Discuss Japan > Back Number > No.9 > TURNING EARTH’S HISTORY INTO PARKS: REVITALIZING REGIONAL COMMUNITIES WITH GEOPARKS GEOLOGY IS A NEW TOURISM RESOURCE
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No.9 ,Culture  Dec 05, 2011

TURNING EARTH’S HISTORY INTO PARKS: REVITALIZING REGIONAL COMMUNITIES WITH GEOPARKS GEOLOGY IS A NEW TOURISM RESOURCE

Photo : Oketani Hitoshi

Oketani Hitoshi

People have become well acquainted with the World Heritage designation by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and municipalities in all parts of Japan are now looking to World Geoparks as a means for revitalizing regional communities and attracting tourists.

The “geo” in the term represents features such as the ground, geology, the planet Earth, and Geopark literally means parks of the earth; geological parks. This is UNESCO’s new plan for protecting and utilizing the natural environment. The Global Geoparks Network (GGN; secretariat in Paris) established in 2004 has certified regions with important natural heritage from an earth science standpoint. As of this September 18, eighty-seven regions in twenty-seven countries of the world have been certified as World Geoparks.

In Japan, the mayors of Itoigawa City (Niigata Prefecture) and Toyooka City (Hyogo Prefecture) in May 2009 called for establishing the Japan Geoparks Network (JGN). In August of the same year, the Lake Toya and Mt. Usu area, Itoigawa River area and Shimabara Peninsula were certified as the first three World Geoparks in Japan. These were followed by the San-in Coastline certified in October 2010 and Muroto area of Kochi Prefecture certified in September 2011, bringing the total to five.

Sensing 500 million years of history

I visited Itoigawa City, which has led efforts to promote Geoparks and exchanges in Japan. It is located at the western end of Niigata, on the borders with Nagano and Toyama Prefectures. Itoigawa is at the western edge of the famous Fossa Magna that transverses the central section of Japan’s Honshu island in the north-south direction. A great fault called the Itoigawa-Shizuoka geotectonic line cuts through the city also in the north-south direction. The term Fossa Magna is familiar to many Japanese from their science and social studies classes in school.

The Japanese term aisekika means “lover of stones,” and refers to someone who collects and appreciates stones as a hobby. Such stone lovers are found in particularly high numbers in Itoigawa, and they claim that the most extensive variety of stones in Japan may be collected at riverbanks and beaches in the town.

“Due to the Itoigawa-Shizuoka geotectonic line, we can see ancient geological strata dating back several hundred million years on the western side of the city, and new ones from several tens of thousands of years ago in the eastern section,” says our guide, curator Ko Takenouchi of the Fossa Magna Museum. “Itoigawa has jade stones dating back 500 million years up to the rocks and stones of our times. There is also a volcano called Mt. Yake. In Itoigawa, we can thoroughly understand the process of formation of the Japanese archipelago, and the history of crustal movement.”

The city has established twenty-four Geosites that are geological and cultural heritage sites related to the Fossa Magna.

The Itoigawa-Shizuoka Geotectonic Line and (Northern) Salt Road Geosite is reached by ascending from the city center of Itoigawa along the Hime River, one of the fastest flowing rivers in Japan. At the Fossa Magna Park located there, as we walk along a nature trail we can observe the fault along the geotectonic line that has been exposed aboveground, as well as gigantic pillowy lava, shaped like a tube and with a diameter of about 10 meters, that was formed when the flowing lava surface was chilled rapidly in the water. Beyond the Nechi River flowing along the trail, Mt. Amakazari (altitude 1,963.2 m) can be seen. This is another of the Geosites and also designated as one of the 100 most beautiful mountains in Japan.

Ascending further along the Hime River and then climbing the road along the tributary Kotaki River, we reach the Kotaki River Jade Gorge Geosite. The jade gorge along the Kotaki River is almost entirely located at the foot of a huge cliff of Mt. Myojo (altitude 1,188.5 m). If we walk on the nature trail along the Kotaki River, we can see gigantic raw jade stones. From the Jomon to Nara periods, jade gathered in the area was processed into teardrop-shaped charms by Itoigawa craftsmen, and shipped all over Japan. Itoigawa at the time was the world’s oldest jade culture site, long before the Maya Civilization that originated in Central America around the second century BC.

Today, the Kotaki Jade Gorge and Ohmi Jade Gorge are designated as national monuments, and gathering of jade is strictly prohibited. However, raw jade stones scraped by rapid streams from the jade gorges flow down the river into the sea, and are washed ashore on beaches, where lucky beachcombers can sometimes find them. High-quality raw jade stones the size of a human fist can be sold at around 1 million yen.

I was given some tips on finding jade stones and took a walk along the shore. These stones are very difficult to find, but interestingly shaped stones of various sizes and colors are found here and there on Itoigawa’s beaches and would make nice souvenirs to bring home. Walk along beaches, find some nice stones and think about what is left of the world’s oldest jade culture–this is a good way to enjoy Itoigawa. It is said that even jade experts can find, at the most, one jade stone an hour, and most of these are tiny and valued at only around several thousand yen.

