The Japan that fails

Ask a Japanese to name the most beautiful town in his country and the chances are that the answer will be Kyoto. So esteemed is Kyoto that other towns which like to be thought beautiful call themselves ``little Kyotos'' rather as in Europe there are dozens of places that hopefully compare themselves to Venice.

Such a response is probably, and understandably, inevitable in view of Kyoto's place in Japanese sentiment about what they regard (whatever outsiders may think) as their incomparable past. Yet Kyoto these days gives the impression of being a rather nondescript town of office buildings, hotels and so much traffic that bicycles, the last remaining transport of civilization, have had to take to the pavements. Can this be the famous cultural heart and soul of Japan, a town that this year is proudly celebrating its 1,200th anniversary?

But go to Kyoto, not to sneer, but to try to find out what went wrong. If Kyoto cannot be protected, what hope is there for the rest of Japan?

Japan, even modern Japan, suffers from the disadvantage of arousing high expectations. Here is a nation that taught the French how to arrange food on a plate to look like an abstract painting. Its modern artefacts, its televisions and cars, sit confidently in design museums. It seems reasonable to expect that its towns will be modern versions of Renaissance Italy, built with the riches of Japan's merchant princes.

So it comes as a shock to find that Tokyo is one of the world's least appealing cities. There are good modern buildings there, as acknowledged in previous articles on these pages. But they are lost under the detritus of graceless workaday development. The Greeks, who are just as proud of their past, have no reason to be smug either. In Athens, as in Kyoto, the needs of a modern city have been allowed to envelope the treasures that made it famous. But Athens is helped by a gift of geography: The Parthenon on its hill instantly proclaims Greek quality.

Kyoto, which is one of the country's old religious capitals, has buildings that Japanese, at least, would regard as equal to the Parthenon. But they give the impression of being incidental rather than central to the town. Some Japanese, perhaps embarrassed by what has been done to their towns, will say that in their cultural tradition beauty is concealed so that it may be revealed by individual discovery. It is an artful answer.

The tradition they talk of is in the garden. At the temple of Ryoanji in Kyoto there is such a garden, possibly the most famous of its type in the world. It consists of 15 rocks of various sizes on a bed of white gravel and was, it is said, laid out in the 15th century. The idea is that you gaze at the stones and, if the Zen is with you, enlightenment follows. A sympathetic European might recall lines from ``Auguries of Innocence'' by William Blake: ``To see a World in a Grain of Sand... And Eternity in an hour.'' This, you may feel, is where minimalist art may have begun. The evocative bricks in the Tate Gallery have their ancestry in Ryoanji.

An early rock gardener wrote: ``Caution should be taken not to be too anxious to overcrowd the scenery to make it more interesting. Such an effect often results in a loss of dignity and a feeling of vulgarity.'' However, the edge of the garden is crowded shoulder-to-shoulder with people gazing at the rocks. Enlightenment may be eluding them, but they are determined to get their money's worth.

Temples make money, and there are said to be 1,500 in Kyoto. Buddhism must be wealthy, although individual Buddhists practice asceticism. There are no monks about. Presumably they are in hiding until the crowds have gone. As you would expect in Kyoto, geishas still practise their expensive talents. Crowds wander through the geisha districts, hoping to see one, but, like the monks, they too have withdrawn. There is a rumor that one was spotted taking tea in a Kyoto hotel. But she turned out to be an American, in fancy dress.

Japan has too many people, a shortage of land, and after the second world war sought to replace its wasted towns quickly. All offer excuses for mediocrity. But Kyoto was spared in the ar. It has to be acknowledged that many Asian cities, Bangkok and Taipei most notoriously, have failed to find acceptable solutions to overcrowding. But Hong Kong remains a splendid sight. Manilla displays its choice buildings well (partly through the efforts of Imelda Marcos when her husband ran things there).

Kyoto has, or had, good intentions. Buildings in the center are supposed to be no higher than 45 meters. But a new hotel, called simply and importantly the Kyoto Hotel, is rising grim and grey by the day on a prominent site to 60 meters, nothing by world standards by a distortion to Kyoto's skyline. Next to it is the town hall, a modest 45 meters high and built with restraint in the 1920s. But the local council is thinking of pulling it down and building something bigger. Many fear that a race to the sky will ensue and Kyoto, to add to its problems of staying alluring, will become just another high-rise town.

It is hard to knock Kyoto, if only because of the affection Japanese have for the place. And it should be said that the celebrations for the 1,200th anniversary look attractive, among them a film festival in the autumn, normally held in Tokyo. But, to quote a foreigner who has long lived in Kyoto: ``See it fast because it's going, going, gone.''

30 April 1994, p. 97