Year in Review 2020 a.k.a. how I lived through covid19 in Japan

[Feature photo: Robo-dinosaurs serving as receptionists in Henna hotel in Osaka]

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Απολογισμός του σωτηρίου έτους 2020 ή αλλιώς πώς πέρασα τον κορονοϊό στην Ιαπωνία

Ακόμα θυμάμαι την ημέρα που ο περίγυρος μου στο Τόκιο άρχισε να φοβάται τον κορωνοϊό. Όλα τα βλέμματα ήταν στραμμένα στην Ασία και η Ευρώπη ήταν ακόμα ήρεμη. Ήταν 25 Φεβρουαρίου και ετοιμαζόμασταν να πάμε εκδρομή με το πανεπιστήμιο στο νομό Μιγιάγκι. Το ίδιο πρωινό της αναχώρησης, ενώ είχαμε ενημερωθεί από πριν να φέρουμε μαζίContinue reading “Απολογισμός του σωτηρίου έτους 2020 ή αλλιώς πώς πέρασα τον κορονοϊό στην Ιαπωνία”

I still remember the day that people around me in Tokyo started feeling anxious about the then new covid19. All eyes were set on Asia and Europe was still quiet. On the 25th of February we were preparing to set off for a trip with the university to Miyagi prefecture. On the morning of the departure, while we were asked to prepare masks, thermometers and single use gloves, we faced the dilemma of whether we should actually move forward with the trip or not. It came down to the supervising professor’s decision, which was the the risk of going was low enough to take. Reaching the small village, the locals did not welcome us with prejudice as I expected since we were coming from the capital. Instead, they put on their most welcoming smile and assured us that “you are safe here in our tiny village, we are too small for the virus to reach here”. During my stay, I was hosted by a family with two young children. Every morning we were watching the news on TV together with the grandparents and everyday the news got worse. Tokyo was relatively fine, Kanawaga was trying to manage the Diamond Princess incident, Hokkaido was already experiencing the first wave as a consequence of high winter tourism. We continued the trip activities as planned and on the last day we visited the school of the girls that were hosting me. All the students (plus the only non-japanese, English teacher of the area) were enthusiastically playing and discussing with the foreign students that visited from the big city. Unfortunately, that was the last time an event would take place at school, because on the next day we suddenly found out from the news that schools were about to close earlier around the country and most graduation ceremonies would be canceled. Later on the same day, while on route to Tokyo, I asked from my roommate to go buy some basic provisions from the supermarket, because who new how the public would react. Indeed, she managed just in time, because after a few hours all supermarkets were empty of items. Getting off at the last train station, I saw something for the first time in my life: a 30 meter queue outside the pharmacy, with every customer buying a pack of toilet paper (which in retrospect is strange because most Japanese have a fancy washlet seat in their toilet). On the next day that I needed to go to the supermarket myself, restocking was delayed, a lot of aisles were empty, but luckily ingredients for western cuisine like lasagna and tomato cans were still available. I guess the majority was not used to cook with these ingredients, but were not desperate enough to buy regardless and something was left for me.

Queue outside the drugstore with people buying toilet paper

The situation continued like this until April. Abruptly, Japan quickly closed its borders to almost all Europe and east Asia in a matter of days, not only to tourists but also to short-term residents and permanent residents. The main problem was for university students that returned to their home countries for spring break, which usually lasts from middle of February to late March. A friend managed to get in Japan on the last flight to Tokyo, but the new problem that people arriving by international flights are not allowed to use any form of public transport, including taxi. The solution was to rent a car and go pick our friend up from the airport, with as much caution possible. Then we had to arrange temporary apartment swaps in order for him to stay alone at another friend’s house for the 14 days of the quarantine, because the university dorm was not accepting people coming from abroad. Even worse was the circumstance of people who didn’t manage to get on the last flights. Two of our lab members couldn’t return to Japan until September, so they had to pay double rent in Tokyo and their country as well as to finish their last semester remotely.

Snow on sakura trees

In the middle of April it was announced that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were postponed to 2021 and soon Tokyo entered a state of emergency. In practice, that meant that we were not allowed to enter the university, all classes and meetings were held online. Additionally, restaurants and bars were asked to reduce their work hours, while serving alcohol was not allowed after 8 p.m. Use of mask was strongly recommended, something that was already happening at 50-60% because people were already scared of the virus. Moreover, the local governments discouraged travel among prefectures. All these measures were only recommendations, not obligations, as the Japanese law does not allow for penalties or fines in such a case. It was the time of hanami and parties under the blossoming cherry trees and I remember myself looking in disbelief at the large number of people having picnics next to Tama river, at the same time that a ‘no picnic parties’ recommendation was in effect. In the middle of the chaos of this voluntary lock-down, it was time for me to move out, which proved an even bigger adventure than usual. A lot of tenants that were supposed to move out didn’t, a lot of rental agencies were closed, there were delays in imports and renovations were not moving forward. Moreover, most of the second-hand services that help empty a house from unnecessary furniture etc had paused their business. On top of everything else, my already gloomy mood got worse because it snowed in April, ruining all the fresh sakura blossoms on the trees. After much effort, I managed to find a new apartment and to move my stuff with the help of friends and a rental truck. The route of our move was through a bridge connecting Tokyo and Kanagawa prefecture, so every time we were heading towards Kanagawa we saw a sign reading “Don’t come from Tokyo to Kanagawa”, in order to reduce trips between prefectures and slow down the diffusion of the virus. I probably read that message 5 times going to Kanagawa, but none on the opposite route, because Tokyo was already bad enough so that neighboring Kanagawa did not pose any danger.

