Too Popular for Its Own Good? New Book Explores Kyoto’s Economic Fate

Books Travel

As the impact of the pandemic dies down, Kyoto is again feeling the pressure of overtourism. A new book argues that many visitors—Japanese as well as foreigners—tend to view the old capital through the distorting lens of romantic cliché. After reading this iconoclastic survey of the city’s modern history, readers may never see the streets of Kyoto in the same way again.

The Truth About Kyoto Cuisine

Ariga Ken is an economist and emeritus professor at Kyoto University. Having lived in the city for half a century, he knows it from the inside. In his new book, Kyōto: Mikan no sangyō toshi no yukue (Kyoto: The Future of an Unfinished Industrial City), he has this to say: “The common phrases that get endlessly repeated about Kyoto are based on thin evidence, to put it charitably, and tend to collapse in the face of the facts.”

One of the things that makes this book different is that it is based on painstaking analysis of statistical data—on population, industry, labor, traffic, and other fields. Ariga uses the numerical evidence to chart the transformations in the urban environment that have taken place in Kyoto since the modernizing Meiji Restoration in 1868.

What are the clichés he is out to slay? “A classic example of the kind of thing I have in mind,” he writes, “is the gushing adulation for Kyoto cuisine that has become almost de rigeur in any discussion of the city’s culinary scene. People assume that Kyoto’s restaurants, and particularly those serving traditional Japanese food, are the inheritors of a proud history and have always had the same reputation for excellence they enjoy today. People assume that this is nothing to do with the city’s relatively recent rise as a tourist destination.” This may be what most people believe. But according to Ariga, they are all wrong.

In fact, he says, it was only quite recently that Kyoto cuisine rose to prominence. Statistics on the numbers of people working in restaurants and hospitality show that the sector only started to boom in Kyoto during the spendthrift days of the bubble economy in the 1980s—considerably later than in other big regional cities like Osaka, Fukuoka, and Kobe. Of the 50 top-ranked Kyoto restaurants on a popular restaurant search site, only 10 can trace their history back to the twentieth century or earlier. The other 40 are all newcomers, founded since the turn of the millennium.

Even the famous kaiseki ryōri haute cuisine, inseparably associated in many people’s minds with the sophisticated culture of Kyoto, in fact started at the Kitchō restaurant in Osaka. Traditional Kyoto food was quite different, consisting mostly of home-cooking-style simmered dishes like imobō (a mixture of dried cod and ebi-imo, a kind of taro), and using large amounts of vegetables and pickled ingredients. Kyoto’s distance from the coast meant that the only seafood in the traditional diet was preserved items that would not spoil, like salted mackerel and hamo (pike conger eel).

Two crucial factors brought Kyoto cuisine the fame and fortune it enjoys today. The first was the arrival of large numbers of well-to-do tourists who created a new demand for fine dining. The second the construction of modern highways and the evolution of refrigeration technology, which made it possible to serve fresh seafood even in the landlocked city. As a result, more than 60% of Kyoto’s exclusive dining establishments are squeezed into a relatively small area of the city: mostly in the wards of Kamigyō, Nagagyō, and Shimogyō, and the famous “geisha district” of Gion.

The famous platform at Kiyomizudera overlooks Kyoto at night. (©
The famous platform at Kiyomizudera overlooks Kyoto at night. (©

A City of Merchants and Small-Scale Industry

One of the main subjects of the book is Kyoto’s history as an industrial city—a far cry from its international image as a living museum of temples and teahouses. This modernization process, the author argues, has been left crucially unfinished and is today causing problems, making it hard for the city to regenerate itself as a thriving place in the twenty-first century.

Kyoto was known for its traditional textile industry, famously represented by the ornately woven Nishijin fabrics used for premium kimonos and obi sashes. The industry was dominated by relatively small family-run businesses. The people who ran them were the machi-shū—the commercial and industrial class of merchants and artisans who were a major presence in the city, helping develop its culture and playing a leading role in local government and community events, including the Gion Matsuri and other festivals.

