Japan's summer holiday season started in full swing on Thursday, with reservations for domestic trains and flights leaving Tokyo reaching a peak as travelers took advantage of a lack of coronavirus restrictions for the first time in three years.
While more people headed abroad for their break, numbers are nevertheless far below the pre-COVID-19 era as new cases across the country remain elevated, hitting record highs in recent weeks.
Families flooded JR Tokyo Station, where Natsuki Kato, who was heading to the western prefecture of Hiroshima, said, "I want to avoid crowds for my three kids, and let them experience the country life as much as I can."
"My youngest is five years old, so I think my parents will be surprised at how much my child has grown," said the 44-year-old who was heading to her parent's home for the first time in three years.
Reserved seats for the outbound lines of the Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train, linking Tokyo and Osaka, were almost fully booked in the morning.
At Haneda airport in Tokyo, a long line of masked passengers waited at one of the security checkpoints for domestic flights. According to All Nippon Airways Co., most outbound flights were also fully booked in the morning.
"It makes us happy that the bustle of the Bon summer holiday period has come back for the first time in three years," said Akiko Oyamada, the airline's Tokyo airport general manager.
A 38-year-old woman from Yokohama who was on her way to see her relatives in the northeastern prefecture of Akita with her family said, "My grandmother died during the coronavirus pandemic. We'll finally be able to visit her grave."
The international lobby of Narita airport, east of Tokyo, was also packed with travelers.
"Although I am worried about COVID-19, I'm scheduled to depart Japan without a hitch," said Hiroko Sakamoto, 34, from Kawasaki who was due to fly to France to attend a sporting event. "I want to enjoy my stay and avoid getting sick or hurt."
Highways were also congested, with traffic jams over 30 kilometers long reported on the Kanetsu Expressway, which connects Tokyo and Niigata Prefecture, and the Tomei Expressway linking the capital and central Japan cities, according to the Japan Road Traffic Information Center.
Until next Wednesday, the number of traffic jams stretching over 10 km long is expected to quadruple from a year earlier, occurring a total of 353 times, operators said.
Meanwhile, reserved seats for the week from this Wednesday on Shinkansen bullet trains and local trains were up by 2.69 times from a year earlier, rising to around 60 percent capacity compared to 2018, before the global outbreak of the coronavirus, according to numbers released by Japan Railway companies last month.
Reservations for domestic flights, operated by All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines, are at about 80 percent of passenger levels in 2019.