A win-win idea that’s long overdue.

In recent years, the issue of overtourism has been getting increasing amounts of attention in Kyoto. The city was already one of Japan’s most popular travel destinations for both domestic and international tourists, and with the weak yen and pent-up post-pandemic travel desire casing an especially large surge in inbound international visitors, the Kyoto Municipal Transportation Bureau has decided to take action by creating special Tourism Express Bus routes.

Buses have been among the places where tourism most visibly bumps up against locals’ lifestyles. Despite its image as a quiet, cultured community, Kyoto is not a small city, having a population of close to 1.5 million people. However, Kyoto’s train and subway network is fairly compact, with most of its rail stops clustered in a relatively small area in the center of downtown. That means many locals who live outside the very center of the city and are reliant on public transportation need to take the bus.

At the same time, most of Kyoto’s biggest tourism draws are also located outside the rail network, on the outer fringes of the downtown area, and some are also nestled against the foothills on the eastern edge of town, limiting the angles they can be approached from. Those factors regularly funnel tourists onto the same buses that local residents use to get around, more so than in just about any other large Japanese city. The result has been increasingly crowded buses, sometimes so much so that there’s not enough room to even get on unless you wait for multiple buses to come by.

Obviously, that isn’t a situation that locals or travelers enjoy, and a year ago the Kyoto city government announced that it would no longer be offering its popular 700-yen (US$4.70) one-day all-you-can-ride bus passes to address overcrowding, instead bundling a day’s worth of unlimited subway and bus rides together in an 1,100-yen combo pass. As mentioned above, though, many of Kyoto’s most popular sightseeing attractions have no nearby subway stops, and so buses have remained crowded. So on Thursday, the Kyoto transportation bureau announced that it will be starting a pair of Tourism Express Bus routes this summer, specifically designed for travelers, to help divert them away from buses being used by locals.

▼ Tourism Express Bus routes, with the Kyoto Station stop (京都駅前) marked in yellow (note that the bus only stops at Kiyomizumichi (清水道) on its way back to Kyoto Station).

The Tourism Express Buses will run on weekends and holidays, with both routes starting at Kyoto Station. The longer route, designated EX100, will depart from Kyoto Station and head east into the Higashiyama district, with its first stop at Gojozaka, down the hill from Kiyomizu Temple. The bus will then travel north to its next stop at Gion, Kyoto’s famed geisha quarter, and then to a combined stop for Heian Shrine, Okazaki Park, and the Kyoto Museum of Art. After that, the bus goes further north to Ginkakuji (a.k.a. the Silver Pavilion), stopping once in front of the site and again nearby at Ginkakuji-michi, from where it turns back for the return to Kyoto Station, making one additional stop at Kiyomizu-michi, at the base of the slop that leads to Kiyomizu Temple. A shorter route, EX101, stops only at Gojozaka before heading back to Kyoto Station. 24 EX100 buses and 16 EX100 will run daily, approximately three each per hour between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. The new routes will begin running on June 1.

▼ Ginkakuji, located near the northernmost stop on the Tourism Express Bus route

The creation of the Tourism Express Buses doesn’t mean that travelers are barred from using ordinary buses, and locals are likewise allowed to use the nominally for-tourist routes too. Two aspects will likely result in a natural divergence of local and tourist ridership, though.

First, as you can see from the above map, there aren’t a ton of stops on the Tourism Express Bus route. Yes, tourists can easily spend a full-day sightseeing at the spots it provides access to, especially since Ginkakuji is connected to a handful of other temples via the Philosopher’s Path walking street. The absence of stops in any major office, shopping, or residential areas, though, means that there’s little reason for locals to take the Tourism Express Bus while going about their everyday, non-sightseeing lives.

The other divergence factor is the price. A ride on the Tourism Express Bus will cost 500 yen (US$3.35), or 250 yen for children. That’s double the flat fee charged for a ride on normal Kyoto city buses, and while that extra amount is miniscule difference when folded into an entire trip-to-Kyoto/Japan travel budget, residents who are taking the bus dozens or hundreds of times a year will presumably gravitate towards the less expensive standard bus options.

There’s a possibility that extra-thrifty travelers may still feel the allure of the cheaper normal buses, but the smaller number of stops on the Tourism Express Bus routes also mean a shorter ride to the destinations along the way. From Kyoto Station, the ride to Gojozaka is expected to shrink to just 10 minutes, down from the 15 it takes on a normal bus, and the time from Kyoto Station to Ginkakuji is cut almost in half, at only 24 minutes compared to the regular 44. The Tourism Express Bus will also be covered by the 1,100-yen one-day Kyoto bus/subway pass.

One could argue that it’s strange that the Tourism Express Buses will cost more to ride, especially with the truncated EX101 route being so short. After all, if the whole reason they’re being created is because there are so many tourists, it seems there should be enough of an economy of scale to price the Tourism Express Buses like any other. As discussed above, though, the price difference is likely to help separate local and tourist use.

Quibbles about pricing aside, the Tourism Express Bus seems like an idea that’s long overdue. Kyoto has always been a city that attracts travelers, going back to the days when its status as Japan’s capital city made it not just the center for lofty fine arts, but for commerce and commoners’ pursuits too. Its rising popularity as a travel destination continually contributes to an international appreciation and affinity for Japan, and so an initiative like this to help Kyoto continue to be a showcase of Japan’s traditional culture to people from all over the world while still remaining a livable city for those who call it home.

Source: Kyoto City (1, 2)
Top image: Pakutaso
Insert images: Kyoto City, SoraNews24
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