Nara fears 1,300th anniversary flop

by Eric Johnston

NARA — The ancient capital of Nara is celebrating the 1,300th anniversary of its founding throughout 2010 with hundreds of events that officials hope will bring in nearly 13 million visitors and raise the city’s profile domestically and internationally as a historical and cultural tourism center.

But questions are growing about how successful the celebrations will ultimately prove, with concerns over the effect of the weak economy on events and attendances, a lack of foreign language tourism information and a local populace that has been slow to embrace the festivities.

Even Nara Gov. Shogo Arai has warned that the city can be far too slow in getting things done, especially with regards to tourism promotion.

“There is much to see and do in Nara but it’s not nearly as easy to get around, especially as an individual tourist or in small groups, as Kyoto. Hopefully, the 1,300th anniversary celebrations will at least force Nara officials to put more effort into providing services and information to tourists, especially foreign tourists, in the years ahead,” said Ryo Yonehara, who founded a free information magazine called Nara Explorer, which is available at local tourism centers.

Although Heijo-kyo, a couple of kilometers from modern Nara, served as Japan’s capital only from 710 to 784, the period was one of intense cultural development.

Nara, which formed the far eastern end of the famed Silk Road, traded with the Korean Peninsula and sent missions to China.

Today, Nara Prefecture is home to Japan’s first Buddhist temples and monuments, including Horyuji, considered the world’s oldest wooden structure.

But in the modern era, Nara has played second fiddle to Kyoto when it comes to promoting itself as a tourist destination.

With the fewest hotels of any of Kansai’s prefectures, only two train lines, which serve the city from Osaka and Kyoto, and a traditional apathy on the part of officials and residents toward creating a mass tourism industry, Nara has, it is generally agreed, an underdeveloped tourism industry and has usually been a day trip at best for those staying in adjacent Osaka on business or touring Kyoto.

Prefectural officials are trying to change that by turning the former Heijo-kyo site into something between a theme park and an international expo.

On the site, workers are racing to finish construction of museums, exhibition halls and a replica of Heijo-kyo’s former Imperial audience hall, where political affairs were conducted and visiting scholars from China and the Korean Peninsula were feted.

At a history museum, a full-scale replica of the ship that carried Japanese diplomats to Tang Dynasty China in the eighth century will be displayed, while at a separate building, visitors will be able to try on ancient costumes and try their hand at manufacturing various crafts using ancient techniques.

For budding Indiana Jones types, there will be another hall with exhibits of the excavated sections of the site itself.

“We project the Heijo-kyo site alone will receive about 2.5 million visitors, and Nara Prefecture will have about 13 million visitors this year,” said Shigemitsu Hayashi, public relations group director of the Association for Commemorative Events of the 1,300th Anniversary of Nara Heijo-kyo Capital.

In 2007, 21 cities and towns in Nara Prefecture attracted 35.7 million visitors, including about 2.3 million from abroad.

Besides Heijo-kyo, events to mark Nara’s ancient history will take place throughout the prefecture, especially in the Asuka and Fujiwara areas of central Nara, which served as the capitals about a century before Heijo-kyo.

To boost its international profile, Nara is hosting a number of conferences this autumn on culture and tourism, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Tourism Ministers meeting.

Challenges remain, however, to using the 1,300th anniversary events to make Nara as popular a tourism destination as Kyoto Prefecture, which attracted 78 million visitors in 2008, 50 million of whom visited the city of Kyoto alone.

Logistic concerns and how the economic downturn will affect the anniversary are weighing on the minds of local residents, who hope to see more tourism.

But there is also the fundamental difficulty of explaining Nara’s ancient history to modern Japanese unfamiliar with the city’s past, and even more difficulty in explaining that history in an interesting and understandable way to overseas visitors.

“Over the past year, two hotels in the city of Nara have closed because of the poor economy. The city is only served by the Kintetsu Line and JR lines to Osaka and Kyoto. More worrisome is that there is not enough English language information on not only the history of Nara but also practical information on getting around Nara, which is quite spread out,” Yonehara said.

Efforts to provide information to foreign visitors do exist. Most major attractions offer English explanations of their history.

Volunteer and paid English language guides to Nara’s main attractions are available for those who call a day or so in advance, although an ever-increasing number of visitors come from China and South Korea.

Maps and information in both Chinese and Korean have recently become available, but prefectural officials admit that although Nara has stepped up its campaign to lure East Asian tourists to the 1,300th anniversary events, there are few local guides fluent in those languages.

Even Japanese visitors to Nara’s more popular destinations often wonder what they’re looking at without guides.

At the Nara National Museum, volunteers explain the different meanings of Buddhist statues on display, although the difficulty of the kanji labels beside many artifacts, especially religious artifacts, is a challenge to those, Japanese or non-Japanese, whose knowledge of Buddhism or ancient Japanese history is limited.

Other tourists prefer to spend their time shopping in the area of Nara known as Nara Machi.

About a 10-minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station, Nara Machi consists of several blocks of renovated “machiya” town houses that have been converted into small clothing stores, tea houses and restaurants serving everything from Indian to vegetarian to traditional Nara cuisine.

Some Nara Machi shops have already adjusted to the influx of foreign tourists.

Kikuoka, a Chinese herbal medicine shop with an 800-year history, provides visitors with an English-Japanese glossary of terms for ordering specific medicines for ailments.

The Sasaya sake shop offers a tasting set of Nara-brewed sake for ¥500, and the owner speaks a little English.

But other shops in the neighborhood are monolingual and are sometimes hidden on back streets, difficult to find and not on the few English maps of the city that are available.

While getting away from the crowds at well-known sites and exploring the “real” Japan by yourself is more than half the fun for many foreign tourists, it’s questionable how much Nara Machi will benefit from foreign tourism related to the 1,300th anniversary celebrations if there is a lack of knowledge in foreign languages about the area’s charms.

Even the symbol of the 1,300th anniversary has caused controversy that may impact the number of visitors or leave a negative impression.

Those in Tokyo, where Nara officials have been concentrating their public relations efforts this past year, or in Nara Prefecture, may have noticed a cute cartoon character with a bald head on promotional posters. This is Sento-kun, the official mascot of the event.

Sento-kun is a boyish, Buddha-like character with antlers, deer being the other symbol of Nara. Designed by Satoshi Yabuuchi, a professor at a Tokyo arts college, Sento-kun drew scorn and criticism from many local residents for being childish and tasteless, while some Buddhist organizations, angry at what they saw as a sacrilegious design, came up with competing mascots.

Several shops have opened in Nara selling Sento-kun goods but a clerk at one of them said recently that, while such items were somewhat popular with those outside the prefecture, few local residents were interested.

Officials still have a bit of time left to build more public support for the events, as the official ceremony to mark the opening of the museums and exhibition halls on the former site of Heijo-kyo isn’t until April 24.

Additional reporting by Kanako Nakamura