Geisha spotting, Kyoto crowds and the thorny issue of over-tourism

Like this post? Help us by sharing it!

Alastair Donnelly, one of our founders, shares his thoughts on over-tourism in Kyoto

“In the past week there have been some striking headlines regarding tourism to Kyoto. “Kyoto to ban tourists from Geisha district over ‘out of control’ behaviour” was just one of many highlighting the recent decision of the local council in Gion to try and limit access to tourists. The reports feature some of the bad behaviour that has been observed (chasing geisha down the street, touching their kimono, taking pictures without consent) and the negative impact that a surge in tourism following the pandemic has had on local residents and businesses.

“For years Japan has used the striking image of Kyoto maiko (trainee geisha) with her distinctive white painted face, elaborate hair piece, and stunning kimono, to promote tourism to the country. The image of a maiko has become synonymous with the country and is one of the first things that comes to mind when thinking of Japan. Kyoto City has run numerous campaigns over the years featuring maiko.  

“At InsideJapan Tours, we have also used maiko imagery extensively to promote our ‘cultural adventure’ style of travel. The ‘floating world’ of the geisha holds a genuine mystique and wonder that can be hard to find in a modern world where over-exposure on social media is the norm. The image of a maiko perhaps captures the sense of what Japan means to the outside world better than any other – beautiful, refined, mysterious, and inaccessible. It is, therefore, not surprising it has become ubiquitous.  

“As tourism to the country surged in the years leading up to the pandemic and continues to climb post-Covid, more and more people have been drawn into the city – and to the couple of square kilometres of Gion and surrounding Geisha districts, with millions of people passing through every year.  

“This brought vibrancy and life to what was considered, in the post-bubble period of the late 90s and early 2000s, to be a declining neighbourhood. Geisha culture was on the wane, with fewer young women wanting to join the profession and a declining number of clients willing or able to spend the sums of money required to regularly enjoy being entertained at a tea house. Thousands of tiny members clubs and karaoke bars closed following the collapse of Japan’s asset bubble in the mid-90s. The party was over and Gion was facing a long and seemingly inevitable decline.  

Inbound tourism has helped to arrest that decline. It has brought money into the city and into Gion. It has supported restaurants and bars, shops and theatres, and increased the tax take, providing vital revenue for a city government that has long struggled with its budgets. It has raised the profile of Geisha culture both outside of and within Japan and, in doing so, helped stabilise what is a genuinely unique part of Japan’s and Kyoto’s cultural heritage.  

Stores and shops in Gion
A street with stores and tea houses in Gion, the most famous geisha district, before the crowds

“But with the influx of millions of non-Japanese visitors, it is inevitable that negative consequences are being felt alongside the benefits. Japanese culture is multi-layered and can feel quite inaccessible. There are lots of unspoken rules and assumed understanding and it is generally on those visiting to find out for themselves what the expected etiquette is. Whereas a lot of money and effort has been invested in bringing visitors to the city, very little has been put towards cultural education and making Japanese culture more accessible.  

“Kyoto has always had a lot of tourists. Years before Japan became a mainstream destination for inbound tourism in the 2010s, Kyoto was hosting nearly 40m room nights a year, primarily with domestic tourists. Every child in Japan will visit Kyoto during their school years and Kyoto is still the number one destination in the country for Japanese to visit for tourism. In fact, Kyoto has been one of the most visited cities in the world for decades. This peaked in 2019, with Kyoto City welcoming 53m visitors with 13.6m staying overnight. Without a doubt this is a lot of people to be handled by a city with a population of just under 1.5m. However, of these just 17% of total visitors were from overseas and only 29% of those staying overnight, which demonstrates that the issue of pure visitor numbers is not driven solely by inbound tourists. The expectation is that this number will be exceeded in 2024 as both domestic and overseas tourism fully recovers from the pandemic years.  

“The more extreme examples of bad behaviour are unusual and do not represent the vast majority of visitors. But the negative impact of the sheer volume of tourists visiting Kyoto is undeniable. The other reality is that visitor numbers are not likely to fall any time soon. Japan is firmly on the radar as a tourism hot spot and Japanese culture continues to increase in its reach across the globe, further driving interest in visiting. Inbound tourism is also a key pillar of the Japanese government’s economic policy. The question, therefore, has to be what can be done about the situation? How can the negative impacts be mitigated and what should the long-term strategy be for making tourism sustainable and a driver of positive impact? 

“At an individual level for people visiting Kyoto, just being aware of the issues, the options available, and of local cultural etiquette will make a big difference. Pay attention to signs indicating restrictions on private property or taking photos and respect those. Kyoto even has its own ‘code of behaviour for tourists, although this has not been well-publicised. Learning some simple greetings and basic Japanese phrases also goes a long way towards demonstrating a desire to participate in the culture and not just observe. 

