Kyoto Rolls Out Exclusive Tourist Express Bus to Tackle Overtourism

Kyoto Rolls Out Exclusive Tourist Express Bus to Tackle Overtourism

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Kyoto Station
Picture: ponoponosan / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Kyoto, one of Japan's most adored travel destinations, says it'll launch dedicated transport to help spare residents from tourists.

When travelers envision Japan, iconic images like temples, geisha, and cherry blossoms often come to mind. In the timeless city of Kyoto, these cultural treasures abound. But if you were to visit today, amidst the traditional charms, you’d also encounter a new sight: bustling streets, overcrowded buses, and endless queues at every turn.

Well-acquainted with Kyoto and its residents before COVID-19, over-tourism has recently tightened its grip on the metropolis. The situation has spiraled out of control, placing a heavy burden on locals. In response, the city government has been actively strategizing and investing in innovative solutions to address the issue. One such initiative includes the introduction of exclusive buses tailored for tourists to access their beloved destinations.

Tourists’ new go-to ride

A bus in Kyoto
Picture: adigosts / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

As tourism resumed last year and cities once again brimmed with visitors, Kyoto reclaimed its spot among the top destinations. The ancient capital witnessed a resurgence in tourism, injecting vitality into its economy. Yet, the surge in visitors reached concerning heights last year, prompting the launch of new measures in October to combat over-tourism.

On March 11th, Kyoto City unveiled its plan to introduce exclusive buses to tourist attractions. This measure, long under discussion, aims to ease congestion on certain routes during peak times. Following the national government’s relaxation of regulations in December, allowing for flexible fare settings on express buses, Kyoto City swiftly moved forward. With this official confirmation, implementation will commence in June.

The two routes will depart from JR Kyoto Station, reaching iconic spots such as Kiyomizu, Gion, Heian Shrine, and Ginkaku-ji. To cater to the crowds, service frequency will be amped up to four buses per hour on weekend mornings and during festivals. And for those bound for Kiyomizu Temple, expect a bus every 4 minutes during peak hours. With a convenient pre-boarding payment system, hopping on board will be quicker, ensuring a smoother tourist experience overall. The fare is currently set at 500 yen for adults and 250 yen for children, double the current rates.

“After the operation begins, we’ll closely assess its effectiveness and address tourism challenges with flexible measures,” commented Nobuyuki Kitamura, Director of the Transportation Bureau.

Kyoto isn’t holding back in its fight against over-tourism. With a hefty budget of 75 million yen, this significant investment aims at resolving a long-standing issue for the city.


Kyoto leads the nation as the first to implement such a measure. By reshuffling city bus transportation capacity and offering diverse travel routes, Kyoto aims to strike a harmonious coexistence between daily life and tourism. This ensures citizens can go about their everyday activities while also catering to visitors’ needs.

Japan overflows: A river of visitors

Japan’s post-health crisis awakening saw it rise like a phoenix, attracting 32 million tourists in 2023 and securing the 11th spot among the world’s must-visit destinations. Foreign visitors were spending generously, with a 32% surge in expenditure, hitting ¥205,000 per capita from April to June 2023. Accommodation and dining expenses skyrocketed, painting a picture of a nation back on its feet.

Even domestic travel wasn’t left behind, with an average spend of ¥42,000 during the same period in 2023. Longer stays, soaring prices, and currency fluctuations contributed to this tourism renaissance.

Yet the recovery wasn’t uniform across Japan. Tourist demand was heavily concentrated in specific regions, with over 70% flocking to the three major metropolitan areas. In June 2023, Tokyo led the pack with 3.671 million foreign overnight stays, trailed by Osaka (1.542 million) and Kyoto (0.975 million). This uneven distribution significantly fueled the escalating problem of over-tourism in these regions.

So, what exactly is “over-tourism”? Essentially, it’s when tourism overwhelms an area, negatively impacting residents and visitors. This can lead to problems with the quality of life, disrupt the tourist experience, and even damage the environment due to overcrowding. In Japan, a major challenge is dealing with congestion on public transportation, making it hard for locals to commute.

Yet, over-tourism in Japan brings more than just congestion. Etiquette breaches are also a common issue. In a country with deeply ingrained cultural norms, tourists often find themselves unaware of the expected behavior.

In Kyoto, for example, incidents of trespassing on privately owned streets for unauthorized photos are frequent. To tackle this, the Japan Tourist Agency is now allocating subsidies in the annual budget to promote regional measures, such as digital signage encouraging respectful tourist behavior.

Kyoto’s rallying cry

Amidst the chaos, Kyoto took a heavy blow. In 2022, it welcomed a staggering 43.61 million tourists, nearly doubling the previous year’s numbers of 21.02 million.

With 9.11 million Japanese visitors leading and 576,000 foreigners trailing behind, it’s crystal clear: overtourism doesn’t just come from international travelers, but also from Japan’s own backyard.

At his inaugural press conference, newly elected mayor Koji Matsui stressed the importance of showcasing Kyoto’s charm while preserving a balance with daily life. The proposed budget for fiscal year 2024, totaling 9.514 trillion yen — a 2.1% increase from 2023 — perfectly aligns with this vision. Ranking as the second-largest in history, it will allocate 900 million yen to address overtourism.

As mentioned earlier, traffic jams aren’t the sole issue in Kyoto. Breaches of etiquette are also ringing alarm bells. NHK has labeled this trend as “threatening the lives” of locals. Gion’s streets have been overrun by tourists on a “holy site pilgrimage,” snapping unauthorized photos of Maiko (apprentice geisha). Some have even resorted to chasing them and grabbing their clothes.

Many visitors in Kyoto unwittingly blur the distinction between private and public roads. While some knowingly trespass, others simply lack awareness. Public streets in Gion boast blue lines, inviting all, but the red-lined narrow alleys branching off are private, managed by locals.

From テレ朝日

Instances of tourists casually crossing these boundaries have spurred the city into action. Starting next month, just in time for the cherry blossom influx, entry onto private roads will be strictly forbidden. Look out for wooden signboards signaling restricted areas and warning of a ¥10,000 fine for violations.

“Truthfully, we’re not keen on implementing entry-prohibited roads. But given the concerns of the local community, the inconvenience faced by locals, and the stress it puts on them, we’re reluctantly pushed to opt for this measure,” remarked Issei Ota, Director of the Gion South District Council.

When the going gets tough…

When major hurdles arise, it’s time to think outside the box. This time, Kyoto opted for shutting down entire streets and imposing serious penalties. The city clearly commits to going the extra mile to ensure its residents feel secure and can carry on with their daily lives uninterrupted.

But it doesn’t always have to be all or nothing. There are plenty of less intrusive, sustainable options on the table. Take, for instance, educating visitors with English explanatory guides. And as for tackling traffic congestion, which is the current concern, dedicated tourism buses might be the ideal solution. It’s all about enhancing the experience without disrupting local life.


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