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.
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