Photo by Boudewij Huysmans from Unsplash

Kyoto is not a theme park! Local gov’t pushes back against badly behaving tourists

Sakura season is here! And few other places in the world make for a better backdrop for hanami (cherry blossom viewing) than Kyoto, Japan’s old capital.

With its ancient temples, cobblestone streets, and stunning nature, there’s little doubt why the city is one of Japan’s major tourist draws. There is, however, one other cultural treasure that’s unique to Japan and remains to be Kyoto’s most captivating sight: ornately clad geishas and maiko (apprentice geisha).

Kyoto becomes even more beautiful during cherry blossom season. Photo by
Amy Tran from Unsplash

But reports of badly behaving tourists, now called “geisha paparazzi,” who have been seen “tugging at women’s kimonos, chasing them around with cameras and smartphones, pulling out their hair ornaments (kanzashi), and even hitting them with cigarette butts” have become a cause for alarm. Other tourists have also taken to taking photos of private residences without the owners’ consent.

In response to this troubling trend and to protect the privacy and safety of its residents, the Kyoto government prohibited photography in certain locales in 2019 and imposed a JPY10,000 (P3,700) fine for those who violated these guidelines, as stated on Time Out. 

These efforts were inadequate, though, as the onslaught of tourists proved difficult to contain, compelling the local government to enhance its strategies against tourists behaving inappropriately.

Some badly behaving tourists were seen chasing geisha around with cameras and smartphones, and even throwing cigarette butts at them. Photo by Boudewijn Huysmans from Unsplash.

That’s why starting this April 2024, multilingual signs will be installed beside private roads in Gion, Kyoto’s famed geisha district, to warn trespassers of the JPY10,000 penalty for unauthorized entry.

Isokazu Ota, an executive member of the council was quoted in an article in The Japan Times saying, “We will ask tourists to refrain from entering narrow private streets in or after April.”

“We don’t want to do this, but we’re desperate,” he added.

Starting April 2024, visitors will be banned from entering private alleys in Gion, Kyoto’s popular geisha district. Photo by Boudewijn Huysmans from Unsplash.

In December, a Gion district council composed of residents urged the city of Kyoto to tackle the issue, saying their neighborhood “is not a theme park.”

Gion’s main Hanamikoji Street, which is considered public, will remain open to tourists.

In a separate article in The Japan Times, it was reported that Japan welcomed 25 million tourists in 2023, the largest number since 2019, a boost to the nation’s fragile economy.

The return of large numbers of visitors to Japan is good news for an economy that shrank at the quickest pace since the height of the pandemic. A weak yen has helped boost tourists’ spending power, making Japan a more affordable destination. 

Mount Fuji has also been inundated with tourists, prompting authorities to charge JPY2,000 ($13) each hiker and enforcing a visitor cap. Photo by JJ Ying from Unsplash

However, with this also comes throngs of tourists, putting at risk many of its famous destinations to overtourism.

In fact, it’s not only Kyoto which has made a move to regulate the number of tourist influx. Starting this summer, hikers using the most popular route to climb Mount Fuji will be charged ¥2,000 ($13) each, with numbers capped to avoid overcrowding and improve safety.

A UNESCO World Heritage site and an icon of Japan, Mt. Fuji has seen in recent years abhorrent “human traffic jams,” garbage-strewn footpaths, and even “inappropriately attired hikers.” For many Japanese, this is more than just a tourist problem, it’s a desecration of a sacred place. 

We can only hope that these new set of restrictions could help these remarkable destinations break free from the threat of overtourism. It’s also a reminder for us to be reaponsible tourists wherever we go.

The new lifestyle.