However, if you find a stone that you are certain is jade, you should have it appraised. Stones can be taken to the Fossa Magna Museum located in the Miyama Park and Museum Geosite, and up to ten stones can be appraised free of charge. Last year 2,100 stones were appraised, and in total a tremendous number of stones have been brought in.

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Achieving both protection and development

In 1987, Itoigawa City announced the Fossa Magna Region Development Plan for incorporating the nationally famous Fossa Magna into regional revitalization measures. In 1990, Fossa Magna Park was completed and makes the exposed portions of the Itoigawa-Shizuoka Geotectonic Line viewable for the public. Such facilities have conventionally been called outdoor museums, but the city searched for a more appealing name and decided on Geopark in 1991.

“Geopark, coincidentally, was a term that had been used in Itoigawa for quite a long time,” says Iwasaki Yoshiyuki, manager of the city’s Geopark Promotion Department. “In the past, efforts were being made separately to attract tourists to bathing beaches, mountain trails, onsen [hot springs] and other tourism resources. There are many tourism resources in Itoigawa, but we lacked a clear picture of how to utilize them.”

Then in 2004, the Itoigawa City government learned of UNESCO’s new World Geoparks plan. “The Geoparks concept brought together all the tourism resources dispersed in the city. We were able to make a coherent story by connecting them.”

How effective have Geoparks actually been? The number of visitors to the Fossa Magna Museum was 47,000 in 2007 when Itoigawa City applied for World Geopark status, and increased to 59,600 in 2009 when the area was certified. The number remained high, at 59,450, in 2010 as well. Recently, an increasing number of students have visited the area on school trips.

Looking at other areas, Muroto (the entire Muroto City region of Kochi Prefecture), which was just certified as a World Geopark this past September 18, will host the Third Meeting of JGN in August and September of 2012. The Muroto City government has promoted its Geopark by selling original polo shirts and hosting many events including a relay marathon around Cape Muroto. Kochi Prefecture and the Muroto City governments plan to continue implementing numerous measures, including joint hosting of a symposium to commemorate certification as a World Geopark.

The Global Geoparks Network (GGN) accepts applications to join World Geoparks, examines and appraises them, and gives certification. There are three requirements to be met: (1) protection (conveying the heritage to future generations); (2) education (educational activities in the region) and (3) tourism (hospitality to visitors).

A substantial difference with World Heritage sites is that while they place emphasis on protection and they prohibit development activities, World Geoparks advocate conservation and utilization of geological heritage. Sustainable development work is permitted. It is also important that regional revitalization through geotourism (travel together with studies on topography, geology, etc.) is being promoted. World Geoparks are reexamined every four years, while World Heritage sites are examined just once. Sustainability of development activities is also checked, and registration can be revoked.

There are also National Geoparks that are certified in Japan. The Japan Geoparks Network is in charge of examination and certification, and currently fifteen areas are certified. Some of these aspire to be promoted to World Geoparks. Ten areas in Japan are targeting acquisition of certification as a national Geopark.

The Second Meeting of JGN was held from September 29 to October 3 this year at Lake Toya and Mt. Usu Geopark. About 300 people gathered at the get-together after the meeting, including residents of regional communities, to discuss the policies for future activities and mutual cooperation.

Raising awareness among citizens

Though the Itoigawa Geopark seems ideal, there remain issues that need to be solved. The most difficult and pressing is the notification of city residents. Even though the value of geological assets in the area has been recognized globally, the jade gorges, volcano and onsen are features present since long ago. “Tourists to the Geopark will be greatly disappointed if city residents said they don’t know anything about it or that there is nothing much to see in the area,” Iwasaki says. “There is a pressing need to have local residents understand the value of the Itoigawa Geopark and reaffirm their love for the features of their hometown.”

Another issue pointed out at the 2nd JGN Meeting is the need for wide-region collaboration. In the case of Itoigawa, the Geopark is within the city, but in many areas Geoparks stretch across several localities in numerous areas, such as Lake Toya and Mt. Usu, the San-in Coast, Shimabara Peninsula and Kirishima Geoparks. This situation has posed another challenge.

When agreements are sought among several localities, a detrimental habit of making everything even among the localities always surfaces. Adhering to this principle of equality can lead to unnecessary tourist facilities and guided tours, and this can even prevent the attractive features of the Geopark from being fully conveyed. In wide-region Geoparks, measures are needed that allow localities to collaborate effectively and synergistic effects to take place in the area.

Translated from “Jio paaku de chiiki kasseika, ‘chishitsu’ga aratana kanko shigen (Turning earth’s history into parks — Revitalizing regional communities with geoparks. Geology is a new tourism resource),” Shukan Ekonomisto, October 25, 2011, pp. 93-95. (Courtesy of Mainichi Shimbunsha)

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