Poster showing praying , washing hands as observed from the tracks of Toyoko train line

May was mostly quiet, with the traffic in the center of Tokyo reduced to 70%. For the support of the economy, every resident was given a flat amount of 100.000JPY through the ward offices and 2 masks per household. The government of Tokyo started preparing a multilingual support and instruction system for foreign residents, while the ministry of health released a contact tracing app with the cute name ‘cocoa’. Most of the time I was at home, because both my university meetings and my part-time job were online. A couple of times I went to the mountains for a hike, the less known the place, the better. I learnt that fact the hard way, because when I tried to climb Mt. Tsukuba, it turned out that many people had thee exact same idea and the mountain was full of hikers. What impressed me was that even in nature, during exercising, with a few people on the path, most people were wearing masks without fail.

Shyly, after June, the first wave of the virus was over, universities and shops started opening up again. The border remained closed. Flights were so few, that at some point airmail to Greece got discontinued, even until now at the time of writing. At that time, Greece was allowing entrance to tourists from Japan, but me as a resident but not citizen of Japan would not be able to return if I left. At that time I lost every hope of spending the summer break with my family and friends and turned to my studies in order to make up for the lost time of previous months. At the same time, Japan started to have a problem due to the lack of tourists and the postponement of the Olympics. The solution was to support internal tourism to any prefecture apart from Tokyo, were active cases remained high. The government in collaboration with tourist agencies started to cover 35% of accommodation and transportation costs and another 15% by means of coupons for local establishments at the trip destination. A lot of people seized the opportunity for summer vacation, because from July on and especially around the 15th of August it is the time of Obon festival, a family celebration, for which most return back to their hometowns. This time though, all summer festivals were canceled, from Tanabata and Obon to hanabi firework displays. Even shops next to the sea were not allowed to open and the seafront prefecture of Kanagawa was trying to drive visitors away from its shores with every possible way. The only interesting event of the summer was the organizing of surprise fireworks at various locations around Tokyo, in order to maintain high morale.

People with masks walking around the alleys of Gion in Kyoto

Soon, at the end of the summer, a new larger virus wave appeared. Quietly as it appeared, it staggered. What was not quiet at all, was the weather. The rain season brought large-scale floods, with widespread damage at the agricultural produce and tourist resorts of the island of Kyushu, which was in a tough position as having to tackle both reduced tourism and awful weather. The typhoons that followed, destroyed everything that survived the floods. My decision for a relaxing 4-day trip at an island in the south of Japan proved especially bad, since a typhoon delayed my arrival to the island and another one blocked my departure for two days. In the meantime, the island was completely empty and I have to admit that I’ve never existed to every single beach of an island completely alone. The second typhoon, called Haishen, was so strong that many residents of the island decided to evacuate from their wooden houses to other locations. The plot twist was that no one wanted to go to the city hall as usual, because of fear of the virus. The result was that all hotels were fully booked for the day, because at least one can protect themselves in their robust concrete structure and be isolated in a room at the same time. Bookings came in so fast, that after the cancellation of my flight I could not extend my stay in the hotel, I could not book another (one owner told me “our building might fall, don’t come”) and I was prepared to spend the evening at the lobby. At least, after the typhoon, the weather was awesome and one of the most amazing sunsets I have ever seen in my life appeared to brighten the mood.

Sunset after typhoon Haishen at the island of Amami Oshima

By autumn, daily life is back to normal, with the only difference being the constant presence of masks and disinfectant gel, as well as occasional anti-mask parties in Shibuya. At last, our stray labmates could return to Japan, together with the newcomer students that had to do the first semester remotely. However, the re-entry process was especially demanding, with endless paperwork, double viral tests, 14 days of preventive screening and 14 days of isolation. In October, I managed to go out in a restaurant and meet friends after months. Alas, around the middle of October all signs showed that we were heading for a third wave, worse than the previous two. Luckily, the health system of Japan still has available margin and it is important that there are little to none restrictive measures in place. The other day, I met football fans returning from a game and I realized that I there probably hasn’t been any match open to the crowd in the past months. The Olympic committee announced that the Olympic games are not going to be postponed again. Government sources leaked information regarding a possible re-opening of the borders after March.

Although I can’t deny that this year has been miserable at best, I feel grateful that I have been safe until now. A lot of times I though about returning to Greece, in order to be able to have help and easier access in the case of an emergency, but I always came to the conclusion that it is better to stay in Japan than to risk a trip to an uncertain future in Greece. There is still one month left in 2020 and a similarly challenging 2021 is at bay, a lot of time to check if I made the right choice. I wish health to everyone and a slightly better year for the year to come.

[Original publication in greecejapan.com (in Greek)]

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