Japan Vs. Tourists: Bans and Limitations That Impact Tourism

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  • There is a saying with a couple of variations that goes something like “tourists seem to leave their brains at home when they travel”. Many will read this and nod in agreement, as tourists everywhere are often seen disoriented, bumbling, fumbling, miming, breaking social rules and norms, and some even breaking laws!
    The bigger the culture gap between a tourist’s homeland and the country they are visiting, the more blatant faux pas. In Japan as well tourists get a bad rap, the loud bulls in the china shops ruining the image of all tourists.

    by Zoria Petkoska

    How are tourists making things more difficult?

    It has been written extensively on all the problems tourists in Japan have caused, like in this article on our website that cites horrible behavior like carving names into the bamboo trees in Arashiyama in Kyoto. Vandalism acts aside, as they are rare and do not represent average tourist behavior, there are other more common ways overtourism has been negatively affecting locals in Japan. Not all blame should be shouldered by tourists in a country where cities are already crowded, but the influx of tourists has pushed the limits to the maximum, adding to the existing problems. Streets and trains get ever more crowded, lines outside popular cafes and restaurants get longer, prices at tourist spots get higher, and so on. This is all negatively impacting locals and their daily life, and especially in places like Kyoto they have openly asked for decreasing and limiting tourism. And this is even when tourists are behaving perfectly! Add to that the breaking of social rules, and the tensions rise.

    How is being a tourist more difficult?

    On the other hand, it’s not easy being a tourist either. Most tourists come to a country because they love to see it and spend money, not intending to cause problems. But that’s when language and culture barriers kick in, and social rules that are a given are invisible to tourists. In many cases, they are not breaking rules on purpose but they are unaware of them. If we’re being honest, even moving into a new city within your own country is difficult and you will need some time to get your bearings.

    This article outlines some issues that are bugging foreign tourists in Japan specifically. The same realities do not affect locals and tourists the same, as it is different to live and work in a city, and wander the city the whole day. For instance, the lack of garbage cans can exacerbate littering for everyone, and tourists need the garbage cans even more throughout day, combined with having less knowledge of where to find them. In addition, language plays a big part in being properly informed, and the tourists are nowhere near as informed as locals. They are also banned from some places for having tattoos, and rarely but it happens – banned just for being foreign. In many ways, you can empathize with tourists too, not only with the host country residents.

    Although signs putting a total ban on foreigners in some establishments have a attracted a lot of criticism, it seems nothing will be done about it. Moreover, there are even bigger bans enacted recently, and stricter limitations when it comes to classic tourists activities like photography, street food, shrine and temple visits, using the trains etc. Here are some of the ways Japan has recently responded to the influx of inbound tourism.

    Total Ban on All and Any Photos Whatsoever in Gion, Kyoto

    The picturesque old neighborhood of Gion, in Kyoto, has been struggling with inconsiderate tourists for a long time. The little alleys in the area are full of teahouses and restaurants, as well as geishas going to work. Being the area with the highest chances of spotting a geisha in Japan, tourists, both Japanese and foreign, have been flocking Gion. Sadly, some have even camped out for hours with their cameras, and when geishas pass and won’t stop for a photo, some people have resorted to blocking their path, grabbing their clothes, etc. It should be common sense that geisha do not owe anyone a photo, and just like any person, they are going about their day, but apparently it was something many couldn’t or didn’t want to understand.

    Just before the total ban on all photography, there was a ban on touching the geishas and taking photos of them.

    Since autumn 2019, the Gion district decided to totally ban all photography wherever it could, by declaring some alleys leading from Hanamikoji ‘private roads’. Hanamikoji itself is public, so the ban cannot extend there legally, but the authorities said they are hoping this will send a general message about the issue. The fine for taking a photo on the private roads is 10.000 yen.

    People can still visit the area and maybe see a passing geisha, just they won’t be allowed to photograph her, or any part of the road. Sadly, the boorish tourists among us ruined this for everyone to come.
    However, there are still perfectly legal ways to get a photo of a geisha and pose with a geisha by booking one of the many traditional geisha zaseki performances, whether in Kyoto or Tokyo.

    No Eating while Walking!

