1.5 mil. fete 1,300th Heijokyo anniversary
NARA–An 11-month festival to celebrate the 1,300th anniversary of the founding of Japan’s ancient capital of Nara has proved a major draw, with almost 1.5 million people–2.5 times more than expected–visiting the main venue in the 70 days since it opened in late April.
A nationwide fad for visits to historical sites and Buddha statues is thought to have fueled interest in the Nara Heijokyo Capital’s 1,300th Anniversary festival, which started in January. License contracts for products featuring official mascot Sento-kun have topped 3 billion yen.
The interest is not only limited to Japanese. Many foreigners have apparently felt the pull of a visit to “the birthplace of Japan.”
French exchange student Lucie Capelle, 24, came from Akita Prefecture, where she studies forestry, to see the main Heijo Palace Site.
“I got so excited just imagining what life was like 1,300 years ago in Japan,” she said.
The palace site is home to Daigoku-den, or the Main Hall of the Former Imperial Audience Hall, and a lifesize replica of a Japanese diplomatic ship used to carry envoys to China during the Tang dynasty (618-907), which is on display at the Heijokyo History Museum. About 1.48 million visitors have already taken in the palace, and organizers think the total number of visitors to the event through Nov. 7 could dwarf their target of 2.5 million.
“The festival has been a showcase for all that Nara Prefecture has to offer, including the reconstructed Daigoku-den,” a spokesman for the Association for Commemorative Events of the 1,300th Anniversary of Nara Heijo-kyo Capital said.
The association expects 48 million people will visit Nara Prefecture this year, 13 million more than an average year.
According to a report compiled by three leading tourist agencies, about 80,000 people stayed in hotels and inns in the prefecture between April and June, twice the number a year ago. The agencies said reservations for summer and afterward also have been pouring in.
Temples and shrines in the prefecture have seen an influx in visitors since the event started.
Kofukuji temple–whose National Treasure Museum displaying the popular standing Asura deity was recently renovated–had 6,000 visitors a day on weekends in March, three times more than a regular weekend. Kasugataisha shrine was swamped by double the usual number of visitors.
Sento-kun, the official mascot who resembles a young Buddha with the antlers of a deer, has won many hearts. He adorns about 1,500 items, including phone straps and postcards. Ezuya, a shop in Nara that sells about 500 Sento-kun items, estimates 70 percent of its sales come from Sento-kun goods. Sales in May jumped 30 percent to 50 percent from the same month last year, the shop owner said.
Feeling the heat, filling beds
The 100-hectare Heijo Palace only has a handful of buildings and trees that offer shade, and event organizers were worried the sweltering summer heat could deter some visitors. In June, the association set up 30 resting spots and tents and prepared 10 portable water misters before the summer heat sets in.
Many visitors could have trouble finding a place to stay.
Hotels and ryokan in Nara Prefecture had 9,436 rooms as of the end of March 2009, the fewest of any prefecture. Even in normal years, these lodgings are almost full in Nara Prefecture in spring and autumn.
In May, Hotel Nikko Nara registered a record-high occupancy rate of 99.1 percent.
“Travel agencies have booked most of our rooms, so it’s difficult for individuals to make reservations in September and October,” the hotel’s manager said.
The accommodation crunch could worsen when a series of big events are held in the second half of the year. From July 21, Nara National Museum will hold “Shiho no Butsuzo,” an exhibition of Buddha statues including Todaiji temple’s statue of Kongo Rikishi. Autumn will feature the Shoso-in exhibition and a commemoration ceremony to which Imperial family members have been invited.
Although the festival is in full swing, the Nara prefectural government has already started thinking ahead and is considering how to keep the festive mood bubbling in the years to come, officials say.
The prefectural government has put up signs in several languages–English, Chinese and Korean–at major temples, shrines and other cultural sites. “We mustn’t allow this buzz to fizzle out,” Nara Gov. Shogo Arai said. “We want to make Nara a tourist site loved all over the world.”
The year 2012 will mark the 1,300th anniversary of the completion of Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters), the nation’s oldest extant chronicle. The prefectural government has already launched a project to ensure this event also becomes a tourist magnet.
(Jul. 7, 2010)