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Saturday, Feb. 14, 2009

Choked with visitors, Kyoto takes slow road toward eco-tourism


Staff writer

KYOTO — The ancient capital of Kyoto conjures up many images among international tourists, ranging from quiet rock gardens and temples to performing geisha.

News photo
Back street: A young couple stroll by "machiya" wooden town houses in Kyoto's traditional weaving district of Nishijin. The traditional houses are a key component of the city's attempts to build a viable eco-tourism and slow food, slow life tourist industry. THE KYOTO TOURISM COUNCIL

But since 1997, when it hosted the United Nations conference that forged the agreement on greenhouse gas emission reductions that bears its name, tourists also come expecting an exceptionally clean and green city that is at the cutting edge of eco-tourism.

Unfortunately, what they discover are roads clogged with cars, buses and bicycles, sidewalks jammed with pedestrians, and an environmentally unfriendly tourism industry geared toward funneling large groups of sightseers through the major historical sites and into souvenir shops piled with mass-produced tchotchkes, before depositing them back in their sterile Western-style hotels.

Now, fretting about a collapsing economy and strong yen, and recognizing that a growing number of international tourists in particular seek a more natural and ecological experience, Kyoto is scrambling to find new ways to draw tourists by capitalizing on two well-established trends elsewhere in the world.

"Kyoto is a natural fit for eco-tourism and the slow life movement. It contains nearly 20 percent of Japan's national treasures, is home to traditional Japanese history and culture, and has lots of traditional small shops, restaurants and cafes in the back streets of central Kyoto," Yoshifumi Muneta, a professor at Kyoto Prefectural University and an expert on tourism, said at a recent symposium here to promote eco-tourism.

Muneta's research showed that people interested in eco-tourism tended to be between 35 and 64 years old, and that over 80 percent had at least an undergraduate degree. About 60 percent of the tourists were couples, and about 15 percent were families.

"Such tourists tend to travel for between one and two weeks, and spend about the same amount of money overall as regular tourists. But they engage in more natural and outdoor-type activities like trekking and cycling," he added.

Kyoto officials recognize a major barrier to developing an environmentally friendly tourism industry is the city's extremely crowded streets and sidewalks that make walking around the center of town and the tourist sites both exhausting and dangerous. Unlike Tokyo's Ginza or major thoroughfares in other international cities, Kyoto has resisted calls over the years by domestic and foreign tourists to close off its streets on weekends to make the city more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly.

"Nearly 30 percent of Kyoto's 49 million annual tourists arrive by car, and a 2007 survey by the city showed that transport and the crowded roads were the two worst things about visiting Kyoto. We're working to reduce traffic by encouraging more carpooling and taking measures to limit traffic, especially around the historical sites," said Toshimichi Murao, a Kyoto prefectural official said.

No. 3 on the list of things that tourists did not like about Kyoto was the food.

While known for its cuisine, unless it is prepared well, with fresh, natural ingredients, Kyoto's restaurants can be quite bad. Unfortunately, the finest restaurants are also usually the most expensive and difficult to get into, requiring, in some cases, that reservations be made four months in advance. To meet the demands of the mass-tourism industry, traditional-looking restaurants that use frozen or preserved fish, meat and vegetables are the norm, resulting in a very bad culinary experience for many.

Hisao Nakahigashi, a chef and restaurateur who uses only local, natural ingredients, noted that a slow food, slow life mentality necessary for enjoying food properly begins with a proper understanding of how food is grown and what makes it delicious. Cheap food, he said, makes for poor health and a poor environment.

Over the past decade or so, a growing number of Kyotoites, especially those in their 20s and 30s, have recognized the need for better restaurants, and central Kyoto in particular now has more restaurants, traditional and modern, encouraging a more slow food, slow life tourist experience than ever before.

In addition, and in no small thanks to the efforts of Kyoto's concerned international residents, the city's ancient wooden "machiya" (town houses) are being saved and restored and turned into shops and inns that attract those seeking both a traditional and an environmentally friendly experience.

During the economic bubble years, over 10,000 town houses, some hundreds of years old, were torn down to make way for modern structures, prompting a group of foreign residents to form the International Society to Save Kyoto and alert the world that Kyoto was disfiguring itself.

Today, Kyoto is saving the town houses, and one well-known foreigner has bought several, restored them, and is now renting them out to foreign tourists seeking a more traditional and relaxed environment than is offered by staying in a large, impersonal hotel that caters to hundreds of tourists daily.

American Alex Kerr is the chairman of Iori Co., a concern dedicated to acquiring old town houses and refurbishing them in a traditional manner but with modern conveniences, to make them appealing to tourists. A night at an Iori town house is considerably more expensive than a stay at a local business hotel for one person. But for medium-size groups, it may actually cost less per person than what it would to stay at a modern hotel. For example, a one-night stay at an Iori town house may run ¥60,000, but it can accommodate five or six people.

Yet despite the public relations efforts to promote such tourism and a slow life movement, Kyoto's tourist industry is so geared toward bringing in large groups for short periods, especially schoolchildren who come on mandatory study trips, that change appears to be tough.

Politically powerful businesses catering to large groups of tourists by offering cheap lodging or mass-produced souvenirs tend to oppose efforts like shutting off streets to cars, fearing a drop in visitors and profits.

Ultimately, according to those concerned about the environmental problems created by Kyoto's mass-tourism industry, there may be only one effective way to make the city a successful eco-tourism destination, a solution that a number of historical cities promoting eco-tourism in Europe are now trying: Restricting tourist access to some areas.



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