National

Ancient capitals spar over future train routes as tourism battle heats up

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Thanks to new shinkansen lines built over the past years, once off-the-beaten-path cities such as Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, and Otaru, Hokkaido, are having tourism booms, proving high-speed trains can bring more cash to local businesses.

Well aware of this, leaders in Kyoto and Nara prefectures are increasingly engaged in a war of words over where to route the final leg of Japan’s latest high-tech train, the maglev, as well as that of the Hokuriku shinkansen.

The current plans have the magnetically levitated train running between Tokyo and Osaka by 2045 or much earlier, slashing travel time to just an hour from the 2½ hours required by the fastest shinkansen.

A feasibility study by the transport ministry, however, concluded that bringing it to Osaka via northern Nara Prefecture would be best.

Known as the Nara route, it would allow tourists from Tokyo to access the former capital of Japan more easily. But if they want to visit Kyoto, which became the capital after Nara, they would have to switch to the bullet train in either Nagoya or Osaka, tacking on an additional 20 to 40 minutes of travel time.

Citing this potential bump in the road, Kyoto is pressing its case with the central government to have the maglev rerouted through the historic city. This is the Kyoto route.

It recently released a series of policy proposals it wants the central government to fund in next year’s fiscal budget, including subsidies to ensure the maglev passes through Kyoto.

The move is also part of Kyoto’s broader effort to fund cultural projects over the next four years to further boost tourism, especially from abroad.

Kyoto also is pushing hard to get the Hokuriku shinkansen extension between Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, and Osaka to pass through the northern part of the prefecture and to stop at Kyoto Station, rather than go through Shiga Prefecture.

Earlier this month, Kyoto lodged a protest against a study by neighboring Shiga that said guiding the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line to Maibara before heading to Osaka would be the cheapest option.

JR West, the train’s operator, prefers a route that would take it through much of northern Kyoto.

“It’s extremely regrettable that one prefecture, without discussing a survey for different possible routes throughout the Kansai region, made such a claim,” Kyoto Vice Gov. Takeharu Jyofuku said in a letter to the Shiga Prefectural Government a few weeks ago.

With billions, possibly trillions of yen in local investment at stake over the coming years, competition over the two train lines is emerging as one of the Kansai region’s top political issues, as Kyoto, Nara, and Shiga ramp up their lobbying efforts in the coming months.