Not so long ago, there were 駅貼りポスター (ekibariposutā, posters on train station walls) exhorting us Tokyoites to hotfoot it to Kyoto. そうだ、京都行こう (Sō da, Kyōto ikō, “I have an idea, let’s go to Kyoto”) was the slogan on the poster, which depicted the 古都 (koto, ancient capital) in all its beautiful moments, against the backdrop of the renowned 日本の四季 (Nihon no shiki, four seasons of Japan).
Correct me if I’m wrong, but you just don’t see those posters with the same frequency as before, for the simple reason that Kyoto, aka 日本人の心の故郷 (Nihon-jin no kokoro no furusato, the hometown of the Japanese heart), is bursting at the seams with 外国人観光客 (gaikoku-jin kankōkyaku, foreign tourists). There just isn’t any room for us indigenous Japanese folk anymore.
For many Japanese, especially those of us in 関東 (Kantō, the Kanto region), Kyoto has always been a snobbish, expensive and unwelcoming kind of place, with surprisingly little in the way of amenities and facilities for the casual traveler. But we could count on a few solid staples, like being able to hang out at 円山公園 (Maruyama Kōen, Maruyama Park) without being stampeded, book a reasonably priced hotel room without having to scramble around for a 民泊 (minpaku, Airbnb-style home lodging) and the freedom to sit down to morning coffee at one or other of Kyoto’s tiny, dark and smoky 喫茶店 (kissaten, coffee shops) that serves hot buttered toast from 7 in the morning.
その全てにさようなら (Sono subete ni sayōnara, “Goodbye to all that”). Now it’s pretty much impossible to get a hotel room in Kyoto, and prices for everything from a simple 足湯 (ashiyu, foot bath) to dinner in a tucked-away restaurant near 八坂神社 (Yasaka Jinja, Yasaka Shrine) have gone through the roof. One by one, those cramped but cozy coffee shops have disappeared. Nothing is reasonable anymore, and because of this, the number of 修学旅行生 (shūgakuryokōsei, middle and high school students on school trips) is decreasing by the year.
It used to be that the average Japanese first came into contact with the hometown of their hearts through these learning trips. And it also used to be that for boys, the trips provided opportunities to meet with and then けんかする (kenka suru, fist-fight) with 他県の奴ら (taken no yatsura, guys from other prefectures) in Kyoto’s けんかの聖地 (kenka no seichi, holy ground of fighting), which is 新京極 (Shinkyōgoku, Shinkyogoku). Ah, those were the glory days. Of course, the boys had to deal with sometimes-serious injuries and always-heavy punishment, but what’s a Japanese 青春時代 (seishunjidai, springtime of youth) without a few broken ribs and 停学処分 (teigakushobun, suspension from school)?
Nowadays, of course, the whole shūgakuryokō scene has changed. Instead of Kyoto, schools are sending their students to Singapore or Los Angeles, where no one fights or gets into much trouble. Everyone has their eyes firmly glued to their phones, anyway. As for the streets of Kyoto, once crammed with teens in 制服 (seifuku, school uniform), they have been taken over by tourists carting humongous suitcases and clutching 自撮り棒 (jidoribō, selfie sticks).
京都に住むのはストレスが溜まりすぎる (Kyōto ni sumu no wa sutoresu ga tamarisugiru, “It’s too stressful to live in Kyoto”), my friend Sachi says. Sachi, originally from Kobe, married her college sweetheart, who happens to be a typical 京都のボンボン (Kyōto no bonbon, a well-bred Kyoto rich boy). Now a mother of three, Sachi says that in all her 15 years of Kyoto living, the city had never been so chaotic, noisy and full of 礼儀知らず (reigi shirazu, ill-mannered) people. The once quiet back allies of her neighborhood in 五条 (Gojō, Gojo) are inundated by huge 観光バス (kankō basu, tour buses) and 団体旅行客 (dantairyokōkyaku, hordes of travelers) looking for 抹茶アイスクリーム (matcha aisukuriimu, matcha ice cream) stalls and stuff to 爆買い (bakugai, splurge on, lit., “explosive shopping”).
On the other hand, Sachi says that the 京都人 (Kyōto-jin, Kyoto locals) are used to this type of stress, and the majority of them are unfazed. She has a point. For a millenium, Kyōto-jin have had to deal with any number of 異人 (ijin, aliens), war-mongering 貴族 (kizoku, aristocrats), barbaric samurai and countless incidents of strife, not to mention full-on warfare. Time and again, Kyoto was burned to ashes, temples were destroyed and people died of 飢餓 (kiga, starvation) right on the streets. When the Edo Period came to an end in 1868, Kyōto-jin had to endure the unprecedented ignominy of seeing the Emperor move to a barbaric eastern city called Tokyo, taking the ex-capital’s treasured confectioner 虎屋 (Toraya) along in the process.
Many facets of Kyoto — the 町家 (machiya, townhouse) architecture, narrow streets, the inherent stinginess of the locals, the confectioners selling breathtakingly expensive sweets, the temple types fostering a close relationship with the sex industry — all these have existed through generations in order to protect Kyoto’s impenetrable core of elusiveness and privacy.
Most of us in the east probably have no idea what Kyoto is about — we’re only fidgeting with an intense longing to go and … maybe see some 桜 (sakura, cherry blossoms) and eat matcha ice cream? It’s not going to happen anytime soon.