image © Damien Douxchamps
Kyoto resident and author John Dougill’s fine new book Japan’s World Heritage Sites: Unique Culture, Unique Nature was just released by Tuttle Press. It’s a lavishly illustrated guide that would be a great inspirational planning tool for a trip to Japan, or a great way to remember a trip here.
John traveled the length of Japan to visit each site in person. Of course, a lot of the sites were right on his doorstep: Kyoto is home to 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites! I recently caught up with John to ask him about his book.
Chris Rowthorn: Why did you decide to write the book?
John Dougill: There is a lot of interest worldwide in Japan, but only certain aspects get reported. Tensions within Asia, Fukushima and the forthcoming Tokyo Olympics for example, and in cultural terms anime, manga and youth fashions. Previously it was geisha and samurai. It occurred to me that one way of opening up other areas of the country, such as the artistic and natural heritage, was by highlighting the UNESCO registered sites. To my surprise I found that there was not a single book on the subject, and it seemed such an obvious subject that when I pitched it to Tuttle they were immediately enthusiastic.
CR: Can you tell us a little bit about why Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites are so special?
JD: There’s a remarkable combination of world-renowned tourist sights with more obscure and out of the way places. There’s literally something for everyone. Newcomers to the country can learn of Kyoto and Nara’s rich heritage, while those familiar with the country will be drawn to the less well-known sites such as Hiraizumi with its Pure Land legacy, the Shugendo trails in Yoshino, or the ruined Ryukyu castles of Okinawa. I’ve lived in Japan for over 20 years, and there were many areas of the country which were completely new to me. One of them was the mountainous region of Shirakami Sanchi in northern Tohoku and I’m really glad to have been discovered it. Researching the book opened my eyes to aspects of Japan with which I was unfamiliar.
CR: Which of the sites made the biggest impression on you as you toured them?
JD: Obviously those that were new to me had the greatest impact, though re-visiting places such as the magnificent Horyu-ji made me appreciate the ancient wooden temple much more fully. The most pleasant surprise was the former Iwami Ginzan silver mine, of which I had low expectations. However, the mine shafts are set in pleasant woodland, with protective shrines and Buddhist memorials for the short-lived miners. There’s also a well-preserved township with an Edo-era atmosphere, hot springs nearby and pathways leading to the attractive coastline where ships were loaded (Japan once supplied a third of the world’s silver trade).
image © John Dougill
However, the most exciting places for me personally were the four Natural Heritage sites. The ancient cedars of Yakushima suggest a fantasy world of grotesque tree creatures. The Shiretoko Peninsula has winter drift-ice over which to walk and in summer time you can cruise the coast to view the densest population of brown bears in the world. Shirakami Sanchi, with its mountainous expanse of virgin beech forests, is the perfect antidote to those tired of Japan’s crowded cities.
But best of all, in my opinion, are the remote Ogasawara Islands. They are only accessible by a bi-weekly boat from Tokyo (25 hours), which means numbers of visitors are limited. Unlike the rest of the country, they were never part of the continent during the last Ice Age and therefore developed species with distinctive characteristics (which is why they are dubbed Japan’s Galapagos). With their Pacific blues, subtropical vegetation and sparse population (2,500 people on two inhabited islands), the archipelago is a rare delight for marine and nature lovers.
CR: If a foreign visitor to Japan had about a week or 10 days in Japan, which sites would you recommend they visit?
JD: The attractions of Kyoto and Nara are well-known, but as a counterbalance I’d suggest a countryside trip to either Shirakawa-go near Takayama in the Japan Alps, or to the wonderful Kumano area of the Kii Peninsula. The unique high-roofed houses of Shirakawa-go give a flavour of Japan of the past, when hardworking villagers lived isolated lives and cultivated silk-production.
As for the Kii Peninsula, there are three main areas, each of which is worth a day or two in itself. Mt Koya has won popularity amongst foreign visitors because of the spectacular buildings, spiritual atmosphere and opportunity to sample the Buddhist lifestyle by staying overnight in temple lodgings. For those drawn to mountain worship, the Shugendo aspects of Yoshino-Omine area offer a taste of the practices involved.
