KYOTO — It’s a freezing December night but tourists are out in force in Kyoto’s Gion district, on the hunt for one particular attraction.
On Hanamikoji-dori, the main street, a taxi pulls up and a “maiko” apprentice geisha steps out, drawing gasps from a nearby group of Asian tourists. Two of them start pointing. “Geisha, geisha,” they cry, as the startled maiko heads quickly toward one of the teahouses.
Several others chase after the woman, surrounding her and snapping photos like paparazzi, the flashes highlighting the white makeup she’s wearing. Less than 30 seconds later, the maiko turns down a side street and the tourists give up their pursuit.
Seeing maiko and geisha — or “geiko,” as they’re known in Gion, Kyoto’s traditional pleasure quarter — is the highlight of a trip to Kyoto for most tourists. But as the number of international visitors to Kyoto increases, tensions are rising between camera-wielding visitors and their geiko and maiko targets.
In December, local media reported Gion residents will now conduct patrols to stop foreign tourists who pursue maiko and geiko too aggressively.
But those who work in Gion insist problematic tourists are not just from abroad.
“There are bad-mannered Japanese tourists who harass maiko. It’s not just foreigners,” said Yuko Morikawa, a former member of Kyoto’s geisha community who now runs Hanagumo, a private bar offering international tourists a chance to experience maiko and geiko culture.
Morikawa’s husband is Canadian Peter Macintosh, who notes the worst case of maiko harassment in Gion he knows of was when a Japanese tourist hit his subject in the face with a camera lens while trying to take a closeup. Macintosh is a photographer and chronicler of Kyoto’s maiko who runs Kyoto Sights and Nights, which introduces Gion to international tourists and arranges private maiko performances.
“Kyoto has stepped up efforts to promote tourism abroad because domestic tourism has stagnated. But the city gave little thought as to what might happen if it turned lots of people loose in Gion without clearly explaining that geiko and maiko are professionals who need to get to work, not theme park attractions for the amusement of tourists,” he said.
On Kyoto’s Web site, messages in Japanese, English and Chinese read: “Please respect the maiko’s privacy and do not follow them in the streets or touch their kimono.” But Morikawa and Macintosh note this effort is far from sufficient.
“The hotels and travel agencies have a responsibility to tell tourists not to harass the geiko and maiko. They need to remind people that Gion’s streets are narrow and crowded with traffic and that it’s dangerous for both maiko and tourists,” said Morikawa.
Macintosh said Japan’s national interpreter guide system is also to blame. Licensed guides, he said, are like the tourists, outsiders to the closed world of Gion who simply pass through the area and often fail to understand how important it is not to harass the maiko.
Insiders, he said, can provide advice about maiko culture, introduce them to maiko acquaintances who don’t mind being photographed, or even get them into Gion’s teahouses, virtually all of which refuse customers, Japanese or non-Japanese, who aren’t first introduced by a regular.
Under Japanese law, only those licensed by the government are allowed to charge money for giving guided tours in a foreign language. Unlicensed foreign language guide interpreters who conduct paid tours, as opposed to volunteer guides, can be fined ¥500,000.
Macintosh is not licensed but gets around the letter of the law by selling postcards and then offering walking lectures of the Gion district as a free service.
For their part, the Tokyo-based Japan Guide Association, which has 923 registered guide members nationwide, agrees more can be done by local authorities and businesses to prevent trouble between tourists and maiko.
“It would be a good idea to have more foreign language pamphlets explaining local customs. In the case of Gion, set aside a space where people can take pictures of the maiko, as tourists want to take pictures of interesting things,” said Masashi Negishi, the association’s secretary general.
What about those from abroad who come to Kyoto on a tour package but don’t hire an official guide? Hiroaki Takinuma, director general of the Kyoto city tourism promotion division, said that beyond the Web site notice to respect the maiko, the city sends out a regular e-mail bulletin to international tour agencies and reminds them to ask their customers to respect Kyoto customs, he said.
Takinuma added that, unlike Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, which recently banned all tourists, Kyoto has no plans to ban tourists from Gion.
In 2007, nearly 50 million tourists spent at least one night in Kyoto. About 9.2 million were from abroad, an increase of 15.5 percent from the previous year. Americans constituted the largest group at 2.86 million, followed by 1.25 million Taiwanese, 723,000 South Koreans and 528,000 Chinese.
A city survey showed the Golden Pavilion, Gion and Kiyomizu Temple were the three most popular destinations for foreign tourists. Of the nearly 100 comments published in the survey, many were requests for more foreign language explanations of Kyoto’s cultural attractions. But there was also a request for more English signs in Gion and one asking about hiring private guide services.
“We plan to increase the amount of general foreign language information about Kyoto. But it’s difficult to meet requests for additional foreign language information at individual sites, or for setting up a private guide business,” Takinuma said.