Travelers flooded airports and major train stations in Japan on Friday to head to their hometowns in the first New Year holiday season since the government downgraded the legal status of COVID-19 to the same category as seasonal flu.

To ease overcrowding, Central Japan Railway Co. and West Japan Railway Co. have made many of their shinkansen bullet train seats reservation-only during the year-end and the New Year period for the first time.

Travelers prepare to board a Shinkansen bullet train at Tokyo Station on Dec. 29, 2023. (Kyodo)

At the bustling Tokyo Station, announcements warned travelers of the need to reserve their seats for the fastest-traveling shinkansen, the Nozomi.

"It is convenient because we don't have to line up when every seat is for reservation," said Tomoko Hino, 42, heading to her hometown in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture, in southwestern Japan with her family.

All Nippon Airways Co. said 99 percent of its domestic flights departing Haneda airport in Tokyo on Friday were booked with some 55,000 passengers in total, while Japan Airlines Co. said its flights were also almost fully booked.

"I want to relax and spend the year-end and the New Year with all of my relatives," said Michiko Otsuki, a 37-year-old Tokyo resident traveling to Okayama Prefecture in western Japan.

On Dec. 12, six major Japanese railway companies announced the number of reservations for seats for their shinkansen and other trains totaled 3.5 million between Dec. 28 and Jan. 4, up 44 percent from the same period a year ago.

The train operators as well as JAL and ANA expect the return rush of travelers to peak next Wednesday.

Japan has seen a sharp rise in both domestic and international travelers since the government downgraded the legal status of COVID-19 in May and greatly relaxed health restrictions after three years of dealing with the coronavirus.

Rules on face masks were lifted in March to let individuals decide whether to wear them in public spaces.

The departure hall for domestic flights at Tokyo's Haneda airport is crowded with travelers on Dec. 29, 2023. (Kyodo)