Until a couple of years ago, negotiating the hill leading to one of Kyoto’s most popular temples would have tested the patience of a Buddhist saint. The arrival of yet another coachload of sightseers would send pedestrians fleeing to narrow paths already clogged with meandering visitors on their way to Kiyomizu-dera.
That was before Covid-19. Today, the cacophony of English and Chinese, and a smattering of other European and Asian languages, has been replaced by the chatter of Japanese children on school excursions. Shops selling souvenirs and wagashi sweets are almost empty, their unoccupied staff perhaps reminiscing about more lucrative times.
Two years into the pandemic, some of the ancient capital’s residents admit that they have learned to embrace life without foreign visitors, who were once welcomed for the money they ploughed into the local economy and resented for their cultural faux pas and, in some cases, staggering bad manners.
The global boom in Japanese pop culture and cuisine, a weaker yen and fading memories of the March 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima turned the country into a tourism success story. In 2019, a record 31 million people visited from overseas – an estimated 8 million of them including Kyoto in their itinerary.
Buoyed up by its successful bid to host the 2020 summer Olympics, the government set an ambitious target – to which it continues to cling – of 60 million overseas visitors by the end of this decade.
But after two years of the toughest borders restrictions in the world, Japan’s tourist boom feels as if it belongs to a different age.
By last year, the gains of the previous decade had been wiped out, first by the arrival of the coronavirus, then by new waves that forced the government to abandon plans for a gradual opening up to tourists and other people from overseas. Just 245,900 foreign visitors arrived in Japan in 2021, according to the tourism agency, a drop of 99.2% from pre-pandemic levels.
This is an excerpt from an article by Justine McCurry, originally published by The Guardian.