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Spotlight on Lighthouses as they Shift from Beacons at Sea to Tourist Attractions

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Kannonsaki Lighthouse is seen in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. Its light turns green immediately after being lit then gradually turns white.

Western-style lighthouses built in conjunction with Japan’s modernization have come into the spotlight in recent years, as their historical value and beauty is reevaluated.

With the spread of global positioning systems, lighthouses are losing their role as beacons on the sea, but at the same time they are increasingly being used as tourism resources.

On Jan. 17, Rintaro Itai and Miu Miyakawa, who are both 23-year-old company employees in Chuo Ward, Tokyo, visited the Kannonsaki Lighthouse in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Looking up at the lighthouse, they were captivated by what they called “the integrated beauty of the sea, mountains and lighthouse.”

The two learned about the lighthouse on social media. Last year, they also visited the Inubosaki Lighthouse in Choshi, Chiba Prefecture. The shapes of the lighthouses were “cute,” they said, adding that they created good memories by climbing up the lighthouses.

The Kannonsaki Lighthouse went into operation in 1869 as the first Western-style lighthouse in Japan. It was destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, and the current structure, which was rebuilt two years later, has now become a tourist attraction.

The Tokokai, a public interest incorporated body that promotes knowledge about lighthouses, has designated 16 lighthouses in Japan as “climbable lighthouses” with permission from the Japan Coast Guard. A donation of ¥300 is collected from visitors to preserve historical data on the lighthouses, among other purposes.

The body has created a stamp collection event for visitors touring all 16 lighthouses.

“[Until now,] I’ve just stopped by lighthouses during my trips, but from now on, I want to travel around Japan in order to visit them,” said Teruhisa Ono, a 45-year-old company employee from Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, who was visiting the Kannonsaki Lighthouse for the first time.

Lighthouses have also become a topic of conversation on social media. A search for #lighthouse on Twitter and Instagram shows many images of lighthouses throughout Japan along with beautiful scenery.

Potential tourism resource

Moves to utilize lighthouses for tourism have grown.

In Shakotan, Hokkaido, a 3-meter-high lens that was used in the Kamuimisaki Lighthouse has been displayed at a nearby tourist facility since August last year. The large immovable lens was made in France and is the only such item still in existence in Japan.

According to the Shakotan Tourist Association, the area around the cape attracts more than 1,000 tourists a day during the summer. The association pins its hopes on many people learning about the history of the lighthouse.

In Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture, a private organization held a special event on Jan. 21-22 to allow the public to view the inside of the Shionomisaki Lighthouse.

The organization hopes to use the former lighthouse keeper’s office building as a tourist and educational facility in the future.

3,118 lighthouses in Japan

According to the JCG, there were 3,118 lighthouses in Japan as of the end of March 2022. This is more than 200 fewer than at the peak in March 2004. Maintenance and management are major challenges to keep lighthouses going, as they cost billions of yen a year, according to the JCG.

In November 2021, a new system was introduced to allow private groups to clean and inspect the lighthouses as well as hold events, such as lighting them and opening them to the public. Currently, 23 private organizations are engaged in such activities.

1,000-year history

Lighthouses have a long history in Japan. Beginning more than 1,000 years ago, they served as beacons on the sea with a smoke signal during the day and a bonfire at night.

In the Meiji era (1868-1912), Western-style lighthouses — which have a special lens installed at the top, designed to amplify the light and allow it to reach tens of kilometers away — began to be built across the nation.

According to the Tokokai, 128 lighthouses were built during the Meiji era alone, of which 64 are still in use today.

Lighthouses built in the Meiji era are now appreciated as valuable industrial heritage. In December 2020, four lighthouses were designated as national important cultural properties, the first active lighthouses to obtain the designation. As of December 2022, a total of 13 lighthouses had gained the designation.

As advanced technology is required to operate lighthouses, lighthouse keepers lived on site to keep the lights on, despite the inconvenient locations far from cities. In 2006, however, the Meshima Lighthouse in the Goto Islands in Nagasaki Prefecture became unmanned, leaving no more lighthouse keepers in Japan.

“The history of lighthouses is the modern and contemporary history of Japan itself,” said Mayu Fudo, a curator who has published a free paper on lighthouses at her own expense since 2014 and conveys the charms of lighthouses through social media and lectures. “In the past few years, more lighthouses have been designated as important cultural properties, attracting public attention.”