Unguided Tours to Japan – Reopening Phase Rules

Japan is further relaxing its border restrictions, including opening to “unguided tour groups” or “non-escorted visitors on package tours.” In this post, we’ll discuss the details of the latest reopening step, info about new guidelines for self-guided groups, and more. (Updated September 5, 2022.)

In this latest step towards fully reopening, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced that Japan will allow the entry of self-guided tour groups and raise the daily arrival cap to 50,000 starting September 7, 2022. On that same date, Japan will also no longer require incoming travelers to show a pre-departure negative COVID-19 test, provided they have been vaccinated three times.

This is the country’s most significant move since reopening to guided tours in June, a step that did not move the needle on visitor numbers in a meaningful way. Whether this decision to allow self-guided tourists who book as part of packages actually helps Japan’s battered tourism sector remains to be seen, and is unlikely in our view given the guidelines released by Japan.

Note that this does not mean Japan is reopening to individual, self-guided tourists. If you’re simply looking for an official answer about when Japan will reopen for individuals and not tour groups, we still don’t have that exact date. If you’d like to be notified as soon as an announcement is made by Japan’s government, subscribe to our free email newsletter.

At the press conference announcing the latest rule relaxation, Kishida explained why Japan was making this change. “In countries worldwide, international exchange is growing. To participate in these exchanges and to make sure the benefits of the weak yen are felt, we will raise the daily arrival cap to 50,000 from September 7, as well as allow non-guided tours from all countries to enter,” Kishida said.

“To make the entry of people in line with other Group of Seven nations, we will further ease our border control measures by taking into account the infection situation at home and abroad, the needs (of travelers) and border measures taken by other nations,” Kishida said.

Notably, Kishida has been repeating the line above–almost verbatim–since early May when he gave a press conference in London. Suffice to say, Japan’s reopening process has involved a lot of “careful consideration” and “evaluating the situation.”

The Japan Tourism Agency (part of the government’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport & Tourism) released guidelines (in Japanese) setting out what travel agencies will be required to do in order before, during, and after their clients take trips to Japan.

Under these guidelines, travel agencies will be responsible for “arranging” round trip airfare for unguided tour participants when entering and leaving Japan, as well as all accommodations during their stay.

While use of the word “arranging” might have sufficient ambiguity to allow for the rubber-stamping an existing itinerary, the Japan Tourism Agency closes the door on that.

The guidelines further state that tourists booking their own airfare and accommodations with the travel agency acting only as their entry sponsor is not permitted. This means that our supposedly logical speculation below was inaccurate.

There are a range of other requirements in the 21-page document, many of which are specific to guided tours. Other requirements for the unguided tours are that itineraries be determined in advance, and that the plan take into consideration the prevention of infection. Travel agents are expected to check the infection prevention measures at accommodations, restaurants, etc., and use facilities that have thorough measures.

Travel agents are also expected to contact and explain to participants what measures they will be required to take, what to do if they become infected or are a close contact of an infected person, and obtain consent that travelers will adhere to all protocol and mitigation measures. (While not totally clear from the translation, it appears that travel agents will have some degree of contact with travelers while they’re in Japan.)

The straightforward interpretation of these guidelines would appear to doom the hopes of those, like us, who wanted a ‘do it yourself’ style approach with only paying for a sponsor service. Under any reasonable reading of the rules, that is not permitted.

However, there is still at least one service (being discussed in the comments) that purports to be offering exactly that. Personally, I think this is playing with fire. Japan loves its rules, and attempting to circumvent them or exploit loopholes is risky. It’s entirely possible that Japan won’t have any enforcement mechanism for ensuring guideline compliance. I would not want to spend large sums of money on the sponsor service, airfare, and accommodations to test that theory. To each their own, though.

We’ve contacted over a dozen travel agencies in Japan for specifics about what their packages would require. Most did not respond. That’s sadly understandable, as there is still a degree of ambiguity in the guidelines. It makes sense that agencies would err on the side of caution and not pro-actively publish their policies, which the government may, for some reason, not view as fully compliant.

Of those that did respond, all stated that roundtrip airfare and all hotel accommodations must be booked through the agency in order to be eligible for issuance of the ERFS. They also reiterated the consent and contact requirements, as well as the requirement to quarantine in the event of a positive test. Several also required the purchase of international travel insurance.

Pricing varies widely based on airfare, accommodations and destinations, but we’ve found the lowest starting price to be around $4,000 per person for two weeks before the cost of flights. The sky is the limit on upper pricing; you could easily spend $20,000 per person.

