Lifestyle | WEEK 3

Last Tokyo street view of Mount Fuji set to go

Builders and buck-passing may soon rob 'people's common inheritance'

by Justin Aukema

Special To The Japan Times

As the sun sets over a small patch of the Nippori district of Tokyo’s northeastern Arakawa Ward, people can often be seen stopping to gaze to the West — something not so surprising atop a street named Fujimizaka, which means “Mount Fuji Viewing Slope.”

However, for anyone who happens upon this spot without realizing its unique status in the metropolis, a plaque points out that, away in the direction of the setting sun, Japan’s most iconic mountain can (on a clear day) be seen rising in its conical 3,776-meter glory some 100 km away.

Even for those too busy to stop, though, at least glancing that way seems to be part of life on Nippori’s Fujimizaka, and the view of Japan’s highest mountain that straddles Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures is always a topic of conversation there.

Savoring views of Mount Fuji from Tokyo has been popular since at least the Edo Period (1603-1867), when the city fast became the bustling and populous political hub of the ruling Tokugawa shogunate. At that time, when it was called Edo and Kyoto was the capital, Mount Fuji was considered a sacred symbol of the city and was visible from many areas. Indeed, the ukiyo-e (woodblock-print) master Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) famously portrayed the peak’s part in people’s daily lives in his series titled “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.”

Today, however, Nippori’s Fujimizaka is the last place in central Tokyo offering a street-level view of the mountain — of which both city and national officials are well aware. Yet though Arakawa Ward includes Nippori’s Fujimizaka in its visitor guides, and in 2005 the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism recommended it among the 100 bests spots in the Kanto region of Honshu from where to see the mighty mount, many local residents, and others, feel such gestures far from suffice.

Indeed, on March 26, 2000, The Japan Times reported in a story headlined “13-story project spells doom for Fuji view” that an apartment building erected by Nippon Kokan (NKK) Fudosan K.K. in adjoining Bunkyo Ward to the south “spurred angry protests from local residents,” after it completely obstructed the view of the left side of Mount Fuji from Nippori’s Fujimizaka.

Despite calls to lower the building height, and a petition with 5,000 signatures, all efforts to influence the authorities or the builders proved to be in vain.

“When I was in elementary school, I could see the mountain from the second floor of our house,” Tatsuo Ikemoto, a Bunkyo Ward resident standing on the hilltop recalled. “It never crossed my mind that one day I wouldn’t be able to see it.”

Makoto Kaneko, 86, chipped in, saying, “I was born and raised around here and every day on my way to pre-school I walked up the hill and could see Mount Fuji.”

The events of 2000 prompted Kaneko and others to form the Citizens Alliance to Save the Fuji-View (CASF). As one of its pamphlets states, it aims “to pass on the scenic heritage of Nippori’s Fujimizaka,” and protect the view as “people’s common inheritance for current and future generations.”

Arakawa Ward sounds all in favor of such efforts. Chie Tanii, who heads its tourism promotion division, said they are “doing what they can,” including meeting with the CASF. “It would be really unfortunate if that view were lost,” she added.

However, Makoto Akasaka, a professor of landscape architecture at Chiba University, has identified a major obstacle confronting preservation efforts. “Currently there are no laws or regulations to protect vistas such as this,” he explained. “The first step should be to create some guidelines to do that.”

Any such first step, though, may be too little too late. For one thing, in September 2010 Sumitomo Fudosan revealed plans for a 160-meter-high, 45-story apartment building 6 km away in the Okubo 3-chome district of city-center Shinjuku Ward. That would extinguish the view entirely.

In response, the CASF appealed to the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a UNESCO advisory body, which adopted a resolution supporting “the development of guidelines to protect the last remaining vistas of Mount Fuji.”

That body also contacted Sumitomo Fudosan and various Tokyo ward offices expressing “serious international concern” and urging authorities to “re-evaluate the development in view of the importance of maintaining the vista.” It may also be significant that UNESCO is expected to decide by June 2013 whether to award World Heritage Site status to Mount Fuji.

Consequently, as Akasaka put it, “If the view from Nippori’s Fujimizaka is lost, it certainly sends a message that people aren’t really concerned about the importance of Mount Fuji as a World Heritage Site.”

Though Sumitomo Fudosan has denied a direct connection with such matters, work on the Okubo 3-chome site has halted. “We’re deliberating the construction plans,” said a company spokesman who withheld his name. “Since the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, we’ve been changing the plans to make the building even stronger.”

Making matters worse, the CASF’s Kaneko said he was “shocked beyond words” in August when the group learned work was under way in Bunkyo Ward’s Sendagi 3-chome district on a privately financed, 11-story apartment block set for completion in November 2013. That building, to be called Fukui Mansion, would completely block out the view of the top and right side of Mount Fuji from Nippori’s Fujimizaka — utterly ruining the view.

Although CASF has urged Bunkyo Ward, the builder and construction company, Seiwa Corp., to lower the height from 11 to seven stories to preserve the view from Fujimizaka, a Bunkyo Ward planning official speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “From a legal standpoint, there is absolutely no problem with building Fukui Mansion.

“Bunkyo Ward cannot forcefully regulate the building height because that would infringe on the builder’s private rights,” he said. “And as the hill is in Arakawa Ward, it is not our job to take the preservation initiative. However, if Arakawa Ward drew up some guidelines, we would cooperate.”

Faced with pass-the-buck responses at every turn, many residents and CASF members are left pinning their hopes on the publicity and awareness generated by events such as Diamond Fuji. These are annual celebrations — usually in mid-November and late January — of the two days on which the sun sets directly behind the mountain’s peak, casting a diamond-like silhouette of the symmetrical cone.

“We want to make sure this year isn’t the last Diamond Fuji,” CASF member Eiko Ikemoto said with feeling. “By gathering people together, we’re hoping to send a message to the builder to preserve the view.”

On Nov. 13, nearly 300 people turned out for the most recent Diamond Fuji, including students, photographers and others from far beyond Tokyo. But as CASF members distributed fliers, Ikemoto pulled no punches when she said: “If we give up now, the view of Mount Fuji from Nippori’s Fujimizaka could be lost for generations to come.”

Getting there: From JR Nishi-Nippori Station, walk up the hill left of the exit and adjacent to the tracks. Continue straight on Suwadai Dori to Suwa Shrine, to the right of which Nippori Fujimizaka is marked by a plaque. The walk typically takes 10 minutes.

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