A railroad runs through it: Nara wants help keeping popular ancient ruins serene and intact

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Strolling around the ancient ruins of Nara’s Heijokyo Palace site, a 2,500-hectare area of footpaths and open green fields, it’s easy to imagine that one is back in the distant past, walking on ground first tread 1,300 years ago when it was Japan’s first true city.

It’s a quiet, bucolic scene, until one’s thoughts are interrupted by the very modern sound of yet another train on the Kintetsu-Nara Line clacking along the rails that cut through the site heading either east to Shinomiya Station or west to Yamato-Saidaiji Station.

The presence of a train running through the ruins, a World Heritage site, has long been a source of complaints. Tourists, archaeologists and local politicians, starting with Nara Gov. Shogo Arai, have all called for the tracks to be rerouted out of the area. And this year, talks involving the prefecture, city, central government and Kintetsu Railway Co. toward that goal are slated to kick off.

Under a plan proposed by the prefecture, the tracks would be moved just south of the Heijokyo ruins, parallel to a main road. A new subway station along the new route, closer to the Heijokyo site than Yamaoto-Saidaiji Station currently is, might also be built.

Talks will focus on cost issues, as well as whether the new line should be built underneath the road or above ground. A report is expected from the prefecture later this year.

Since 2010, when it celebrated the 1,300th anniversary of the founding of Heijokyo, Nara has pushed to get more tourists to the site in the hope of drawing them to its other historical attractions. In 2015, the city of Nara alone drew nearly 15 million visitors, including day-trippers. That figure includes 975,000 foreign visitors.

Local tourism surveys show visitors like Nara’s history and green open spaces, but many, especially from abroad, are surprised and disappointed Nara isn’t doing more to protect and preserve the environment of ancient sites.

Nara, in turn, wants the central government to take the lead and offer more financial support for preserving sites of national importance.

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