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Posts Tagged ‘京都’


Left: Hanamikoji in Gion. Cobblestone streets, beautiful traditional architecture. Many of these buildings are geisha houses, high-end restaurants, and the like. Note the telephone pole and electric lines ruining the atmosphere and the view, and at the same time looking terribly outdated. This may have given the street a shiny, forward-looking, modern feel in the 1890s or 1920s, but not today. Those lines should be buried.

I have posted on a number of occasions in the past about concerns others (esp. Alex Kerr) have expressed, and which I share, as to the restoration and preservation of Kyoto and other urban environments around Japan. About how a city can be fully modern and at the same time beautiful, pleasant to live in, and reflective of its history and tradition.

After spending this summer in Kyoto, I feel fairly convinced that the situation in Kyoto is not nearly as bad as Alex Kerr makes it out to be – at least, not yet. There are tons of machiya still around, tons of traditional architecture, shops selling traditional goods, beautiful cafés and such in, if not truly historical machiya structures, still, in environs with wonderful “cultured” decor and design reminiscent of traditional Kyoto (or Paris or…) and not of that cold, hard, utilitarian 1950s-70s New York urban sort of feel. Dark woods…

Anyway. Today I came across a nice website, http://kyoto-preservation.info/ dedicated to documenting restoration/preservation efforts that have been made (such as the removal of above-ground telephone poles & electric lines on the cobblestoned traditional-goods shopping street Sannenzaka), and to describing a vision for what Kyoto might look like in the near future, if such projects are continued.

If you’re interested in beautiful pictures of Kyoto, and beautiful pictures and descriptions of how it can be preserved and improved, check out the site.

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According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, Kyoto city leaders recently met and put into place plans to further regulate the height of buildings and to limit neon signs, large billboards and the like. The article also refers vaguely to “regulations on color and other design aspects”.

This is my first post on the subject since coming to Kyoto for longer than a weekend. If you’ve been reading this blog for some time, you will probably have seen my previous posts, lamenting the state of Kyoto based largely simply on what I have read.

Now that I am here, biking around, getting a real feel for the city, my impressions and attitudes have changed. I still think that Kyoto has a long way to go if it wants to reclaim and maintain a more traditional and aesthetically pleasant identity, but that’s a big if. Still, I don’t know that the situation is as bad as some people say it is. I was not here in the 1970s, 80s or 90s, and I do not know how different it looks. But as of today, there are still plenty of machiya and other traditional buildings around, and they do not appear to be disappearing at a particularly rapid clip.

Yet, Alex Kerr and others are right in saying that there’s basically nowhere in Kyoto one can go – outside of temples, shrines, and the like – where one can see what is seen, for example, in Kanazawa’s Higashi Chayagai: a long strip of machiya, with no modern concrete buildings in sight, no overhead power lines, nothing (almost nothing) interfering with the cultural atmosphere of the place; and yet, it is not a theme park or a museum piece, and is very much an active, modern, place where real people lead real lives. If such areas existed 10, 20, or 30 years ago, they have indeed been lost, and it is a terrible shame.

I admire the effort of these new regulations to protect the view of the sky, and to prevent Kyoto from becoming Tokyo or New York in that particular respect. Though I had heard it from friends for years, I had never really appreciated for myself until last summer maybe just how powerful it is that so much of Manhattan feels like being at the bottom of a valley; that it does indeed feel much more closed in than being in other cities. That open air, open sky feeling is something we might not give much thought to, and only enjoy on a sub-conscious level, not consciously appreciating exactly what it is that is making Kyoto so pleasant, and so I am glad to hear that serious efforts are being made to preserve that.

However, I do not think it is enough. What is meant by “regulations on color and other design aspects”? Let me know when you’re ready to ban concrete grey and 1950s-70s style eyesores lacking in style. Let me know when you’re ready to place power lines underground, and to enforce a ban on anything other than traditional architecture or sleek, stylish, post-modern (ultra-modern) architecture in certain neighborhoods. Let me know when you’re ready to do something about the fact that the city looks completely unremarkable, and not particularly attractive, from high above it, e.g. from Daimonjiyama or any of the other high vantage points from which one can look out over the skyline.

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I recently picked up the revised 2005 edition of Old Kyoto by Diane Durston (photography: Lucy Birmingham), upon the recommendation of my good friend Kathryn. I’d hesitated for a while, thinking it a guidebook, and something which could only be of use for someone actually physically in Kyoto. However, it proves itself to be a wonderfully enrapturing look at what remains today of old Kyoto, written in a way that makes you feel as though you are there, bringing alive the atmosphere of old Kyoto and not requiring you to be there.

The core of the book is a series of looks at individual shops, restaurants, and ryokan (traditional style Japanese inns), including hours, a rough price range, and other such guidebook information. But it goes on to describe each location for a full 2-3 pages, detailing the shop’s history, the master’s traditional craft skills, or the inn’s rooms, gardens, and atmosphere, each description evoking images of the romantic Japanese world of the past which you thought was gone, unattainable, forever.

