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Ahead Of 2020 Summer Olympics, A Building Boom In Kyoto Is Yielding Ancient Artifacts

Feb 6, 2019
Originally published on February 6, 2019 7:26 pm

Deep in the urban center of Kyoto, Japan, behind a department store, archaeologist Koji Iesaki digs down through successive layers of earth, each about 8 inches thick, taking him back in time to the Heian period, which began over 1,000 years ago.

He has found images of mythical beasts carved on roof tiles, remains of a moat that surrounded the temple during the Warring States period some 500 years ago and ritual vessels that held placentas, which were buried after childbirth in the belief that they would ensure a child's good health and fortune.

"Anywhere you dig in Kyoto, you find a lot of stuff," Iesaki says in a prefab hut on the excavation site. "The city has been continuously inhabited for 1,000 or 1,200 years. So it's like a treasure mountain. There are a lot of things used in people's daily lives."

Iesaki is digging on the site of the Jyokyo-ji temple, which belongs to the Pure Land sect of Buddhism. It was first built in 1449 and moved in 1591. The temple was demolished last summer to make room for a hotel that's due to open next June, just in time for the Olympics.

Before the hotel developers, part of the Mitsui Group conglomerate, began construction, they gave Iesaki about four months to excavate and salvage anything he found of historical value. Japanese law doesn't require developers to permit archaeological excavations before construction, but many do.

Iesaki says if the Jyokyo-ji temple hadn't been torn down, he wouldn't have had the chance to dig there. He and his team of a dozen people had to work fast, from September to January.

Archaeological workers dig for historical artifacts on the former site of the Jyokyo-ji temple in Kyoto.
Anthony Kuhn/NPR
Artifacts excavated from the former site of the Jyokyo-ji temple sit in boxes.
Anthony Kuhn/NPR

"If I find something of value and more digging is needed, I might have to wait another 30 or 40 years, until there's a new construction project," he says.

Across Kyoto, archaeologists are rushing to uncover, document and preserve relics of the city's heritage as a pre-Olympic building boom sweeps the ancient former capital of Japan, changing its distinctive appearance and feel.

The number of visitors to Japan has nearly tripled in the past five years, to about 30 million last year. The largest contingent comes from mainland China. The city's infrastructure groans under the influx of tourists, and some residents chafe at the crowds. But with Japan rapidly aging and depopulating, it needs the tourists' money.

To accommodate tourism and business demands, some of the city's majestic temples and traditional wooden machiya town houses are coming down, and hotels and office buildings are springing up.

Near City Hall, Tomomitu Umase is coordinating efforts to salvage cultural relics. A former archaeologist, Umase runs a city government department in charge of "buried cultural treasures."

"Postwar Japan has made great advances in finding written historical records, as well as digging up ancient remains," he says. "Development has allowed the excavation of relics. Then again, 99 percent of the artifacts have been destroyed because of development."

Archaeologist Tomomitu Umase, who runs the Kyoto city government office in charge of archaeology, displays a map of historical sites around the former imperial capital. He estimates that only 1 percent of the relics uncovered by a pre-Olympic building boom are being preserved.
Anthony Kuhn/NPR

On the whole, Umase is gloomy about his city's building boom. Less development would mean more cultural artifacts could remain preserved underground for future generations to dig up, he says.

Others are more sanguine, including Koki Mitsuyama, a pragmatic 48-year-old Buddhist priest and former investment banker — and the owner of the demolished Jyokyo-ji temple. When we meet, he's dressed in a Japanese-style robe made of denim over a shirt and dark jeans.

Mitsuyama has been working with the developer to build a nine-story hotel, with the first floor divided between a lobby on one side and a new Jyokyo-ji temple on the other. Hotel profits will help fund the temple, and the hotel will even include a display area for the artifacts dug up by Iesaki and his team at the site.

Ownership of temples in Japan is generally hereditary, and Mitsuyama was born into a temple family in Tokyo. His grandmother was raised in the Jyokyo-ji temple, and Mitsuyama was chosen to inherit it.

But the congregation of aging danka, or Buddhist parishioners, can no longer support the temple. The trend is mirrored across Japan, where by one estimate in 2015, more than 20,000 of the country's roughly 77,000 Buddhist temples no longer had priests.

At the same time, says Mitsuyama, people's relationships to temples are changing, as are their spiritual needs.

