First a few words about flying into Japan. This is a long flight for most people. If you are coming from Europe or America, the flight will take upwards of ten hours, and that’s only if you are lucky enough to get a direct flight. Stopping somewhere for transit will increase that time to at least 16 hours, in some cases even more than 20. On the other hand, if you are stopping somewhere on the way flights will be significantly cheaper.
Get all the amenities that are available to make flying bearable that you can get your hands on, neck-pillows, earplugs and eye-masks are not a must but will make your prolonged existence in a sealed metal tube a lot more comfortable. People around you and airline crew will follow a different schedule than you, so being able to fade that out is valuable. Just be aware that, whatever you do, the flight will most likely be uncomfortable and you will be seriously exhausted by the end. If you are planning to do sightseeing or other activities after landing, keep the possible exhaustion in mind.
So, you are on the plane and about to land in the next couple of hours. The first sniff of Japanese bureaucracy comes wafting when you are still in the air. Airline crew will hand out paper slips from customs control, where you have to fill in your name, address where you will be staying in Japan (if you even remember that) and if you are carrying goods that would fall under customs regulation. At this point, you will probably notice that you are not allowed to bring meat (among other things) into the country and start sweating. That salami that you planned to distribute, to woo the hearts of your Japanese hosts (or girls, I won’t judge) suddenly seems like a not so great idea. But don’t worry, your luggage will most likely not be checked for such things and your tiny salami is not going to get you detained or deported.
Once you have landed, you will have to go through immigration control first. What happens here depends largely on the type of visa that you have and at what airport you land. Most international flights will land either in Tokyo (Narita or Haneda) or Osaka (Kansai Airport). Should you land at a smaller airport, your experience may vary.
If you have a short-term visa (90 days or less) a couple of friendly – or not so friendly, depending on your luck – old men will ask you to wait in a line. Remember this practice, waiting in line is somewhat of a Japanese national activity and vastly important to the citizens’ identity. When it is your turn, you will have your fingerprints and picture taken, most likely to prevent you from getting up to anything too nasty while you are in peaceful Japan, and then you have to wait in a different queue once more. This is the normal immigration queue, where at the end an immigration officer will grumpily stamp your passport and allow you to finally get out of the immigration area.
If you are one of the elite few who was able to get their hands on a long-term visa, the process will be different for you. You do not have to wait in line with the other travellers to get your prints and picture taken (though you most likely will be made to do that anyway, because the friendly/unfriendly old men do not know what to do in these cases). You will then be brought to a waiting area where you have to wait, sometimes for quite a long time. Once an immigration agent is available to see you, you will have your fingerprints and picture taken again and they will issue you your Residence Card (zairyuu kaado, 在留カード). This is your personal identity document for the time that you are in Japan, make sure to have it with you at all times, there are stories of people being fined hundreds of thousands of yen when they were caught without their card on their person, though I have never personally been stopped by Police or know of anyone who has been. At this stage, you will most likely be asked for an address again (if you even remember that), but as far as I know, it is not a big deal if you can only tell them a hotel name or nothing at all.
Once that’s over and you are through immigration, you are officially in Japan! Welcome, and enjoy but a few procedures await you still. You will now want to pick up your luggage, at bigger airports, there are overhead screens that show where the luggage for a specific flight can be picked up. Once you have your luggage, you will then head to customs. This is probably the most dangerous step in the process because that salami is at risk of being discovered. Unlike some other countries, you cannot simply walk through customs. You have to see an immigration officer and hand him the slip of paper that you filled out while still on the airplane, right? Whether you are asked to open your suitcase or not seems to be entirely up to chance. If you talk to the officer in Japanese, chances seem to be that your luggage is not going to get searched (completely based on personal experience). Just pull out your best keigo, appear confident and hope that the officer is not specifically trained to smell processed Italian meat products. Once that is over, you can take your suitcase and finally get out of the regulated space of the airport and into the arrival lobby.
For how to proceed from now, check out part 2 of our guide here!