Last month, it was announced the number of visitors to Kyoto in 2014 (including day trippers) topped 55 million people, a 7.8 percent increase over 2013. The total number of foreign visitors who spent at least one night was 1.83 million, a whopping 62 percent increase over 2013.
In addition, Travel + Leisure magazine named Kyoto the world’s best city for the second year in a row. The magazine readers calls Kyoto the “quintessential Japanese experience,” noting there are more than 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, the Golden Pavilion and the Nishijin neighborhood for “kawaii (cute) artisan shops.”
As someone who lived in Kyoto for nine years and returns quite often, I view the recent, rapid influx of tourists with mixed emotions. There is no doubt that, for mid-range tourists, the quality of shops, cafes, hotels and restaurants in the city is far better today than it was two decades ago. Higher-end tourists, as Travel + Leisure notes, now have the choice of staying in a traditional ryokan (as celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio do when they pass through) or a modern, four- or five-star hotel.
A trip to Kyoto to see Japan’s “quintessential culture” — the tea ceremony, ikebana, a performance of noh or kabuki, and, of course, meditation at a Zen temple — entices those also seeking calm, quiet and time to contemplate and appreciate the finer things in life, be they religious, philosophical, artistic or culinary.
In other words: You don’t come to Kyoto to experience Tokyo.
Yet the recent tourist boom is transforming parts of Kyoto into some version of Tokyo’s Ginza or Aoyama neighborhoods, placing a strain on a city far smaller than the capital and not designed to handle large numbers of tourists. Want to enjoy the serenity of a Zen garden these days? So do the other 100 people in the scrum who are pushing you from behind, talking in loud voices and snapping selfies. Need to get across town quickly? Your choices are an expensive taxi fare or a bus. Either way, it can take up to 15 minutes to go a mere kilometer if the traffic is bad. Looking for a reasonably priced hotel during the cherry blossom season or the autumn months? Yeah, aren’t we all. Try Osaka or Shiga Prefecture — Kyoto’s booked.
And want to take memorable photos of the main sites, just like the (people-free) ones you see in guidebooks? Double check first. Japanese shutterbugs report there’s been an increase in the number of Kyoto temples and shrines that now forbid photos, due to problems with groups of tourists.
Yet the heart of Kyoto is not to be found in famed locations with large groups. It’s an individual discovery that happens by chance. It’s a stroll through a small temple smelling of incense or a cozy jazz bar beside it that owns hundreds of rare LPs with an owner who plays the shakuhachi and once met Miles Davis. It’s a cafe in a renovated machiya, where waitresses wear Indian sarongs, the background music is Flemish Renaissance or Tibetan spiritual, and the menu includes fair-trade coffee and Japanese sweets. It’s a modern restaurant where you fall into lively conversation with strangers over good wine or Kyoto-produced craft beer and sake. And it’s a musty old family-owned shop, selling something so uniquely “Kyoto” that you enter wondering how they stay in business and exit happy that they do.
That’s the real Kyoto experience. It’s still out there, amid the famous landmarks, throngs of tourists, chain restaurants, souvenir shops and magazine editors. As with all good adventures, seek it out, and don’t be surprised when you find it in the most unlikely of places.
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.
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