Local shopkeeper says drop in tourist traffic is most dramatic in over 30 years.

There’s a bit of a paradox with Kyoto. Pretty much anyone who has even a passing interest in Japan wants to take a trip there, to steep themselves in the traditional atmosphere of the former capital’s tranquil temples and quiet gardens. Because pretty much anyone with a passing interest in Japan is drawn to those places, though, they often don’t end up feeling all that tranquil or quiet.

However, if you’ve been putting off a trip to Kyoto because of the infamously large crowds of tourists, right now might be the best time to go. And no, that’s not just because we’re in a lull between the New Year’s and cherry blossom travel peaks, but because of the coronavirus outbreak.

▼ Sparse crowds at some of Kyoto’s most popular tourist destinations

Ordinarily, travelers from China make up the largest contingent of foreign visitors to Japan. However, with the cornonavirus prompting the Chinese government to place restrictions on outbound overseas group tours, Japan’s inbound international travel numbers are plummeting, especially in Kyoto, one of the top destinations for Chinese tourists.

In speaking to the Kyoto Shimbun newspaper, several Kyoto shopkeepers reported decreased traveler traffic. The 50-something owner of a souvenir shop near Kinkakuji, Kyoto’s world-famous Golden Pavilion, says the crowds are only about half the size that they usually are for this time of year. Merchants near other major attractions made similar observations. “This is the most dramatic drop in traveler traffic I’ve seen [in over 30 years],” said a shopkeeper near Kiyomizudera temple. Another store owner, located near the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shinto shrine, lamented “On busy days, we used to have 200 tour busses coming in, but now it’s just a few. I stocked up on extra product because I thought we’d have a lot of tourists during Chinese New Year, and local restaurants hired extra workers. I hope the situation turns around soon.”

The coronavirus outbreak seems to also be affecting domestic travel to Kyoto, since the city is well-known to be popular with Chinese travelers, and independent travel from China to Japan is still possible. The Kinkakuji-area shop owner said the number of Japanese and Western visitors is also down, and a 73-year-old women from Japan’s Aichi Prefecture, who’d arrived in Kyoto for sightseeing said she’d considered cancelling her travel plans to the city. In the end, she decided to come anyway, but said she’s “concerned” about the possibility of coronavirus infection, and that she’s been making sure to wear a surgical mask, use hand sanitizer, and gargle regularly on her trip.

The city of Nara is also feeling the effects. Less than an hour by train from Kyoto, Chinese tours often bundle the two cities into the same itinerary.

▼ Nara’s Todaiji temple, which houses its Great Buddha statue, is one of the city’s most-visited sites.

The coronavirus outbreak is likely to take significant time to resolve, but in the meantime, if you’d like to see Kyoto and Nara without the large crowds that have become the norm, plus help out the cities’ hospitality workers, this could be the best timing for your visit.

Source: Kyoto Shimbun, Hachima Kiko
Top image: Pakutaso
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