Admittedly, these guidelines are frustrating–especially since they are not internally consistent with Japan’s approach thus far to other foreign visitors (e.g. students, businesspeople, and guided tours). None of those expressly require that the sponsor arrange airfare or accommodations.

This is thus an almost illusory step forward–more like shuffling in place. Still, it does not come as a huge surprise and Japan has demonstrated time and time again that attempting to apply logic to its decisions–or indecisiveness–is a fool’s errand. And yet, we continue.

While a seemingly odd half-measure, especially after the guided tours proved to be unpopular, there is some degree of internal logic to moving to unguided tours. Currently, every foreign visitor needs a ‘responsible receiving party’ in Japan that can act as a liaison should that individual become infected and need medical attention. This is true for students, businesspeople, relatives of Japanese nationals, and those participating in guided tours.

In a nutshell, this is due to COVID-19’s legal classification; the infectious disease has a special status that obligates the government to devote certain resources and treatment to infected individuals, among other things. Recently, there has been debate over downgrading coronavirus to the same level as the flu in Japan’s infectious disease categories.

This downgrade is another issue that remains under “consideration,” but will likely happen in some fashion as the seventh wave recedes. There are numerous benefits to downgrading the classification of the coronavirus, but also countless challenges. All of those are beyond the scope of this post.

While not the impetus for the downgrade, one almost ancillary outcome would be eliminating many countermeasures currently being undertaken and putting Japan on the path to properly reopening and economic recovery. In short, this downgrade is almost certainly a necessary prerequisite for the country welcoming individual tourists. The downgrade would likely end the need for a responsible receiving party to monitor travelers and act as a liaison for infected individuals.

In the meantime, we can work backwards from the current requirements for responsible receiving parties for other categories of individuals who are currently allowed into Japan to deduce what is likely meant by “unguided tour groups” or “non-escorted visitors on package tours.”

First, it is safe to say that use of the terms “groups” or “package tours” is a bit of a misnomer. For a meaningful distinction to exist between guided and unguided tours, these necessarily must be self-guided or unaccompanied by a guide. This means that they are neither groups nor tours in the traditional senses of the terms.

Second, if we look to what is required or allowed of businesspeople, students, relatives, and other visitors (outside of the guided tour groups), it’s not a whole lot. The sponsors for those individuals are, essentially, just liaisons. They are not required to book certain hotels, flights, or make other travel arrangements.

There have been conflicting reports in the media about this since the announcement, which is likely due to the use of “groups” and “package tours.” For example, Bloomberg stated that participants in the non-guided package tours “would still need to adhere to itineraries set by travel agencies, and individuals won’t be allowed to go off exploring on their own under the relaxed rules.”

We suspect that this is an assumption on the part of the writer for Bloomberg, since official policies have not yet been set out. However, this interpretation would–at least in some ways–make the unguided tours more stringent than the guided ones. Participants on certain guided tours can arrange private guides and create their own itineraries. Moreover, some tours do offer time to explore on their own.

How many or most guided tours work in practice is a different matter, but there is no government policy against allowing free time or visitor-crafted plans. It would make little sense for the unguided tours to have stricter rules.

My expectation (which is also entirely speculative; like Bloomberg, I do not have insider info) is that participants in unguided tours will be able to create their own itineraries, book their own accommodations and flights, and have the ability to explore on their own in theory. Logically, there is no reason that the policies for self-guided tour groups should be any different than those for others arriving as part of other types of sponsored visits.

However, this will likely be difficult in practice. The primary reason for that is because it’s possible–if not probable–that most Japanese travel agencies will not want to offer an itinerary approval service when they can require participants purchase commissionable airfare, accommodations, etc. The latter is much more lucrative, and what these businesses are accustomed to selling.

While that is not a product that appeals to me, personally, it’s difficult to fault the travel agencies for that. Japan’s tourism sector has been decimated in the last two years. If my business were beaten down for 2 years and I could charge ~$200 for an itinerary approval and traveler liaison service or $3,500 for a self-guided package, I’d certainly choose the latter. (As a consumer, the latter is a non-starter for me, whereas the former is very intriguing.)

With this question in mind, we’ve already reached out to several Japanese travel agencies regarding their policies for unguided tour groups. It’s likely we won’t have any definitive answers until the government reveals its own guidelines for self-guided tourists. (This post will be updated accordingly when we do, so stay tuned!)

