In Conversation with Yutaka Hirako, Yutaka Hirako,Programme Director / Project Architect Tibet Heritage Fund / Leh Old Town Initiative

By Tsewang Norbu Leh, Jan 16, 2023
Leh :

Q. Share with us about yourself.

My name is Yutaka Hirako, Japanese nationality, born in 1974. I did my vocational course in Chinese from Japan and then moved to China. There I bought a bicycle to travel to Tibet and was fascinated by nature, the landscape of Tibet, and people living in tough conditions. The journey made me more curious about Tibet culture. So I decided to have another bicycle journey from Xinjiang-west Tibet- Mt. Kailash to Lhasa. During that winter I met the organization Tibet Heritage fund (NGO), they were doing the preservation and conservation of heritage buildings in Tibet local. I met the directors of THF, Pimpim De Azevedo from Portugal and Andre Alexandre from Germany. Initially, I started working with them as a volunteer in 1998 since I was working in different parts of the Himalayan region like Mongolia. THF, Director Andre visited Ladakh in 2003 with a recommendation to see Ladakh’s old town heritage architecture similar to Tibet. Based on his experience we started working in Ladakh with small projects in the old town of Leh. We wanted to work with local people to restore residential houses which lead to the formation of the Leh Old Town initiative (LOTI). In 2011, I got my Japanese architecture license.

Q. What inspires you to work in the conservation sector?

It all started in Tibet, the spark you can say, as I come from Japan which is much more modern with materials and comforts. But in Tibet I saw a big gap, people were living in hard conditions and with no freedom under the Chinese. The devotion to praying as a Buddhist made me a shock; on my way to Lhasa, I saw many people doing Gochag, a journey of 1000’s km. They were very content and smiling. It would be impossible to see someone doing this in Japan. I realized that material-wise there was no comparison to Japan but they pray for the next life to get better. When I reached Lhasa town, I would describe it as “living heritage” the old buildings continued in use, and the co-founder Pimpin De Azevedo took me to the old house which was under development, the house had memories of the family-like marking off the height of children and losar and cultural decorations. I feel if the house is the body then people are the soul. The soul and body must be together. So it was important to preserve not just houses but also support the people living there and improve the living conditions to conserve the living heritage.

Q. What are the challenges faced in Ladakh during restoration?

The initial challenge was people were not interested in restoring their heritage houses as they decided to move out and build new houses closer to farmland and also due to problems with the water supply. The change in lifestyle due to tourism as they built guest houses and the old town of Leh lost its use. People from different parts of Ladakh like Nubra and Zanskar started to live in old townhouses either on rent or bought them. We did a survey and proposed to restore the houses on half cost born by the owner and half provided by THF. We provided technical knowledge while working with local craftsmen. Slowly people started to see the possibility of living, by bringing in facilities of electricity, and water supply, and having a good quality of living in historic houses.

The senior citizen finds difficulty living in the cemented building due to poor insulation to cold in winter. The need for lots of heating arrangements in concrete houses which quickly absorb the heat but also quickly release the heat which is vice-versa to old Ladakhi architecture buildings, having more habitable living conditions. Old houses of Ladakh are built with natural materials like wood, and mud to maintain heat. So by restoration, we feel we are providing sustainable living spaces.

Q. What were the feedbacks and responses from locals after restoration work?

The response from locals has changed from being hesitant to restore and now the competition of many houses. Also, people now request to restore outside Leh town with bearing full costs like current projects in Saboo Zims Khang and Matho Khar.

Q. Did you get any support from the government of Leh, Ladakh?

Initially, we had an MOU with Hill Council and work together but it did not result in the policy-level stage. It is important to have regulations on how to conserve the buildings. For this, it is important to have government support as we can only propose but regulations and laws are in the hands of the government. After UT was formed Kaga Rigzin Samphel, the then Commissioner/ Secretary also suggested and agreed on the effort of making old Leh town a heritage site.

This year Stanzin Chosphel, EC, Art and Culture, LAHDC, Leh, and I worked together on heritage regulations in the countryside for Mane and Stupas and created a special fund on the Panchayat level for restoration.

Q. How do you see the future of conservation and tourism’s effect on it?

The important thing is to have a living heritage where locals are residing and tourists or visitors are welcome but they respect the space. As historic places are interesting and have different cultural atmospheres to experience and learn to grow culturally to other customs.
It is important for people to still live otherwise like many places after becoming heritage sites the local people start disappearing. Many tourists bring monetary opportunity but eventually become Disney land and are occupied for business. Eventually, the city loses its charm and it would be artificial and slowly it would die and we have asked ourselves historic town owed by whom? That’s why I emphasize having a living heritage. We work closely with local people. We built our office in the middle of the old town in a heritage house by living close we know more about the conditions of the other heritage houses.

I know Ladakh is very much dependent on tourism and the old town has potential in the tourism sector but it must be handled with care. Old town Leh cannot be only for tourists without the native locals in it.

The natural challenges are still there to regain habitation as the town is laid on rock structures so laying water pipes lines and sewage or drainage is very tough, especially for tourists, that is why we recommend dry toilets.

Q. What is your message to the locals of Ladakh?

These days people coin the heritage word now and then but I feel the word heritage means which is something inherited from ancestors, like stupas or palaces. So it is important to conserve not just the buildings but the stories, and folk tales, which must be passed down to future generations. But it is not just in Ladakh but everywhere I see people tend to remove old and change to new. On one hand, it must be true. Not just tangible heritage but intangible heritage the language customs, eating habits, rituals, and celebrations like Losar.
The custom of churpon and the irrigation water distribution system in the village is also very important. As Ladakh is very hard to live so these customs of supporting each other created a social bond that is hard to find out in the world.

Message to the readers

“Ladakh is very much dependent on tourism and the old town has potential in the tourism sector but it must be handled with care. Old town Leh cannot be only for tourists without the native locals in it.”