June 13, 2024

At the height of the Covid pandemic, the restaurateurs and shopkeepers of Tsukiji market in Tokyo must have dreamed of days like these.

Columns of smartphone-wielding visitors shuffle along the narrow streets, pausing to inspect hand-forged kitchen knives and tsukemono pickles, and to sip gratis samples of green tea. Restaurants tempt the lunchtime crowd with sticks of grilled wagyu, boiled crab legs and, for dessert, plump strawberries encased in chewy mochi rice.

But there are indications that Tsukiji’s multinational clientele are not always on their best behaviour. Signs in English implore them not to eat outside storefronts or leave their litter behind. Staff hold aloft signs reminding diners where to queue for their 12-piece, ¥2,700 (£14.40) sushi lunch. Here, as in many other popular destinations around the world, booming tourism is a double-edged sword.

Almost a year after Japan lifted all pandemic travel restrictions, foreign visitors are back with a vengeance, drawn by a weak yen, world-beating cuisine, and the promise of a holiday of a lifetime in a country that was once considered a tourism backwater.

“Everything is cheap, the service is incredible, and the food is the best you’re going to have, and at a fraction of the price you’d pay in America,” said Tommy Buchheit, an American who was visiting Japan for the first time.

Those and other attractions tempted 25.8 million foreign visitors to Japan last year, according to immigration authorities – a sixfold rise from 2022. Together they spent a record ¥5.3tn (£28.3bn), according to the Japan Tourism Agency. Japan’s government wants more, setting an ambitious goal of 60 million visitors – and ¥15tn of spending – by the end of the decade.

But critics say Japan is ill prepared for higher tourist numbers, citing even more strain on accommodations, public transport and the service industry, at a time when the country is battling an acute labour shortage.

In his vision for a new “tourism nation”, prime minister Fumio Kishida said sustainable tourism depended on welcoming visitors without adversely affecting the quality of life for local people. Proposals outlined by the government last year include boosting the number of buses and taxis, raising public transport fares during peak hours, and opening new bus routes.

It also earmarked 11 “model” destinations, including rural eastern Hokkaido and the sub-tropical island of Okinawa, it hopes will draw visitors away from Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, which together accounted for 64% of overnight stays by foreign visitors in the first eight months of last year. The stress will be less on consumption and more on cultural immersion, from experiencing mountain asceticism and Zen meditation, to making pottery and saké.

A sign encouraging good behaviour among tourists at Tsukiji market in Tokyo. Photograph: Justin McCurry/The Observer

“Tourism 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 longtime Canadian resident who organises geisha-themed walking tours, said residents were struggling to reconcile the disruption caused by hordes of visitors with a dramatic uptick in spending.

“The problem is that people here want the best of both worlds – to have a quieter life and make money – but it is only going to get worse as more people arrive. Kyoto is becoming a free-for-all,” said MacIntosh, who added that tour groups of up to 40 people were not unusual.

The boom has seen less well-known locations wrestling with travellers eager to gather social media content. They include a railway crossing in Kamakura, southwest of Tokyo, which has been inundated 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 site” among fans.

Some local authorities are taking matters into their own hands, amid concern that overtourism is damaging sites of historical and ecological interest.

Visitors to Itsukushima Shrine, a Unesco world heritage site, must pay ¥100 (53p) admission, while later this year, tourists heading to the Taketomi islands will be charged an as-yet undecided sum to help protect their pristine beaches.

From this summer, visitors planning to hike to the summit of Mount Fuji, another Unesco site, will be charged ¥2,000 (£10.70), as local authorities attempt to take the strain off crowded trails trodden by more than 5 million people in 2019.

“Japan has become a bucket-list destination,” said Karlÿn de Bruin, who was visiting Tokyo from the Netherlands with her father and brother. “I can imagine that local people get fed up, so we try to mind our own business. But you can feel the social media vibe … people dressing up and taking photos in certain ways because it makes good content.”

Kenichi Kondō, a Tsukiji fishmonger, was beaming as he served grilled fillets of black cod to hungry passersby. “Our takings are up tenfold compared to a couple of years ago,” said Kondō, whose business has occupied the same spot for more than 50 years. “First we had a lot of people from North America and Europe, but now they are mainly from Southeast Asia, and we’re expecting a lot of Chinese visitors when they celebrate their new year soon.”

While he welcomed the shot in the arm tourism has given his store’s 10 employees, Kondō conceded that littering had become a big problem. “We try to get around that by offering to take people’s rubbish off them if 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 sanguine about the crowds she encountered at 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 going to be packed.”

But like many locals, she took exception to litter louts and nuisance influencers who trample on local customs and treat busy locations like their personal photo studio.

“I think it’s a generational thing,” she said. “The first few times I came here, there was no trash and now there’s a lot. There’s also a sense of an entitlement … people do whatever they want and don’t teach themselves about local customs. They don’t care. These places don’t just exist for your Instagram story.”

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