High-tech yet traditional with food, scenery and ski fields well worth spending 11 hours on a plane for, Japan has long been a favourite with Kiwi travellers.
Here’s what it’s like to fly there now the country has lifted border restrictions for travellers who have been triple vaccinated against Covid-19 or taken a pre-departure test.
The flight: Auckland to Tokyo with Air New Zealand.
The plane: A Boeing 787-9.
The paperwork: My early November flight required way less paper work than any other I had taken during the pandemic. So little that, standing in the check-in queue, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling I’d forgotten something.
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New Zealand citizens and nationals of other countries with a visa-waiver agreement with Japan can once again spend up to 90 days in the country without having to apply for a visa, and pre-departure tests aren’t required for those who’ve been triple dosed against Covid-19.
Visitors do, however, have to fill out a fairly lengthy online form on the Visit Japan Web site before departure to ensure a smooth arrival at the airport. By the time I’d filled out and uploaded my passport and international vaccine certificate, a good hour had passed. I definitely don’t recommend leaving it until your in an Uber to the airport.
The airport experience: Auckland Airport was busy when I arrived at about 7:30am on a Sunday morning – it took me about an hour to reach the front of the queue to check in.
The check-in process was a breeze though compared to my previous Covid-era flights – all I needed to hand over was my passport and International Travel Vaccination Certificate.
Time in the air: This was my first long-haul flight since before the pandemic and the 11 hours dragged, even with a lovely seat mate to chat to, work to get on with, and a fairly extensive selection of movies to watch. It’s a price worth paying to visit Japan though.
The seat: One of the worst you could get on a long-haul flight – the middle seat in the middle aisle in economy.
I have a weak bladder so drank very little to avoid having to disturb my seat mates to get up to use the toilet too often, and neither seemed aware of the unwritten rule of plane etiquette that the person in the middle seat gets first dibs on the armrests simply because they’re unfortunate enough to be in the middle seat.
But I can’t complain too loudly. Neither of them did something unforgivable like intrude into my space or put their bare feet on the seat.
The food: I’m gluten-free so, like all those with special food needs, got my meal early. Gluten-free fare on planes tends to be as tasty as the stuff you get served in hospitals and rest homes, but my lunch wasn’t too bad, with a tomato sauce to accompany the chicken, broccoli and potatoes.
Surprisingly for a dessert free of gluten, dairy, nuts and eggs, the chocolate brownie didn’t taste anything like cardboard. I could easily have inhaled a second.
The lunch choices for those who hadn’t requested special meals were smoky beef brisket with pasta, or teriyaki salmon and tofu. My seat mate who ordered the salmon said it was kind of dry, as fish on planes usually is, but the sauce made it palatable. It was served with a half dome of rice, a salad made with an unidentifiable grain, and an odourless white dessert we couldn’t quite place either.
The man next to me mustn’t have been too impressed with the portions, because he ate a family member’s vegetarian lunch after scoffing the beef brisket. He left the bread roll and cheese, though, so must have been satiated in the end.
The entertainment: None of the new-release movies really jumped out at me, but I went with Where the Crawdads Sing because I wanted to know what all the fuss about the best-selling book was about, and I’m a big fan of producer Reese Witherspoon. Let’s just say it’s better than staring into space when you’re crammed into a tight space for 11 hours, but I was glad I hadn’t paid to see it at the movies or stream it.
Other choices among the new releases were Bullet Train with Brad Pitt, which I probably should have opted for given our destination; a French comedy called Mrs Harris Goes to Paris about a widowed cleaning lady’s love affair with a Dior dress; Baz Luhrmann’s lengthy Elvis biopic; and, for the kids, the animated DC League of Super-Pets.
The service: Friendly but discreet. Air New Zealand staff tend to excel on the customer service front and those on this flight didn’t disappoint. They were polite and happy to help, bringing customers cups of beer, wine and green tea when requested.
Masks: Masks are no longer mandatory on Air New Zealand international flights, and you could tell. The flight was near-full, but I’d estimate less than half were wearing masks. I thought I would wear one, but didn’t in the end because the cabin was hot, and it made me feel even more so.
Once in Japan though, it was another story. While masks are not mandatory, most people wear them outside the home, whether they’re walking down the street, catching public transport, or are in a public indoor venue. Many sightseeing spots require visitors to wear masks.
Arrival into Japan: As with many things in Japan, ultra-efficient. The online registration form gives you a QR code, which you need to show so many times at the airport I lost count. There are so many staff checking them, the arrivals area looks a bit chaotic, but I just kept showing my QR code and was waved through. If you’ve forgotten to fill out the form or don’t have a QR code, you are directed to a seating area with plenty of staff to assist.
Frequency: Air New Zealand operates three non-stop flights between Auckland and Tokyo a week. The frequency will increase to six times a week from December 12, 2022 before returning to a daily service from February 13, 2023.
The writer travelled courtesy of Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO).