- Research article
- Open Access
Pressures from long term environmental change at the shrines and temples of Nikkō
© The Author(s) 2018
Received: 16 November 2017
Accepted: 22 March 2018
Published: 3 May 2018
Important historic buildings at Nikkō are designated National Treasures of Japan or important cultural properties and illustrate notable architectural styles. We examine the records of damaging events and environmental change to estimate that changing balance of threats to guiding strategic planning and protection of the buildings and associated intangible heritage.
Historic records from Nikkō allow past damage to be assessed along with projections of likely future threats. Simple non parametric statistics, Lorenz curves and its associated Gini coefficient aids interpretation of observations.
Earthquakes have long represented a threat, but mostly to fixed stone structures. Flooding may be as growing problem, but historically river management has improved. Increasing warmth may mean an increase in the threat of fungal attack. However, insect attack on wood has been a particular problem as recent years have seen damage by wood boring insects, particularly at Sanbutsudō in the temple complex of Rinnō-ji. Although warmer climates may enhance the abundance of insects such as P. cylindricum the life cycle of this rare anobiid is not well understood. The risk of forest fires tends to be higher in drought period, but summer rainfall may well increase at Nikkō. Additionally good forestry practice can reduce this risk. Future changes to climate are likely to alter the flowering dates and the arrival of autumn colours.
The results show that environmental changes are likely to affect the material structure and also the nature of celebrations and visitor frequency at Nikkō. Conservation architects and skilled engineers will be challenged by these changes, so need to be well briefed on strategic environmental threats.
There are more than a hundred important historic buildings at Nikkō. These are designated National Treasures of Japan or important cultural properties. This site is important because it illustrates the architectural style of the Edo period as applied to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. These are arranged on forested mountain slopes so as to create striking visual effects making the setting significant in addition to the importance the historic buildings. Although many of the buildings were constructed in the 17th century, the earliest date from the 8th century. They are distributed among the various temple complexes discussed in the text, along with a satellite set of buildings associated with Rinnō-ji situated fifteen kilometres away at Tyuzen-ji. The key sites, Rinnō-ji, Tōshō-gū and Futarasan Shrine form the Shrines and Temples of Nikkō that represent important elements of UNESCO World Heritage. The temple complex and its surroundings have long been a destination for travelers. The poets Sōgi  and Matsuo Basho made visits in 1468 and 1689 respectively and Nikkō features in Basho’s most famous work, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Western tourism started early also with a notable visit from the crew of the Challenger in 1875  and early travel writers [e.g. 3]. Many important Japanese painters have found inspiration in Nikkō and its surroundings, notably the 20th-century painter and printmaker Hiroshi Yoshida . In the 21st century annual reports reveal that there are typically some six million visitors to Nikkō each year, but they go there as much to enjoy the natural environment as the temples, with autumn popular to observe the leaves.
Heritage always faces a range of threats and Nikkō has been vulnerable to earthquake, floods, lightning strikes, fire and most recently insect attack. In future these threats may be exacerbated by environmental and climate change. The aim here is to examine the records of damaging events and environmental change to estimate that shifting balance of threat in the future as a way of guiding long term strategic planning and risk assessment at Nikkō.
Results and discussion have been split into a number of sections for clarity: past impacts on the site, earthquakes, climate and climate change at Nikkō, floods and storms, fungal damage at Nikkō, insect damage at Nikkō, fires at Nikkō and landscape change and seasons at Nikkō. The recent discovery of insect damage at Nikkō, makes the section on insects rather long, so it is been split to include introductory material and other subsections.
Past impacts on the site
Floods and earthquakes which caused damage at Nikkō
16th Century 1532 Flood
17th Century 1662 Flood of Inari River after heavy rain until one day before the flood; 1684 Flood of Daiya River and Inari Rivers; 1685 Flood of Inari River; 1687 Flood, with ponds at lower sides of each deck of the Sacred Bridge so unusable for half a day; 1688 Flood, with ponds at lower sides of each deck of the Sacred Bridge; 1699 Flood of Daiya River and Inari River
17th Century 1644 Earthquake, a little damage to stone wall at Tōshōgu; 1649 Earthquake, damage to stone wall and stone Igaki at Tōshōgu; 1650 Earthquake, Damage to Sōrintō and stone wall at Tōshōgu; 1658 Earthquake, minor damage in Nikko; 1683 June 17/18 Earthquakes, Landslide at Mount Akanagi and Nothern Akanagi; Earthquake, Damage of Hōtō and Kasaishi etc. at Tōshōgu and Taiyu-in; Flood of the Daiya River and Inari Rivers, October 20 Earthquake and landslide and no more water flow in Kinugawa River and Inari Rivers and possibly damage to buildings under restoration
18th Century 1704 Flood of Daiya River, Inari River and Tamozawa; 1721 Flood of Daiya and Inari Rivers; 1723 Heavy rains and wind, flood of Inari River; 1786 Flood of Daiya River
18th Century 1703 Genroku Earthquake; 1707 Hōei Earthquake; 1710 Nikkō shrines safe after main earthquake shock; 1725 Earthquake damages some 7-9 m length of a stone yarai and three or four stone lanterns fell down; 1735 Earthquake, minor damage to stone wall at Tōshōgu; 1746 Earthquake, damage to Stone Yarai and wall at Tōshōgu; 1755 Damage to stone yarai, wall and stairs at Tōshōgu; 1767 Earthquake, fall of sculpture about 1.8 m
19th Century 1858 Flood of Daiya, Akahori and Namegawa Rivers; 1859 Flood of Daiya and Morokawa Rivers
19th Century1827 Earthquake, minor damage to Okusha Sekisaku at Tōshōgu; 1835 Earthquake, collapse of stone wall; 1888 Earthquake, Tochigi Prefecture
20th Century (first half) 1902 Heavy rain and wind, flood of Daiya and Inari Rivers; 1906 Washout of the Sacred Bridge and Inari Bridge; 1909 Flood, the Sacred Bridge under water; 1919 Flood, outburst of the Daiya River levee; 1938 Flood and typhoon, damages the whole Tochigi Prefecture with deaths (8), injuries (8), houses destroyed (204), half destroyed (125), parts washed away (248); 1946 flood and Typhoon No. 9; 1947 Flood Kathleen Typhoon, damage whole Tochigi Prefecture; Inundation of about 170 houses, partly washed away (4) by flood and levee collapse in Tochigi, dead (361), missing (76), injured (549), houses destroyed (1432), parts washed away (817); 1949 Flood Typhoon Kitty, damage to whole of Tochigi Prefecture; dead (12), injured (37), houses destroyed (248), half destroyed (2318), parts washed away (28);’
20th Century (first half) 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake; 1931 Nishisaitama Earthquake, damage to stone wall; 1949 Imaichi Earthquake
20th Century (second half) 1959 Flood from Isewan Typhoon; 1966 Flood and torrential rain from Typhoon No. 26, damage whole Tochigi Prefecture; dead 12, injury 51; 1972 Flood and torrential rain from Typhoon No. 20, damage whole Tochigi Prefecture; dead 1, injury 3, houses destroyed 1, half destroyed 1, partial destroyed 6, landslide in Hosoo in Nikkō; 1981 Flood from Typhoon No. 15, damage whole Tochigi Prefecture; partial destroyed 15, victim 20; 1982 Debris flow Takumi and Hoso in Nikko city, isolation of Kawamata Onsen from Typhoon No. 10; isolation of Kawamata Onsen by Typhoon No. 18; 1991 Torrential rain from Typhoon No. 12; Debris flow in Tamozawa; 1998 River blockage
A comparison of the earlier records from 1532 to 1899, with those of the 20th century reveals a changing frequency with which floods were recorded, such that they have been seen more important than earthquakes to those assembling the record of damage. Over the earlier period there were 14 records of disastrous floods compared to 19 earthquakes, while in the 20th century the numbers were 12 and 3 records respectively. Thus there is a significant change (p = 0.015; χ2 = 5.86) in the recording of the major threats to Nikkō.
Earthquakes have long represented a threat to buildings in Japan and their design even in historic times attempted to resist the shocks. The record of significant earthquakes starts with accounts of events as early as the 5th century  and at Nikkō damage was noted from the Edo or Tokugawa period (1603–1868), but the accounts seem to list only minor damage (Table 1).
There was a large earthquake in 1683 and possibly some smaller shocks. The damage caused was costly and led to disagreements between Lord Date Tsunamura (1659–1719), who wanted a minimalist restoration and the Tokugawa Shogunate who wished for a fuller restoration. The dispute occurred as the famous poet Matsuo Basho and his travelling companion Kawai Sora, were to depart on a journey through Nikkō early in 1689 . The government hoped that Matsuo Basho could provide information about the restoration. However, Basho wrote relatively little of Nikkō in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, although this prose-poem offers clues and suggests that his thoughts would not be public ones: “To say more of the shrine would be to violate its holiness ”. A minimalist restoration seems to have prevailed and reminds that in the past, as with today, there were tensions over funding and extent of restoration.
