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How to Fix Japan’s “Overtourism” Problem

Before covid-19, Japan was one of the world’s great tourism success stories, having gone from a few million visitors per year in 2010 to more than 30 million in 2019. Unfortunately, the country had one of the world’s longest border closures, which saw zero tourists enter between April 2020-September 2022.

Thankfully for the Japanese government, foreigners rushed back in when the drawbridges finally came down, motivated both by the weak yen and by Japan itself. Not everyone was thrilled, however, particularly not the English-language commentary class (though that is—they are—a topic for another post).

What I’m here to speak about is the issue of overtourism in Japan—what it is, how to fix it and whether or not it even exists. No matter where your opinion on this matter is now, I do hope you’ll read what I have to say.

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Why I Find the Term “Overtourism” Problematic—Especially in Japan

Almost immediately after the country’s borders reopened, articles about Japan overtourism flooded the internet. This was a red flag for me—and not just because of the sorts of people creating the content. As a general rule, I see “overtourism” much in the same way I see “overpopulation.” There aren’t too many people, per se, but too many of the wrong people—poor; brown; uncultured. Insert adjective here.

In Japan, this term is especially problematic, particularly in the wake of covid-19. During the 1,000 days the border was closed, I spoke with and heard the stories of countless members of Japan’s travel industry, many of whom would not end up staying in business until opening. The idea of demonizing and reducing tourism in a country where its proliferation has created so much wealth is inhumane, to say the least.

5 Ways to Avoid Japan’s Crazy Crowds

Choose a different destination


The easiest way to remove the word “overtourism” from the conversation? Go off the beaten path! And I mean really off it. Rather than choosing Kanazawa (which is also very crowded) instead of Kyoto or Osaka rather than Tokyo, visit regions like San’in and Sanriku which, for various factors, have few tourists of any nationality.

Visit during a different season


Japan overcrowding is most acute in spring and autumn, Japan’s two most popular seasons. While I would argue that the splendor of the sakura and the majesty of the momiji are worth the stress and trouble, you might not feel this way. Visiting Japan during shoulder months like May and October is a great way to have the country more to yourself.

Explore at a different time of day


A few years ago, I stayed overnight in Nikko (a notorious tourist trap) for the first time, and was amazed by what a different place it felt like early in the morning and late in the evening. This also applies to cities that aren’t day trip destinations—even Tokyo and Kyoto. Waking up before dawn can be difficult, but being able to explore neighborhoods like Higashiyama or Ginza without crowds is priceless.

Target different attractions


A lot of overcrowding in Japan centers on specific places, such as Omoide Yokocho alley in Tokyo, Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima and the ski fields of Niseko in Hokkaido. By exploring different attractions—the yokocho near Mita Station, Lake Biwa’s Shirahige Shrine or Yamagata’s Zao Onsen, respective to the examples I’ve given—you can have similar experiences with way less stress.

See it from a different perspective


I often tell my private clients that the difference between loving Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Shrine and hating it is ~15 minutes: The farther you walk up the steps, the fewer crowds there are. An alternative vantage point is often the best solution, whether that’s admiring Asakusa from the Asakusa Tourist Information Center Observation Deck, or looking down on Osaka Castle from the less-crowded Osaka Museum of History.

The Role of the Japan National Tourism Association (JNTO)

The Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) is at best complicit in the state of tourism in Japan, and is at worst a villain. During covid-19, JNTO remained silent about Japan’s increasingly farcical border closure, even as national tourism bodies around the world lobbied their governments to reopen. Worse, it would post content to its social media channels that made it seem as if the country was open for business.

When it comes to Japan overtourism, JNTO has also been unhelpful. They almost exclusively promote mainstream destinations, and work with influencers and publications based not on their Japan travel knowledge, but follower counts and perceived prestige. They’ll share a round-up of five-star hotels in Tokyo from “Travel + Leisure,” but not an article from a smaller site that spotlights a more authentic Japan.

Other FAQ About Overtourism in Japan

Does Japan have high tourism?

Japan is currently enjoy its highest tourism numbers ever, with the country project to eclipse 2019’s record figures in 2024. While 1,000 days of border closure during covid-19 might push back the previous target of 60 million tourists by 2030 back a few years, Japan is one of the world’s top tourism success stories.

What are the negative impacts of tourism in Japan?

In certain cities, namely Kyoto, the sheer number of tourists has impacted the quality of life of local people. At the same time, calls to greatly reduce or even eliminate tourism could have equally negative impacts. More nuance is necessary when describing tourism, which in spite of being written off as a “fluff” industry is an important and complex part of the Japanese economy.

Is Japan anti-tourism?

As a general role, I don’t think that Japanese people are anti-tourism. I also believe the Japanese government recognizes tourism as an economic growth engine and wants to promote it. At the same time, Japanese authorities (and the Japanese media, including English-language media written by foreigners) scapegoated foreigners during covid-19; many seem to want to resurrect pandemic-era border policies.

The Bottom Line

Is overtourism in Japan really problem—and, if so, how do we fix it? I would argue that “overtourism” (both inside and outside Japan) is somewhat overblown by travel media, whose use it mostly to promote their own agenda. These so-called “thought leaders” ignore the perspectives of travelers and travel businesses, never mind the solutions we might propose. The Japan Tourism Organization is also to blame, given its focus on cliché destinations, and the fact that it works with only the most mainstream travel influencers. I, on the other hand, will work with anyone to address this issue—reach out if you want to pitch something.


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