High-tech but traditional with food, scenery and ski slopes well worth spending 11 hours on a plane, Japan has long been a favorite of Kiwi travellers.
Here’s what it’s like to fly there now that the country has lifted border restrictions for travelers who have been triple-vaccinated against Covid-19 or taken a test before departure.
The flight: Auckland to Tokyo with Air New Zealand.
The plane: A Boeing 787-9.
Paperwork: My flight in early November required far less paperwork than any other I had taken during the pandemic. So little that, standing in line at check-in, I couldn’t get rid of the feeling of having forgotten something.
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New Zealand citizens and nationals of other countries with a visa waiver agreement with Japan can again spend up to 90 days in the country without having to apply for a visa, and pre-departure testing is not not required for those who have had a triple dose against Covid-19.
Visitors must, however, complete a lengthy online form on the Visit Japan website before departure to ensure a smooth arrival at the airport. By the time I filled in and uploaded my passport and international vaccination certificate, a good hour had passed. I definitely don’t recommend leaving it until you’re in an Uber at the airport.
The airport experience: Auckland airport was busy when I arrived around 7:30am on a Sunday morning – it took me about an hour to reach the start of the queue to check in.
The check-in process was a breeze compared to my previous Covid-era flights – all I had to hand over was my passport and international travel vaccination certificate.
Time spent in the air: It was my first long-haul flight since before the pandemic and the 11-hour drags, even with a lovely seatmate to chat with, work to keep going, and a pretty extensive selection of movies to watch. It’s a price to pay for visiting Japan.
Headquarters: One of the worst you can find on a long haul flight – the middle seat in the center aisle in economy class.
I have a weak bladder so I drank very little to avoid having to bother my seat mates getting up too often to use the bathroom, and neither seemed aware of the no rule Airplane etiquette writing that the person sitting in the middle gets the first dibs on the armrests simply because they are unlucky enough to be in the middle seat.
But I can’t complain too hard. None of them did anything unforgivable like intrude into my space or put their bare feet on the seat.
The food: I’m gluten free so like anyone with special dietary needs, I ate my meal early. Gluten-free meals on planes tend to be as tasty as those served to you in hospitals and nursing homes, but my lunch wasn’t too bad, with a tomato sauce to go with the chicken, broccoli and potatoes.
Surprisingly for a gluten, dairy, nut and egg free dessert, the chocolate brownie didn’t taste like cardboard. I could have easily inhaled for a second.
Lunch choices for those who didn’t request special meals were smoked beef brisket with pasta, or teriyaki salmon and tofu. My seatmate who ordered the salmon said it was a bit dry, like fish on airplanes usually is, but the sauce made it palatable. It was served with half a dome of rice, a salad made with an unidentifiable grain and an odorless white dessert which we couldn’t quite place either.
The man next to me must not have been too impressed with the portions, as he ate a family member’s vegetarian lunch after mocking the beef brisket. He left the bun and cheese, though, so he must have had his fill at the end.
Entertainment: None of the new movies really jumped out at me, but I went with Where the Crawdads Sing because I wanted to know what all the fuss was about the best-selling book, and I’m a big fan of the 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 didn’t pay to see it in theaters or stream it.
Other picks from the new releases were Bullet Train starring Brad Pitt, which I probably should have opted for given our destination; a French comedy titled Mrs Harris Goes to Paris about a widowed housekeeper’s love affair with a Dior dress; the long Elvis biopic by Baz Luhrmann; and, for children, the animated DC League of Super-Pets.
The service: Friendly but discreet. Air New Zealand staff tend to excel in customer service and those on this flight did not disappoint. They were polite and happy to help, bringing customers cups of beer, wine and green tea on request.
Masks: Masks are no longer required on Air New Zealand international flights, and you can see that. The flight was almost full, but I would estimate less than half were wearing masks. I was thinking of wearing one, but in the end I didn’t because it was hot in the cabin and that made me feel even more.
But once in Japan, it was a different story. Although masks aren’t mandatory, most people wear them outside the home, whether they’re walking down the street, taking public transportation, or in an indoor public place. Many tourist sites require visitors to wear masks.
Arrival in Japan: Like many things in Japan, ultra-efficient. The online registration form gives you a QR code, which you have to show so many times at the airport that I lost count. There are so many staff checking them, the arrivals area looks a bit chaotic, but I kept showing my QR code and was waved through. If you forgot to fill out the form or don’t have a QR code, you are directed to a lounge area with plenty of staff to help you.
Frequency: Air New Zealand operates three non-stop flights between Auckland and Tokyo per 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 author traveled courtesy of the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO).