Photo by Jon Li
Photo by Jon Li
A trip to Japan and South Korea takes a turn after the coronavirus outbreak.
AFAR’s SEO manager Jessie Beck booked a vacation to Japan and South Korea well before the COVID-19 outbreak began taking over international headlines. When she got on the ground, things were changing—quickly.
Sitting on the dark, wood porch of our Airbnb, a traditional Japanese-style home in Nanjo, Okinawa, the conversation between my husband and our host, Mari, turned to COVID-19. “People are panicking,” she said. “Guests are already canceling their reservations. And now my three kids are home from school. What am I going to do with them?”
It was February 28, 2020. That morning, the Japanese government had announced month-long school closures. More cases of the coronavirus had been reported. A week earlier, Japan had been raised to a Level 2 travel alert by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), advising travelers to practice enhanced precautions. It was clear that the anxiety around traveling to China was now extended to Japan, Korea, and other parts of Asia.
Mari moved here from Tokyo several years ago with her Okinawa-born husband. While tourism has increased to Okinawa-Honto and the rest of this archipelago in the past five years, Mari said, “Life is usually this quiet on this part of the island.” Still, her family owns several vacation rentals and Hamabe no Chaya, a popular, beachside café. They depend on travelers and locals alike for their businesses.
While the COVID-19 outbreaks have negatively impacted the global economy, travel and tourism are especially vulnerable. Throughout the trip, the human toll of the virus became apparent—not just in terms of cases and deaths but also for the countless people whose livelihoods are at stake.
Our trip began on February 15, 2020, when my husband, Jon, our friend Ben, and I landed in Seoul. We booked the trip in November 2019, long before the coronavirus outbreak began taking over international headlines. It would be another week before the CDC raised Korea to a Level 3 travel alert (the same as China), advising against all nonessential travel to the country. But we are all healthy, in our 30s, and figured that between vigilant hand-washing and my hand sanitizer supply, we’d be OK.
Yet the atmosphere already felt unusual, mildly apocalyptic even, as we walked off a half-empty airplane into a half-empty airport where the customs control was split among “Citizens,” “Visitors,” and “People coming from China.”
In Seoul, almost everyone wore masks (including one delightful human who removed his to sneeze), posters in at least four languages reminded us to wash our hands, and free hand sanitizer sat on stools outside every bar, restaurant, and shop. But aside from that, it seemed a regular Saturday night and the bars were full of shochu-drinking Koreans. We helped ourselves to the hand sanitizer, then joined them.
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On the next day, we left our hotel as a light snow fell. “It’s the first snowfall of the year!” our taxi driver said. The city felt quiet and empty. “How long are you in Seoul?” he asked. “Just two days, then Hokkaido,” we said. “Hokkaido!” he exclaimed. “We have very good skiing in South Korea too!” shamelessly plugging his own country’s tourism. “Next time, we’ll ski here,” we said, even though we had no idea when or if we’d be back. We got out at Gwangjang Market, a century-old market known for its food stalls. As we hunted down bindaetteok, a mung bean and scallion pancake, it felt lively enough, but how would a trio of first-time visitors know what’s normal?
After a day and a half in Seoul, we left for our main stop (via a flight and train ride), Niseko, a ski town in Japan’s Hokkaido prefecture. Later, it would become the hardest-hit area of Japan. But on February 17, Hokkaido and especially Niseko, which sees an influx of foreign tourists and seasonal workers each winter, was full of life and talk of coronavirus took a backseat to snow conditions.
“It’s the worst snow season in 60 years! Terrible,” we heard multiple times. Still, “terrible” for Hokkaido seemed like a winter wonderland to this Californian. In fact, thanks to some fresh snow, locals and visitors alike were getting in plenty of skiing. “I did a few runs this morning,” said a New Zealander pouring beers at Niseko Taproom. “It was snowing so much that it was like snowboarding on fresh powder every time.” No one at the bar wore a mask, and rarely did the conversation deviate far from snowboarding and skiing.
As a nonskier, I had come to Hokkaido for the food and hot springs. I spent my days wandering Hirafu, a tiny resort town at the base of Mount Niseko-Annupuri, soaking in hot baths, and stomping through the snow to repeatedly eat soba and tempura at a mom-and-pop soba shop, Ichimura, before returning to our hotel, Kimamaya, a nine-room boutique hotel in the heart of Hirafu.