One potential argument against my more optimistic interpretation is that, if this were the case, Japan would’ve been better off requiring foreign visitors purchase travel insurance. In that case, the insurer could act as a sponsor, of sorts, and offer a wider range of coverage beyond just infection. As travel insurance is a known and understood product, this likely would’ve made more sense than paying a fee to a travel agency for what essentially amounts to itinerary approval and emergency support.

That’s a fair point. If Japan were to go this route, the country would undoubtedly see a bigger boost in tourist numbers than will arrive even under the most charitable reading of “unguided tour groups” or “non-escorted visitors on package tours.” My guess is that insurers could not be expected to provide itinerary monitoring/approval, or that Japanese bureaucracy never even considered this possibility, instead remaining in the rubric of ‘tour groups’ when determining its next step.

Ultimately, it will be interesting to see what the official definition ends up being for “unguided tour groups” or “non-escorted visitors on package tours.” With this policy taking effect in less than a week, the government will need to release guidelines in the coming days that provide clarity about what is and is not permissible. After that, travel agencies will determine how to implement those policies–or not.

If my admittedly optimistic interpretation is correct, this is huge. While there will still be hurdles, a tedious process, and the costs of itinerary approval, it’ll arguably be worth it. Those who jump through some hoops and pay fees will be rewarded with fewer tourists and lower prices. I’d even hazard a guess that the lower prices–since most people won’t travel during this phase of reopening–will more than offset the costs of itinerary approval.

Ultimately, under the guidelines that Japan has now released for unguided tour groups, this amounts to yet another symbolic step that makes it look like Japan is making strides towards putting itself in line with the Group of Seven, but not much more. While undoubtedly appealing to some, self-guided tours that are materially the same as current packages (minus the guide) are not going to move the needle at all. Japan will continue to languish, seeing <20,000 foreign tourists per month through the end of the year.

What really needs to happen is the restoration of individual tourist entry along with visa waivers for arrivals from countries of origin previously eligible for visa-free entry. Absent that, even with the most favorable interpretation of this new relaxation, Japan is still going to struggle to attract foreign visitors.

In any case, we’ll keep monitoring the situation and providing regular updates in When Will Japan Reopen for Individual Self-Guided Tourists? Here’s hoping for some news about an actual resumption of tourism to Japan in the not-too-distant future. Again, if you’d like to be notified as soon as more details are released or rumored, subscribe to our free email newsletter for ongoing updates and alerts:

If you’re planning a trip to the Japan, check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other things to do! We also recommend consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto and Ultimate Guide to Tokyo to plan.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of the announcement that Japan will welcome “unguided tour groups” or “non-escorted visitors on package tours” starting September 7, 2022? What about the newly-released guidelines? Does this rule relaxation strike you as reasonable or unreasonable? Would you consider visiting Japan this fall or winter as part of an unguided tour group? Or is that a hard pass for you? When do you expect a proper reopening to individual tourists? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? If you’re planning your trip to Japan, what do you think about these itineraries? Any questions? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!

Free Money-Saving eBook & Japan Email Updates

Want to receive free updates on when traveling to Japan? Subscribe to our email newsletter for the latest news, tips & tricks, and travel recommendations.

Subscribers also receive a totally free copy of our Japan on a Budget eBook. This will save you significant money on accommodations, attractions, temples, groceries, transportation, and even Michelin-rated restaurants!

If you want a copy of this totally free eBook and Japan updates, all you need to do is subscribe to our newsletter! You will receive a link to download the eBook and periodic emails when there's news to share.

We respect your privacy.

164 replies
« Older Comments
  1. Tokyo Dreaming
    Tokyo Dreaming says:

    Im just back from a magical 3 weeks in Japan. I went the JGA route and glad I did. Wasn’t too busy and hotel rates were cheap. Some great experiences.

  2. M
    M says:

    I’m hearing JGA a lot, but has anyone used Japan Experience? They are offering to sponsor my entire trip without booking anything, just pay the ESRF fee…? I’m not sure what JGA requires but they haven’t even got back to me… Are people just purchasing the plan without an agent involved for JGA? This is insane! But I guess I’d rather take my chances after this last announcement.

  3. S
    S says:

    I’m hearing JGA a lot, but has anyone used Japan Experience? They are offering to sponsor my entire trip without booking anything, just pay the ESRF fee…? I’m not sure what JGA requires but they haven’t even got back to me… Are people just purchasing the plan without an agent involved for JGA? This is insane! But I guess I’d rather take my chances after this last announcement.

