on Sept. 5 — using GoWithGuide as our travel agency.

Each travel agency has different policies, requirements and fees that you must meet before they'll help you get everything you need for an e-visa. So, shop around and see which agency provides the best options for your tour.

In the end, you're looking for an agency that will provide you a certificate for completion of registration to the ERFS system, as this is what you need to apply for a visa.

To provide the certificate and other information we might need when applying for a visa, GoWithGuide required that we book tours with their guides to cover each day of our trip. However, after the Sept. 7 policy changes, GoWithGuide has changed its requirements and now requires tourists to book at least a six-hour tour every other day and pay a service fee based on the cost of the tours.

Related: Getting a taste of Japan in JAL business class from Tokyo to Chicago

Apply for an e-visa

Once you have a certificate stating that your travel agency has registered you in the ERFS system, you can apply for a single-entry e-visa if you are an American national residing in the U.S. or a Canadian national residing in Canada.

The e-visa is free for Canadian and American nationals and usually takes about five business days to be processed once you submit your application (assuming there's nothing problematic about your application). The Consulate General of Japan in Miami issued our e-visas in about 12 hours, but this may have been due to us applying just a couple of weeks before arrival.

I don't recommend applying too far in advance. First, Japan may drop its visa requirement for American and Canadian nationals. Second, the e-visa is only valid for three months from when it was issued.

Related: Cleared for Takeoff: Using points and miles for a birthday trip to Japan

Check for updated requirements

Before you depart for Japan, I recommend checking for updated requirements of things you may need to do. For example, I needed to get a PCR test within 72 hours of departure (this requirement was dropped as of Sept. 7, 2022, if you have a valid vaccination certificate of COVID-19 and are traveling from a country or region where the B.1.1.529 Omicron variant is dominant), install the MySOS app and enter my data into the app so I could use Japan's Fast Track quarantine policy.

Don't wait until the day before you leave to check the current requirements. After all, if you need a new vaccine card or COVID-19 test, you'll need some time to get those. I recommend checking the current requirements on the U.S. Mission Japan site or your airline's website.

Related: Sweet Spot Sunday: West coast to Japan in ANA business class for 45,000 points one-way

What it was like to visit Japan as a tourist now

Deplaning in Tokyo, I wasn't sure what to expect. But I found an efficient process with plenty of staff to guide us through the process. The staff first checked the MySOS app on my phone and gave me a blue card. Then I walked to a set of tables along with the other blue-card passengers, where I scanned the QR code on my MySOS app and presented my passport. Then I continued to immigration, baggage claim and customs in a way that matched my experience pre-pandemic. In total, the process took just 16 minutes from the jetway to exiting customs.

KATIE GENTER/THE POINTS GUY

Since this was faster than I expected, my husband and I were now in the relatively quiet arrivals area. We had figured the entry procedures would take longer, so our guide wasn't scheduled to arrive for another 30 minutes. We'd thought someone might be at the customs exit checking that tourists had guides to accompany them. But, there were no checks — tourists were left to follow the rules themselves.

Due to a change of plans, we needed to add an extra eight-hour tour with less than 24 hours notice. GoWithGuide confirmed with the Consulate General of Japan in Miami — the consulate that issued our e-visas — that we could move up our arrival by a day. Luckily, an American woman named Keely on the GoWithGuide platform was available at the last minute to meet us at Tokyo Hanada and guide us for eight hours before dropping us at our hotel.

I was thrilled to finally be back in Tokyo eating ramen. KATIE GENTER/THE POINTS GUY

Since the tour was last minute, Keely quickly put together an itinerary with some of our favorite places we wanted to revisit. After dropping off our luggage at our hotel, we explored the city, chatting with Keely like a long-lost friend. As we wandered Tokyo, we saw mostly Tokyo residents and domestic tourists.

On our second day, we explored Tokyo with an experienced professional guide named Kyoko. Despite also revisiting some of our favorites on this tour (at our request), we discovered new aspects of some of our favorite sites. And we went to some new-to-us sites, ate at our favorite Japanese ramen chain and tried some delicious tuna sashimi.

Related: Sweet Spot Sunday: Round-trip business class to Asia for 75K miles

Other thoughts on visiting Japan now

As long as you work with a travel agent in Japan to get a certificate for completion of registration to the ERFS system, obtain an e-visa and then follow whatever policies your travel agent sets, you shouldn't face any issues.

In our case, GoWithGuide required us to book tours on our arrival and departure days and full-day tours on any other days (as mentioned now, they only require you to book a tour every other day but charge a service fee for the ERFS certificate). According to the GoWithGuide website, we were allowed to venture from our hotel without a guide to a nearby grocery store or restaurant. Still, we weren't supposed to do any sightseeing activities alone.

Many travel agencies in Japan offer tours and services that may help you get an ERFS certificate. Now that the Japanese government doesn't require tourists to be guided, you may find a travel agent that only needs to know your itinerary and lodging to file your ERFS in exchange for a fee. Although I don't think this quite follows the letter of the new government policy, you may be able to get an e-visa approved with the certificate and other materials the agency produces. And once you have an approved e-visa, I don't expect you'll have any issues.

After all, even as we went on our tour with Keely — who likely looked more like our friend than our guide — no one inquired about the location of our guide.

Just remember that your travel agency (and you) will presumably be on the hook if you act irresponsibly and don't follow the regulations of the Japanese government and your agency.

Related: Tokyo Narita vs. Haneda: Which airport should I fly into?

Bottom line

Is now the absolute easiest time to visit Japan? No. But am I happy I jumped through the hoops to visit Japan as it reopens? You bet.

I expect Japan will continue to shift its policies regarding the steps needed to get a tourist visa. So I wouldn't recommend making arrangements with a travel agent and then working on getting an e-visa until your trip is within a month or so. After all, Japan may drop or reduce its requirements for tourist visas before your trip.

Featured image by KATIE GENTER/THE POINTS GUY
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

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4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
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  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
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Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

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  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees