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Kyoto’s famous geisha district enforces ban on tourists from private alleys in response to overtourism

Visitors will be banned from entering private alleys in Kyoto’s famous geisha district, a local representative said on Thursday, as the ancient city tackles overtourism after the pandemic. Kyoto residents have long expressed frustration with tourists behaving badly, especially in the city’s Gion district, home to teahouses where “geiko” — as geisha are locally known — and their young “maiko” apprentices, perform.

A crowd of tourists walk on the street near Kiyomizu-dera temple in Kyoto, western Japan March 30, 2023. (REUTERS)

In December, a Gion district council comprised of residents urged Kyoto City to tackle the issue, saying their neighbourhood “is not a theme park”. One member previously told Japanese media about an instance of a maiko’s kimono being torn and another who had a cigarette butt put in her collar. (Also read: Exploring Europe: Train travel a winner for young Indians )

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With the problem ongoing, the council decided to step up its response. “We will ask tourists to refrain from entering narrow private streets in or after April,” Isokazu Ota, an executive member of the council, told AFP. “We don’t want to do this, but we’re desperate,” he said, adding that they will put up signs.

Gion’s main Hanamikoji Street, which is public, will remain open to tourists. Ota said groups of tourists sometimes “act like paparazzi” when geisha emerge from narrow streets, which are just one or two metres (3-6.5 feet) wide.

In 2019, the Gion district council put up signs saying “no photography on private roads” warning of fines of up to 10,000 yen ($67 at today’s rates). Despite common misconceptions, geishas are not prostitutes, but rather entertainers and raconteurs highly skilled in traditional Japanese dance, musical instruments and games.

Tourism to Japan has been booming since pandemic-era border restrictions were lifted, and other major attractions are also taking steps against overtourism. This summer, hikers using the most popular route to climb Mount Fuji will be charged $13 each, with numbers capped to ease congestion and improve safety.

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