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Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2001

Nara Station spared wrecking ball

JR building to be moved, city-run after preservationist outcry

Staff writer

NARA -- After three years of fuss, Haruyuki Chichibu felt relieved -- the Nara Prefectural Government announced last month that it would not demolish the 67-year-old JR Nara Station building.

The 67-year-old JR Nara Station building has been spared after a prefectural government about-face on its initial plan to demolish it.

The fate of the unique, two-story station building had been in doubt amid plans for a project to elevate a 3.5-km section of the JR Kansai and Sakurai lines.

The project, for which construction is to begin in March, would remove five grade crossings, facilitating smoother traffic flow between the western and eastern part of the city.

The station has to be either demolished or moved to accommodate temporary trackage.

After the central government gave the go-ahead for the project in March 1998, the prefectural government, which is primarily responsible for the work, was inclined to demolish the building. Relocating the station would be too expensive, the local government said at the time, estimating a cost of 3 billion yen.

As it turns out, however, it was decided that the station building will be relocated to a site some 30 meters away from its current location, and the prefecture now says that can be done for 400 million yen.

The building, currently owned by West Japan Railway Co., will be handed over to the Nara Municipal Government, which will put it to use for the public interest, probably as a tourist information center.

The prefectural government's turnabout was the long-hoped-for outcome for Chichibu, a 58-year-old local architect, and his fellow campaigners.

In October 1998, seven months after the central government's green light on the track-elevation project, Chichibu and his friends organized the Association for the Preservation of JR Nara Station Building. They were soon joined by some 50 people.

The building, built in 1934, is a unique blend of Japanese and Western styles of the time. But that's not all, Chichibu said.

"When it was completed in 1934, the building was already behind the times in design because it was built as part of the city planning project that had begun from the early Meiji Era (1868-1912)," he said. "This building represents the completion of premodern city planning, which is really rare to find these days."

Chichibu said he and other association members also consider the building a valuable asset for tourism, a key industry in this ancient capital.

"I see a lot of tourists, including quite a few foreigners, taking photos in front of the station building. The building is a perfect gateway for them to begin a tour of this old city," he said.

Last February, Chichibu's group submitted a petition with 13,000 signatures, urging the prefectural government not to demolish the station building.

The move followed a similar petition submitted in January by the Architectural Institute of Japan, an organization of architects and researchers with some 38,000 members.

In a news conference last month, however, Nara Gov. Yoshiya Kakimoto said his government's about-face had nothing to do with the campaign.

The decision has been made in line with a request from the Nara Municipal Government, he said, adding that the prefectural government does not see the building as historically valuable.

One prefectural official, however, admitted that citizen calls to preserve the building helped prompt the policy change. Still, he insisted that the relocation of the building will be made, not for the sake of its preservation, but for its utilization.

Chichibu said he believes the governor had to say what he said, because the prefectural government had set up a 15-member panel to discuss the redevelopment project, and in July 2000 the panel concluded that the old station building should be demolished.

"If the governor really thinks the building has no cultural value, he is an idiot," Chichibu said. "He should have boasted that he changed his mind because citizens asked him to."

Chichibu said he personally hopes to see the area redeveloped in a way that makes the station building roof look like it is "floating in a forest, just like the roof of Todaiji Temple in the forest of Nara Park."

"After all, this local area of Nara understands the importance of cultural heritage," he said. "I think the decision this time by the prefectural government was the result of such local common sense."

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