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Japan’s Kyoto to ban visitors from geisha district area after surge in ‘out of control’ incidents

by Staff

There are numerous tales of geisha having their way blocked by groups of tourists as they took photos, of the women having their kimonos tugged and the delicate ornaments in their hair touched. Others have reported tourists demanding that the geisha pose for photos and stopping them from going into tea houses for their client appointments.

In 2019, the local authorities started putting up signs in multiple languages stating that taking photos of the geisha was prohibited and that a fine of 10,000 yen (US$66) would be imposed for non-compliance. The fine, however, is impossible to enforce.

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Gion was relatively quiet during the pandemic. But the number of foreign arrivals in Japan has rebounded in the last six months, and it is on course this year to surpass a record 31.88 million in 2019. Millions of travellers have visited Kyoto in recent years, many of whom would try to get a glimpse of the geisha in the ancient capital.

The ban will not cover the main road that runs through the district Hanamikoji because it is a public thoroughfare. This has led to concerns that the new access rules might cause an overcrowding of tourists in the area.

“Mainland Chinese tourists are not back in Kyoto yet, but because of the weak yen it is suddenly very cheap to come to Japan, and sometimes it’s like you’re in Thailand with all the tourists,” said Peter Macintosh, a Canadian author and expert on geisha culture who has lived in Kyoto since 1993.

“They put up signs a few years ago saying photographing the geisha was banned, but it has no legal standing and everyone just ignores it,” he said.

His friends and contacts in the geisha scene fear a resurgence of shocking incidents in Gion even as their number has fallen. Geisha have told Macintosh of tourists flicking cigarette ash down the exposed back of their white-painted necks and stealing their hair ornaments.

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In one incident, a foreign tourist threw US$10,000 and his room key at a geisha who ignored him, Macintosh said.

Tourists are not just interfering with the geisha. Many of them touch the lanterns that hang outside restaurants and tea houses and enter private property to take photos, Macintosh said. A particular source of irritation is the visitors who rent kimonos for the day and stand in the middle of streets to take selfies, he added.

Macintosh said he has seen kimono-clad foreign tourists lying on the road to take photos.

“It’s crazy behaviour,” he said. “It’s completely out of control.”

Macintosh called for a tourist police unit to be set up with the power to levy fines against visitors for disruptive behaviour, which he believed would “very quickly scare people into behaving better”.

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The city’s tourism officials, however, are not considering such a step.

“Before the pandemic, there were some nuisance incidents involving visitors, such as unauthorised photo-taking, pulling the geisha’s kimonos and entering private property,” a city official, who declined to be identified, told This Week in Asia. “It is not as bad as before the pandemic, but there are still [such] incidents from time to time.”

Kyoto has been producing and delivering leaflets, posters and other messages to raise awareness about the standards of behaviour that are expected of foreign tourists, the official added.

Police in Gion have also offered help to geisha, such as teaching them self-defence after some of the entertainers expressed concerns about walking between entertainment venues by themselves at night.

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