Heritage listing puts Tomioka on tourist map

Kyodo

The Tomioka Silk Mill, a historic factory in Gunma Prefecture and a cradle of Japan’s industrialization in the 19th century, has been inundated with tourists following its listing Saturday as a World Heritage site.

Braving the rain, more than 100 people stood under their umbrellas waiting for the factory building to open at 9 a.m. on Sunday.

On Saturday, a UNESCO committee added the mill and related sites to the nation’s World Cultural Heritage list. It is the 18th property to be listed.

“We came (to see it) because we heard about the decision that it will be listed as a World Heritage,” said 42-year-old company owner Toru Hirosawa from Shirai in Chiba Prefecture, who had been standing in line for about an hour. Hirosawa came to take the guided tour with his family.

“We’re looking forward to seeing what the factory looks like,” he said.

As soon as the gates opened, visitors started filing into the building. Some commemorated their visit by taking snapshots in front of the red brick warehouse buildings, while others listened as the guide explained the mill’s history.

According to the Tomioka municipal government, nearly 6,000 people visited the factory on Sunday. City officials said that was about five times more than usual on a Sunday around the same time last year.

Shop owners in the neighborhood were also in a celebratory mood, hanging posters on storefronts congratulating the UNESCO endorsement, while local residents in “happi” coats held a festival with taiko drums and flutes.

However, the deteriorating condition of the 140-year-old buildings has raised concerns about whether the boost in visitors might be only temporary, given that only 20 percent of the site is open to the public and the space for tourists is limited.

In mid-June, a committee made up of prefectural assembly members tasked with promoting tourism around the World Heritage site suggested accepting tour groups. But prefectural officials in charge refused to green-light the idea immediately, arguing the primary aim of the World Heritage listing is to preserve the properties, not to boost tourism.