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Japan likes tourists, just not this many

NEW YORK TIMES
                                Signs at Nishiki market in Kyoto, Japan, tell people not to eat while walking.
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NEW YORK TIMES

Signs at Nishiki market in Kyoto, Japan, tell people not to eat while walking.

NEW YORK TIMES
                                A crowded street in Kyoto, Japan, where residents grumble about being crowded out of buses and restaurants.
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NEW YORK TIMES

A crowded street in Kyoto, Japan, where residents grumble about being crowded out of buses and restaurants.

NEW YORK TIMES
                                Tourists visit Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto, Japan, where popular sites feel increasingly unmanageable.
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NEW YORK TIMES

Tourists visit Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto, Japan, where popular sites feel increasingly unmanageable.

NEW YORK TIMES
                                Signs at Nishiki market in Kyoto, Japan, tell people not to eat while walking.
NEW YORK TIMES
                                A crowded street in Kyoto, Japan, where residents grumble about being crowded out of buses and restaurants.
NEW YORK TIMES
                                Tourists visit Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto, Japan, where popular sites feel increasingly unmanageable.

KYOTO, Japan >>On two recent occasions, a foreign tourist walked into Shoji Matsumoto’s barbershop, through a front door that grates loudly when opened more than halfway, wanting a haircut.

One was Italian, the other British. Matsumoto, who is 75 and speaks neither of their languages, didn’t know what to tell them. He picked up his scissors and began to cut, hoping that his decades of experience would carry him through.

Tourists, propelled in part by a weak yen that makes their money go further in Japan, have been pouring into the country ever since it eased its pandemic entry restrictions in 2022. Some officials, including Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, have raised concerns about overtourism. In March, there were more than 3 million international arrivals, a monthly record, and a more than 10% jump compared with March 2019.

Nearly two-thirds of international visitors tend to be from South Korea, Taiwan and China. Last year, spending from foreign tourists made up about 9% of Japan’s gross domestic product.

Popular sites in cities such as Kyoto, Japan’s ancient royal capital, feel increasingly unmanageable. Visitors are spilling into previously untouristed areas, such as small towns near Mount Fuji or the commercial district of Kyoto where Matsumoto cuts hair.

“Before, it was normal to see tourists in certain spots,” Matsumoto said. “But now, they’re spreading out to random and unexpected places.”

That influx is testing the patience of a generally polite society.

In Kyoto and other heavily visited cities, some residents grumble about being priced out of hotel rooms or crowded out of buses and restaurants. Others say that tourists sometimes disrespect local customs by chasing geisha to photograph them or eating while walking, a behavior considered rude in Japan.

Last month, it took Hiroshi Ban six hours — twice as long as usual — to visit Kyoto’s Heian Jingu shrine. Ban, 65, attributed the delay partly to tourists who hold up buses by counting out coins for the fare.

“Every day feels like a carnival here,” said Ban. “We can’t enjoy our daily lives in peace.”

Even those who directly benefit from tourism worry that it might be unsustainable.

Hisashi Kobayashi, a taxi driver in Kyoto, said business was so good that taking a day off felt like passing up easy money. But many tourism-­related industries were struggling to keep up after pandemic-­era labor shortages, he said.

Some rural locations are feeling the strain for the first time. One is Fuji City, about 200 miles east of Kyoto in Shizuoka prefecture.

After a bridge with a direct view of Mount Fuji became popular on social media last year, Shizuoka’s tourism department said on Instagram that it was a good spot for “beautiful, dreamlike pictures.” Left unsaid was that the bridge sat in a residential area with no parking, public toilets or garbage cans.

Many visitors littered, parked in driveways and in some cases dodged traffic to take photos from the bridge’s median strip, residents said.

During a public holiday last month, about 300 tourists arrived daily for four days, standing in a line for photos that coiled down the street, said Mitsuo Kato, 86, who lives by the bridge.

“They just park here,” Kato said outside his home recently, as groups of South Korean tourists took photos of clouds that were obscuring Mount Fuji. “So we had to put up signs.”

Officials across Japan have been responding to the tourism surge with varying degrees of efficacy.

In Fuji City, authorities erected a makeshift six-car parking lot and started to build a larger one that would fit 15 cars and include a bathroom, said Motohiro Sano, a local tourism official.

In a neighboring prefecture, Yamanashi, officials in the town of Fujikawaguchiko put up a billboard-size screen last month to deter tourists from photographing a Lawson’s convenience store whose blue awning sits beneath Mount Fuji and became a staple of social media posts. The screen is now dotted with holes large enough to fit a phone camera lens, local news media reported.

In Shibuya, a heavily visited area of Tokyo, officials announced plans to ban alcohol outdoors at night in an attempt to curb the bad behavior of young people and tourists.

To beat the crowds on a recent weekend, some tourists visited popular Kyoto sites at sunrise or waited 40 minutes to eat at a popular ramen shop at 11 p.m. A few complained about the congestion they had helped to create.

“It’s a disaster,” said Paul Oostveen, 70, a tourist from the Netherlands, after leaving the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, a popular attraction.

From his empty barbershop, Matsumoto said that he had successfully cut the hair of his two foreign clients and that he wouldn’t turn away others who stumbled through his door.

But he worried about providing good service to customers he couldn’t understand, he said, and would prefer that non-Japanese speakers go elsewhere.

Even though tourism is good for the nation, he added, “there’s a part of me that’s not fully content.”

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