Kyoto’s geisha district fights back against over-tourism

TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s ancient capital Kyoto, long a popular destination for tourists, is closing a number of privately owned alleys in its famed geisha district after complaints about misbehaving visitors.

Tourists crowd the narrow, scenic streets of the area called Gion, often followed by guides who show people around and give hours of lectures, local district official Isokazu Ota said Friday.

“We are going to put up signs in April telling tourists to stay off our private streets,” he told The Associated Press.

A sign reads in both Japanese and English: “This is a private road, so you are not allowed to drive through it,” although the warning is mainly aimed at pedestrians and not cars, as the Japanese wording generically refers to. “pass.”

“There will be a 10,000 yen fine,” the sign adds, which is about $70 below recent exchange rates.

The ban only applies to a few blocks of Gion. The district’s public streets remain open to tourists, so the area and the rest of Kyoto will still be packed with visitors, both from Japan and around the world.

Gion’s outrage underlines growing resentment over what many people say is “overtourism,” even as Japan’s economy is more reliant than ever on tourism revenue to sustain growth.

People walk along a street in Gion Ward, Kyoto, western Japan on September 7, 2022. Japan’s ancient capital Kyoto, long a popular destination for tourists, will close some private property alleys in its famous geisha district as complaints grow about misbehaving visitors. (Kyodo News via AP)

The district with winding alleys is known for its picturesque tea houses, where geishas and their maiko students, dressed in beautiful kimonos and hair ornaments, perform dance and music.

In a city known for its beautiful temples and gardens, Gion is one of the most scenic and historic places. Tourists, armed with cameras, like to wander around Gion, hoping to catch the women on their way to dance lessons or a fancy dinner.

Complaints about overzealous tourists began bubbling years ago, although discontent cooled when the coronavirus pandemic caused a lull in tourism. Now the visitors are back with a frenzy.

Overseas tourist traffic to Japan is recovering to pre-pandemic levels.

Maiko, or apprentice geiko, poses for photos ahead of Gion Odori's upcoming dance performance in Kyoto, western Japan, on August 31, 2023. (Kyodo News via AP)

Maiko, or apprentice geiko, poses for photos ahead of Gion Odori’s upcoming dance performance in Kyoto, western Japan, on August 31, 2023. (Kyodo News via AP)

Last year, more than 22 million visitors came to Japan, eager to admire sushi, electronic gadgets and the beauty of nature such as Mount Fuji and the beaches of Okinawa. In 2019, the population totaled more than 31 million, and this year the number could approach or even overtake that, experts say.

For many residents of Gion it has been too much. Their city council summed up the less-than-enthusiastic sentiments of a few months ago by proclaiming, “Kyoto is not a theme park.”

___

Yuri Kageyama is at X: https://twitter.com/yurikageyama

Leave a Comment