Redeveloping Japan tourism

TOKYO (The Japan News/ ANN) - Looking out from atop an embankment, only a broad floodplain spreads out before you. You would never imagine that this is a World Heritage site.

About six kilometers from the mouth of the Hayatsue River, which flows into the Ariake Sea, the Mietsu Naval Dock historic site in Saga city is where the Saga domain’s naval operations were based at the end of the Edo period (1603-1867). The Ryofu Maru, a cutting-edge steamship in its day, was built here. 

 An archaeological dig identified relics such as a wooden framework for the dock used to repair ships. 

 After being registered on the World Heritage List as part of “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution,” located in eight prefectures including Fukuoka, the Mietsu Naval Dock instantly gained a lot of attention. Last fiscal year, the adjacent Tsunetami Sano Memorial Museum welcomed 181,280 visitors, which was 4.8 times the number in fiscal 2014.

 However, the dock remains were all reburied to ensure their preservation. Usually after being reburied, recreations of historic remains can be built on the original site. However, the flood plain is hazardous when the water rises, so such a re-creation is impossible. 

The museum has made binocular-like viewing apparatuses available for visitors so they can look out on designated parts of the historic site, allowing them to see computer graphic renderings of what it may have looked like in the old days.

 “They’re popular with visitors, but at the end they tell us, ‘I’d rather see the real thing,’” said Nobuhiro Kawasaki, an official in the Saga municipal government’s Mietsu World Heritage division. This fiscal year, the municipal government is putting together a basic development plan for the site. The issue is how to balance conservation efforts with creating a site that is easy to view and understand.

 The issues of unseen heritage do not only concern buried historic sites. The process of trial and error continues even on sacred land.

 Floating about 60 kilometers out to sea, Okinoshima is an island off the city of Munakata, Fukuoka Prefecture. With relics of ancient rituals left untouched, it has been called the “Shoso-in of the sea.” 

 There are moves to have the “Sacred Island of Okinoshima and Associated Sites in Munakata Region” registered on the World Heritage List next year. Local hopes are high, but the island itself is an area of worship due to the presence of the Munakata Taisha Shinto shrine and off-limits to ordinary tourists.

 To give the curious a feel for how the island looks, the Munakata municipal government created the Sea Road Museum on the mainland, which features devices that introduce the island using 3-D images. When you point to an area of the island on the touchscreen panel, the area is projected as a 3-D image on a wall-mounted TV display to give the sensation of being on that area of the island itself. 

 The number of visitors to the museum continues to rise, hitting 158,037 last fiscal year.

 In the treasure hall of the adjacent shrine, island artifacts that have been designated as national treasures are on display, such as bronze mirrors and cut glass fragments. Many visitors deepen their understanding of the island with visits to both the museum and treasure hall.

 If Okinoshima is added to the World Heritage List, concerns could arise over the way that private sightseeing ships would approach the island and impact the surrounding maritime environment, which are also used as fishing grounds.

 The Munakata municipal government believes that “satisfying tourists with an exhibition facility would help protect the island’s environment,” said Atsushi Tokunaga, chief of the city’s World Heritage listing promotion office. It is therefore pursuing a plan to build a museum about Okinoshima on Oshima island, which is about 11 kilometers from the Munakata mainland.

 How can the value of these sites be intuitively understood, even if they cannot be seen directly? Now is the time to devise ways to make it possible.