Japan, famously polite, struggles to cope with influx of tourists

TOKYO - Japan is proud of its “omotenashi” spirit: Its practice of wholeheartedly caring and catering for guests. But a post-covid surge in tourist numbers, coupled with a weak yen that makes Japan cheaper for many visitors, is pushing Japan’s world-famous hospitality to the brink.

One town is installing a huge screen to stop tourists causing traffic jams while they take selfies in front of Mount Fuji. At least one overrun restaurant is reserving Friday nights for locals only. Even the deer of Nara, usually very proactive about coming forth for snacks, have had their fill.

This is because international tourists, unable to enter Japan for two and a half years during the covid pandemic, now appear to be making up for lost time.

The Japanese yen has been steadily weakening, losing more than 40 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar in the past five years and making Japan a much cheaper place to visit.

A staggering 25.1 million tourists visited the country last year, marking a sixfold increase from 2022. In March this year, at the start of the cherry blossom season, 3.08 million visitors arrived in the country, according to the latest data from the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), with the monthly number surpassing 3 million for the first time since records began in 1964.

So far this year, just over a quarter of tourists have come from South Korea, while about 17 percent were from Taiwan and 15 percent from China. Americans have made up less than 7 percent of tourists since January.

The influx has been good for the Japanese economy: Spending by visitors to Japan in the first quarter of this year totaled $11.4 billion, the highest quarterly figure ever recorded, according to the Japan Tourism Agency. The average spending per person was about $1,300, up 41.6 percent from the same period in 2019.


But, in many popular places, it has not been good for the locals. There have been widespread complaints about overcrowding, litter, strain on infrastructure and a particularly Japanese worry: Not being able to devote the requisite amount of care to each visit.

The concept of “omotenashi,” or “wholehearted hospitality,” is at the heart of the Japanese service sector. This level of attentive service can be felt in hotels, restaurants and shops from the moment one arrives in Japan - in fact from the moment the air marshallers on the airport tarmac bow as planes taxi up to the boarding bridge. It’s in the white gloves of taxi drivers and the individually wrapped wet wipe that accompanies even the cheapest cup of coffee.

“Overtourism is a serious issue in Japan with tourism concentrated in the major centers, lacking the infrastructure to deal with the volume of visitors,” said Max Mackee, founder of adventure travel company Kammui.

“This can ruin the tourists’ experience, particularly as the beauty of Japan is often found in its peace and meditative moments, even in cities like Tokyo. It’s also a serious issue for the local population, which is not equipped to handle visitors which can lead to local resentment, environmental impact or even closure of restaurants and bars and other establishments on the tourist trail.”

Screening off Mount Fuji

Fed up with badly behaved tourists, the town of Fujikawaguchiko is building a screen to block views of Mount Fuji at a popular photo spot.

The Lawson convenience store in the town has become a hit on social media because the renowned volcanic cone sits perfectly above the store’s neon sign. Tourists have flocked to the store’s parking lot to take photos of themselves in front of the Instagrammable scene.

Local residents complained about the traffic problems, unauthorized parking, trespassing and littering this was causing. The Ibishi Dental Clinic, across the street, even installed a barrier to keep tourists away and ensure customers could get in.

“When we asked people to move their cars, some yelled back, and some even threw lit cigarettes. There are days where it’s difficult to provide proper medical services” the clinic wrote in a statement on their website.

“Obviously it’s regretful for us too, to lose that view from our clinic, but we believe that it’s now an inevitable measure that needs to be taken in response to the unthinkable violations that exceed all measures we have taken until now.”

Lawson even issued a statement apologizing to residents and customers for the inconvenience.

The town has decided on more extreme measures: It is constructing an 8-foot-tall by 65-foot-wide mesh net to block the view, expected to be finished next week. To ensure the safety of both tourists and drivers, and to ensure the peaceful life of residents, we have regrettably come to the difficult decision to proceed with this construction” the town of Kawaguchiko posted on its website.

Then there are the crowds on the mountain itself.

Mount Fuji - Japan’s highest peak and a popular tourist destination - has been dealing with overcrowding in recent years, and the influx of overseas tourists has led the prefecture to take new measures.

Starting this week, Japanese authorities have instituted an online booking system to stop Mount Fuji’s most popular trail from becoming excessively crowded during the summer hiking season. A maximum of 4,000 people will be allowed on the Yoshida Trail each day during the July to September hiking season, with 3,000 of the spots requiring advance bookings at $13 a pop.

Kyoto crackdown

In February, Kyoto’s new mayor, Koji Matsui, was elected after campaigning to fight against overtourism. Kyoto, just over two hours from Tokyo by bullet train, is famous for its temples and shrines, and its traditional wooden buildings.

The city, once Japan’s capital, has a resident population of about 1.5 million but saw more than 20 times that number - about 32 million - tourists arriving last year.

One major attraction is the Gion district, where geisha and their apprentices can be seen walking around dressed in traditional kimonos and makeup. Kyoto last month banned tourists from entering private alleys in Gion after locals complained that the neighborhood was “not a theme park” and urged the government to take action against unruly tourists.


Matsui’s other campaign pledges included charging tourists more than residents to take public transport fares and creating special tourist bus routes. The new mayor also plans to introduce “smart” garbage cans that send signals to the management bureau when full to try to curtail littering.

While we are very grateful for the large number of tourists attracted by the charms of Kyoto, we are now facing serious challenges in achieving a healthy balance between tourists and local citizens,” Matsui said during his inauguration news conference.

The picturesque temples and gardens of Nara, just south of Kyoto, make it a popular side trip. And almost every visitor goes to Nara Park, where deer wander freely and vendors sell rice crackers that the deer love. Usually.

Nara deer usually approach people and famously “bow” to - or sometimes butt - them to ask for the crackers. Not any more.

This month during Golden Week, a popular Japanese holiday period, visitors to Nara found that deer were done with the rice snacks.

“Deer crackers have now become absolutely worthless due to the sudden surge in deer crackers during Golden Week,” one visitor wrote on X, previously Twitter, posting a photo of an unimpressed deer lying beside four uneaten crackers.

In Hiroshima, another regular stop on the tourist trail due to the peace memorial museum commemorating the site of the 1945 U.S. nuclear bombing, is also feeling the strain.

Hiroshima is famous for okonomiyaki, a savory vegetable and meat pancake cooked on a griddle in front of the customer. But okonomiyaki restaurants are becoming so overcrowded that one popular place, Momiji-tei, has reserved Friday evenings exclusively for locals.

“It feels wrong for us to become a restaurant that is inaccessible to our regulars who supported us throughout the pandemic,” owner Ryota Fujiwara told local media. “We want to make sure to preserve their place even if it’s just once a week.”