The traditional wooden buildings of Japan are resistant to earthquakes as they respond to earth movements. The five-story pagoda characteristic of Japanese architecture consists of floors with beams only weakly linked, but held in vertical alignment by a central pole. Each floor is effectively an independent structure of decreasing dimension with height. Wide heavy eaves stabilize the building as the inertia reduces the degree to which the building sways. Wooden Japanese buildings have the ability to recover from the rocking. Further, the buildings were often constructed on large trays that allowed movement between the ground and the building . The historical record of earthquake destruction at Nikkō in Table 1 illustrates the effectiveness of resistance wooden buildings to earthquakes as damage to fixed structures is most frequent. In the earthquake of 1683, kasa-ishi (coping stones) on fence tops were affected and more significantly a hoto; a stupa (typically miniature) with a cylindrical body on stone foundations with a four-sided roof. This was probably the Okusha Hōtō, which enshrines the remains Tokugawa Ieyasu and was rebuilt in stone in 1641. Later the 1725 and 1746 earthquakes damaged some stone yarai (fence), and another caused damage to the Sekisaku and stone stairs at Tōshō-gū in 1827. These structures are understandably less resistant than those of wood.
Climate and climate change at Nikkō
The mean surface temperature in Japan for 2015 is estimated to have been some 0.7 °C above the 1981–2010 average. It is also the 4th warmest year on record since 1898. Rainfall records suggest a decrease in the annual number of wet days, but an increase in extremely wet days over the period 1901–2015 . The projected temperature in Japan as likely to increase by 4.2 °C for the period 2071–2100 (under the A1B scenario, which imagines a future world of very rapid economic and population growth) compared to that for 1971–2000. Summer precipitation will change steadily due to global warming with the annual average precipitation increasing 19% by the last 30 years of the 21st century. Looking at regional climate between 1980–1999 and 2076–2095 the annual mean temperature is projected to increase by more than 3 °C in region EJP (see Fig. 1a). Summer mean relative humidity is projected to decrease in most regions, especially region EJP where Nikkō lies, by about 4%, although winter mean relative humidity is projected to increase across most of Japan. The annual number of dry days (< 1 mm) is likely to increase by 5–10 days across Japan (JMA, V8). These changes in climate set a background against which we can explore the climate pressures on the Shrines and Temples.
Floods and storms
There have been a number of studies on the effects of future climate change on the upper Tone River basin, which includes the Nikko catchment [17, 18]. Kim et al.  argue that changes in river discharges may slightly decrease or peak river flows could change a little, but overall this will not affect the water supply from the river. The river is carefully managed and the river height is controlled at the gauging station Ga (Observatory No. 303031283303130) on the Hitachitone River of the Tone Catchment. However Nikkō, which is in the mountains, may remain at risk of seasonal flooding.
Fungal damage at Nikkō
Insect damage at Nikkō
Historically insect damage to wooden buildings has been common in Japan, with termite damage most apparent. However, over the last 100 years a wider range of attack has become apparent and recently at Nikkō problems have been especially pronounced. From the late 19th century advice was available to limit insect attack, but the extensive use of bamboo made protection of this material a focus of studies  in the Meiji era (1868–1912). There were investigations (1900–1907) of the larval attack (possibly by Omphisa fuscidentalis) and damage by the powderpost beetle (Lyctus spp.), which caused damage to bamboo furniture .
The work of the Forest Research Institution  examined a range of pesticides, but noted only camphor oil penetrated bamboo and effective over long periods . Although protection with the oil had been known for some time it was not used as it was difficult to obtain in early Edo times (17th century), so only became popular by the mid 19th century . From latter half of 1940′s the use of plywood from Lauan trees had increased, but insect damage was so great that the Housing Authority prohibited its use in the 1950′s. However, more recent decreases in the supply Japanese hardwoods had led to re-adoption of Lauan wood protected using repellents such BHC, DDT, PCP and chloronaphthalene. Death watch beetles (i.e. Anobiidae in Japan) have been a cause of damage, but a lack systematic surveys means they may have occurred earlier, but their presence passed unnoticed .
