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Looking at a lemon and no high-fives: Flying into Tokyo for the Olympics

Matthew Mohan, who is covering the Tokyo Olympics for CNA, describes how getting into Japan against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic was more straightforward than he expected.

SINGAPORE: The instruction was to salivate. 

And to help me with this important task was the picture of a lemon and another of what looked like sour plums tacked to the wall.

Ushered by a smiling staffer into a cubicle somewhere within the bowels of Tokyo's Narita Airport, I was handed a plastic funnel and a vial.

This would be my first COVID-19 test while in Japan. And one very important vial of spit.


Before landing in Tokyo, the process of getting the necessary official approval to enter the country to report on the Olympic Games has been no easy task.

The most stressful process was the submission of an activity plan - a document that lists which venues journalists intend to visit while within the Olympic "bubble". Without the approval of this plan from the necessary stakeholders, entry into the country could possibly be an issue.

Like some others, my plan was eventually approved - 24 hours before my departure from Singapore. 

READ: Olympics chief admits 'sleepless nights' over troubled Tokyo Games

This was an immense relief, given how I had heard talk on Twitter of arrivals being sent home or forced into a 14-day quarantine if found without proper documentation.

In order to be allowed entry into Japan, we also needed to have two test certificates proving we were COVID-19 free. One test had to be done within 96 hours of departure and the other within 72. These tests had to be done at medical institutions on an approved list.

Those with Olympic accreditation passes wait at Narita Airport. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

So with these boxes ticked and my mountain of documents printed, I found myself bleary-eyed but at the same time wide awake at Narita International Airport at 8am on Wednesday morning (Jul 21).

Those with Olympic accreditation passes were first ushered to a sitting area of foldable chairs, where volunteers helped to ensure our documentation was all in order. 

They also made sure that we had downloaded a health reporting and tracking smartphone application. This app would be key as we passed through various checkpoints.

Given my arrival time and the lack of flights into Tokyo early that morning, I was able to clear this first step rather quickly.

Next, we were ushered to another socially distanced sitting area where we were greeted by a rather interesting sign which read "High five prohibited".  Our documentation was then checked here by staff behind perspex shields, before we moved on to the spit test. 


It turned out that I didn't really need the help of the lemon, and handing off my vial of spit to another staff member, I was ushered down a long corridor to the area where one waits for COVID-19 test results.

I'd heard that the process of waiting for the outcome could take hours. So I came prepared, armed with my Netflix playlist and some snacks.

But I was pleasantly surprised - it took about an hour for my number to be called and my negative result to be confirmed. I was soon handed a pink slip, proving that I was COVID-19 free.

A slip certifying that journalist Matthew Mohan was COVID-19 free. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

After clearing another series of checks as well as customs and immigration, I eventually emerged victorious from the terminal. 

In total, the various checks and procedures took about three hours, a much shorter time than I had originally anticipated. Given the COVID-19 situation in Japan and the sheer number of people entering the country, it is understandable that such measures are put in place at the ports of entry.

What was most commendable were the Tokyo 2020 staff and volunteers, who handled the new arrivals with grace and poise. There were instructions on what to do every step of the way and you could see how everyone went go out of their way to help.

Dealing with tired, frustrated, bewildered travellers is never easy, and these staff and volunteers displayed immeasurable patience.

READ: Team Singapore at the Tokyo Olympics: What and who to look out for?

The opening ceremony on Friday will kick off an Olympics that will be unlike any other. Stands will be empty, tests will be conducted and athletes will be distanced.

But at the same time, there is a sense of familiarity to these unfamiliar Games. 

The best in the world will compete, and medals will be won. There are some things that the pandemic cannot change.

After all, as those who are privileged enough to attend or compete in the Games will understand - when Tokyo 2020 gives you lemons, you make the best of it.

As Singapore’s Olympics Network, Mediacorp will be bringing you the widest coverage of Tokyo 2020. Go to for more details.

Source: CNA/mt


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