Photo/IllutrationA street near Kiyomizudera temple in Kyoto’s Higashiyama Ward is crowded with tourists. (Kazuaki Hagi)

  • Photo/Illustraion

KYOTO--Endless crowds, unknown neighbors and unruly behavior have drained many residents here of their sense of “omotenashi” (hospitality).

They now say that the hordes of overseas tourists who keep coming to the ancient capital are eroding the quality of their traditional lives.

In 2015, a record 56.84 million tourists visited Kyoto and spent nearly 1 trillion yen ($9.12 billion), also a high, according to the Kyoto city government. The spending was up 30 percent from the previous year.

The central government is continuing its campaign to draw sightseers from overseas countries to revitalize local economies suffering from population declines.

But in Kyoto, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan, some residents are begging for an end to the rush.

They say the numbers have “exceeding the limit” and are describing the situation in the city as “pollution by tourism.”

In spring this year, local residents decided not to light up the cherry blossoms at night in the Gionshinbashi district, a popular tourist spot lined with traditional Kyoto-style townhouses. The illumination event had been held for 27 straight years.

“So many people came to view the cherry blossoms, and we were worried about continuing to attract more and more people,” said Toshio Akiyama, 70, head of the lighting event organizing committee. “I thought that we, the local residents, would be unable to deal with so many people by ourselves.”

Many couples also visit the region to take wedding photos with the traditional townscape in the background before their marriage ceremonies.

One resident asked a couple to stop taking pictures in front of his home, and an argument ensued.

Kanji Tomita, 48, who has been involved in cleanup activities in the area, said many sightseers lack respect for the communities.

“We have been working hard to protect the landscape, but they (tourists) just consume the scenery without showing respect,” Tomita said. “We are simply forced to bear the burden.”

On a recent day, a narrow sidewalk near a bus stop along Higashioji-dori street, which runs north-south in Kyoto, was filled with dozens of sightseers, making it impossible for other pedestrians to pass through. The bus stop is used by many of the visitors to Kiyomizudera temple.

Most of the tourists were non-Japanese, and some of them added to the annoyance with their rolling suitcases.

“Packed buses frequently run around here. I am afraid that a traffic accident may occur someday,” said Hiroshi Fujita, a 68-year-old resident. “There currently are so many visitors that I feel the number has exceeded the limit.”

DECLINING POPULATION, EXPANDING ILLEGAL INNS

Kyoto’s Higashiyama Ward, home to Kodaiji temple and Sanjusangendo temple, is often flooded with visitors from outside the region. But the ward has actually suffered from a population decline that has halved the number from the peak period to less than 40,000 today.

The ward’s residents are aging, and their deaths have led to a growing number of vacant homes.

Many of those unoccupied homes are now being illicitly used as “minpaku” tourist inns.

“The ambiance of the town changed after old people died,” said a 64-year-old man who lives near Hokanji temple, which is famous for its Yasaka-no-To pagoda. “But the ward becoming a town of minpaku would be better than a ward that’s deserted.”

Others disagree.

While 5,000 minpaku in Kyoto are registered on tourist inn booking websites, a 2015 survey by the Kyoto city government showed 90 percent of them were illegally operated.

The municipality last summer set up a dedicated tip line for reports about illicitly run minpaku. It had received more than 1,000 complaints by spring this year.

The complaints include loud noise from nearby minpaku. Other say they are worried because they have no idea who is operating the minpaku.

Many residents are also concerned that “the rapid expansion of minpaku may further exacerbate the population decline.”

“The number of foreign visitors has risen so drastically over the last two years that we failed to take measures to properly deal with them, resulting in distortions,” said Mayo Mieno, a Kyoto city official in charge of tourism policies. “The cause of the distortions are the illegal minpaku.”

Although tourist influxes can normally be controlled by regulating the number of accommodation facilities in the area, the rapid spread of illicit minpaku makes it difficult for Kyoto to curb the tourist increase, according to Mieno.

The number of non-Japanese who stayed in Kyoto rose by 60 to 70 percent year on year for two consecutive years until 2015, according to the city government. While 3.16 million people from outside Japan stayed in the city in 2015, the number would rise further if those using illegal minpaku are included.

Mieno said Kyoto currently puts priority on well-heeled customers, not ordinary visitors.

“Quality matters more than quantity in today’s tourism. The city now targets wealthier individuals,” Mieno said. “We will handle the issues of illegal minpaku and crowded city buses as soon as possible because many citizens feel uncomfortable about them.”

FURTHER INCREASE EXPECTED

Despite the problems reported in Kyoto, the central government is still eager to raise overseas tourist numbers across the nation.

In 2003, when only 5 million foreign tourists visited Japan, the government initiated the Visit Japan Campaign to double the number.

The number of visitors to Japan topped 20 million in 2016, and a monthly record 2.57 million foreign tourists came to the country in April.

If things go as the government plans, the foreign tourist number will reach 40 million by 2020 and 60 million by 2030.

Akiyama said: “Tourism has been promoted so much that the traditional atmosphere of the town has been lost. Our decision (to stop illuminating cherry blossoms) is also aimed at confronting the city government with a question: Is it really correct to maintain the current tourism policy?”