Wood types and damage surveys at Nikkō
The Shrines and Temples of Nikkō are set within forested area, so the presence of wood boring insects is to be expected. The buildings are principally constructed from pine, hinoki, tsuga, chestnut, red cedar  and in general domestic wood has been promoted in recent years , with hinoki and cedar have maintained as aged stands . However, heritage conservation studies have not established the relative vulnerability of the different types of wood. Most of the wooden structural elements are coated with urushi varnishes, increasingly taken from Japanese sources, and sometimes paint. These layers tend to hide the damage until it becomes severe . In 2008 restoration work at Sambutsu-do in Nikkō led to the discovery of extensive structural damage to wooden pieces. Severe damage to wood is common after termite infestation, but in this case larvae of Priobium cylindricum (a death-watch beetle, in earlier literature called Trypopitys), collected from infested wooden parts were thought to have caused the damage . The beetle is about 5 mm, but its ecology and sensitivity to temperature and relative humidity is not known . The survey at Nikkō considered P. cylindricum to enter the adult phase between May and July, for a period likely to be less than 1 month. Priobium spp. (probably Priobium carpini) have been found in ancient Egyptian coffins , but were rare in Japan and prior to the observations at Nikko in 2008; there had been no reports of damage to wooden buildings in literature. Although damage by P. cylindricum came to be noticed only recently, a survey of older records and photos hinted at a longer history to the activity of this wood-boring beetle . There are similar the suggestions for P. carpini (alternatively T. carpini) infestations in houses in Poland, which although not noticed until 1955 revealed hints of a longer history .
Growing concern over insect damage at Nikkō promoted pilot survey of Sanbutsudō and Taiyū-in Nitenmon in 2009. This was followed by an extensive investigation using almost 30,000 sticky traps, placed in the buildings at the shrine complex in 2010 [33–36]. Additionally a more limited, but well-structured survey took place in 2016 . The large survey reaffirmed that infestations in Sanbutsudō were dominated by P. cylindricum, but at Taiyū-in Reibyō Nitemmon (belonging to Rinnō-ji) most of the anobiids were Trichodesma japonicum. Traps from this large gate in the Taiyū-in complex showed the presence of anobiids, T. japonicum and Sculptotheca hilleri, but failed to reveal any P. cylindricum . The distribution of beetles in the Sambutsu-do and the Taiyū-in Nitenmon were investigated using the large-scale survey data by Hayashi and colleagues [33–35]. Comb-clawed beetles (Family: Tenebrionidae) and reticulated beetles (Cupedidae) might also cause damage to infested wood at Nikkō, although they are not generally seen as pests for wooden heritage.
Analysis of insect catch
The total catch, the catch of individual insect types loft-basement pairs the entire Nikkō site and at Rinnō-ji, along with Gini coefficients
Figure 5b shows that there is a rough relationship between the effort in trapping, expressed as the number of traps set out in a given building or rooms and the number of insects caught (mostly as S. hilleri). There is no evidence that so many insects are being caught that the population is being depleted, which might typically appear as a flattening of the curve when the number of traps is extremely large.
Following earlier work  the dispersion in the catch is represented as a Lorenz curve and its associated Gini coefficients, so frequently used in economics for describing income distribution of a population. The curve is plotted by arranging the catches from buildings in order of size, small to large and expressing the running cumulative total of these as a proportion of the complete catch. The x-axis is the proportion of the number of buildings that account for the cumulative proportion of the catch. The Gini coefficient expresses the dispersion as the ratio the areas A/(A + B) shown in Fig. 5c of the total catch in the sites at Rinnō-ji, which means that the coefficient is zero for situations where the same number of insects would be found in each building, which might rise to almost 1 in the case of extremely uneven distributions. The even distribution (coefficient is zero) is shown by the diagonal line.
The larger beetles are taken as the sum of the catch of T. japonicum, P. cylindricum H. pertinax, O. japonicus and the click beetles, but omitting the smaller S. hilleri. The calculated values are given in Table 2. Figure 5c shows the Lorenz plot of S. hilleri at Nikkō. This species along with the click beetles have the most even distributions and thus the smallest Gini coefficients, 0.78 and 0.73 (Table 2). By contrast P. cylindricum/H. pertinax reveal a high Gini coefficient of 0.93. This is because most of these beetles are found in just a few lofts and basements. Some 85% of the entire catch from the 42 sites at Rinnō-ji is found to come from the loft and basement of Sambutsu-do. The standard error is listed which allows us to gain a sense where the differences between the Gini coefficients are likely to be significant. The large beetles show a similar Gini coefficients to the P. cylindricum/H. pertinax because most of the large beetles come from these two species at Rinnō-ji.
