On Nov. 21 and 22, the city of Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture will host the 6th World Heritage Summit coinciding with the commemoration of the Shrines and Temples of Nikko being added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage list. The summit will focus on world heritage sites, their preservation and communal cooperation.

Nov. 21 has been set aside for subcommittees to discuss issues like traditional techniques necessary for proper restoration of historic wooden structures, collaboration with heritage sites in eastern Japan or local tourism. The theme of the Nov. 22 conference, on the other hand, will be the broader issue of world heritage and inbound tourism. David Atkinson, CEO of Konishi Decorative Arts and Crafts Co., Visit Kyoto ambassador and expert member of Nikko’s special committee for policy issues, will deliver the keynote address.

Nikko was first recognized by UNESCO in 1999 when the buildings of its two Shinto shrines (Toshogu and Futarasan) and of its Buddhist temple (Rinnoji), as well as their natural surroundings, were added to the World Heritage List as a single, 50-hectare complex. The Shrines and Temples of Nikko consist of a total of 103 buildings, the majority of which were constructed in the 17th century. Their histories, however, are much longer, going back to when the sites were first established in Nikko in the eighth century.

But the sites aren’t just historically significant. They are also masterpieces of architecture and art, as well as important centers of worship. Rinnoji temple, for example, venerates Buddhist deities of the three holy Nikko mountains. They include Mount Nantai’s Senju Kannon (Kannon with a thousand arms), Mount Nyoho’s Amida Nyorai (the Buddha of limitless light) and Mount Taro’s Bato Kannon (Kannon with a horse head). Similarly, the Shinto Futarasan Shrine deifies Mount Futara (another name for Mount Nantai). As the only shrine in the area for many years, it came to prominence as the Shinto guardian of Nikko and a center of mountain worship.

However, no discussion of Nikko architecture can exclude Nikko Toshogu shrine. The massive complex, which enshrines the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, consists of 55 structures painted in vibrant colors, adorned with intricate sculptures, and, in many cases, covered in gold. Anywhere between ¥40 and ¥100 billion in today’s money was used to decorate Toshogu, which surely contributed to it becoming part of the Shrines and Temples of Nikko.

It’s not an easy thing to be recognized this way by UNESCO. Currently, there are 1,121 World Heritage sites around the world (with 23 in Japan), and they span everything from Brazil’s Historic Town of Ouro Preto to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. But in order to make the list, all sites must be “considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.” They must also be unique in some way. Specific conditions are laid out in the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention. Until 2004, any candidate for UNESCO’s list had to fulfill six cultural and four natural criteria in order to be recognized as a World Heritage site. However, after the guidelines were revised, those requirements were changed to a candidate site having to only fulfill one of 10 of UNESCO’s criteria.

The Shrines and Temples of Nikko met three of such conditions. For one, their spectacular architecture blends harmoniously with the breathtaking natural scenery, reflecting the artistic genius of the sites’ architects. Secondly, the original, distinctive architectural style of Toshogu or the Taiyu-in Reibyo mausoleum became representative of the Edo Period (1603 to 1868) as more and more craftsmen adapted or were inspired by it. Finally, the Shrines and Temples of Nikko are a living example of religious centers emphasizing the Shinto belief about the indissoluble connection between man and nature.

It’s why Nikko’s shrines and temples made the UNESCO list and why it’s so crucial to preserve them for posterity. However, that, once again, can be a tall order. Rinnoji, Toshogu and Futarasan suffered from disasters such as earthquakes and fires, and each time they were restored faithfully using traditional materials and techniques in order to maintain their historic value. But with each year, that is becoming more and more difficult.

A few parts of the Nikko World Heritage site are currently in the final stages of a complex restoration project, one of the most challenging parts of which is renewing the lacquer coating that protects their wooden structures from rain, UV rays and wind. This must be done using 400-year-old techniques from the Edo Period, which requires in-depth knowledge of not only lacquer application, but also its extraction, refining, natural properties and drying time. It’s an incredibly difficult and time-consuming process, but no one who sees the final, beautiful results can argue that it isn’t worth the effort.

The Nikko Special was produced in collaboration with The Shimotsuke Shimbun, a daily Japanese newspaper in Tochigi Prefecture with over 140 years of history. The first two pages of this four-page supplement were created by The Japan Times, while the latter two pages were produced by The Shimotsuke Shimbun.
Download the PDF of this Nikko Special

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