Intellectually, visitors know Japan is an ancient culture, its crafts of elegant textiles and fabulous hand-made objects, its cuisine apparently insanely elaborated, its religions impossibly attenuated. Yet that weight of the ages is not clear in the briskly run efficiency of the rapid transit system. That’s especially true if you are waiting for a “fast train” in Kyoto’s award-winning station and gander at several others shoot through the place to points unknown. Or in the conversation of one’s bilingual passerby’s plying global careers. The young men wear international motley, the young women (during our visit, but the fashion changes monthly) knee-high needle-heeled boots. Or, everyone is swathed in sports gear, which largely effaces ethnicity or sexuality.
Yet, in Japan, hop on what outsiders call the “bullet train” (Shinkansen), from the soaring, modern girders and Manga of Tokyo, and about three hours later you could be in Kyoto. Japan’s train side is enduringly “industrial.” As a result, passengers can pretty much forget quaint vistas of the kind harvested through the thick plate glass of a steam train in Southern Africa, or the rural rides in Italy or France or England.
Walk Along A Thousand Years of History
Kyoto, established more that a 1000 years ago as capital of what today we call the nation of Japan (the capital long since transferred to Tokyo) is redolent in history and tradition. The “Inextinguishable Dharma Light,” — dharma being the law or the word, in Sanskrit – has been burning, they say, since lit by the founder, Saicho, at Enryaku-ju temple 1,200 years ago.
This still often beautiful though thoroughly urban center was created as “Heian-kyo” in the year 794. Alex Kerr savagely attacks the city fathers for their signal failure to protect many of Kyoto’s formerly countless cultural treasures. Reading Kerr I was forced to reflect on the circumstances of my own home town, a smallish city with a powerfully well-developed cultural industry involving art, food, and music and hosting a mid-sized university.
For years, in spite of the valuable “quality of life” asset, a segment of the business community in Lafayette, Louisiana, struggled to enhance existing road infrastructure, seeking to convert existing carriage into a major throughway – an industrial corridor cleaving the town’s mid-section exactly when, elsewhere in the United States, cities were promulgating regulations to forbid industrial traffic. Such through town was a concern because of the potential of terrorist mayhem.
In any event, mere construction of this ugly feature would be an unsightly scar through the quaint place, squandering irreplaceable cultural capital in return for marginal benefit to a dying energy industry. Just the thing Alex Kerr railed about taking place in Kyoto. Failure to think about growth, and cost/benefit analysis that took into account the ephemera of quality of life. He is especially hard on the loss of its traditional architecture once reflective of Kyoto’s social history in his, “Dogs and Demons- The Fall of Modern Japan,” written with the concern of a true lover. And, in most areas of town, as in most towns, Kyoto is baldly nondescript.
The Friendly People of Kyoto
Yet, for a first time visitor, the place still winds up being put in positive comparison with the helter skelter of Tokyo, Kyoto residents being notoriously outgoing and friendly in spite of torrents of tourists thronging’s the streets. No doubt long-time residents see the many changes wrought by time as do, I feel confident, residents of Berlin, Manhattan, and Paris. I, for one, kind of miss the honest hookers working the French Quarter and don’t find their replacement in rack after rack of Taiwanese junk baubles for genteel Midwestern day tourists a fair trade, even if it is easier to attach a sales tax to the trinkets and crudely, witlessly bawdy t-shirts. Most cities are centers of commerce, not culture, today, so its hardly news to single out a particular example.
Lonely Planet said of the place, “ . . . while the rest of Japan has adopted modernity with abandon, the old ways are still clinging on in Kyoto. With its roots as the cultural capital of the country, it’s no surprise that many traditional arts and crafts are kept alive by artisans from generation to generation. Wander the streets downtown, through historic Gion and past machiya (traditional Japanese townhouses) in the Nishijin textile district to find ancient speciality shops from tofu sellers, washi (Japanese handmade paper) and tea merchants, to exquisite lacquerware, handcrafted copper chazutsu (tea canisters) and indigo-dyed noren (hanging curtains).”
Meanwhile, the Encyclopedia Britannica contributes this, “ . . . the historic area of Kyōto has few large factories or businesses, a fact reflected in the look of the inner city—shops and workshops, residences, and offices all standing side by side. Stringent building codes limit the height of buildings in order to preserve the overall look of the historic city. Characteristic of the architecture are tiled roofs and wood weathered to dark brown, but telephone poles (now made of concrete) and a forest of television antennas protrude at every turn. A typical Kyōto house presents a narrow and low front to the street, but as it recedes it gains in height and embellishment—all this a reflection of its past history and character: wariness of the marauding monk, the zealous revenue collector, or the curious neighbor. Rarely does one enter a home beyond the front vestibule; if one is invited in, it is good form to demur.”
Kyoto: A Dauntless and Leading Spirit
A final description of this engaging Japanese city put it this way, “although many transformations have taken place over the years, Kyoto has always adopted the most advanced standards of the times. It has greatly contributed to the nation’s industrial, economic and cultural development and strength. The dauntless and leading spirit of Kyoto’s past as a capital city is still felt here today.” Kyoto, for all its being a modern city, and possessing any of the shortcomings that entails, honestly stated, is populated with a very welcoming population and a convenient, efficient transportation system. We adored Kyoto.