Visitors on the shopping street in Asakusa district near Sensoji Temple, Tokyo.Photo: Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images
At the height of the Covid pandemic, the restaurateurs and shopkeepers of Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market must have dreamed of days like these.
Columns of smartphone-wielding visitors shuffle through the narrow streets, stopping to inspect hand-forged kitchen knives tsukemono pickles, and sipping free samples of green tea. Restaurants tempt the lunch crowd with grilled skewers Wagyuboiled crab legs and, for dessert, plump strawberries covered in chewy mochi rice.
But there are indications that Tsukiji’s multinational clientele are not always on their best behavior. Signs in English ask them not to eat outside storefronts and not to leave their trash behind. Staff hold up signs reminding guests where to queue for their ¥2,700 (£14.40) 12-piece sushi lunch. Here, as in many other popular destinations around the world, booming tourism is a double-edged sword.
Nearly a year after Japan lifted all pandemic travel restrictions, foreign visitors are back with a vengeance, lured by a weak yen, global cuisine and the promise of a vacation of a lifetime in a country once considered a tourist backwater.
“Everything is cheap, the service is incredible, and the food is the best you can get, and at a fraction of the price you would pay in America,” said Tommy Buchheit, an American visiting Japan for the first time.
These and other attractions attracted 25.8 million foreign visitors to Japan last year, according to immigration authorities – a sixfold increase from 2022. Together they spent a record ¥5.3 trillion (£28.3 billion), according to the Japan Tourism Agency out. The Japanese government wants more, setting an ambitious goal of 60 million visitors – and ¥15 trillion in spending – by the end of the decade.
But critics say Japan is ill-prepared for higher tourist numbers, citing even greater pressure on accommodations, public transport and the services sector at a time when the country faces an acute labor shortage.
In his vision for a new ‘tourism nation’, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said sustainable tourism depends on welcoming visitors without negatively affecting the quality of life of locals. Proposals made by the government last year include increasing the number of buses and taxis, raising public transport fares during peak hours and opening new bus routes.
It has also allocated 11 ‘model’ destinations, including rural eastern Hokkaido and the subtropical island of Okinawa. It hopes to draw visitors away from Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, which together accounted for 64% of overnight stays by foreign visitors in the region. first eight months of last year. The emphasis will be less on consumption and more on cultural immersion, from experiencing mountain asceticism and Zen meditation to making pottery and saké.
“Tourist pollution” is most visible in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital and home to some of the country’s most famous temples and shrines, and the geisha district of Gion. In 2022, the number of tourists visiting Kyoto exceeded 43 million – about 30 times the city’s population.
Peter MacIntosh, a Canadian resident who has organized geisha-themed walking tours for years, said residents were struggling to reconcile the disruption caused by hordes of visitors with a dramatic increase in spending.
“The problem is that people here want the best of both worlds – to live a quieter life and make money – but it only gets worse as more people come. Kyoto will be a free for all,” said MacIntosh, who added that tour groups of up to 40 people were not unusual.
The boom means lesser-known locations are struggling to attract travelers eager to collect social media content. This includes a railway crossing in Kamakura, southwest of Tokyo, that is overrun with fans of Slam Dunk, a popular manga comic and anime TV series about high school basketball. The crossing, which appears in the anime’s opening credits, is considered a “sacred place” among fans.
Some local authorities are taking matters into their own hands, fearing that overtourism is damaging sites of historic and ecological importance.
Visitors to Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage site, will have to pay a ¥100 (53p) entrance fee, while tourists heading to the Taketomi Islands will have to pay an as-yet-undecided amount later this year to help protect their pristine beaches.
From this summer, visitors planning to hike to the top of Mount Fuji, another Unesco site, will have to pay ¥2,000 (£10.70) as local authorities try to decongest the busy trails that have been busy in 2019 more than 5 million people were entered.
“Japan has become a destination on your bucket list,” says Karlÿn de Bruin, who visited Tokyo from the Netherlands with her father and brother. “I can imagine that the locals are fed up, so we try to mind our own business. But you can feel the vibe on social media… people dress up and take pictures a certain way because it makes for good content.”
Kenichi Kondō, a fishmonger from Tsukiji, beamed as he served grilled black cod fillets to hungry passersby. “Our revenues have increased tenfold compared to a few years ago,” says Kondō, whose company has been in the same spot for more than fifty years. “We used to have a lot of people from North America and Europe, but now they mainly come from Southeast Asia and we expect many Chinese visitors soon as they celebrate New Year.”
While he was happy with the support tourism has given his store’s ten employees, Kondō admitted that litter has become a major problem. “We try to get around that by offering to let people take their waste away from them when they buy our fish. There are exceptions, but the tourists here are generally well behaved.”
Lizzie Jones, an American on her fourth trip to Japan, was optimistic about the crowds she encountered in Tsukiji on an unseasonably warm February day. “You expect it when you do all the touristy things… when you come to this market you know it’s packed.”
But like many locals, she objected to litter and nuisance influencers who flout local customs and treat busy locations as their personal photo studio.
“I think it’s a generational thing,” she said. “The first few times I came here there was no waste and now there is a lot of it. There is also a sense of entitlement… people do what they want and don’t teach themselves about local customs. They don’t care. These places don’t just exist for your Instagram story.”