The final flights out of Japan.
Taking the Shinkansen back to Tokyo was terrifying, the lack of people, the lack of life, it was surreal.
In September 2019 I decided to plan a trip that I believed would change my life. Instead, the world changed.
I’d traveled to Japan twice in 2019 and decided it is the only place I want to travel whenever I have the chance. I made friends, began learning the language, discovered Kyoto and decided one day that I want to live there.
I booked my flights, enrolled in a language school, rented an apartment and prepared for my first taste of living in Japan for three months. My flight departed on March 2.
Before my trip, my family was concerned for my safety. Japan was one of the first countries outside of China to report a case of COVID-19. Optimism triumphed over caution and I decided to not cancel my trip despite the fear of the virus disrupting my plans. Oh, how hindsight is 20/20.
When I first arrived at Narita International Airport in Tokyo, I could immediately tell that things were different. The airport was not empty but there was a haunting lack of people and every staff member was wearing a protective mask. Temperature checks were thoroughly conducted .
I bought my Shinkansen (bullet train) ticket, boarded the Narita Express train into Tokyo and that evening was walking the streets of Shibuya and Kabukicho as if nothing was wrong. I went to bars, ate ramen and was just so happy to be back. The next day I left for Kyoto and prepared to be back in my favorite place on this planet.
For the first three weeks daily life was almost normal. The streets were quieter, more people were wearing masks, hand sanitizer was everywhere, but nothing felt wrong. My language school stayed open, but we were required to disinfect our hands, gargle with water and have a temperature check before class every day.
The cherry blossoms were beginning to bloom but viewing parties were canceled. Traditionally the height of the tourist season in Kyoto, this cherry blossom season heralded the shut down to come. Soon the situation began devolving into a stressful daily routine of wondering just how bad things are going to become.
In the morning of April 2, I decided to change my flight, understanding that I needed to get home. This decision was prompted by a U.S. State Department email through the STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) telling all U.S. citizens in Japan to return immediately or prepare for an indefinite stay.
With a heavy heart I called the airline. I thought I would have a week to explore the city and say a proper goodbye to the friends who have become like a second family. This was not the case. A representative informed me that one of the final flights leaving Japan in the foreseeable future left from Tokyo Haneda Airport at 10:55 a.m. on April 3.
If I did not take that flight, they could not guarantee when the next would be. I haphazardly piled everything into my suitcase, contacted my school and apartment owner and left Kyoto that night. I spent my last night drinking, eating and crying with the friends I had so desperately looked forward to spending these three months with.
Haneda International Airport and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport were desolate; anyone who was in the airport was wearing some form of protective equipment. Some wore only masks, but others wore gloves, face shields and goggles.
I felt like I was in a movie watching the world end. But the world is not ending. What was supposed to be the greatest experience of my life turned into one of the strangest.
I returned to Tucson and self-isolating for two weeks. I was not within 6 feet of my family as they drop off groceries at the front door. We chatted while I stand in the doorway and they stand on the street. I am lucky to have a support system during these times — without one, I do not know what I would do.
I am without a doubt disappointed about what has transpired but my family, my friends and I have our health. In these times, that is truly the only thing that matters.
Sebastian Janik is a student in the University of Arizona School of Journalism.
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