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FEATURE: Japan City hosting world heritage site trying to bring back visitors

July 8, 2019

By Aoi Kobayashi

Tomioka, Gunma Pref.--Five years ago, residents of Tomioka believed that the registration of a local historical landmark as a World Heritage site would reinvigorate the typical Japanese regional city facing constant declines in population.

But such optimism has now waned, with the site's popularity as a tourist destination fading.

In June 2014, celebrating the UNESCO World Heritage Committee's decision to inscribe Tomioka Silk Mill and Related Sites on the World Heritage List, crowds of people in the city shouted

"Banzai! Banzai!" and many paraded on streets around the former silk yarn-spinning factory, set up by the Meiji government in 1872.

"After the World Heritage designation, outsiders rushed to open shops near the silk mill complex to attract tourists," a local coffee shop waiter recalls. "But many of them have already been shuttered."

"We have far fewer tourists nowadays," says a woman running a local deli outlet for decades. "The days when people queued in front of my shop are gone."

The number of visitors to the landmark site of Japan's industrialization in the final quarter of the 19th century peaked at 1,337,720 in fiscal 2014, which ended in March 2015, thanks to the World Heritage designation. Since then, however, the city in western Gunma Prefecture has seen the visitor count dropping by roughly 100,000 each year. In fiscal 2018, the figure stood at 519,070, well under half of the peak level.

While noting that the number of visitors still meets the Tomioka city government's target, Masae Okano of the city's world heritage tourism division said that a further fall to around 400,000 would not be good from a conservation viewpoint. Maintaining a World Heritage site is costly.

Following the heritage listing, the city started work to fix the buildings and facilities at the site. The repair and maintenance work is expected to take some 30 years, costing more than one billion yen each year, which has to be covered solely by admission fees. Expecting many people to come by car, the municipal government also spent funds to expand parking space.

Hirofumi Kiuchi, another city official, said he sees fewer and fewer visitors, with many having no particular interest in the defunct silk mill complex.

"Visitors may find the industrial structure unattractive unless they know the historical background," Kiuchi guesses.

He also said a large portion of recent visitors seem interested in the lives of the female workers, many of whom were teenagers, at silk-spinning mills in the Meiji era, thanks to the movie "Ah! Nomugi Toge" ("Oh! The Nomugi Pass").

The film was based on a nonfiction novel of the same title depicting women living and working in harsh conditions at a privately run silk plant in Nagano Prefecture, the western neighbor of Gunma.

Unlike the female workers featured in the movie, however, the live-in workers at state-run Tomioka Silk Mill, known as "Tomioka factory girls," were relatively paid well and even allowed to study at a school within the plant premises and learn cultural affairs after work, experts pointed out. Medical services were also provided free of charge.

Seeking a way to bringing back visitors, the city government in April put on display at the site houses where workers lived with family members.

"Highlighting facilities and items that help visitors understand workers' lives at the time is a first step," Okano said.

The city officials also said that a cocoon storage house now under repair may be used for promotional events, such as a fashion show.

Chiaki Matsubara, secretary-general of the Tomioka Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said he had expected that the heritage boom would be short-lived.

"After the heritage site registration, I received a phone call of congratulations that also suggested the registration's positive effects would last only three years," says Matsubara.

He then realized the importance of working out a strategy to promote Tomioka as a tourist destination, not just the heritage site.

Citing a survey by a local shinkin bank showing that tourists to Tomioka spent only 2,500 yen on average, the official particularly stressed the need to implement measures to tempt visitors into staying in the city longer and spending more.

"Without such measures, we will be stuck," he concluded.

Efforts to attract long-stay tourists including foreigners have already started.

One such endeavor is a Machiyado (town lodging) project in which a group of citizens set up a company and remodeled vacant old town houses built in the Taisho era into guest houses, after borrowing money from a local bank.

The lodgings do not offer meals or drinks because the project sees the whole of Tomioka as a single hotel and commercial complex. More specifically, restaurants, izakaya pubs and retail stores in the city are taken as dining rooms, bars and shops for ordinary tourist hotels. As a result, those who stay at the guest houses need to go out and walk around the city if they want to eat, drink or buy something. The group has obtained cooperation from local businesses.

"The Machiyado houses have yet to be profitable, but we hope the project will expand," says Matsubara.

Meanwhile, in an opinion survey conducted recently by the city, one resident noted that the silk mill adopted the cutting-edge technology of its time and put forward the idea of focusing on the technological aspects of Tomioka to attract tourists.

"I would recommend the construction of facilities to showcase the city's technical advantages," says the resident, referring to the fact that the Japanese asteroid probe Hayabusa's re-entry capsule was made at the Tomioka plant of IHI Aerospace Co., a unit of Japanese heavy machinery maker IHI Corp. <7013>.

Other Japanese cities hosting UNESCO World Heritage sites face similar problems.

According to the municipal government of Oda, the number of visitors to Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine in the Shimane Prefecture city fell to 246,300 in fiscal 2018 from a peak level of some 810,000 in fiscal 2008. The mine was inscribed on the heritage list with its cultural landscape in 2007.

Acknowledging that the heritage listing effects have waned, a city official for tourism promotion said that few people repeatedly visit industrial landmarks because these places, unlike natural heritage sites such as Mount Fuji, lack attractions that can be understood instantly.

The Oda government is now promoting "walking tourism" in the mine area, including a district where a historical townscape is preserved, by limiting access by car in order to allow tourists to enjoy looking around the area without haste.

The initiative is also aimed at helping local residents live quietly, by reducing noise pollution caused by increased traffic volume since the heritage registration.

"But the walking tourism program has made it difficult for the elderly and other people not confident in their physical strength to come here," the official says. "We want to work out measures to resolve this problem."

The city is aiming for visitor numbers to recover to 400,000 to 500,000 a year. Jiji Press