    Walking in a crowded place cannot really be combined with much else, as you need to be mindful of your surroundings at all times. And most people would agree that it is much more pleasant to sit down and eat without spilling anything. However, sometimes the charm of street food markets is grabbing a bite on the go, and these places have traditionally been serving these foods to be easy to be carried around. Whether it’s skewers, buns, roast potato, azuki waffles and so on, many shops offer them only to-go and have no tables and chairs, and often not a garbage can either. This is not just a tourist thing, as street food stalls are a common fixture of traditional Japanese festivals in shrines and temples. Apart from this being a legitimate traditional way of serving and not designed for modern tourists, it also saves on space and costs in the ever more crowded cities and tourist spots.

    It can be very frustrating for a tourist to be offered food, but not a place to sit and eat it, and then fined for eating and walking. Moreover, the fact that eating street food on the move is a common practice in many countries on many continents around the world doesn’t help either. It’s not only foreign visitors, but Japanese travelers too enjoy a stroll with a cone of ice cream in their hand, or a stick of mitarashi dango dumplings.

    Eating while walking can cause problems when not handled carefully, like spilling or dropping food on the streets, getting it on other people, as well the concern of strong smells. The more considerate solution would more probably be creating eating spaces, adding more garbage cans in street food areas, and just people following their common sense and general politeness and awareness for others around them. But, the stricter the ban on eating while walking is enforced, without any helping hand to the visitors, the more businesses will probably have to close as not many people will be buying food they are not allowed to eat there.

    Various Train Troubles

    Japan’s trains are probably the best in the whole wide world. They are safe, spotless clean, frequent, punctual and the fastest way to get anywhere. They are a lifesaver for tourists too, and great for development of more distant tourist spots, as the easy public transport access brings visitors.

    The high speed bullet train, or shinkansen, is admired by everyone and riding it is a bucket list checkpoint in itself. However, in addition to struggling with the language barrier in buying a ticket and finding the right platform in the notoriously complex train stations, getting on the shinkasen will get even more difficult in 2020, right before the Olympics. From May 2020 tourists will not be able just buy or reserve a ticket, or a JR pass, and hop on the shinkansen after an exhausting flight. They will now also need to separately preregister extra large luggage. To make matters more complicated, it is necessary only for extra large luggage with a total length of 160 cm to 250 cm. Moreover, this is required only for some shinkansen lines, namely the Tokaido (Tokyo to Osaka), Sanyo, and Kyushu shinkansen. If you do not register you extra large luggage in advance you might either be denied boarding, or you can pay a 1000 yen fine on the day.

    There is no denying that space is limited, and the number of travelers is expected to increase during this season, but it will definitely cause a great deal of confusion that might outweigh the benefits. Whatever happens, there will be increased stress in planning, less smooth travel experience, more language struggles at the station, and many missed departures.

    Here is the official JR page detailing the new reservation system.

    This new luggage reservation system is added on an already complicated set of rules for buying and using the JR pass. This popular pass is indeed pricey, but it promises easy and unlimited travel across Japan in the period you are buying it for. It is especially handy for using the shinkansen trains for travelling to different prefectures and it saves a lot of money. However, the rides are not entirely unlimited, as holders of the JR pass are not allowed to use the Nozomi shinkasen. This is not entirely clear when buying the pass, and for people not used to this train system, it is incredibly difficult to realize and remember train names, as opposed to only destination. Very often, the shinkasen they meant to get on turns out to be Nozomi, and in cases where it’s the last train for the day, it leaves people stranded in one city with no accommodation booked, and missing to check in the booked accommodation in another city.

    On the bright side, JR has done a lot to improve and streamline the pass purchase and usage process. They now have multilingual websites, more and more multilingual staff at major stations, additional multilingual in-train announcements etc. The JR pass itself can now be bought both from abroad and within Japan, as well as ordered through various tour operators. Come 2020, the pass pick up will be simplified, with customers being able to buy it online and pick it up in Japan, instead of waiting for a print voucher at their home address and then exchanging that in Japan. There will also be automated ticket gates that will make entering and exiting a station faster, as up until now JR pass holders had to cue and show their pass to staff.


    With the Japan government setting the goal to 40 million inbound tourists by 2020, and 60 million by 2030, the overtourism is not going to stop. Japan is one of the most visited countries on the planet, boosting Japan’s economy. Yet, the influx of tourists is undeniably a strain on the locals, but outright blanket bans will build nothing but resentment.

    Of course, sightseeing should not be confused with going to an amusement park, and tourists should be aware they are visiting real places where real people live. At the same time, the host country should be sympathetic and helpful to visitors, as most of them come with incredible love and curiosity of the country and not meaning to do any harm.

    *Featured Image by @akubi83123746 on Twitter
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