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You Could Be Fined for Taking Photos of Geisha in This Kyoto District

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The photography ban in Kyoto’s Gion district applies to private streets, but taking photos will still be allowed in public areas such as the Kiyomizu-dera Temple.

Photo by RPBaiao / Shutterstock

The photography ban in Kyoto’s Gion district applies to private streets, but taking photos will still be allowed in public areas such as the Kiyomizu-dera Temple.

In parts of the city’s historic Gion neighborhood, residents are enforcing a photography ban in response to impolite behavior from travelers.

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Kyoto’s historic Gion district is famed for its stone-paved alleyways with wooden machiya (townhouses), where kimono-clad geisha en route to entertain at local ochaya (traditional teahouses) are an everyday sight. But in recent years, travelers have reportedly been causing a ruckus trying to photograph the residents of this deeply traditional area, even trespassing on private property to get their ideal shot.

After complaints from geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) about being chased down private streets, photographed without their consent, and even pressured into taking selfies with travelers, the residents of Gion have cracked down on photography in the district, imposing a fine of  ¥10,000 (US$92) for anyone caught harassing geisha or taking any photos at all on private streets.

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On October 25, flyers and signs announcing the new rules were put up across Kyoto’s popular geisha district. Video surveillance was also installed on private roads to ensure that travelers don’t break the photography ban, although isn’t entirely clear who is monitoring the cameras or enforcing the regulations overall.

Residents of Kyoto’s Gion district are imposing a fine of ¥10,000 (US$92) for anyone caught harassing geisha or taking photos on private streets.

Currently, it’s still permitted to take pictures on public roads in Gion such as Hanami-koji, the entertainment district’s main street packed with ryōtei (fine dining restaurants) and izakaya (Japanese pubs); Shirakawa-dori, a quiet lane along the Shirakawa River lined with willow, cherry blossom, and Japanese maple trees; and Sannen-zaka Slope, a pedestrian-only alleyway located near major Kyoto landmarks, including the Kiyomizu-dera Temple and Yasaka Shrine. Even in these main areas, however, visitors are advised to request permission before taking photos of geisha. 

Mimiko Takayasu, the head of an association of local residents and shop owners, told Japan’s national broadcaster NHK that the photography ban was introduced to “preserve Gion’s traditional atmosphere,” known for its well-preserved cultural touchstones, including Japanese architecture and performing arts practices born out of Japan’s Edo period (1603–1868). 

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As the number of visitors to Japan has skyrocketed over the past decade, residents in Kyoto—one of the country’s most popular destinations—have increasingly felt the impacts of overtourism. Last year in the city’s Higashiyama district (within walking distance from Gion), a local committee cited issues including “half-naked hikers, trespassing travelers, and prolonged photo shoots” before signing a memorandum demanding better tourist behavior, the Japanese newspaper the Asahi Shimbun reported.

More recently, Kyoto’s tourism authority launched a digital manual detailing important rules of conduct and other information for visitors to the city’s popular destinations. (It asks travelers not to photograph geisha without their permission.) The hope is that travelers to the ancient city will learn—and abide by—the outlined etiquette, especially as Japan prepares for an even greater number of visitors to the country when the 2020 Summer Olympics take place in Tokyo, just a two-hour bullet train ride away.

>> Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to Kyoto

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