Cultural sensitivity is key if you encounter maiko walking through Kyoto’s streets

“Kyoto is a remarkable city with many different districts, none of which attract the same huge crowds at a singular time as those that congregate in Gion. Although it is a dream of many people to see a maiko in real life (and I very much understand why), consider whether it is worth spending the extra for a private tea ceremony experience or evening drinks with a maiko in attendance rather than joining the throngs at dusk who pack the streets of Gion. It isn’t cheap (although joining a small group significantly reduces the cost) but the memory of this experience will last a lifetime. It presents the opportunity to be on the inside, not on the outside looking in. Geisha are not objects to be fetishised, but individuals with a story. They are professional performance artists who take great pride in their artistry and one thing can be guaranteed is an enjoyable time! A less expensive option in spring and autumn is to plan your visit to coincide with the geisha dances. This is a spectacular performance with scores of maiko taking part. It is a longstanding part of the Kyoto calendar and to join is to participate in a little slice of Kyoto geisha life.  

“Away from Gion and geisha culture, there are some basic ways that visitors to the city can minimise the negative impacts of overcrowding. Kyoto has a congestion problem and the large volume of tourists has only exacerbated this (although having been travelling to Kyoto for 25 years I can say it has always been terrible in this regard). The subway system is not particularly extensive, with only a couple of lines, but planning your day to make use of this will keep you off the roads, especially in central areas. Many major sights (such as Nijo Castle and Gion itself) can be reached by subway and then on foot. The JR (Japan Rail) lines also provide road-free access to many famous and lesser-known sites. By planning each day around one area of the city often you only need transport to and from the district while walking for the rest of the day.  

“If you are partial to a little additional exercise with your sightseeing, then perhaps the best way to explore Kyoto is by bicycle and on two feet. There are several bicycle hire shops available near the station but it is best to reserve in advance. Helmets and locks are provided so all you need is a map (if you are old-school like me) or your smart phone and off you go.  

“One thing we always recommend is moving beyond the A-list sights. The Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) is certainly impressive. But if you have to share the view with five hundred other people jostling for position to take the same photograph across the lake at the same vantage point, then you can imagine how the experience might be tarnished somewhat. Part of the beauty of Kyoto are the hidden surprises round every corner. Kyoto has over 2000 shrines and temples, many of which barely receive any visitors and yet boast historic temple buildings and immaculate gardens where you can feel the true spirit of the ancient capital. Shisen-do, Enkoji, Ganko-an, Shoden-ji – these are not the staples guidebooks and social media feeds but offer uncrowded, peaceful sites of beauty and personal reflection. Take your time. Sit on the temple veranda, breathe deeply, survey the view and enjoy just existing in the moment.  

Temples along the Philosopher's path in Higashiyama
Temples along the Philosopher’s path in Higashiyama

“Perhaps the most famous site in Kyoto is Kiyomizu-dera, the temple built on stilts clinging to the Higashiyama hillside and boasting a far-reaching panoramic view of the city and beyond to the distant skyscrapers of Osaka. The first 50-seater coaches park up at around 9am but the temple actually opens from 6am. I’ve taken several jetlagged early morning strolls through the Higashiyama district to and arrived for opening at 6am. You hear the bells and the chants of monks travelling on the breeze. You see locals washing their doorsteps and getting ready for the day ahead. There is bird song and the gentle sounds of the city waking up and starting to come alive. By 7:30 the streets are busy with traffic and by 9:00 the alleyways and lanes of the area are beginning to fill up with tourists. But that early morning time is magical and will never be over touristed because there just aren’t that many people who will get out of bed at 5am! But for those who set their alarms and forego those extra hours of shuteye, the reward is a once in lifetime experience.

“Individuals can make a difference by being conscious of the local community. By planning your days with this in mind, it is possible to not just mitigate negative impact but also have a more enjoyable and richer experience of the city. But long term, dealing with ever-increasing numbers of visitors needs coordinated strategy that brings together all stakeholders. Local communities need their voices heard. The views of those who are dependent on tourism for their livelihood need taking into account alongside those who may just feel the negative impact of tourism on their lives. Non-Japanese tour operators such as InsideJapan Tours need to be engaged alongside Japanese businesses both large and small. And importantly national government strategy cannot be at odds with local approaches. The compromises that are necessary on all sides need to be acknowledged but by working collaboratively it is possible to create a model of tourism for Kyoto that is sustainable for the long-term. 

“At Inside Travel Group and as a wider industry, we know we have a responsibility to the destinations we love. We have a responsibility to the local communities that welcome our guests. And we have a responsibility to everyone who loves exploring different cultures and connecting with the people who make those places what they are. We don’t get everything right, but we care deeply and will continue to do what we can to be a force for good. Tourism does bring challenges to many places. But I sincerely believe that done right, travel makes the world a better place.”

Like this post? Help us by sharing it!