NARA — Celebrations to mark the 1,300th anniversary of the founding of Nara’s ancient capital of Heijokyo kicked off Saturday morning, the official start of an event officials hope will attract 2.5 million visitors to the historical site, especially restored for the event, and up to 12 million visitors to the prefecture over the span of the next year.
But officials are concerned the celebrations could fall flat due to inconvenient access to the site, a lack of nearby hotel rooms, competition for tourists from adjacent Kyoto and Osaka, and a less than enthusiastic reaction toward the celebrations among many Nara residents. The timing is also unfortunate, with the celebrations taking place amid an economic downturn.
An appearance by Sento-kun, the official mascot of the celebrations, and three tape-cutting ceremonies at different locations around the 131-hectare site took place on a chilly, cloudy Saturday morning. Nara Gov. Shogo Arai attended one of the tape-cutting events at the Heijokyo History Museum.
Over the next 198 days, until the celebrations end Nov. 7, about 1,500 art, music and culture events are scheduled to take place in the prefecture, of which 500 will be held in the Heijokyo palace grounds.
For Nara, which has long played second fiddle to Kyoto when it comes to historical tourism, the 1,300th anniversary celebrations are viewed among officials and supporters as a chance to raise the area’s profile both within Japan and abroad.
Heijokyo, which served as the capital between 710 and 784, was the far eastern end of the famous Silk Road and the place where the culture and learning of Tang Dynasty China was imported into Japan.
The restored Heijokyo grounds and related anniversary events pay homage to Nara’s ancient connections with China, with an “anime” animated film and other displays at the museum portraying the voyages between China and Japan during that period and emphasizing Nara’s cultural connections with Asia.
But the high-tech museum and other facilities, as well as the gift shops on the Heijokyo site and in the nearby city of Nara that sell souvenir goods with mascot characters, have drawn criticism from those Nara residents who see the event as more about making money than honoring Nara’s history.
“People don’t come to Nara to go see high-tech animated videos or go shopping for the kinds of character goods you can find anywhere.
“They come for Todaiji Temple, the deer of Nara Park, or the traditional shops, cafes and restaurants of Nara ‘machi’ (city),” said Mayumi Okada, 28, a Nara resident who works at a restaurant on Sanjo Street in downtown Nara.
Another problem, organizers admit, is logistical.
Visitors, especially from overseas, usually come to Nara for only a day trip because there are only about 1,100 hotel rooms available in and around the city at any given time. And the historical sites and attractions are spread out all over the prefecture, making a visit to Nara a time-consuming experience and forcing many to return the same evening to their hotels in Osaka or Kyoto, both of which are only an hour or so away from the city’s two train stations.
Heijokyo is around 20 minutes by bus from JR Nara Station or a 15 to 20 minute walk from Saidaiji Station.