Then there is the expansive Kumano area, with Japan’s most spectacular (and spiritual) waterfall together with ancient pilgrimage trails. It’s ideal for trekkers, but for those with less time available there is public transport and the possibility of renting a car. With its coastline, beaches and hot springs, you could easily spend the whole ten days exploring the Kii Peninsula alone!
CR: Tell me specifically about Kyoto’s World Heritage Sites? Which ones do you think the visitor should see?
JD: Kyoto boasts famous tourist sights such as the Golden and Silver Pavilions, Nijo Castle, the Ryoanji rock garden and Kiyomizu Temple. Of course these are the top of the list for most visitors, and there is plenty to discover in terms of their historical and artistic significance. At the same time there are some surprising items among the 17 World Heritage sites, such as the little-known Ujigami Shrine and Kozan-ji. In each case my book explains the reasons for the registration, which have to do with the UNESCO regulations for ‘exceptional’ worth in terms of cultural heritage.
My two recommendations for visitors to consider are places that are not normally on the tourist trail because they take time and lie beyond the city centre. Both are set on hillsides and lead away from the crowded streets and into the depths of nature. One is Daigo-ji, a Shingon temple whose lower part has an aristocratic villa with a rock garden, Kyoto’s oldest pagoda and a beautiful Benten pond. Upper Daigo is an hour’s uphill walk away, with a strong atmosphere of mountain asceticism (Shugendo). My other recommendation is Enryaku-ji on the top of Mt Hiei, where as well as getting some wonderful fresh and invigorating fresh air, you can enjoy magnificent temple buildings and spectacular views of Lake Biwa. You can take a bus, funicular train or ropeway to the top. For those who are fit enough, walking will take you a couple of hours or so.
CR: Were there any surprises when writing the book?
JD: Yes, there were many. Mt Fuji is a great example. You might suppose the cone-shaped volcano is an obvious World Heritage site, yet it was turned down as a Natural Heritage because of environmental problems. Instead it’s a Cultural Heritage, which means that ascetic sites, obscure shrines and a lodging house for pilgrims are included among its 25 listed items. There are similar oddities at other sites, and this is what made the research so fascinating. Though I visited as much as possible, such is the extent of the sites that it’s impossible to exhaust every aspect. The mountains of Shiretoko and Shirakami, the pilgrimage trails in Kumano, would require weeks of trekking through the most arduous of terrains. There’s an ancient Japanese aesthetic called ‘mikansei’ (incompleteness), according to which you leave something as a goal to be completed in future. Though I’ve finished my book, I’ve still got mountains to climb!!
August is when you can witness the spectacular Daimonji Fire Festival, where massive Chinese characters set up on the hills around the town are set ablaze. The lantern floating ceremony and the otherworldly candlelight of the Sento kuyo ceremony are two other visually stunning events happening this month.
1-18 August 2014
Event: Tomyoe Illumination, Special Night time opening
Location: Kodai-ji Temple
Time: After sunset – 9:30pm
Kodai-ji Temple, in Kyoto’s Higashiyama district, is always a magical place. But, when darkness falls and they light the place up, the effect is magical. As always, my favorite bit is the bamboo grove, which looks like something straight out of Narnia.
1-24 August 2014
Event: KYOTO, Re-creation of Reminiscence – Lacquerware in Modern Japan
Location: The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto
Time: 9:30am-5:00pm (admission until 4:30pm, Closed on Mondays)
Any time you can catch a major show on lacquerware in Japan, don’t miss it. This show, at the Modern, focuses on more recent works, but suffers none for that. You will be utterly amazed by what the Japanese can do with decorative arts.
3 August 2014
Event: To-ji Temple Flea Market
Location: To-ji Temple
If you can’t be in town for Kyoto’s two famous flea markets (Kobo-san Market and Tenjin-san Market), this is a good choice. Like the Kobo-san Market, it’s held on the grounds of To-ji Temple. You’ll usually find a good selection of antiques at this market.
