Six-odd months to the Tokyo Olympics and it's still anyone's guess whether they will actually take place. On the one hand, the Japanese government and the Games organisers are bullish on things going ahead, with safety rules in place; on the other, those living in Japan are less enthusiastic. In one poll last week of 1,200 citizens, one-third wanted it cancelled and the same proportion voted for a further postponement.
We asked Indian table-tennis player G Sathiyan - who's been in Tokyo since late November, participating in the T-League for the Okayama Rivets - about life in the Olympic host city.
Ghost airport and crowded streets
I landed in Tokyo on November 24 and walked into what looked like an online classroom. There were long rows of chairs lined up neatly along the travelators. I'd never seen anything like this before. It was a complete ghost airport, almost deserted. I won't lie, it was very, very scary. Despite the whole plethora of pre-flight protocols - Covid tests prior to boarding and a medical form signed by a doctor in Chennai from a prescribed lab - I had to undergo another Covid test once I landed.
Immigration done, I headed to the quarantine hotel in my pre-arranged cab. You're not allowed to get off a flight and just hop on a metro or take any mode of public transport until you've served the isolation period.
I was allowed to practice for two hours every day during my 14-day quarantine period and I could also visit groceries, restaurants and coffee shops within a 1 km radius. The room at the hotel was really tiny with just enough space for a single bed and a small desk. Occasionally, within the 1 km stretch outside, I'd go for a run on the streets, just to get some sort of a workout. The streets were really crowded and you couldn't tell that the airport belonged to the same city. They were worlds apart.
Packed metros, wary citizens
The city looks pretty normal. Everyone is wearing masks, everything is being wiped clean and disinfected wherever you go, whether its restaurants or other public places. Social distancing is being strictly followed with proper seating gaps, and masks are compulsory. You know how disciplined the Japanese generally are and even more so now. But it's not that people have locked themselves indoors. All shops and malls are open, the metros are packed. It's a busy, bustling Tokyo. I haven't really interacted with locals outside the sporting community, but players and coaches, of course, want the Games to happen. For Olympic-bound athletes of Japan, the quarantine has been reduced to five days already, after which they can train as usual. It tells you how serious they are about the Olympics. They don't want athletes to lose any time.
International travel is very restricted here at the moment. Only work visas and very special cases are being allowed, that too not from every country. The unknown quantity is how the country will respond to people coming in from all over the world. It's what perhaps scares residents. People here are still wary about travel - even within their own country. I heard from one of my club mates how fares had been slashed by almost half to encourage people to take flights from one city to another within Japan. The government really wants residents to get moving but the fear of the virus still lurks among people.
Tokyo's tight squeeze
To me, Tokyo looks ready. Posters announcing the Olympics are everywhere, huge billboards, digital screens, and the Japanese government is really going all the way to make sure they host the Games. The Japanese players are undergoing antigen tests every week and they are receiving every kind of funding they need.
The major challenge for Tokyo, though, is the lack of space. It is a particularly acute problem in Japan's metropolitan centres, and the capital city is really crammed. Add to it thousands of athletes and support staff trooping in from all over the world for the Olympics, along with the social distancing required in accommodation and transport, and it seems like a logistical nightmare. The organising committee may have to figure a way to space out athletes in various events. Even the dining areas need to be factored in. I'm not sure how they're going to do it.
If we compare it with Europe and countries in the West [I've travelled in some parts of Europe and spent time playing in Poland], Japan is probably best placed to host the Olympics at the moment. On Thursday [December 17], Tokyo had around 822 positive cases, but overall, they have the virus under control to a large extent here. When people hear that I'm from India, they have a worried look on their faces. They tell me how they read news reports of the virus wave being terrible back in the country and the high number of deaths. We're doing better now, I try to assure them.
When I was in Poland recently, most people weren't even wearing masks. It wasn't compulsory either. But here at the T-League, you wear a mask even when you're not playing, and on the bench. No spectators are allowed, but the energy of the teams is crazy. It's hard sometimes for me to keep up. After my isolation period, I moved to a hotel near the Butterfly Training Centre, and that's where I am now. I have played eight matches in 14 days, but more than anything else, it's the quality of training and the hospitality that I'm loving the most. I'm the underdog here, sparring and going up against top-20 guys. I tell myself my 14-day quarantine was worth every second.
Rings of hope
Whenever I visit Japan, Google Translate is my most-used app. My club surprised me with a very thoughtful gift this time - a Pocketalk, it's a two-way translator, half the size of a phone, that converts anything you speak into audio and text. It translates close to 100 languages and it's been a life saver for me here. Among my team members, barring two players, most others - including the coach and manager - don't speak much English.
On one of the non-match days, I went out to explore the city a bit. It was just after the Olympic symbol was refurbished and reinstalled at the Odaiba Marine Park water area on December 1. The five rings were lit up, with the Rainbow Bridge in the background. I got a kind stranger to click a picture of me with it. It was a very special and emotional moment for me to just stand there alone by the bay and look at the rings. My Olympic dream suddenly seemed so close and real, and I know I will do everything I can to be at the Games.
At this moment, I can't ask for a better place or a better way to end a really tough year. And I want to be back here in six months.