  4. Pogaf
    Pogaf says:

    I received an email about my eVisa being issued, but it also mentions fees.

    My current application status is “Waiting for issuing fee payment” while the column for Issuing Fee (USD) says “Exempted”.

    Did anyone else run into this? I’m going to call the consulate in LA once they’re back from lunch.

    • Shinn
      Shinn says:

      There is a reference point in this news, which is this autumn. As they argue it is the best time to allure foreigner tourists. So let’s hope this time it is different.

    • Jordan
      Jordan says:

      I feel the same, I’ve lost trust in the decision making on the JP govt, I really hope it is actually soon… like within the next 2/3 weeks latest but the vagueness and waiting around is so frustrating. How can you plan to visit in the fall when you don’t even know if it will be open?

    • Claire
      Claire says:

      I’m trying to manage my expectations for this announcement but there’s an article that specifically says they are planning to remove cap and visa in October. I agree this vagueness is frustrating but typical. If you want independent tourists for Autumn there needs to be a firm announcement with a date for the removal of restrictions so people can plan. Would be nice if we get those details in the next week or so but my trust is also very low right now.

    • Jas
      Jas says:

      What intrigues me is that this news would come within 5 days of the latest easing which is yet to show its success. People including gov staff spent days and night to come up with the fine details (even it is not what we hoped for but it is still time spent as being instructed) and suddenly a new easing is to come? What a waste of resources to implement and execute the previous easing. Of course I hope they do ease soon but surely they know how much work went into each implementation but for it to be scrap within weeks? Again it must be the way Japanese government works in baby steps.

    • Www
      Www says:

      In additional to that are the waste of money for anxious tourists like me to pay for the nonsense erfs. Though I do not mind at all, it might be a little help to the local tour company.

    • Claire
      Claire says:

      Right, was not expecting something like this so soon after the unguided tour announcement and subsequent logistical nightmare. Trying to apply logic to any of these decisions and their timing is futile. I think many people with scheduled trips canceled flights and accommodations after the unguided tours were clarified because it seemed like another ease of regulations wouldn’t happen for months or they spent money getting an ERFS from places like JGA. The rollercoaster ride continues!

    • Scott
      Scott says:

      If that becomes the case, I believe they’ve delayed too long. Individuals need to know well in advance in order to gain confidence and make flight and hotel commitments. I literally just undid my Fall travel reservations yesterday for Japan in favor of visiting France.

    • mash
      mash says:

      Many have the ERFS and subsequently have gotten their visas (a couple people have even landed) from JGA. I have gotten ERFS but not yet the visa.

    • Frank Carter
      Frank Carter says:

      Yes, I got mine today and it took less than 24 hours. Now I have to apply for eVISA (only applicable for US and Canadian citizens).

  5. Frank Carter
    Frank Carter says:

    It isn’t paying the 30,000 Y to JGA that concerns me, or the fee for the VISA because it is a gamble, it’s the gamble of not being allowed in at Haneda and sent home. I got stuck once at entry because I had several bottles of pres. meds because of a tough allergy season. I had a letter (email) from Japan Ministry of Health giving the ok to the type of meds and quantity all official on Govt letterhead. But the immigration officer sent me to a private room where all meds were opened and laid out and examined, counted, and compared. They treated me like a potential drug smuggler. Finally, I pulled the old ” I would like to call my embassy and speak to your supervisor” routine and , although it took forever, I was ‘released’ and set on my merry way.

  6. Jordan
    Jordan says:

    Ugh I really don’t know what to do here! I absolutely want to visit Japan for a once in a lifetime concert.

    The travel agency I was in contact with hasn’t been responding anymore since the announcement of possibly needing to have flights booked with them. I was hoping to go with them albeit them being £900 more than the package is worth HOWEVER they did allow me to go where I wanted and edit their ‘itinerary’. It will be my first time in Japan so having the thought of someone always being a call away was reassuring.

    Every other travel agency I contact will not include flights and will not stray away from their itineraries or let me edit them without taking out a mortage and selling a few kidneys.

    Will the travel insurance become invalid if we just get the ERSF visa issued by someone like JGA because does it technically go against the current travel guidelines?

    I know it’s impossible to say but when do you guys think Japan will make their next move? I wish there was a roadmap or ANYTHING! This waiting and watching is making me loose sleep.

    And between Kono Taro’s tweet hinting at visa waivers and Tokyo Governor Koikes’ press talk last night it’s looking promising but Japan has been devastating, so ‘soon’ could either mean in a few days or next year.