7-10 August 2014
Event: Gojo-zaka Pottery Festival
Location: Gojo-zaka, near Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Gojo-zaka, which leads up to Kiyomizu-dera Temple, has always been known for its pottery. And, this three-day event celebrates that fact. If you’re a fan of pottery, get yourself there, but don’t expect to buy any treasures from unsuspecting merchants – these folks have been at it for decades.
11 August 2014
Event: Uji-gawa Fireworks Festival
Location: Uji-gawa riverside area
Admission: Free (reserved seats: JPY2,500-5,000, must buy tickets in advance)
You haven’t really seen a fireworks festival until you’ve seen a Japanese fireworks festival. These people really put on a show, with a finale to write home about. Don’t worry about getting reserved seats, just get yourself down there. To avoid the rush, go early and stay late.
image © Damien Douxchamps
11-16 August 2014
Event: Kyoto Used Book Fair
Location: Shimogamo-jinja Shrine
Time: 10:00am-5:30pm (ends at 4:00pm on the last day)
This used book fair is a major annual event for Japanese book collectors. Needless to say, with most of the titles being in Japanese, the appeal is limited to foreigners. Still, there are plenty of good picture books about, some English books, and, you might just be one of those foreigners who actually reads Japanese. It’s a good day out.
16 August 2014
Event: Daimonji Gozan no Okuribi
Location: various places in Kyoto city
Time: starts at 8:00pm
This is the crowning event of the month of August. More commonly known as the “Daimonji Fire Festival,” this is when they set those massive Chinese characters on the hills around town ablaze. The main mountain is the eponymous Daimonji, which towers over Ginkaku-ji Temple and the rest of northern Higashiyama. It’s set alight promptly at 8pm, and the other four mountains are set alight in counterclockwise fashion every 15 minutes. The best places to view the scene include from the east side of Yoshida-yama, parts of the Gosho, parts of the Kamo-gawa Riverbank, and, if you can afford it, a hotel rooftop beergarden.
16 August 2014
Event: Arashiyama Toro Nagashi (Lantern Floating Ceremony)
Location: vicinity of Arashiyama Togetsukyo Bridge
Admission: Free (Toro JPY1,000)
This highly photogenic event takes places just after dusk near Arashiyama’s famed Togetsukyo Bridge. Floating lanterns are set adrift of the waters of the Katura-gawa River, both to wish for good luck and to dispel bad luck. Bring a tripod if you’re serious about taking some good pictures.
21 August 2014
Event: Kobo-san Market
Location: To-ji Temple
Named for Japan’s most revered Buddhist Saint, Kobo Daishi, this market is one of the two best markets in town (the other being the Tenjin-san Market, held on the 25th). You’ll find all manner of goods on sale here including used kimono, antiques, ceramics, food, bric-a-brac, old postcards and books, and assorted Japanalia. In addition to being a great market, this is also a chance to see Kyoto’s foreign community, which turns out in full, along with hoards of locals.
23-24 August 2014
Event: Sento kuyo ceremony
Location: Adashino-Nembutsu-ji Temple
Adashino-Nembutsu-ji Temple, in the far northwest of town, a bit of a stroll from Arashiyama, is one of the more mysterious temples. It’s said that dead bodies used to be left there to rot, the great Buddhist saint Kukai turned it into a temple and properly honored the dead. Other legends have it that another great saint, Honen, played a role. Now, there are thousands of Buddhist images there an on the evenings of 23 and 24 August, candles are lit to pray for the souls of the departed. It’s an otherworldly sight.
25 August 2014
Event: Tenjin-san Market
Location: Kitano Tenmangu
Like the Kobo-san market (see previous), this is one of the two best markets in town. It’s named for Sugawara no Michizane, a 9th century poet and scholar who is the patron saint of academic pursuits in Japan. Known colloquially as Tenjin-san, the market is a great excuse to visit this shrine and see people, especially school children, rubbing the two stone bulls in front of the main hall of the shrine (doing so is said to make one more intelligent). Like the Kobo-san market, this is a great chance to buy used kimono, ceramics, antiques and bric-a-brac, along with food and drink. You’ll also rub shoulders with an interesting assortment of expats and locals.