As late as the 1960s, the author writes, the streets of the city center were still arranged on a chessboard grid of traditional machiya houses with tiled roofs, with square blocks of houses separated by narrow roads with barely enough space for a single lane of traffic. From the early modern period, the local community developed around this central core, made up of the merchants of Muromachi and the artisans of Nishijin and other traditional areas of artisanal industry.

The uncrowded stairs of Kyoto’s Sannenzaka lane in pandemic days. (©
The uncrowded stairs of Kyoto’s Sannenzaka lane in pandemic days. (©

This traditional merchant and artisan class maintained their dominant position in the local community, and because of this Kyoto still hadn’t been transformed into a modern industrial city when the postwar period of rapid economic growth arrived—unlike Tokyo and Osaka.

Not that Kyoto is without its modern high-tech companies. In fact, some of Japan’s best-known names—companies like Nintendo, Kyocera, and Murata Manufacturing—all have their head offices in Kyoto. Some people point to these examples of high-tech success and link these successes to the city’s history of quality craftsmanship, arguing that these companies grew out of the traditional industries and that Kyoto’s history of fine craftsmanship was part of the reason for their success. But Ariga is not convinced.

In fact, the important thing to note is that these companies were all based not in the center of the city or the Nishijin district, or in Higashiyama, the traditional center of Kyoto-style ceramics, but in the southwestern area of the city, where they sprung up rapidly during the latter years of the postwar economic boom. . . . During this process of rapid growth, many of these companies divided their production bases between plants inside and outside the city, and one of the striking things about them is that in many cases they achieved their big success by moving away from Kyoto.

The reason was simple: it was impossible to build modern high-rise buildings in the center of the city. Kyoto has strict building regulations and bylaws to preserve the picturesque appearance of the city’s historic districts, so that “Kyoto did not undergo the same transformation of the city center into a high-rise business district that took place in every other major Japanese city during the economic boom period,” as Ariga explains. The pioneer in introducing these regulations was the socialist-led local government that dominated for more than a quarter century, from 1950 to 1978.

Why has Kyoto held onto relatively more of its traditional old neighborhoods compared to other Japanese cities? The main reason is not that Kyoto was never a target for bombing raids during the war, as many people believe. The crucial factor was that areas like Nishijin and Muromachi continued to dominate local life in the decades after the war, and that as a result, blocks lined with traditional machiya could still be seen in the central areas of the city as late as the 1990s.

A Dwindling Local Population

Once the economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, these artisanal districts went into terminal decline. But no new industry stepped in to take their place. Several factors hampered the growth of new industry: problems with urban planning related to the zoning restrictions in the scenic city center, and delays in constructing a modern transportation network commensurate with the city’s size and importance. Since 2010 the city has become a magnet for international tourism, but this has benefited only a small section of the local economy: primarily restaurants and other small businesses in the tourist industry, most of them newcomers rather than the long-established family-run businesses of the popular imagination.

The author argues that Kyoto may have been “too successful for its own good as a tourist city, and this success may now be holding back all sectors of the economy apart from tourism.”

From the collapse of the bubble economy in the early 1990s, Kyoto underwent a major change in the appearance of its streets, its industrial structure, and even in the makeup of its local communities, and the speed of these changes only accelerated as Kyoto’s character as a tourist city became more clearly defined. Although Kyoto has broken out of the prolonged stagnation that continued for decades after the war, in the process it lost its traditional artisanal character as the home of the machi-shū class, and still seems to be drifting in search of a new role and identity.

For some years, the net population of Kyoto has been falling every year—making it the largest city in Japan whose population is in decline. This population drain is particularly pronounced among young people in their twenties and thirties, and even among people still in their teens. There could be no clearer proof that the city offers scant opportunities for employment and is failing to provide an attractive environment for young couples with children.

Ironically, the success of Kyoto’s tourist sector may be threatening the future viability of the city as a whole. What will happen when the current overheated tourist boom comes to an end?

Kyōto: Mikan no sangyō toshi no yukue (Kyoto: The Future of an Unfinished Industrial City)

By Ariga Ken
Published by Shinchōsha
ISBN: 978-4-10-603901-0

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo ©

Kyoto tourism book review books