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Kyoto seeks to guard geishas from tourist 'paparazzi'
Kyoto seeks to guard geishas from tourist 'paparazzi'
By Fred Mery
Kyoto, Japan (AFP) Mar 13, 2024

Kyoto is cracking down after locals complained that Instagram-obsessed tourist "paparazzi" are harassing the Japanese city's famous, immaculately dressed geisha.

Real-life geisha, or "geiko" ("women of art") as they are known locally, work for a living -- as they have for centuries -- in teahouses in Kyoto's picturesque Gion district where they perform traditional Japanese dance, music and games.

However, like other major tourist attractions around the world such as Bruges in Belgium, Venice in Italy, or Rio de Janeiro's Sugarloaf Mountain, locals are fuming.

Residents are fed up with visitors sometimes rudely demanding selfies with or otherwise bothering the geiko, who wear smart kimonos and white make-up, with their hair styled in an elaborate bun.

Signs will go up in the coming weeks asking tourists to refrain from entering privately run alleyways in Gion, although the area's main public streets will remain open.

"We don't want to do this, but we're desperate," Isokazu Ota, an executive member of a residents' council, said last week, comparing tourists who crowd around geisha emerging from the narrow alleys to "paparazzi".

Jane Stafford from Australia told AFP in Gion at the weekend that she and her travel companions had been advised by a family member not to take photos there.

But she also questioned restricting movement in the bustling district lined with old-style wooden buildings.

"To me, this is a unique heritage area that people want to enjoy, and we'd like to photograph the architecture," she said.

"It's a shame that people can't enjoy it in smaller groups," she said, suggesting that big tours be broken up.

- 'Not a theme park' -

Tourism to Japan has been booming since pandemic-era border restrictions were lifted and other attractions are also taking steps against overcrowding.

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.

The mayor of the western metropolis Osaka has also said he is considering charging a new fee to foreign tourists, separate to an existing tax on hotel stays.

The residents' council in Gion -- the setting of the hit Netflix show "The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House" -- urged Kyoto City in December to tackle the issue, saying their neighbourhood "is not a theme park".

They have put up signs since 2019 banning photography in the private alleys, warning of fines of up to 10,000 yen ($68).

One council member also told Japanese media about an instance of the kimono of a geisha's apprentice being torn and another who had a cigarette butt put in her collar.

- 'Don't be 'that guy'' -

Dutch tourists Anna and Mark Van Diggenen said they were in favour of the policy.

"You have to respect the women" and their privacy, Anna said.

But Mark said the new restrictions would be difficult to police. "You can make rules, but you can't keep them," he said.

Resident Tetsuo Nishizawa, who owns a bar and event space, said he thought the new rules were "a good thing".

"It is important to clarify what is allowed and what is not," he told AFP.

Dressing up in brightly coloured kimonos is popular among tourists excited to get the perfect Kyoto shot.

But one user on a Facebook group called "Japan Travel Tips & Planning" pleaded with visitors to Gion not to behave badly.

"I've been going to Japan for more than half a century and as the rest of the world increasingly discovers its charms, those charms are forced to become less accessible," wrote the user, Doug Burckhard.

"Please don't be 'that guy'," he said.

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