Future of insects at Nikkō
While there is a potential for insects to increase as a result of climate change , future trends can be hard to detect and additionally influenced by food and habitat availability . Although there is a potential for invasive species, there are also worries about the impact of climate change and urbanization reducing bees and butterflies  and in Japan dragonflies also . There is little information about the temperature and relative humidity relevant to the development of anobiids found at Nikkō, typically causing a faster rate of growth and higher rates of reproduction. However, it is possible to approximate these through comparison with the tolerances observed by Fisher  in his studies of the deathwatch beetle some 80 years ago. He made laboratory studies of the egg development time, number of eggs and their viability as a function of relative humidity and temperature. Once the relative humidity is greater than 40%, it has little effect on the rate of development of the eggs. Temperatures between about 15 and 25 °C seem suitable for development of the eggs are typically required for the egg stage .
Fires at Nikkō
Traditional Japanese buildings being of wood were frequently destroyed by fire and led to much concern in cities with the early development of official fire-watches and towers . Pagodas were frequently struck by lightning which resulted in their destruction. As an example Toji, in Kyoto has caught fire three times after being struck since its construction some 1200 years ago. The Gojunoto Pagoda at Nikkō was destroyed in a fire started by lightning in 1815 and was rebuilt in 1818 by Sakai Tadayuki, a feudal lord of Wakasa Province (present day Fukui Prefecture). The dangers were well recognized so the Tokugawa government provided fireman (Hachioji Sen-nin Doshin) to protect the shrines and temples from 1652 with the construction of Taiyū-in. Their contribution continued until 1868 as celebrated on a memorial stone in the grounds of Rinnō-ji (Fig. 1). At the beginning of Meiji era, there was a large scale of fire at Rinnō-ji and Futarasan shrine had also suffered from fire. In 1961 there was a fire at Tōshō-gū Honji-do . Official documents from the Agency of Cultural Affairs of the Government of Japan (2015) about Nikkō world heritage site under subheadings: climate change and natural disaster and fires comment on the concern over damage to surrounding forests due to lightning strikes and the appropriateness of lightning protection.
In the past fire suppression has been assisted by using nonflammable exterior materials such as clay-plaster. Additionally roofs have sometimes been designed so that they can rapidly be dismantled in case of fire. Further protection comes through digging networks of water channels to draw water from nearby rivers with weirs to control the flow such that it can be used in firefighting . At Nikkō the issue is covered by UNESCO World Heritage List (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/913) inscription: “As fire is the greatest risk to the property, the monuments are equipped with automatic fire alarms, fire hydrants, and lightning arresters. In addition, the property owners organize fire brigades which work in cooperation with public fire offices.”
Landscape change and seasons at Nikkō
There is already subtle evidence that environmental change is underway at Nikkō. This is likely to affect the risks imposed on the buildings, where warmer conditions could see enhanced biological attack. Protection from floods and heavy rain may need attention under future climates. As Nikkō is embedded in a forested landscape there are risks from forest fires or wood boring insects, so forest management need to account for likely changes in these threats. Future changes to climate are likely to affect visitor appreciation because of earlier flowering dates and a later arrival of autumn colours.
The UNESCO World Heritage List inscription reads “The inscribed property is owned by the Religious Organizations of Futarasan-jinja, Tōshō-gū, and Rinnō-ji, which are responsible for the management. Necessary repair works are conducted by the Foundation for Preserving Nikkō Shrines and Temples, which includes qualified conservation architects and skilled engineers”. There is an impressive history to the management of the site and the transfer of craft skills over the centuries, this is especially derived through Shikinen sengu of the Shinto tradition that expresses an ideal that buildings meticulously disassembled and rebuilt at regular intervals. This has ensured continuity in the techniques. While the desire for professional qualifications expressed within the UNESCO inscription is admirable, as yet it is unclear whether architects and skilled engineers are always well versed in the environmental changes that are likely to confront Japan’s heritage in the coming century, so a broadening education seems important.
Both authors contributed to the entire paper and although only MH read papers in Japanese, PB was involved in identifying important historical Japanese writings. Both authors read and approved the final manuscript.
We thank Mr Harada of the Foundation for Preserving Nikkō Shrines and Temples. Additionally we thank Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. Kanto Regional Development Bureau, Kasumigaura office for providing the Tone River flow data.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Availability of data and materials
Data is available on the websites noted in the MS.
Consent for publication
Not required, although scientists at Nikkō have been made aware of the MS content.
Ethics approval and consent to participate
No ethical issues.
The work also benefitted from the DIMSum initiative (3030327/3030350/3030350) at City University of Hong Kong and funded by the Education Bureau’s Pilot Mainland Experience Scheme, which has supported study trips to Shanxi examining the environmental impacts on wooden buildings and most notably the investigation of wood-boring insects at the wooden pagoda of Yingxian County.
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