Terrie's Take 933 (Tourism Edition) - Kyoto: Overcrowded and Unpleasant - Something Needs to be Done

Terrie's Take terrie at mailman.japaninc.com
Mon Feb 26 09:52:30 JST 2018

* * * * * * * * TERRIE'S (TOURISM) TAKE - BY TERRIE LLOYD * * * * * *
A bi-weekly focused look at the tourism sector in Japan, by Terrie 
Lloyd, a long-term technology and media entrepreneur living in Japan.

Tourism Sector Edition Sunday, Feb 25, 2018, Issue No. 933

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+++ Kyoto: Overcrowded and Unpleasant - Something Needs to be Done

As I write this, I am returning on a Nozomi shinkansen after doing a 
speaking engagement in Kyoto for the orphans organization Ashinaga 
(better known as "Daddy Long Legs"). While in Kyoto, I spent a day 
visiting some major tourist destinations, to get a feel for how things 
have changed over the last couple of years, particularly how Japan's 
premier tourist destination is coping with the masses of foreign 
visitors. And what masses there were. On some streets, such as Shijo 
Dori in Gion, less than half those cramming the sidewalks were Japanese.

There is no formal estimate of how many foreign tourists are visiting 
Kyoto each year, although the number actually staying is known and was 
3.16m people in 2015. Given the increases in national tourism, and Kyoto 
certainly follows the trend, we can guesstimate that about 7m foreign 
visitors stayed in Kyoto in 2017. In addition, there are the many 
tourists who stay in outlying areas and Osaka and Nagoya, then travel in 
to see the sights for the day. Our guess is that this increases the 
number of foreigners on the streets to around 12m a year. Surprisingly, 
this is still only about 25% of the number of Japanese visiting the city 
annually, but then the Japanese are probably there for business and 
not-so-visible tourism.

The flood of tourists has been good economically for Kyoto, with an 
estimated JPY1trn (now likely to be around JPY2.5trn) being spent there 
annually. You can see the effects of the cash, with a tremendous amount 
of new building, loads of new European luxury cars on the road, and 
well-stocked high-end stores in the main shopping areas. If you're a 
merchant and you live outside the city center, you're a happy camper.

The unhappy campers are those residents living downtown, especially 
those around major attractions such as the big temples, and Gion and 
Pontocho. Here, the press of humanity is unrelenting, the grinding sound 
of suitcase wheels fills the streets, and even getting in the car to go 
to the supermarket is a challenge. Apparently the number of residents in 
Higashiyama Ward, home to Kodaiji and Sanjusangendo, has fallen from 
80,000 twenty years ago to around 40,000 today. And, unfortunately for 
everyone, those left in the area are defensive, grumpy, old people who 
hate tourists. They are also the same people who have caused Kyoto to 
effectively block Airbnb in their area (Kyoto is mooting allowing Airbnb 
only during January and February each year!).

[Continued below...]

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As I walked around, I witnessed a growing impatience and rudeness by 
Kyoto residents towards tourists that was both embarrassing and 
concerning. Along the flagstoned Hanamikoji Dori, joining Gion's main 
shopping street of Shijo Dori with Kenninji, I saw a bunch of old 
rent-a-cops obviously employed by the local neighborhood association, 
shooing tourists over to one side of the road. While ostensibly this 
clearing of a public roadway for local cars is a good thing, the way 
they were doing it was both imperious and irritated, and without logic 
(i.e., no cars should mean no, or less, shoo-ing).

Those cars that did use the road were mostly not from the neighborhood 
and were seeking a short-cut to a nearby main road that was choked with 
traffic, or they were delivery trucks. Which should have priority? The 
thousands of tourists an hour flooding into Kenninji at JPY500 each, 
making the temple the single biggest employer in the neighborhood? Or 
the delivery trucks? In any case, the behavior of the car drivers was 
low-grade, with frequent honking, revving of engines, sudden starting 
and stopping, and other signs of irritation. On witnessing this, I 
wondered if the council couldn't simply shut down the road to 
thru-traffic, or alternatively put full-time barriers in to separate 
people from cars.

It seems to me that the city authorities are trying to patch over the 
problem than to fix it.

Another function of the city that has been heavily criticized in the 
press recently is the public transport. For more than 40 years, ever 
since the city did away with their highly efficient street trams in the 
1970's in favor of the new social symbol - the car - older locals have 
been using buses to get around. To be sure there is effective rail 
transport in Kyoto as well, but unfortunately there has been no new 
building of subways in decades, so most of the city is not serviced by 

The buses are great in their coverage, though, and are relatively 
frequent. The problem is that they also service the major tourist sights 
and so naturally tourists are using them. Unfortunately, with tourists 
being forced to lug around heavy bags (not enough large lockers in 
downtown Kyoto) and being unfamiliar with the Kyoto custom of boarding 
from the back and alighting from the front, buses are now becoming a 
nightmare to ride after 10:00am, around the time that the old folks who 
rely on them, want to catch one. The net result is as you can imagine, 
one of irritation, harsh words, and lots of complaints to city officials 
about those "damned tourists".

To their credit, the Kyoto bus operators have been tinkering with their 
systems to see if they can't improve the situation. For example, they 
will change the bus loading system so that people can prepay at the 
front and alight from the back, the way it's done in Tokyo. They will 
also introduce flat fares, so that tourists can get their change ready 
before boarding.

But the reality is that the overcrowding of Kyoto is a macro problem 
that needs to be solved both by the central government and the local 
Kyoto authorities. What's important in solving the problem is that they 
don't kill the golden goose. Some initiatives that I believe would help 
to improve the situation include:
* Changing the traffic patterns around national cultural heritage sites 
(mostly the major temples) to give priority to pedestrians. Yes, this 
will create some hardship for the locals, but providing them with 
special passes while denying access to thru-traffic and delivery trucks, 
would significantly reduce the need to control the pedestrian flow.
* Banning non-essential cars from downtown Kyoto between the hours of 
10:00-18:00. Only delivery trucks, tradesmen, public transport, and 
emergency vehicles should have access.
* Increasing the number of buses (of course)
* Instead of spending money on a ridiculously expensive maglev train 
from Tokyo to Nagoya, put some national funds into building several more 
badly needed subway lines.
* Engaging in some badly needed customer-service education of the 
rent-a-cops and other people tasked with interacting with tourists on 
the streets.
* Increasing the salary requirement for visas for inbound Chinese 
tourists, to slow the flow of rural visitors (not saying all Chinese 
tourists are undesirable, but unfortunately rural visitors have few 
public manners - spitting, toilet use, trash, etc.).
* Perhaps most importantly, the Japanese government needs to fund some 
alternative destinations to Kyoto. Why tourists make a beeline for Kyoto 
is because of the prevalence of historical buildings and entire 
precincts in pristine condition. Funding should be made available to 
help the beautification and rebuilding of older precincts of other 
cities around the nation. Akita, Sendai, Kanazawa, Kochi, Matsuyama, and 
Kumamoto are cities that all come to mind.

...The information janitors/


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Written by: Terrie Lloyd (terrie.lloyd at japaninc.com)

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