Peter, the hotel’s manager and British native who had been living in Japan for over a decade, had just returned from a quick trip to the United Kingdom. “My flight there was full, but on the way back, yeah, I guess it was a emptier than usual,” he said. “I’m going to be careful but I’m not going to panic.” Our little crew felt the same. Although we washed our hands more often, we mostly turned our attention to the slopes and lively après-ski scene.
On our penultimate night, we left for a decadent meal of Kobe beef at yakiniku spot Kobe Tei. In a town of fully booked restaurants and packed-to-the-brim bars, I felt lucky to have scored the reservation. As the sake warmed us up, we chatted with our server about Japanese music. “Do you know the song ‘Sukiyaki’?” Ben asked. “Oh yes!” the server said. Minutes later the song, released in 1961 by Japanese artist Ue o Muite Aruko, came on the restaurant speakers (thanks to a covert song-switch by our server). Our table and the staff erupted in giggles, uniting us in a shared experience that seemed far from the panic-inducing news that day.
We arrived in Tokyo on February 22, 2020. The number of coronavirus cases had jumped to 433 in Korea and 94 in Japan, but the CDC had yet to raise the threat level in either country. After leaving the airport, we boarded a subway car half-full of masked passengers and headed straight for dinner at Inua, the new restaurant by Noma alum Thomas Frebel that had already garnered two Michelin stars.
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Between courses of smoked maitake mushrooms and perfectly cooked duck, we chatted with the Australian sommelier about wine and cocktail bars in Tokyo (“you have go to Grandfather’s”), then befriended a food-obsessed Korean more interested in asking us what we ate in Seoul than discussing COVID-19. It never came up.
The next day, we went to teamLab Borderless, an interactive art exhibit in Tokyo’s Aomi district. Inside the museum, watching others touch the displays, an uncharacteristic germophobia crept up on me. After climbing on a 3-D rock structure, I paused, then went to the bathroom to wash my hands. The museum has since been temporarily closed due to coronavirus concerns.
By the time we reached Okinawa, Korea was officially raised to a Level 3 threat. Ben wondered if he should change his ticket home, which had a layover in Seoul. He eventually would, after reading enough articles advising against travel to Korea. “I chickened out,” he said, after rerouting through Tokyo.
Japan was also starting to feel the pinch from lower tourist numbers—tourism makes up 7.4 percent of the country’s economy—and Kyoto had begun running its “empty tourism” campaign, sharing photos of empty tourist attractions to promote the idea of travelers getting to have these destination to themselves.
On our last day in Japan, we drove Okinawa’s coast, stopping for waterfalls and taco rice—a dish of taco meat on rice popular among Americans living there. “It was so busy here this weekend!” the ticket seller at Todoroki waterfall remarked. “Because of the holiday? The Emperor’s birthday?” I asked. “Yes!” she said, bowing slightly as she handed us our tickets.
After a sunset swim at Cape Hedo, where Japanese surfers dotted the horizon, we returned south. In the car, our conversation turned (as usual) to food: our favorite dishes in Japan, that disappointing tempura, and the practically live shrimp we ate at lunch. Meanwhile, halfway across the globe, my parents were watching reports about Japan on the nightly news and quietly panicking about our safety.
Landing at San Francisco International Airport felt like most any other trip. Sleepily, I disembarked, found the Mobile Passport line, and walked up to the customs agent. “Have you been to China in the last 30 days?” “No.” “OK, welcome back!” he said, before I walked out into a world with few face masks, public notices, or free hand sanitizer—but importantly, not free from coronavirus.
When we began our 11-day trip across South Korea and Japan, China had been everyone’s main concern. By February 28, threat levels had been raised in South Korea and Japan, and cases outside Asia were rising. Back at home, San Francisco Mayor London Breed had declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19.
I did not feel relief to be home amid the growing outbreak. Instead, like with most trips, I felt sad. Even with the coronavirus outbreak spreading in South Korea and Japan, we had been met with such heartwarming kindness and hospitality throughout the trip. Strangers had shared jokes with us, helped us when we were confused, and introduced us to new and amazing foods, experiences, and nature. While travelers may not feel comfortable traveling to these places at this exact time, I can only hope a journey to these wonderful destinations will be at the top of everyone’s travel lists very soon—they will need the support then, more than ever.
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