This city, which was one of Japan’s most visited before the pandemic struck, is in dire need of tourism’s funds. However, it would prefer to avoid the Instagram-driven itineraries.
The Nishiki Market in Kyoto was flooded with tourists from all over the world, and the vendors of food often wished that they could stop the endless stream of photographers who were always underfoot.
Nobuyuki Hatsuda said, “We weren’t used to foreign tourists.” She is the leader of a business alliance that promotes the shopping street in the center. Here, vendors sell a wide variety of traditional Japanese food, all beautifully packaged and displayed.
Nishiki was a long-standing working market. The parade of tourists — who rummaged through carefully arranged merchandise, bargaining with shopkeepers, and blocking storefronts carrying their bags — disrupted the flow of daily commerce, driving away locals, who have long done their shopping in the street.
The pandemic struck. The money and tourists vanished, and the sellers began to reconsider their business models. Mr. Hatsuda sells kamaboko (a fish cake that is often shaped into delicate pink or white loaves).
He said, “We realized we couldn’t choose our customer”
Japan was the only major economy to have maintained stricter border controls than China. In 2021, Japan has received less than 800,000. Japan allowed only a small number of tourists in, despite other countries welcoming them back in numbers similar to their preandemic highs. Japan relaxed restrictions on travel for study and business in spring but, as of September, it still restricted tourism to package tour travelers who were willing to navigate a maze of bureaucratic red tape.
However, this will change soon. Fumio Kishida, the Prime Minister of Japan, stated last week that October would see further relaxations in border controls. This will include removing a daily entry cap and allowing tourists to travel on their own. Chinese tourists, which accounted for more that 30 percent of all inbound traffic in 2019, will not return to their homeland until Beijing loosens its Covid Zero policy.
Kyoto is slowly returning to tourism, and like many other popular tourist destinations around the world, it’s trying to figure out how to attract tourists without compromising the quality of life for the people who call this ancient capital home.
Kyoto’s government believes there is a solution. After years of encouraging “omotenashi,” a Japanese term for impeccable hospitality, it now wants to make more time for self-care.
“Kyoto’s not a tourist destination, it’s an area that values tourism,” Daisaku Kadokawa said in a recent interview at the city hall. He wore the formal kimono which has been a hallmark of his nearly 15 years in office.
Kyoto is home of many internationally recognized companies like Nintendo and Kyocera. It also has more Nobel Prize winners for science than any other Japanese city. It had grown dependent on the influx of tourists who walked, clattered, and bumped through its streets in the years before the pandemic.
Kyoto has been a popular tourist destination since ancient times. Prior to Japan’s opening to the outside world in 1851 pilgrims traveled from all over the country to see its over 2,000 shrines and temples. It was destroyed by the destruction of World War II and later turned into a living museum. This is a popular destination for school tours and tourists who want to see the country’s past and culture.
Nobody comes to Kyoto expecting to have a party. Visitors come to Kyoto looking for a special vision of Japan. This vision is found in the koi pools of carefully maintained temple gardens, the aroma of roasting brown tea (known as hojicha), and the sound of a geisha walking down cobbled alleyways wearing her wooden sandals.
However, in the years prior to the 2020 summer Olympics, the reality of modern travel began to undermine the city’s unique charms. Japan made an effort to promote inbound tourism and Kyoto saw a rise in foreign visitors.
According to government data, foreign visitors increased by more than three times the amount from the initial 10 million. Nearly a third of them visited Kyoto, where one in five tourists worked. Nearly 13 percent of city’s revenues came from taxes generated by the sector.
Locals became tired of what they called “tourism polluting.” Suitcases clogged the aisles and buses. On their way to work, eager tourists harassed maiko, the apprentice geishas, to take photographs. While searching for their Airbnb, lost tourists found their way into the homes of locals.
Particularly, social media has shaped the city’s tourism. It was not for the best.
Masutami Kawaguchi who runs private English tours of the city said that before the pandemic, his clients’ itineraries were almost completely determined by Instagram. Tourists became focused on the city’s most picturesque areas. People rushed to take photos at the top of the famously beautiful spots, such as the bamboo groves at Arashiyama and the orange gates that wind up the mountain behind Fushimi Inari temple. This created massive traffic jams and crowding in the surrounding area.
Kyoto’s polite inhabitants began to voice their displeasure with an uncharacteristic bluntness.
Nishiki had signs posted at the stalls warning tourists to not eat while walking. This is a common problem in Japan. Tired of all the noise and crowding, local shoppers began to go to supermarkets. Some long-standing sellers were forced to close.
Even Buddhist monks had to lose their cool.
