Temple hopes for UNESCO nod and big cheer for Iwate

12th century Chusonji site feels World Heritage vibes this time

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

Hidden among giant cedar trees at the summit of a mountain in central Iwate Prefecture, Chusonji Temple, with its stunning golden hall dating from the 12th century, couldn’t feel farther from the distraught, tsunami-ravaged coast just 50 km away.

But if things go its way and the temple’s status is elevated on a global scale, a bit of cheer may come to an area where such sentiment has been in short supply. The change hinges on a meeting taking place in Paris next week.

At a special conference running from Sunday to June 29 in the Paris, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization will decide whether to grant 42 sites World Heritage status.

Chusonji and the cluster of historical sites to which it belongs in the town of Hiraizumi are among three locations in Japan up for consideration.

If the Hiraizumi temples are accepted, it will be celebrated as one positive development in a prefecture and region that have had precious few since the March 11 calamity.

“It would be wonderful for the region and Japan as a whole if Hiraizumi were to be inscribed as a World Heritage site,” Cultural Affairs Agency Commissioner Seiichi Kondo told a Tokyo gathering recently.

“The fact that the temples survived the earthquake undamaged is itself a source of great pride.”

The Hiraizumi temples were selected by the Cultural Affairs Agency from Japan’s list of tentative World Heritage sites for nomination in January 2010, and then visited by a specialist team from UNESCO’s International Council on Monuments and Sites for evaluation in September.

After confirming that the sites hadn’t been damaged by the March 11 temblor, the council made a formal recommendation last month that the Hiraizumi application be accepted. It is now expected that UNESCO will accept the endorsement and induct Hiraizumi next week.

“It is not unheard of, but it is extremely rare that UNESCO would not accept an ICOMOS recommendation to list a particular site,” said Maki Sakamoto of the Cultural Affairs Agency’s Cultural Properties Protection Division. “We think it will probably be accepted.”

Equally confident of the outcome of the Paris meeting is Takao Chiba, chief of the Hiraizumi town tourism section.

“We have been working at this for 10 years,” he said, referring to 2001, when the site was first included on Japan’s tentative list.

“The locals are all aware of what’s happening and I think they are behind the move,” he said.

This is not the first time Japan has nominated Hirazumi. A 2006 bid was met with disappointment when ICOMOS recommended the listing be “deferred.”

At that time, the council said the historical importance of the area had not been fully proved. Japan responded by dropping some lesser sites for the current application.

It now includes the temples of Chusonji, which contain the gold-leaf-covered Konjikido and are thought to have been founded by Fujiwara no Kiyohira, a powerful samurai who lived in the region in the 12th century; Motsuji, an 18th-century temple built on the former location of two 12th-century temples and their sprawling garden; a garden on the site of the former Kanjizaioin Temple; the site of the former Muryokoin Temple; a man-made hill called Kinkeisan where the Oshu Fujiwara clan buried holy sutras; and the Yanagi no Gosho site, which is thought to have been the residence of the Oshu Fujiwara family.

The council’s recommendation that Hiraizumi be listed included a stipulation that the Yanagi no Gosho site, where archeological digging is still being conducted, be excluded for lack of evidence of historical significance.

“As far as we are concerned, Yanagi no Gosho is also an important site, so we will continue to promote it as a historical site, but it won’t be a part of the core zone,” explained Chiba.

Since being included on Japan’s tentative World Heritage list in 2001, the number of tourists to Hiraizumi increased steadily through 2008, hitting 2.1 million that year. The numbers then dipped after the council’s initial deferment.

Roughly 18,000 of those 2008 visitors were from abroad. A little more than 8,000 foreign visitors had come in 2001. Judging from the experience of other World Heritage sites in Japan, Chiba expects there will eventually be a 20 percent increase in visitor numbers to Hiraizumi once its heritage status is confirmed.

“But it’s hard to say what the effect of the tsunami and nuclear issue will be,” he said. Visitor figures aren’t available for the last few months.

To prepare for the expected increase in foreign visitors, Hiraizumi has been working on improving English-language signage throughout the town.

Some signs in Chinese and Korean have also been put up. With charter flights from Taiwan landing at Hanamaki Airport nearby, roughly 60 percent of foreign visitors each year tend to be Taiwanese.

“Those tourists usually come on package holidays, but we expect an influx of backpackers, especially from Europe and the U.S.,” said Chiba.

Operators of the town’s six “ryokan” inns — which have a total capacity of about 500 guests — have been encouraged to offer information in English. Many tourists to the area choose to stay overnight in the neighboring cities of Ichinoseki and Hanamaki.

Despite the impending good news, the March 11 quake has cast a pall over what would otherwise have been a mood of celebration in Hiraizumi.

“If the listing is finalized we will hold a small celebratory event in September or thereabouts,” Chiba said.

The other two Japanese sites up for World Heritage status are the Ogasawara archipelago about 1,000 km southeast of Tokyo, and Tokyo’s National Museum of Western Art, which was actually pitched by France seeking recognition for buildings designed by the late French architect Le Corbusier.

The Ogasawaras, which are being considered as a site of natural heritage, secured a positive recommendation from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which advises UNESCO on natural sites. Like Hiraizumi, it is likely to be listed.

The National Museum of Western Art’s application, however, appears doomed, as it failed to get the ICOMOS nod.