"Modern people care about getting benefits in this life, not the next," he observes. "They want good things to happen to them today, tomorrow or next year, at the latest. They come to our temple to seeking inner peace and solace from problems of finances, family and mere survival."

The Pure Land sect makes spirituality simple, Mitsuyama says. Just by chanting the Buddha's name, he says, even sinners can make it to heaven — the Pure Land.

By linking it with the new hotel, Mitsuyama is confident he's putting the temple on a firm financial footing for the future. He hopes his solution will serve as an example and precedent for struggling Buddhist temples elsewhere in Japan.

"Changing people's ideas and coming up with new ways is part of the Pure Land sect's tradition of being original," he says. "This is what I must do for the sect to help it prepare for the next century. And this is the right time to do it, so I have no hesitation."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. A tourism boom is changing the face of Japan. The number of visitors has nearly tripled in the past five years to about 30 million, and the country is scrambling to build enough hotels ahead of next year's Tokyo Olympics. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has been reporting in Kyoto about how this boom is uncovering that city's ancient riches.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Last summer, developers demolished the 570-year-old Jyokyo-ji Buddhist temple to make way for a hotel. Before they started construction, they gave archaeologist Koji Iesaki four months to dig up the site and salvage anything he could of historical value.

We're now in the excavation pick. The workers are digging into a number of circles that have been outlined with chalk. What are these circles and what's in them?

KOJI IESAKI: (Through interpreter) Those markings show the workers where to dig. I believe they should be the temple's pillars. We can tell from the color of the earth there.

KUHN: Iesaki says he's dug through multiple layers of earth, taking him back in time to the Heian era, which began more than a thousand years ago. He's found images of mythical beasts carved on roof tiles, a moat that used to surround the temple in the Warring States period some 500 years ago and ritual vessels that held human organs.

IESAKI: (Through interpreter) Anywhere you dig in Kyoto, you find a lot of stuff. The city has been continuously inhabited for 1,000 or 1,200 years. So it's like a treasure mountain. There are a lot of things used in people's daily lives.

KUHN: Iesaki says that if the Jyokyo-ji Temple hadn't been torn down, he wouldn't get the chance to dig here. But, he adds, he doesn't have long to work before the hotel goes up and the treasure is reburied underneath it.

Nearby, construction crews are renovating a hotel affiliated with Kyoto's historic Honnoji Temple, the site of a famous rebellion in 1582. The face of Kyoto is changing fast, as ancient temples and picturesque wooden townhouses come down and hotels and office buildings spring up. The city's infrastructure groans under the influx of tourists, and so do some Kyoto residents. But with Japan rapidly aging and depopulating, it needs the tourists' money. Near City Hall, Tomomitsu Umase (ph) is coordinating efforts to salvage cultural relics. He's a former archaeologist who runs a Kyoto city government department in charge of buried cultural treasures.

TOMOMITSU UMASE: (Through interpreter) Post-war Japan has made great advances, not just in final written historical records, but also in digging up ancient remains. Development has allowed the excavation of relics. Then again, 99 percent of the artifacts have been destroyed because of development.

KUHN: On the whole, Umase is gloomy about the building boom. The less development there is, he says, the more cultural treasures will be preserved for future generations to dig up. That got me thinking about the owner of the Jyokyo-ji Temple and his decision to tear it down. His name is Koki Mitsuyama. He's a 48-year-old priest in the Pure Land sect of Buddhism. When I meet him, he's wearing a traditional Japanese robe made of denim. He explains that the spiritual needs of the Buddhist faithful are changing.

KOKI MITSUYAMA: (Through interpreter) Modern people care about getting benefits in this life, not the next. They want good things to happen to them today, tomorrow or next year, at the latest.

KUHN: The Pure Land sect makes spirituality simple, Mitsuyama says. Just by chanting the Buddha's name, even sinners can make it to heaven or the Pure Land. Meanwhile, aging congregations can no longer support his temple with donations. So Mitsuyama will build a nine-story hotel with the first floor divided into a lobby on one side and a temple on the other. He'll use the hotel to fund the temple. It just so happens that Mitsuyama previously worked as an investment banker, and he's confident he's putting the temple on a firm financial footing for the future. He says he feels he was born to do this.

MITSUYAMA: (Through interpreter) Changing people's ideas and coming up with new ways is part of the Pure Land sect's tradition of being original. This what I must do for the sect to help it prepare for the next century, and this is the right time to do it.

KUHN: The hotel is due to open next June, just in time for the Olympics. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Kyoto. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.