TOKYO -- The rickshaw men in Tokyo are adding English-speaking staff, a sure sign Japan is bracing for a return of tourists from abroad.
Japan’s border controls to curb the spread of coronavirus infections began gradually loosening earlier this month.
That's great news for Yusuke Otomo, owner of Daikichi, a kimono rental shop in Asakusa, an old district of Tokyo famous for its temples, quaint restaurants and rickshaw rides. He can barely contain his excitement.
“Those were a hard three years. But we managed to endure until today. And after such an experience, to think people from abroad can finally come back is simply thrilling,” Otomo told The Associated Press.
“I’m thinking that maybe, just as before COVID, my shop, the city of Asakusa and everyone’s hearts can flourish again. I can’t wait.”
Before the pandemic, Asakusa was so brimming with foreigners they sometimes outnumbered the Japanese. After the coronavirus struck, the streets were deserted.
“Not a soul in sight,” he said sadly.
Some kimono rental stores folded. Restaurants were shuttered.
The crowds are finally back with a gradual relaxing of the city's COVID-19 restrictions, which called for restaurants to close early and people to social distance and limit attendance at events. But most of the visitors are Japanese.
Shuso Imada, general manager at JSS Information Center, a sake and shochu showroom in downtown Tokyo, said he has been feeling pretty lonely and is itching to tell foreign visitors about how to match the traditional Japanese rice wine with all kinds of non-Japanese food, even cheese and beef.
“In a way, we didn't have much to do and we just had to wait. The gates have now reopened,” he said.
But like others waiting for tourists, he acknowledged that the limited entry for tour groups now in effect may not allow time for a relaxing visit to his center.
Visitors have to abide by guidelines requiring travelers to have a special coordinator, stay on specific routes and abide by rules like wearing masks and regularly using disinfectant.
Before COVID, tourism was booming as a mainstay of Japan's economy, the world's third largest. Foreign visitors numbered a record 32 million in 2019 and the target for 2020 was 40 million. After COVID struck, the government gradually imposed very restrictive limits on foreign arrivals, for a time excluding many foreign residents.
As of June 10, it is allowing foreign tourists to visit, but in limited numbers and only on group tours, not as individual travelers.
Visas are required for nearly everyone, even those from countries that normally would have visa-free entry. And they're available only to travelers from 98 so-called “blue” countries, including the U.S., who are deemed to pose a minimal health risk and can enter without a quarantine if they show proof they tested negative for COVID within 72 hours of their departures.
People entering Japan from countries considered to be a greater risk must quarantine for three days at home or in government-designated facilities. There is a daily cap on arrivals of 20,000 people, including all travelers. And the number of airports open to foreign tourists also is gradually expanding.
Worries about COVID-19 remain. If infections shoot up again in another wave, pandemic precautions could be brought back.
Japan, a crowded island nation, is wary about outside risks and infectious diseases. After about two years of seeing very few tourists, Japanese have some adjusting to do, Otomo and others said.
So the authorities are taking it slow.
“I would love to have tourists from abroad come, as long as everyone, including myself, abides by the rules, like wearing masks and keeping sanitary standards,” said Minaho Iwase, who was visiting Tokyo from Aichi, central Japan, recently.
Many tourists might be deterred by the restrictions on independent travel. But some seem not to mind.
“When my friends asked me to join this trip to Japan, I immediately said, ‘Yes.’ I visited Japan before. I love their food, their tradition, and their highly organized culture. Japan is great,” said Sorrasek Thuantawee, an office worker who joined a group of eight Thais excitedly preparing to board a flight from Bangkok last week.
Japan is a favorite destination, despite its not "opening up 100%," said Nuttavut Mitsumoto, the guide for the group, Thai travel agency Compax World’s first to Japan since it relaxed its entry rules.
The Japanese yen has weakened this year against the U.S. dollar and other currencies, making visits something of a bargain.
A study last month by Money.co.uk, a free online service that compares financial products, found Osaka ranked fourth and Tokyo eighth for most affordable “luxury travel,” including Michelin star meals and five-star hotels.
Back in Asakusa, rickshaw man Shunpei Katayama has yet to drive around his first post-COVID foreign tourist, but English-speaking drivers are back on the job. And for now, Japanese visitors from outside Tokyo are keeping him busy.
“Japanese who can’t go to Guam and other spots abroad come visit Shibuya. And Asakusa,” he said.
On a recent day, Otomo was shooting photos of a Japanese mother and daughter dressed up in colorful kimono to attend a friend’s wedding in Tokyo.
The foreign clientele that used to frequent his shop were so enthusiastic about dressing up as samurai, ninja and geisha, complete with swords and hair ornaments. Some quickly became friends, regardless of their nationalities, Otomo recalled a bit sentimentally.
“When they’re happy, I’m happy. They get my adrenaline going,” he said.
AP journalists Tassanee Vejpongsa in Bangkok and Haruka Nuga in Tokyo contributed to this report.
Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter https://twitter.com/yurikageyama