Two months at 東京大学

Following up the two weeks in Singapore with two months in Japan. :)

As with Singapore, the trip is for a research collaboration, but I’ll mostly focus on the things aside from research here. This post will cover everything up until I entered Japan.

Applying for travel grants
About half a year after I started my PhD COVID-19 hit. Not happy with the thought of finishing it without any international experience, I always kept an eye on possibilities to go abroad, in case travel would become possible again. In late 2021 I started preparation for applying to the JSPS Summer Program. Made out eight Japanese labs in the NLP area and ended up “cold e-mailing” four. Result: 1 ignore, 1 reject, and 2 positive replies. Decided between the latter two (went with a lab at 東大), set up a research plan together with them, applied … and got rejected.

Luckily I had access to a university internal funding program here that would allow for an arrangement similar to the JSPS Summer Program in terms of timing, length, and funding. So, re-cycled the research plan, adjusted everything to the different application forms and requirements, applied again … and was accepted. :)

Organizing accomodation
For a stay of two months, not going for a few click hotel booking but rather the hassle of a rental contract setup procedure seemed worth the benefit of being able to cook and wash clothes by myself, having more space, etc. At first I looked at share houses, as I’ve previously made good experiences with that. In the end though I went for a monthly rental—choosing predictability over the potential of an awesome social environment at home.

Type of accommodation aside, just as last time when I rented something in Japan, there was a lot of messaging back and forth, checking documents, asking for more documents, etc. etc. until everything was sorted out. Having gone through that, I can now look forward to see how 駒込 compares to 茗荷谷.

VISA and immigration
The fact that my travel destination was Japan meant good and bad news. The bad news first: things would most likely be more of a hassle then if I had gone somewhere else. The reason being that Japan still is quite restrictive when it comes to inbound travel. The good news: Japan being this restrictive meant that me being on a business trip would allow me to enter the country in the first place.

The overall process looked as follows.

  • Book a flight and a hotel for the first night to be able to provide details on my plan to enter the country (which flight, where I’ll stay, etc.)
  • Provide this information and further details (passport copy etc.) to the host institute in Japan, which then applies to the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare to approve my plan of entering the country
  • The host institute receives an 受付済証 and sends it to me (luckily in PDF form and not via snail mail, like a CoE)
  • Together with the 受付済証 I apply for a visa at the Japanese consulate (which meant getting an appointment in time and hours of train rides b/c you have to submit your passport), wait, and then go there again to pick up my passport with the visa in it
  • Install the MySOS app and register your travel plans, visa details, and vaccination certificates (app turns from red to yellow)
  • Up to 72 hours before the flight, take a PCR test, have it return negative, and get the PCR test’s result in a format specified by the Japanese government
  • Register the PCR test’s result in the MySOS app (turns from yellow to green or blue depending on where you travel from)
  • Show the nice blue screen to get your boarding pass, show it to enter the plane, and then show it at immigration (here it gets properly checked against your passport, etc.)
  • Congratulations, you’re now in Japan :)

A nice little curiosity for me is that through this system you get a temporary visitor visa, which is a category I would otherwise probably not have been able to get due to the visa waiver regulation that applied to Germans entering Japan pre-COVID.

(Not) getting COVID
Because I was going to Singapore, then back to Germany for less than a week, and then to Japan, I had to get my visa for Japan before going to Singapore. The flight to Japan requiring a negative PCR test meant that I would want to minimize the risk of catching COVID by all means. Two international flights prior to the PCR test, including all the public transport around that, time at the airport etc., were not optimal. Because my last booster shot had been over half a year ago, I decided to get a second booster.

With four mRNA shots and the last one being super recent, properly wearing FFP2 masks, reducing unnecessary exposure to crowds, etc. I surely was OK, right? Welp … ten days after my booster shot I got a sore throat and fever. ^_^’ Self-test positive, follow-up PCR test positive; congratulations, you’ve got COVID. My best guess is that I got it on one of the long train rides to/from the consulate for getting my visa. Luckily my required self-isolation ended a few days before I’d depart for Singapore.

Now, with four mRNA shots and a recovery from a recent (so most likely Omicron) COVID infection I’d be save, right? RIGHT?! So the day before my flight to Japan was scheduled I got my PCR test done and waited … Result should arrive within 6 hours. Check after 3, not yet. Check after 5, not yet. The website says in 98% of cases the result is available within the given time. Only in very rare cases, such as when the result is ambiguous it can happen that the lab has to run the test once more. Check after 6 … not yet. YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME?! After 6 hours and 37 minutes I got my result:  … 

The flight
After I registered my PCR test and have the MySOS app turn fist green and then blue I was ready to get on my flight. I took a direct flight with ANA. A few observations and highlights:

  • Once I was on the plane it finally felt real that I was going to Japan again. Also, while the whole ordeal of restrictions and uncertainty had made the prospect of being able to enter Japan feel special during preparation, it now felt like the most normal thing in the world again.
  • It was refreshing to not feel perma-stressed about people around me coughing, not wearing their masks properly, etc.
  • I had booked an isle seat of the middle section (3-3-3 row layout). The seat next to me was not booked, and seat next to that one became free because the person that booked it moved to a different free seat. This meant that I had the whole middle section of a row for myself and could lie down to sleep. ^_^
  • Had chosen the vegetarian meal option hoping for some nice Japanese veggies, maybe something with tofu, seaweed, etc. Welp … they basically served carbs with carbs and a hint of tomato sauce. Because of a gastrointestinal condition I probably was well advised not to eat it, so I made peace with the thought of just grabbing some snack type food later. The flight attended collecting the trays noticed my meal was untouched and despite me saying I’d be fine with some snacks, went over and beyond to find me a proper alternative meal. In the end what I found in front of me was a business class vegetarian meal which, lo and behold, had plenty of veggies! (and was quite delicious).

After landing we first had to wait for the “go” from a quarantine officer, then let people with international connecting flights disembark first, and then go. From there to entering Japan things went super fast. First tons of Haneda hallways, then a checkpoint to present the MySOS app where you get a flimsy blue piece of paper, and more or less the usual immigration process from thereon.

An with that my long awaited albeit short reunion with Japan starts. Updates will be tagged #UTYO22. :)