Aug 17, 2017
News reports over the summer have brought to light complaints by locals in Kyoto over the number of tourists visiting the city. “Pollution by tourism” is leading to a reduction in the quality of life for some city residents so the claims read. We take a look if Kyoto remains worth a visit and if, indeed, we should be visiting at all.
Since Tokyo secured the Olympic Games for 2020 the entire nation of Japan seems to have been at pains to throw around the term “omotenashi” as people and business brace themselves for an influx of foreigners building up to, and on the occasion of, the world’s largest sporting circus.
“Omotenashi” - something along the lines of “hospitality”, only this being Japan, it has to have a meaning that is deeper or somewhat elusive to the foreigners sense of linguistics.
Whatever the true meaning of the term and however much the locals might think that hosting the Olympics is a good thing it was only going to be a matter of time before this spirit of omotenashi was put to the test. Every quarter statisticians provide fodder for articles shouting about about record tourist numbers and targets surpassed. In April of this year, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization, tourist numbers rose to 2.57 million, the largest number ever recorded for a solitary month, and we’re still about three years away from the 100m sprint finals.
For a major economic center like Tokyo, a capital like many around the world where the wheels of industry are turned by people who weren’t born there, these kind of numbers can be absorbed. They are maybe even expected as part of the development for any city that fancies itself a global player.
Would it be fair to say that most tourists when they think of Japan, think Tokyo and Kyoto? One wonders how many of the above 2.57 million made their way to the latter. At about a 10th the size of Tokyo (in terms of population) such numbers are more likely to stand out and it’s in Japan’s ancient capital, so often topping lists of the best city in the world to visit, that the spirit of omotenashi appears to be feeling the strain.
“Pollution by tourism” is a phrase that has been furnishing a number of articles published over the summer in Japan reporting on complaints made by Kyoto locals that tourist numbers are having a negative effect on their lives.
Now, it used to be the case that a destination might control (willingly or reluctantly) visitor numbers based simply on the availability of accommodation. Since the introduction of “minpaku”, accommodation in the form of private homes, such “regulation” has proved difficult to achieve in Kyoto with the suspicion that many such facilities are operating illegally. To throw out some numbers, an advisory panel to the city of Kyoto reported lodger numbers that topped 14 million in 2016, very roughly around 10 times the permanent population of the city. To help deal with the logistical challenges that come with such numbers, the city of Kyoto plans to roll out a lodging tax in 2018.
In some quarters, an influx of tourists is seen as a positive thing for Kyoto a city, like many in Japan, feeling the effects of population decline. However, such perspective typically leans towards the view that money is directly linked, in a positive way, to an overall quality of life. It’s a thought process that finds its base in a utilitarian ideal - more money = more happiness = the right thing to do. Where utilitarianism has always rang hollow though, is its cold measurement of happiness, one that spares little thought for the individual.
So it is then, that Kyoto locals are voicing their grievances, and if you’ve been to Kyoto recently you might be able to see why.
After a recent visit to Kyoto, I was initially going to blog about what a nightmare of a street Shijo-Dori is or at least the stretch east of the Kamo River leading to Yasaka Shrine. This vital artery of traffic funnels visitors to Kyoto from the main train station into such marquee attractions as can be found in the city’s Higashiyama district. It is a thoroughfare thoroughly pounded by platoons of flag-following tour groups and selfie-stick wielding path blockers where goods and services are put out to tender slapped up with signs to the effect, “It’s OK, English available.” and even old shopkeepers are forced streetside into the melee to hawk their wares like veterans of Bangkok’s Khao San Road. The location is Japan, the goods might even be Japanese, but the effect is just a desperate and ugly blur. It’s on Shijo Dori that we might see what best encapsulates the gripes of Kyoto locals - the phenomenon of tourism on mass - all consuming, feverish to photograph everything, desperate for the next experience, and caring little for the consequences of its actions.
Of course, such generalization isn’t at all fair on those individuals who travel lightly, conscientiously, and caringly. But to be even fairer, even tourists dislike other tourists, especially when they are in massive groups. And unfortunately this is likely the lingering effect, as much as locals and visitors alike might want to point out the virtues of the individual, in the end, they just merge into the quarterly stats, a part of the good and bad of tourism on such a scale as is being seen in Kyoto.
Is Kyoto still worth a visit?
Well, quite honestly, that depends on how you are around other visitors (and how much you can budget for a place to stay - trying to suppress a cynical chuckle), but even the staunchest of misanthropes would have a hard time not finding some part of the city that elicits a sense of wonder, enough to make a visit worthwhile. In this expat’s experience, Kyoto remains more than capable of this many times over. In fact, it’s a testament to the city that despite all the fanny-pack wearing foot traffic it still manages to amaze, intoxicate and haunt.
And right now, Kyoto represents a brutal reality that it would appear impossible to change - locations around the world that were popular for good reason, are becoming ever more so … for good reason. Unless we’re prepared to head further from the beaten path to find our thrills (in which case others will likely follow), this is just the way it is.
Should we continue to visit Kyoto?
It seems that this can be nothing but a personal choice. Where is there any divine right that can dictate otherwise? But has it come to the point that we should even be asking this question? Well, in this blogger’s opinion, one should always be asking such questions whatever the potential destination. Just as one should always be questioning one’s actions and behaviour upon any eventual arrival.
Of course, all of this rings a little selfish on my part. I know that I would still visit Kyoto at the drop of a hat, should the chance arise and I know that I wouldn’t be asking the locals for their permission or even to gauge a sense of whether or not I was welcome.
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Oooh, this is a tough one for me to answer. Would I still want to visit knowing the locals weren't keen...that's probably a no from me. I've already been there a couple of times so I'm not really compelled to go back, but I've always found when traveling that the places I have loved the most have been the ones where I've felt most warmly welcomed. If people don't really want me there I don't think I'd feel that warmth!