Alex Kerr spoke recently at a TEDx event in Kyoto, once again on the topic of reviving old architecture, old spaces, to make them livable for the modern age, and attractive, overturning the old idea that “modernity” is built in concrete and in “modern” boondoggles, and suggesting a possible way of reviving old towns. This is something I’ve been interested in for many years – in fact, it was Kerr’s Lost Japan that really helped cement my interest in Japan, ten years ago, when I was in college; I have posted about this stuff before, and I’m not sure I have anything too new to say, so, apologies for that, I suppose, but I still think it a very important and very interesting topic.
The city of Sakura, in Chiba prefecture, as seen from the Sakura Art Museum, facing towards Keisei Sakura Station. Photo my own, July 2013.
Japan’s provincial and rural areas (“the inaka“) are facing a serious depopulation problem. We’ve been hearing about it for a long time, and continue to hear about it, from countless different news sources. I’m not sure if I’ve ever really seen it for myself, but then I’ve also never really spent much time in the inaka, with the exception of Sakura. And I wasn’t really able to get a sense of whether this is going on in Sakura, or how Sakura is doing. Certainly, the city looks like it’s seen better days, or like it’s still waiting for some economic (re)birth to make its way out there – but, only an hour from Tokyo, with a direct train line to Ueno, I think that for Sakura that time will come, soon. Not that I know anything about demographic or economic statistics, but just from what I’ve seen, I get the impression that many Chiba communities are in fact growing more urban, more connected, more populated. I saw so many advertisements this summer for all kinds of new housing complexes and such, encouraging people to move out to these otherwise rather peripheral towns, with the assurance that even though you’re living in a town whose name rings of the tall grasses of the middle-of-nowhere of the Musashi Plains, you’re actually quite close by train to Tokyo, that there’s this and that shopping mall and supermarket, etc.
Now, I’ve drifted off-topic (and, that reminds me, I never did get back to writing a Part 2 of my Sakura posts), but, in this video Alex shows us a model diagram of an Inland Sea town – I wish he had said which one – in which an amazingly small percentage of the buildings are marked as occupied. It’s really kind of incredible to imagine. I’m very much looking forward to at some point in the next few years visiting Tomonoura, Mitarai, and some of the other ports and post-towns that the Ryukyuan embassies which I study traveled through. Not just for my sake, of course, as a tourist/historian or whatever, but for the sake of the people who live there, and for the sake of the great history of these towns, I hope they are better off than that; though, of course, every town, no matter how small, has its history, its traditions, its famous places, and it’s heartbreaking, it’s really kind of crushing to think of communities, with all their collective memories, collective identities, just fading out and disappearing. Three hundred year old being abandoned, locally favorite restaurants or shops, passed down through the generations, becoming shuttered as “everyone” has gone… And pardon me for taking the historian’s perspective, but how many of these regional towns have shrines or temples or other historical sites of great local, regional, or even national importance, and what does it mean for those sites – conceptually, discursively, spiritually – as these towns fall apart around them?
Okay, admittedly perhaps not the greatest example, as I don’t even know precisely what this building is, or what it was built for. But, out of the photos I myself have, let this building, located near the Fukuoka Dome SoftBank Hawks ballpark (Go Hawks!), and visible from the freeway, stand in as representative of the great many massive “modern” construction projects visible all over the place in Japan. Maybe it’s a huge sports complex for the whole city, and maybe it is perpetually under-used. Or maybe it’s something else; I must admit, I don’t actually know. Photo my own, June 2008.
Kerr rails against the tactic, or philosophy, that revitalization of rural areas comes through “modernization” – the modernization of the 1950s-70s mind, centered around concrete and steel, towers and municipal centers, shopping malls and highways. He cites as one of his examples Gold Tower, in Kagawa, which according to real estate data mining company Emporis, “closed on Sept. 30, 2001 as a result of mounting debts due to continuing decline in the number of visitors,” though it has since reopened, and that one of the attractions within the building is a toilet museum. Yeah. This sounds pretty typical of these kinds of projects.
The former geisha teahouse Shima, in Kanazawa’s Higashi-chayagai geisha district. Maintained today as a historic house / museum. Photo my own, January 2008.
