The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

A View to Die For

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I think the struggle to save the last remaining street-level view of Mount Fuji from central Tokyo is not going to create many martyrs to the cause. But some people are angry enough to start a campaign to save the view of Mount Fuji from Fujimizaka in Nippori and it has recently being getting a bit of press coverage. I went there on Friday while shooting a travel piece on this interesting area of Tokyo to see if the view is indeed worth fighting for

While it is not a stunning vista of Mount Fuji’s peak to be true, there is something magical about having that famous silhouette at the end of a quiet street as the sun sets. Certainly the famous ukiyo-e woodblock prints by Edo-era artists, that show Mount Fuji in the background of a developing urban life in Edo (modern day Tokyo) are a thing of the past in more ways than just the clothes the people are wearing. The city is larger now, the horizons are jagged with skyscrapers and yet, as the evening breeze rattled the toba in the graves of the cemetery behind me and the birds sang in a sky that felt so much wider than usual in this sometimes claustrophobic city, there was a feeling of some connection to that past. It was a past when the unhurried contemplation of beauty was the defining Japanese character trait.

We live much busier lives these days and I was joined by only a few older photographers as the sun set. Yet each person, young and old alike,  that walked up or down the hill turned their heads for a second or more to take in the view. The few cars or vans that passed stopped for a bit to check the view and I could see why the residents have declared the view to be cultural heritage. the simple pleasure that all got from seeking out the smooth summit slopes of Mount Fuji from among the messy, skyline of Northern Tokyo showed that this is a experience  that should be saved for others. Of the sixteen similarly named Fuji view hills (Fujimizaka) in Tokyo the one just above Nishi Nippori station is the last to actually have the view it advertises and surely that is something worth fighting to protect.

Even the view from this slope is no longer perfect however. More or less the same fight was fought over the same hill before. In 2000 the residents tried to stop the construction of a 13 storey apartment building that would block the view of the left hand side of the peak. They formed the Nippori Fujimizaka Mamorukai (Association to Preserve Nippori Fujimizaka) but were ultimately unsuccessful and the perfect profile of that most perfect of icons has forever been cheapened.

The hope is now that a large 45 storey, 160 metre tall building being planned by Sumitomo Fudosan can be stopped or the plans changed in some way that it doesn’t completely hide the peak from view. As the Fujimazaka Association says; the views are and should be made available to anyone. “We cannot stand by and let companies or individuals claim exclusive possession of these spots by obstructing them, or let city ordinances turn a blind eye to such cases.”

Mount Fuji holds a special place in the heart of most Japanese and you would think that preserving views of it would gain ready support from business and political leaders. In 2004 the Tokyo Metropolitan Government did established the Scenic Sights Law to protect the aesthetics of famous views around  valuable man-made landmarks such as Tokyo Station and the National Diet Building. The implementation of the law has been left to individual ward offices to interpret however and it unfortunately does not include natural sites. The Association to Preserve Nippori Fujimizaka are lobbying to get the law changed to include natural vistas such as the ones of Mount Fuji. They have also, as in 2000, tried to enlist the help of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and its advisory body, The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), to suggest the construction’s planners needed to have a re-think. In December 2011, ICOMOS publicly supported the Fujimizaka Association by calling for just such a re-evaluation and the further development of guidelines in Tokyo to protect the remaining views of Mt Fuji.

Tatsuo Ikemoto, a member of Nippori Fujimizaka Mamorukai, says his generation have a duty to leave the landscape for future generations. To this end they are asking people to write messages of support on their website in the hope that national and international pressure can be brought on the necessity of preserving such natural vistas.

Japan is very keen to have Mount Fuji listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Indeed it rather repeatedly demands everyone understand the cultural importance and inspiration the peak has had on the nation of Japan. And it is a seriously beautiful mountain that is clearly worthy of such recognition were it not for the fact that UNESCO a few years ago found the the slopes to be covered in garbage and ugly developments. The rejection that followed still smarts and this year the Japanese are once again waiting to find out if the process will be more accommodating this time. Yet for all the love the Japanese profess for the peak, the reasons for it failure last time have not really gone away and the chances of Mount Fuji getting the World  Heritage status, it would in any other place so obviously deserve, are slim. It may be sacred, it may be the iconic leitmotif of the Japanese rural soul but developers do not care enough about it to have protected it in the past or the future. Whether on the dusty slopes of the volcano itself or from the streets of Nishi-Nippori.

I do not know if the Association to Preserve Nippori Fujimizaka will be successful in shaming a new, business-friendly government intent on building its way out of a recession, into saving the last view of this mountain all Japanese are supposed to honour. I hope they are and if anything environmental protest in Japan has been emboldened recently with the anti-nuclear protests that came from people reactions to the crisis in Fukushima. But I feel sadly that this is probably a losing battle.

Will have to keep watching what happens though and enjoying the view while it still exists. (below)

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Another article on this subject in the Economist by David McNeill here.




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