Autumn and spring were the most difficult seasons for people to leave their homes, as they were surrounded by tourists who admired the pyrotechnic explosions of cherry blossoms and maple leaves. Kojo Nagasawa (secretary general of Kyoto Buddhist Federation), said that the city was “hardly livable”. He also included three of the most iconic temples in the city.
Since its inception, the group has called for moderation when it comes to Kyoto’s economic growth. It ran a full-page advertisement in The Times in 1991 opposing new high-rise hotels. This was a statement that would have devastating effects on Kyoto’s unique character.
Mr. Nagasawa stated, “Before it was known it, the economy had been nothing but tourism.” “The city didn’t know when enough was enough.”
In 2018, the city took action to address some of the most serious problems by cracking down on investors who bought traditional homes in residential areas and converted them into Airbnb rentals.
The damage caused by the pandemic
Japan closed its borders in 2020. The firehose of foreign currency was cut off and Kyoto, which has long struggled financially, was on the brink of bankruptcy.
The mayor said that the city was able to experience life without tourists.
Toshinori Takashi, director of the city’s tourism department, stated that at the start of the pandemic “people in the City were saying, ‘We’ve returned to the Old Kyoto, isn’t that great?”
However, the economic damages have made it more difficult for residents to “recognize the importance of tourism.”
Many businesses are still struggling to recover. It was almost impossible to make a reservation at any of the restaurants along Pontocho. This alleyway runs parallel to the Kamo River in Kyoto’s center. On a recent Saturday night, however, signs advertising “for lease” were visible in darkened shop windows. Many terraces that looked out onto the water were unoccupied.
Hotel The Mitsui Kyoto is a luxurious Western-style hotel that opened in late 2020. It has been operating well below capacity since the pandemic.
The hotel wants to stand out from the crowd by offering guests exclusive experiences with Kyoto’s most beautiful and less-traveled destinations as tourists return to Kyoto. The first of these is a private tour to Nijo Castle, which is conveniently located near the hotel. It is the residence of Japan’s first shogun of Edo Period, Tokugawa Ieyasu.
This is a type of tourism that the city is trying promote as part its new strategic plan to combat prepandemic crowding.
But Mr. Kusui understands that many people visit Kyoto with a specific itinerary in mind. “We can’t tell them to not go to someplace like Kiyomizu Temple,” said he. Referring to the famed Buddhist temple perched on a mountain on Kyoto’s eastern side.
Here are some polite suggestions
The government has no legal options to impose hard limits on visitors and hopes to dilute traffic so that it is less concentrated at the same places and times. Planners are also looking at ways to address problems such as crowded buses in cities that cause inconvenience for residents. The initiatives have mainly consisted of soft measures such as trying to educate Kyoto’s visitors about Kyoto’s traditional “morals” while hoping for the best.
Nishiki Market has decided to promote tourists in this spirit. It will exchange its list of “don’ts” for a “pleases”, and present a list with suggestions for enjoying the market.
Many in Kyoto are also trying to make the experience better for residents and tourists alike.
Kiyomizu Temple is one of the many institutions that has taken up the challenge to promote a new type of tourism that encourages visitors to see the city as a place where they can live and not as a tourist attraction.
The temple was famous before the pandemic for its congestion, as well as its stunning architecture and breathtaking view of the city below. It was a difficult task to push through the traffic jammed up temple’s graceful walkways in high season.
Seigen Mori, the temple’s abbot was already trying to make it more like it was meant to be, allowing visitors to enjoy it as it is intended, as a peaceful place to worship, but with limited success.
However, the last two-and-a half years have allowed him to “press reset” and explore new ways of engaging with visitors. He has been opening the temple to small groups at night, and taking the time to lead them in prayer or conversation.
He believes that the nighttime visit to the temple transforms visitors’ relationships with it. The disorienting press of the crowds is replaced by the chirr and aroma of incense, and the soft flickering of ancient statuary.
He said that he is open to welcoming guests from overseas, provided they are able to understand that the experience will be focused on contemplation.
Kyoto anticipates the inevitable return of guests with mixed feelings of longing and fear, according to Takeshi Otsuki (general manager of Japanese travel giant JTB).
“We hope the number of visitors will increase gradually and we have a soft landing,” said Mr. Otsuki.
Many people in the city are excited to welcome the new tourists.
Fuminari Shinbo is one of many retired people who started training before the Tokyo Olympics in order to give English tours to tourists coming to Kyoto. They spent hours memorizing English dialogues that they would never be able to use and spent hours learning them.
About 20 volunteers gathered at Fushimi Inari in late August for a dry run.
They were dressed in bright blue bibs and white letters advertising English-speaking tourists’ free assistance.
After the tour, Mr. Shinbo expressed excitement that he would be able finally to put all his hard work to use.
He said that he had so far been able “to practice on my grandson.”