A flight to Japan: my experience emigrating in the middle of a pandemic

Ross Hall

June 21, 2021
(Updated on July 21, 2021)

KLM airplane at the stand in Kansai airport

In October 2020 we finally realised our long-term plans and moved to Japan. This is peak pandemic, Japan was closed off to most of the world, and there was no vaccine to speak of.

At the time I tweeted my experience, which a couple of people found helpful. Things have moved on a little, although my understanding is much of what we experienced is still in place today. I hope these notes are helpful.

The PCR Test: without this, nothing happens

The PCR test was the most difficult part to sort out. The test must be done within 72 hours of your final scheduled departure for Japan. That’s the flight that takes you from point A to your Japanese destination without stopping, not the first one you get on.

I used Medicspot, which cost about 160 pounds.

I timed the test for 71.5 hours from my departure from Schiphol, not my UK departure. I also took my swab directly to the lab in Nottingham.

My results came back within 24 hours all nice and negative.

The test was the most stressful part as if had come back positive we’d have problems. We’d moved out of our flat, had the flights booked and no work on. It would have been a disaster.

Plan ahead

Given the high stakes, we mitigated the risk of exposure to the virus by keeping away from people, wearing masks in public spaces and practicing good hygiene.

It seems to have worked.

Check-in

Heathrow check-in with KLM was slick and simple. My PCR test certificate was checked, as was my visa. The latter caused confusion as it expired 5 or 6 days after we boarded. I had to explain this was “enter the country by this date”.

There was no change to security, other than substantially fewer people waiting in line.

Sunflare strikes the camera at Heathrow Airport in the middle of the covid pandemic
The last photograph I took in the UK before boarding the aircraft for Osaka.

A stress-free flight

Although you’re locked up in a metal tube with other people for 15-odd hours, the flight is probably one of the safest places to be. Air is constantly refreshed, everyone wears masks and passengers are dotted around rather than clumped together.

Couple of observations…

Food is basic on KLM.

Heathrow to Amsterdam was cake & coffee

Amsterdam to Kansai was a no-choice hot pasta meal after take-off, snack pack mid-flight and a hot sandwich for breakfast.

All appeared to be vegetarian.

Pre-flight I was still borderline gluten-free, and it wasn’t possible to request special dietary needs.

IF YOU HAVE SPECIAL DIETARY NEEDS, TAKE YOUR OWN FOOD

Masks

Mask wearing is mandatory over mouth AND nose throughout the flight and in the airports. You don’t get a “I’ve a medical condition” opt-out. Our masks were on for over 24 hours and only removed to change them or eat. Bizarrely, no one asked us to remove our masks to check our passport photos until Japan.

Irritation to the back of my ears was the biggest issue I had.

Arrival in Kansai

The testing process at Kansai is slick and well thought through. We were the last passengers off the plane, and were out of customs in about 2.5 hours for a 80ish passenger aircraft. When we arrived the airport was almost empty and ours was the only aircraft being processed.

Abandoned corridor in Kansai Airport, Osaka, Japan
An abandoned corridor in Kansai Airport, this was the first stage in my journey through immigration.

There are 5 forms to complete, so bring a pen.

You will spend chunks of time sat in chairs arranged in lines or diamonds to keep distance.

You will also do a lot of walking, which makes things seem quicker. I suggest dawdling a little and enjoying the surroundings rather than rushing to another thirty minute wait.

Forms are checked, questions asked and boxes ticked. Your temperature will be checked every time you encounter a new station.

You will have an antigen test. This needs a lot of spittle, and it takes a bit of time to fill the tube they give you. Fortunately there is advice on hand such as rubbing the back of your ears or looking at pictures of lemons.

The former works, the latter I’m not convinced by.

After the test you’re given a number and sit in a waiting area trying not to be bored. The test takes about 30 minutes to process, although with the too-and-fro it takes about an hour.

Waiting area in Kansai airport
This is where I waited for my test results in Kansai Airport.

Numbers are called out in a very soft voice. Don’t worry though – they’re also shown on a display board.

You are not allowed to shout “Bingo”.

You’ll follow the confusingly titled “Negative Test Results” signs to a table where they give you the results.

I got negative, which they were happy about.

So was I.

What happens if you get positive isn’t clear. From what I could see, everyone on our flight tested negative.

The border

Then comes the border. There’s no separate Japanese / Johnny Foreigner-san route, everyone goes through the same gates. My wife and I were allowed to go together, but not hold hands.

This is where your PCR test is checked. I have no idea what would’ve happened if it hadn’t been in order.

It was also where my resident’s card was produced. It took about 10 minutes.

Fortunately, they used the photo from my passport, not the tired, bedraggled, not-had-a-haircut-since-January one they took with my fingerprints.

Finally in Japan

Then you’re out into Kansai arrivals where a few things are still open to show willing.

Big tip here: if your AirBnB host says they have free WiFi as part of the deal, ignore it and get a SIM card anyway.

Statues of Mario and Toad welcome visitors to Kansai airport
Mario and Toad are always there to welcome you to Osaka. Even if they’re roped off with warnings not to approach.

Quarantine

There is a mandatory 14-day quarantine. We used an AirBnB, which became our home for 3 months. You’re not supposed to use public transport, so make sure you book taxis or have family and friends collect you. Then you have to shut the door on the world, resist the urge to go sight-seeing and order food online.

Key points:

About 28 hours after leaving a hotel in Watford, UK, we were safely secured inside an AirBnB in Osaka.

Covid Test – go private

Wear a mask and bring food for the flight

Expect forms, walking and waiting at the other end.

Have a safe flight.

I'm Ross, a digital editorial designer and content creator from the UK now living in Japan. I help growing companies plan, source, produce and promote a range of content. Find out more

Like what you read? Sign up for my weekly(ish) missive, delivered straight to your inbox.