What are the problems tourists face

Overtourism - Overtourism in Japan

The picture of the week shows a small section of the hundreds of red ones torii of the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine in Kyoto. A photo that really has to be in every Japan calendar. And at the same time one that can only be fired with a lot of luck, even more patience and a quick finger on the trigger. Because Kyoto is currently one of the most popular travel destinations in Japan, with exponentially increasing visitor numbers. The trend is steadily increasing. What this overtourism, or overtourism as it is called in English, is doing with Kyoto and all of Japan and what effects this in turn has for you as a tourist, that is what it should and must be about today.

Japan's tourism boom

Ten years ago, in 2010, a total of 8,611,175 foreigners visited Japan, just over 6 million of them as tourists. 124,360 of them were Germans. (Source: Japan National Tourism Organization)

While the number of German tourists has only just doubled since then, we are talking about a five-fold increase if the 40 million visitors targeted by Prime Minister Shinzō Abe actually flock to the land of smiles in 2020. In 2019 it was already around 32 million, the additional 8 million in 2020 are expected through the Summer Olympics. (Source: https://www.tourism.jp/en/tourism-database/stats/inbound)

It has to be said that Japan is generally a country of tourism. Because nobody likes to travel the country as much as the Japanese themselves. New Years, extended weekends, the non-working Golden Week in May ... every opportunity is used, a beautiful onsen town, a great shrine or temple or even the Okinawa Islands in the far south, or Visit Hokkaidō in the north.

The first tourist information center was opened in 1927 at the Kyoto station. Today you can find them at almost every manned train station, regardless of whether the place is still unknown to us Europeans, inconspicuous or small. The glorious, splendid times of domestic tourism are long gone due to the poor economic situation in the country since the 1990s, but many cities are familiar with tourism and have the relevant information and appropriate infrastructure ready for visitors. But not for 40 million additional tourists a year.

Kyoto is no longer a recommended travel destination for me

Thinking of Kyoto has made me uncomfortable. When friends or acquaintances ask me for advice on a possible travel route for a first visit to Japan, I honestly say that I cannot currently recommend visiting Kyoto with a clear conscience.

There are two reasons for this: First, it's not fun to rummage through the crowds and hardly see any of Kyōto's beauty. The Fushimi Inari Taisha is just one famous example. I visited the shrine in October 2014 (autumn is now the main travel time for Japan next to the cherry blossom) and was able to take relaxed photos of the beautiful wooden gates. In mid-January 2018, in winter and thus in the off-peak season, photos were out of the question. I hardly had to move myself to get out of the spot. The masses of people carried you away. Acute risk of ramming elbows and rucksacks.

I visited the UNESCO World Heritage Shrine Jishu Jinja, but I can hardly remember it because I didn't see anything of the shrine itself for all the tourists. No fewer people crowd next to it on the famous balcony of the Kiyomizudera Temple. There is no longer any trace of a religious atmosphere.

To complain about other tourists as a tourist sounds quite inconsistent and like complaining on a high level. But what I would like to say is that a visit to the old imperial city almost only serves the purpose of ticking the Japan bucket list. In any case, the main tourist attractions have not been fun for years. Especially the way in between. Because Kyōto's public transport system, which is based almost entirely on buses, is hopelessly busy.

And then there is the other and far more important side of the coin: What effects does this mass tourism have on the city's residents?

Kyoto and Overtourism

Kyōto had a total of 52 million visitors in 2018. Around a third of them stay for at least one night, the rest consists of day visitors. The city's tourism authority is benevolent of these numbers, but not that the proportion of domestic tourists has fallen by 7 million annually since 2015. The Japanese themselves avoid their old imperial city because of the foreign tourists.

The residents of Kyoto themselves are losing out because they cannot avoid their own city until the boom is over. You will find yourself faced with full buses and subways and crowds in places of everyday life like Nishiki Market. The traders there suffer from the fact that tourists are one-time buyers, if at all, and the regular local customers no longer visit the market halls because of the large number of tourists.

