Whilst the UK still grapples with face masks, new hygiene standards and social distancing, Japan maintains its time-honoured norms of cleanliness, consideration and respect.

The old normal

Healthy habits are ingrained into the culture all over Japan and perhaps partly explain the country’s remarkably low death rate from COVID-19, despite having a large elderly population.

After finding itself in the spotlight at the very start of the pandemic in late January when the Diamond Princess cruise ship was marooned in Yokohoma Bay with rising infections among its 500-plus passengers, the nation soon got on the top of the crisis and although the country is currently still closed to UK visitors it looks well prepared to welcome them next year.

“A lot of what we call in the UK the ‘new normal’ is very much the ‘old normal’ in Japan,” says Matthew Joslin, Marketing and Communications Manager at the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO). “Concepts of purification and cleanliness are a big part of Shintoism and Buddhism (Japan’s main religions), tidiness and good hygiene is ingrained in the Japanese national curriculum while wearing a face mask stretches back 100 years (to the Spanish Flu outbreak).”

Joslin explains that Japan is a ritualistic country, where procedures are followed and rules adhered to. However, the country has still stepped up its game in terms of sanitation, combining traditional practises with new regulations across all industries. 

Examples include temperature checks on check-in at hotels and room seals to reassure guests that their room hasn’t been touched since cleaning. The ski resort of Gassen got ahead of the curve this summer, putting measures in place like the disinfection of gondolas between each ride.

Thanks to Japan’s famously futuristic technology, visitors may soon be able to avoid human touch-points in hospitality. The government is considering rolling out more use of holographic screen technology and self-drive robots for cleaning. Less futuristic but definitely practical, Airline ANA trialled a hands-free toilet door at its lounge in Tokyo’s Haneda Airport recently, which allows people to unlock and open the door using their elbows.

Joslin says the JNTO appreciates that people who have had Japan on their bucket list for some time may worry that their travel experience will be affected by COVID-19 measures, but he urges agents to reassure their clients that Japan is much more of an outdoor destination than they might think. “Japan is 69% forest (compared to 13% in UK) 73% mountains and has more coastline than the U.S., New Zealand or Australia, plus it has more hot springs and ski resorts than any other country. It is this natural world that is the setting for iconic cultural experiences that don’t rely on regulated opening hours and aren’t necessarily Covid contingent,” he says.

Covid-proof experiences

Driving force: Though Japanese trains are efficient and spotlessly clean, those who fear travelling with others or crowded spaces do have other options, including holidaying by RV. Car rental in general is a more than feasible option than travellers may imagine since Japan drives on the left side of road, GPS systems are widely available and road signs are usually in English.

Take a walk: Japan is a great destination for hiking, from challenging summits to short jaunts. The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage traverses deeply forested valleys past hidden temples, the Michinoku Coastal Trail runs the entire length of the Sanriku Fukko National Park and, just 90 minutes from Tokyo, Shizuoka’s Jogasaki Coast is famous for its beautiful cliffs and views and will host cyclists for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.The Bandai Numajiri Kogen Lodge in Aizu was set up by Junko Tabei, the first woman to climb Mt. Everest, and is perfectly placed for hiking or skiing.

City escapes: Even in densely populated Tokyo you can escape the crowds and enjoy nature. The capital is home to many parks and gardens, including the grounds of major attractions like the Meiji Shinto shrine and Imperial Palace, and outlying areas of the city like Okutama offer seemingly boundless forest, mountains and lakes with numerous hot springs.

Assorted accommodation: For those who want to stay away from hotels, there’s a wealth of unique, independent holiday lets in Japan, including ‘Machiya’, the traditional wooden town houses found throughout Japan but typified in Kyoto. There’s also nōka – traditional farmhouses, often with thatched roofs. A top spot for boutique stays is the castle town of Ozu on the west coast of Shikoku, where you can stay in historic houses or hire the only room in the castle (new for 2020).

Get marooned on an island: Head to the sub-tropical sandy beaches and rich reefs of the Okinawa archipelago, or the atmospheric moss-smothered cedar forests of Yakushima Island, rich in wildlife and the inspiration for Studio Ghibli’s anime Princess Mononoke.

Art outside: If you have clients who are gallery lovers then point them to the art islands of the Seto Inland Sea, where they can wander amongst reams of quirky art installations in the fresh air or visit spacious cutting-edge museums.

What's new

Training: JNTO launched its new agent training programme earlier this year and in September added an intermediate course which introduces a variety of outdoor activities, gardens, modern art and cultural experiences.

Accommodation: Big-name openings include Ritz Carlton Niseko, in time for the 2020 ski season; Kanazawa Hyatt House and Hyatt Centric, next to the station and a 20-minute walk from Kanazawa’s historical centre with self-catering apartments; and the first W Hotel in Japan, in Oksaka. New eco-focused properties include Ugakei Circles, glamping cabins in a sustainability-focused nature park in Mie prefecture (opening in 2021), and Treeful Treehouse Eco resort, a treehouse hotel in Okinawa.

Events: The Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial traverses 200 villages across nearly 200,000 acres of mountainous terrain in Niigata, making it the largest art festival in the world. It is hoped it will take place in 2021, themed around humans and their relationship to nature and sustainability.

Ski: In response to COVID-19 Hokkaido has launched the ‘New Hokkaido Style’ campaign, encouraging new habits. In the resort, protective screens at desks, sanitation of high-touch areas, floor stickers for social distancing, daily health checks for employees and temperature and travel history checks for guests are just some of the new protocols in place.

Nozawa Onsen resort has a new gondola system which links the village - which is home to a micro-brewery and traditional town centre – with the three main ski areas covering 730 acres. It reduces travel time to the slopes by half (to eight minutes).

Where to book it

Scenic; 0808 278 7469

The 16-day Tokyo to Osaka Japan in Focus tour is from £9, 845pp and includes time in the Kawaguchiko Area, cruising on Lake Ashinoko and enjoying the hot springs of the Owakudani geothermal region.