• Jiji, Staff report


Municipalities hosting UNESCO World Heritage sites in Japan are on high alert against the spread of the novel coronavirus now that the country has effectively entered the Golden Week holiday period through early next month.

For many in the public, the serial holidays have already started last weekend or with Showa Day on Wednesday, depending on people’s vacation plans. The holiday period will end on May 6 for most people.

In a normal year, those tourist destinations are swamped with visitors during the holiday period, but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide calls for self-restraint in going out are likely to reduce the number of visitors to the sites.

But host municipalities remain wary because many of them are in rural areas where medical care is far from sufficient and won’t be able to deal with an increase in the number of coronavirus patients if the virus spreads.

The village of Shirakawa in Gifu Prefecture attracts some 10,000 visitors per day every Golden Week to Shirakawa-go, known for its gasshō-style houses featuring steeply pitched thatched roofs.

Shirakawa Mayor Shigeru Narihara has said that the whole Shirakawa-go district will be shut in principle between Sunday and May 6.

Local bus services will be suspended during the period while municipal parking lots will be closed.

“Shirakawa-go is not a theme park, and it has many aged residents. We need to protect them from the risk of infection,” a municipal official said.

Residents in Tokyo’s Ogasawara Islands, some 1,000 kilometers south of the capital, are also seriously concerned about the risk of infection.

With only one regular liner service available per week, it takes 24 hours from the Honshu main island to set foot in Chichijima, an island in the Ogasawara chain, which has the Ogasawara village office.

“We can’t even test suspected coronavirus cases,” a village government official said, noting that Ogasawara has only one medical office each in Chichijima and Hahajima, another island in the chain.

Meanwhile, residents near the World Heritage site of the Shirakami Mountains, which have one of the biggest primeval beech forests in the world and straddle Aomori and Akita prefectures, are optimistic about the near future as they currently have a small number of visitors.

An official of the Akita town of Fujisato, where the entrance to a route up the mountains is located, said that only locals come at the moment to the mountains, which have yet to be open enough to allow visitors wearing ordinary sneakers to walk around.

The coronavirus pandemic has hindered reconstruction efforts for Shuri Castle in Okinawa, whose buildings were devastated by fire in October last year. Entry to the site is currently banned, with volunteer work to remove plaster of damaged red roof tiles and restore the castle canceled.

The number of visitors to Shurijo Castle Park, which hosts Shuri Castle, plunged in March after recovering after the fire.

The drop in the number of visitors is “inevitable,” a park official said. “I want many people to come once infections are brought under control.”