The many tourists also lead to a hotel boom, which makes property prices in Kyoto some of the most expensive in all of Japan. Young Japanese families are forced to move to the countryside in order to be able to afford a place to stay. No wonder that Kyoto is strong against so-called minpaku 民 泊 is going on. In other words, accommodations in residential areas that are rented to tourists by the day and sometimes room by room via platforms such as AirBnB. As everywhere in the world, living space is blocked by this. Not to mention the nuisance this creates for regular residents. Day and night, arriving and departing travelers with wheeled suitcases rattle across the sidewalk, the wrong bells are ringed in search of accommodation, the anonymity of strangers leads to complete unrestrainedness in terms of volume and cleanliness.

Respectful travel

Of course, not every tourist behaves inconsiderately, loudly and free of all common sense when it comes to the perfect Instagram shot. But more tourists means proportionally more of the kind described, which unfortunately also exists.

So it happens that 4kg of plastic waste was found in the belly of a dead deer in Nara, although it is strictly forbidden to feed the animals anything other than the special rice crackers sold on site. (You can read more about Nara's deer and the tourism problem on The Hangry Stories read)

That geishas and female candidates in Kyoto cannot take a step without being photographed and even touched without being asked. Not to mention the vandalism caused by names and “I was here!” Messages being carved into the bamboo of the famous Arashiyama forest.

Or that the iconic red shrine gate in front of the holy island of Miyajima urgently needed (and is currently being) restored because it is no longer just exposed to normal decay due to the tides, but tourists began to ram coins into the wood of the gate posts as lucky charms.

And that I, as the only western tourist in the small town of Tamatsukuri Onsen, got into conversation with a Japanese man who was initially very enthusiastic about speaking to a German, until the conversation finally turned and he complained about the many tourists who left their rubbish everywhere . And that of all things in Japan, the country that is so concerned about waste separation and cleanliness. At one point his wife patted his arm and gently remarked, "I think you are complaining to the wrong person."

What does that mean for your trip to Japan?

Elisa, do you want to tell me, I can't go to Japan now because it's already too full? - No I do not want that. Japan is my life and my love and I hope many people see this great country. However, with understanding and respect.

For me, respect is the top priority when traveling. It's just not okay to briefly do something inappropriate or even forbidden. Not just quick for that tiny photo. It is not okay to leave your trash lying around or to be loud because nobody knows or understands you anyway. Leave your selfie stick and drone at home. They have no place on your trip to Japan (and are banned almost everywhere anyway).

And Kyoto? If you will only come to Japan once in a lifetime and therefore of course you want to see Kyoto, try to be flexible and think alternatively. It often helps to be out early or late in the evening so as not to pulsate through the streets with the crowds. Avoid weekends and holidays, rent a bike and go exploring away from the top 5 in the city. There are so many small shrines and temples to discover. Leave the red ones at Inari Mountain torii lie on the left and take another path up the mountain. It's worth it, because shrines, fox statues, shrine gates and bamboo groves await you there too. Only you rarely meet other tourists.

And if you really want to see Japan to get to know the country and its people, then avoid Kyoto and dare to tread other paths. Go hiking on the Izu Peninsula, spend a week in Okayama and take small day trips from there, and in two to three weeks take a close look at the prefectures of Yamaguchi, Shimane and Tottori along the wonderful San-in coast. Rent a campervan and tour the north of the main island of Honshū or take a four-week tour around Shikoku.

Like me, you will fall in love with Japan and be happy to meet the real soul of this country. And not just the highlights from other people's Instagram accounts. Japan deserves that. And you too!

Sources and further links

Kyoto and the Peril of Overtourism: Interview with Mayoral Candidate Murayama Shōei | Nippon.com

Overtourism in Japan: Becoming A Victim of its Own Success?

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