National

Is Nara's future tied to a proposed maglev shinkansen route?

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Although Nara has become a favorite of international tourists in recent years, the city, which served as the nation’s ancient capital from 710 to 784, has historically been a bit off the beaten path.

Heijokyo, or Heijo Palace, as Nara was then known, was the easternmost terminal of the Silk Road and the center of Buddhism in Japan. It drew scholars and religious leaders from Korea, China and other parts of Asia in what was a long and sometimes difficult voyage by land and sea.

Today, though neither an arduous nor dangerous journey, Nara remains less convenient to reach by rail from other parts of Japan than neighboring Kyoto or Osaka. But a campaign promise by Nara Gov. Shogo Arai, who was re-elected to a fourth term in April, has put the spotlight on Nara’s future as a major domestic crossroads if a proposed Nagoya-Osaka link for the maglev shinkansen is realized.

If Arai gets his way, there will not only be a maglev station in the city of Nara that continues to the Osaka terminus, but also a separate maglev train that runs from Nara in the northern part of the prefecture and stops at smaller cities in the southern part, as well as Hashimoto in Wakayama Prefecture, before turning west and heading to Kansai airport.

“It’s a difficult challenge. But I want to discuss demand for the route and construction costs to deepen the possibility of realizing the plan,” Arai told reporters in June.

In June, the prefectural government appropriated ¥25 million to begin studying the possibility of a maglev route between Nara and Kansai airport. At present, reaching the airport from northern Nara Prefecture takes 1½ hours by direct bus and at least two hours by train with one transfer. A maglev ride is predicted to take less than 30 minutes.

Arai justified his grand scheme by saying that when the Tokyo-Osaka maglev route is completed, now scheduled for 2037, Shin-Osaka Station, the maglev’s terminus, is likely to find itself jammed with passengers trying to then transfer from the maglev to trains for Kansai airport, saying that a Nara to Kansai airport maglev line would help reduce overcrowding concerns.

However, increasing the number of foreign tourists is clearly the main goal. Of the more than 17 million tourists who visited the city of Nara last year, 2.65 million were from abroad, up 33 percent from 2017.

Neighboring Kyoto, with its much better rail access, had about 4.5 million foreign visitors last year, an increase of nearly 1 million compared to 2017.

But the city faces increased criticism domestically of overcrowded streets and historical sites, and the total number of visitors to Kyoto has decreased by 4 million since 2015, as Japanese visitors stay away, leading to worries in Nara about similar problems if a maglev arrives.

“Nara isn’t as big as Kyoto and the streets are already pretty crowded. I’m not sure how many tourists we could handle comfortably if a maglev shinkansen brings even more,” says Hisako Ishida, who works at a small cafe in central Nara that gets a lot of foreign customers.

Arai’s proposal calls for a maglev line to start in the city of Nara and pass through Yamatotakada, Gose, Gojo in Nara Prefecture and Hashimoto, Wakayama Prefecture, before heading to Kansai airport. The area the train would pass through is quite rural and rich in ancient history, leading to hopes that it would bring in international tourists who seek a more rustic or environmental tourism experience than is provided by visits to the cities of Kyoto or Nara.

In addition, the governor is also proposing the area near Gojo Station be a designated evacuation spot in the event of a large-scale natural disaster.

The centerpiece of the plan is a 2,000-meter runway where aircraft belonging to the Self-Defense Forces and others would land following an earthquake to deliver supplies to a stricken region, given Kansai airport, Itami airport, Kobe airport and the small SDF airport in Yao, Osaka Prefecture, can’t be used for large-scale operations.

“The evacuation area would be built using dirt displaced by construction of the maglev shinkansen,” Arai said.

Asked in the June prefectural assembly session why a runway of that length was necessary, the governor’s office said its model was the example of how a 2,000-meter runway at Yamagata Airport was utilized for emergency operations after earthquakes and tsunami hit the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011.

No cost estimate for either the runway or the evacuation area was given by Arai. Nor did the governor provide details as to what the evacuation facility would contain, when it might be constructed or opened. He also made no mention of whether a runway might eventually be used for commercial flights.

Arai’s plan for a maglev spur between Nara and Kansai airport with a 2,000-meter runway in the middle of nowhere might be dismissed as some sort of public works fantasy of the kind dreamed up by local governments in the 1980s and 1990s.

But regardless of what kind of reports and recommendations for a maglev between Nara and Kansai airport the ¥25 million allotted for research produces, it hinges on completion of, first, the Tokyo-to-Nagoya maglev line and then finalizing plans for the Nagoya-to-Osaka leg and securing the necessary funding.

To more effectively lobby the central government and Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Central), Nara joined a consortium of nine local governments, including Tokyo, in late May that meets for that purpose.

In a statement released in early June, the leaders called for not only rapid completion of the line but also a public announcement of the final route and maglev stations on the Nagoya-to-Osaka line. With an eye toward Shizuoka Prefecture’s refusal to grant necessary approval, the consortium, which does not include Shizuoka, also called for cooperation with the relevant local governments to carry out the necessary environmental impact studies.

With JR Central’s 2011 estimate that construction costs for the Tokyo-to-Osaka route would be ¥9.3 trillion, and even though the company is picking up the costs for the Tokyo-to-Nagoya portion, there is no guarantee it will cover the full cost of the remaining extension to Osaka.

Determining who pays for what for the Osaka extension, then, is at the top of the priority list for local governments between Nagoya and Osaka, including Nara. Where additional money might come from to fund a separate maglev extension through Nara Prefecture to Kansai airport, complete with a station near an evacuation area and 2,000-meter runway, is a question that has yet to be answered.

Thus, only time will tell if the prefecture’s decision to spend ¥25 million now in search of that answer turns out to be the first official step on the road to realizing a Nara maglev, or the reason it was judged a waste of money and scrapped before it ever got started.

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