  7. Luisa
    Luisa says:

    In that short time while it was unclear if self-guided tourist have to have their flights etc. booked via a travel agency or not – I found one who provided me the ERFS certification. Now I got my visa (even though I asked to the embassy if they need more documents!) and everything else is ready. But I bought the flight myself, so technically it’s not right, but the embassy still approved. Unfortunately the travel agency won’t reply to me anymore… I’m unsure what I should do now, because my flight is next week. Any idea? 😅

  8. S
    S says:

    I will say I also bought nonrefundable flights awhile ago for a November trip and I am SCREWED… no one wants to help me and it sounds like they shouldn’t based on the guidelines. I’ve been ignored by many people when I mention our flights, and others just try to give me an expensive hotel package. One agent quoted me 4X the price of our original hotels and was going to book the SAME hotels. After reading this I am just getting the feeling there is no one to trust…. Would appreciate any advice on what to do because this was supposed to be our third time trying to go to Japan in the last two years for our honeymoon and it’s just been a nightmare. All these travel companies just want money but it’s impossible to know who to trust.

    • S
      S says:

      And I have confirmed my flights are nonrefundable and I can’t even get flight credit so we are really stuck here.

    • Xenmas021
      Xenmas021 says:

      I would just bite the bullet and apply via JGA.


      It’s expensive at 30,000 yen, but apparently people are already in Japan as of now with their pre-purchased flight tickets. To my understanding, once you have your tourist visa, you’re golden. It’s just getting the ERFS form to get the visa is a pain. JGA seems to be legit, there’s a lot of stories of people having success (even today, 9/9) with JGA on r/JapanTravel. See the stickied thread.

  9. Ralph M
    Ralph M says:

    The new rules are standard political ‘smoke and mirrors’ making it look like they are doing lots to boost the sagging economy without actually doing anything to risk damaging their image. I had booked a non refundable flight to Tokyo back in February thinking (stupidly) that SURELY by October Japan would join the rest of the world and reopen fully. Now after waiting six months nervously I am stuck between a rock and a hard place. I booked accommodations as well but can still cancel these at least. Fortunately our flights are just a four day stopover coming home from Manila and I can at least change the date so I only wind up spending one night at Narita. Thanks for the information about the travel agent, I will contact them and see if there is any hope of getting in.

    • S
      S says:

      I will say I also bought nonrefundable flights awhile ago for a November trip and I am SCREWED… no one wants to help me and it sounds like they shouldn’t based on the guidelines. I’ve been ignored by many people when I mention our flights, and others just try to give me an expensive hotel package. One agent quoted me 4X the price of our original hotels and was going to book the SAME hotels. After reading this I am just getting the feeling there is no one to trust…. Would appreciate any advice on what to do because this was supposed to be our third time trying to go to Japan in the last two years for our honeymoon and it’s just been a nightmare. All these travel companies just want money but it’s impossible to know who to trust.

  10. Josephine Lack
    Josephine Lack says:

    Just for information this is from another travel agent Holigoes Travel who said I could book my own flights and accommodation
    I wish I knew someone who had tried these methods successfully
    before I part with my cash

    Thank you for expressing interest in Holigoes Travel’s services.

    For the ERFS documentation, it would be 18,000 JPY per traveler.

    The information required for ERFS are as follows:
    scanned copies of your passport(s)
    arrival and departure date
    arrival and departure flight number
    name of hotels you would like to stay at in Japan and the respective dates of stay
    Our Japan office will act as the sponsor of your travel in Japan and issue the ERFS documentation which is a mandatory prerequisite for you to apply for a travel visa to visit Japan. You should also visit the Japanese embassy website for your country regarding the application for a visa to visit Japan.

    Please feel free to let me know if you are interested or have any further clarifications.

    Thank you.


    • Claire
      Claire says:

      Thanks for sharing! I’m also hesitant to part with my money before there’s more evidence that something like this will work. This company seems more legitimate than JGA at first glance (to me at least) and they very clearly state on their site what they offer (you don’t have to book a tour package) I feel like it’s worth contacting them and they seem happy to answer questions about the process (I have many haha). Really appreciate you sharing this!

    • Frank Carter
      Frank Carter says:

      Hello Josephine, I looked at the website of Holigoes Travel and found no indication they will help with the ERFA….would you mind sharing where you got the link, i can’t find it. Also, if you don’t mind, were you applying as an individual and if so, were they aware. Thank you.

« Older Comments

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *