Report on the talk “The Bridge to Heaven – Amanohashidate: UNESCO World Heritage and the conservation of landscapes, comparing Japan and the UK”

This month’s Third Thursday Lecture, given by Dr Andrew Hutcheson, discussed the disparity between the approaches of Japan and the UK to World Heritage, considered the value of World Heritage in the modern day, and highlighted the potential impact of climate change on particular heritage sites. All this was undertaken with specific reference to Amanohashidate (天橋立) or “The Bridge to Heaven”.

A View of Ama no Hashidate, early 17th century, Mary Griggs Burke Collection, Gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, 2015.79.93, Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Amanohashidate is a beautiful sandbar located in the north of Kyoto prefecture. It extends nearly, but not quite, all the way across Miyazu bay and is covered with pine trees. The sandbar is a natural phenomena formed over hundreds of years as sand flowing from the river mouth collided with strong sea currents. Legend suggests that a deity created Amanohashidate to connect heaven with earth, hence its name “The Bridge to Heaven”. In February 2019, Dr Hutcheson travelled to Amanohashidate to attend a conference which focussed on the potential addition of Amanohashidate to Japan’s tentative World Heritage list. At the conference it was proposed that Amanohashidate should be included as a classic Japanese landscape that has been an enduring source of artistic inspiration since the Heian period (794-1192). Therefore, similar to Mount Fuji (designated a World Heritage site in 2013 due to being both a sacred place and a source of artistic inspiration), it was Amanohashidate’s cultural value that was being emphasised in the bid for World Heritage recognition.

Utagawa Hiroshige II (1826-1969), Ama no Hashidate in Tango Province (Tango Ama no hashidate), from the series One Hundred Famous Views in the Various Provinces (Shokoku meisho hyakkei), Rogers Fund, 1919, JP1196, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As part of this conference, Dr Hutcheson was taken on a tour around Amanohashidate and related sites in the surrounding area, which he digitally recreated in his lecture. The audience was treated to a visual tour of Amanohashidate, Chionji Temple, Nariaiji Temple and Kasamatsu Park, amongst others. During which Dr Hutcheson highlighted the aspects which drew his interest such as the freshwater spring on Amanohashidate which is surrounded by salt water, and a pair of 1290 caste iron bath tubs that have been repurposed at Chionji Temple and Nariaiji Temple for hand-washing and a sculpture with intertwining dragons respectively. Dr Hutcheson briefly demonstrated how Amanohashidate has indeed been a long-standing source of artistic and aesthetic inspiration with the earliest reference being made to it in CE 966 in a uta-awase poetry contest held by Emperor Murakami. He also showed how Amanohashidate appears in Chinese-style painting by Sesshū Tōyō in the early sixteenth century “View of Ama-no-hashidate”, in a Muromachi period (1392-1573) mandala of Nariaiji Temple to represent the Sea of Japan and thus provide a sense of location, in a seventeenth century folding screen, in a mid-nineteenth century Hiroshige II ukiyo-e print “Amanohashidate in Tango Province”, and as a illustration done by Kisai for a poem in 1906. This small selection illustrated how Amanohashidate has inspired a continuum of art over time.

 Dr Hutcheson further explained how this trip to Amanohashidate prompted him to considered the different approaches Japan and the UK take to World Heritage and how this resulted in his paper “Divergent Heritages? UNESCO and the Cultural Heritage of Landscapes in the UK and Japan.” He pointed out that whilst Japan is generally enthusiastic about World Heritage at local, regional and national levels, seeing both potential domestic and international benefits, the UK appears to be less invested, focussing primarily on the economic cost-benefit ratio. As evidence for this he cited Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City having had its World Heritage status revoked this year and the World Heritage committee threatening to remove Stonehenge from the list if the planned A303 tunnel scheme proceeds, all of which imply that the UK seems to place less value on World Heritage status than Japan.

After the lecture, the questions from the audience sparked an interesting discussion around whether, hypothetically, if Amanohashidate was conferred with World Heritage status, subsequent attempts to conserve its structure may counterintuitively result in the loss of its uniqueness. These questions were prompted by an image of erosion defences at Amanohashidate included in the lecture and Dr Hutcheson stating that he thought one of the main motivations for gaining World Heritage status was to get more money for preservation. However, that inevitably raises the question: should Amanohashidate be irrevocably changed in order to preserve it? To which Dr Hutcheson proffered for consideration that if in 150 years the bridge no longer physically exists, it will nevertheless continue to exist in the art it inspired and in what its unique universal value is proposed to be. Thus Dr Hutcheson’s lecture concluded by introducing several interesting ideas, approaches and problems to consider regarding Amanohashidate and World Heritage more generally.

 Zoe Shipley
Graduate, MA Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies, UEA

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