In essence, we have a dichotomy, between these “modern” buildings, and an idea that the only way to preserve or conserve or maintain historical & traditional spaces is as museums, or historic houses, which no matter how well-maintained, or well-operated, are essentially relegated to a peripheral space, outside of everyday life. I can’t imagine that locals in Sakura have all that strong or close a relationship with the Juntendô; I wonder how many have even visited. And, even to the small extent that Sakura gets any kinds of tourists at all, I wonder how many visitors the Juntendô, or the Sakura samurai houses, really get on a daily basis. Not that it’s about “gate” – the number of visitors to a single institution, or how many revenue is earned from that – but it is about the revenue that the town as a whole, including its shops and restaurants, receives from people wanting to visit. And that includes not just “tourists” but people from other neighboring towns, etc. And this is where I think Kerr’s ideas are the most applicable – because though he speaks a lot about restoring individual homes and restaurants, what I think he’s really talking about is reviving the entire feel, the entire atmosphere of a town. With enjoyable, livable, shops, restaurants, and homes, people will enjoy living there, will enjoy coming to that town even just from the next town over in order to go to these nice restaurants, etc.
One of a great many traditional-style machiya townhouses in Kyoto which I’ve seen transformed into a beautiful, functional, (post-)modern contemporary space, rather than being knocked down and replaced with a “modern” structure in concrete or whathaveyou. Photo my own, June 2010.
I don’t know if an architect might say I’m using the terms incorrectly, but as an art historian, I’m pretty sure this is (more or less) precisely the difference between the “modern” and the “post-modern.” We need to put aside the ideas of modernity from fifty years ago, these ideas that modernity is centered around concrete and highways and big monuments, and we need to turn to a post-modernity, that blends tradition and culture with modern conveniences and amenities, to create something that feels warm and human, not sterile and mass-produced like the interior of a shopping mall.
Alex Kerr’s own home at Yada Tenmangû in Kameoka, a short distance from Kyoto proper. The old home retains its traditional feel, but has been modified to have not only standard modern conveniences, but to be truly livable in an upclass second home sort of way.
This post has gotten much longer already than I’d expected or planned, but just to wrap up, I guess, I’d like to say that I love what Kerr and his people have been doing, in Ojika and elsewhere, reviving towns and preserving old buildings and traditional aesthetics by creating these wonderfully beautiful neo-traditional, post-modern spaces. I very much look forward to someday visiting Ojika, and Iya-dani, and countless other places around Japan and enjoying these spaces. I just have one problem, which continues to be one of my chief problems with Kerr’s work, namely that these spaces are expensive! Look, I know it costs a ton of money to renovate these places, and that you, or the owners of the property, need to make their money back; and I know that the invisible hand of supply & demand guides prices, and that if prices are able to stay high, it’s because there are enough people willing to pay it. But, still, I have a problem with seeing all these places, so beautiful, so wonderful, with the implicit notion that we should all aspire to live this way, and to then be told that staying in one of these homes is going to set me back $500/night. That, at least, is what some of the machiya in Kyoto renovated by Kerr’s organization go for – the cheapest rates at Chiiori in Iya Valley appear to be $100/night per person, and that’s only if you have a group of at least eight reserving to share the room. So, the question comes around to, for whom are these spaces being renovated? For whom are these spaces being created? Yes, it benefits the local community, and that’s wonderful. But, if the only tourists you’re bringing in are of a certain economic status, and if a great many of the people who love what you’re doing and want to partake of it are unable to afford it, that’s a problem. These may be private spaces, but even so, I think there are important connections to, for example, the extensive discourse on museum admission fees, class, and access to art/culture/history.
On a related note, the Wall Street Journal recently posted about a couple who purchased an old saké merchant’s home in Hino and renovated it into a beautiful, traditional but very modern-livable home.
I would love to see more historical places rescued, transformed, and thus maintained, kept alive in this way. I would love to see a sea change from a concrete modernity to a more neo-traditionally culturally vibrant post-modernity. But, I also want to see it be one that I can afford, and that the people already living in these communities can afford, to partake of.