Indeed, these traditions are fading, and while a great many shopowners and craftsmen are taking over the family business, and continuing the traditions, many are not. Land is in great demand in Kyoto, traditional buildings are expensive to build, repair, and maintain, and demand for traditional goods has (I’d imagine) never been lower. Attitudes about modernity have fueled the destruction of traditional Japanese culture in a major way since at least the 1850s, and that is not going to change any time soon. So, in a way, at the risk of being melodramatic, for lack of a better word, this book is a memorial to the Kyoto that has been lost, and continues to disappear more and more every day.

Old Kyoto is more than that, however. I was initially tempted to skip over the Introduction sections, as I would in any guidebook. I expected it to skim the surface of Japanese history, telling me things I already know, or things simplified to the point of being misleading or outright incorrect. I expected it to devote pages and pages to tourist information like how to hail a cab, how to understand Japanese addresses, all sorts of other things quite useful to the uninitiated traveler in Japan.

I discovered, however, that these introductory sections are in fact among the best descriptions I have ever read of many key elements of Japanese urban history. Durston ties together disparate subjects – from Noh theater to tea ceremony to shogunal banquets to kabuki and the “floating world” of the geisha, describing the effect of each on the development of the urban merchant class, its culture and its crafts – painting a clearer and more complete picture of pre-modern to early modern Japanese urban life than I have ever read before. I cannot count the number of times I had an “aah, I see” moment while reading these pages. In everything from the relationship between Shinto shrines and merchant guilds to the disasters of the 1450s, shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa’s retreat from politics & administration and the resulting “Higashiyama bunka”, to the organization of the city into neighborhoods and the way the city rebuilt itself after each disaster not in any centralized way but through the independent efforts of each neighborhood rebuilding itself, Durston provides facts and stories I never knew before, and ties them together, weaving a beautifully complete and clear picture of life in the city.

Though still something of a guidebook, I intend to read this cover to cover, exploring through its pages a Kyoto I hope to experience for real some day – hopefully before it disappears completely.

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The New York Times is a bit behind the times, as usual, when it comes to articles on Japanese culture. I was in Kyoto & Uji back in May, seven months ago, and celebrations relating to the supposed 1000th anniversary of the Tale of Genji had been in full swing for months… and only now does the Times put out an article on the subject.

Still, it’s a pretty nice introduction to the Genji, and a peek at a few of the things that were going on in the Kyoto area last year in celebration, along with some nice but not stunning photos. It is a shame they didn’t publish this earlier, it being a Travel section. It would have been good info for tourists to help them plan a trip to Kyoto during the festivities, though it is too late now.

Across Japan, the anniversary has been marked by music festivals, parades, a chrysanthemum-doll competition and a hairstyle show featuring looks popular in Lady Murasaki’s time. In Kyoto, the festivities have included “Genji”-themed poetry readings, moon-viewings and even performance art, which I have chosen.

A walk through central Kyoto in November underscored the novel’s lasting power. Posters of the ingénue Yuki Shibamoto, the face of the national celebration, gazed from windows in office buildings and bridal shops. At the Museum of Kyoto, visitors inspected illustrated scrolls and painted screens from across the centuries depicting Genji’s exploits, and they walked out with playing cards and refrigerator magnets bearing images of Japan’s own Casanova.

(Photo at the top of the page my own. Taken in Uji Station.)

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A machiya I visited in Kyoto, which could obviously benefit from some restoration and repair.

The Japan Society recently held a symposium on historical conservation, specifically focusing upon ways in which the machiya (traditional-style “town houses”, written 町屋 or 町家) of Kyoto can be protected, restored, and maintained. Machiya play a major role in defining the atmosphere and character of Kyoto, and they are disappearing rapidly. Thirteen percent of Kyoto’s machiya were destroyed between 1993 and 2003. Of those surviving, 80% have been altered in some major way, losing significant elements of their traditional facades; one in five have been almost completely altered, their wooden facades replaced with concrete and only the basic shape of the traditional structure has been maintained. I admit I am unclear as to what these so-called kanban kenchiku (看板建築, “billboard architecture”) structures look like on the inside, but judging from their concrete facades, it seems hardly appropriate to call them machiya at all anymore.

I was unable to attend this symposium, which was invitation only and open only to a handful of Japanese preservationists and others directly involved in protecting and restoring Kyoto’s machiya. I was, however, fortunate to receive some materials related to the subject. And while I have never lived in Kyoto, or elsewhere in the many more traditional and Kyoto-esque towns of Kansai, this topic really grabbed me.

Machiya can be found outside Kyoto as well, and are in fact hardly rare, provided you’re looking at particular traditional urban areas, such as certain parts of Nara, the geisha district of Kanazawa, the Nakasendô posttowns of Magome and Tsumago, the “little Edo” of Kawagoe, or Nakamise-dôri in Asakusa, Tokyo. But while most of these places are specifically defined and in some cases even strongly protected by designations as structures of historical or cultural importance, the machiya of Kyoto do not represent a single specific protected traditional district for the benefit of tourists or anything to that effect; they are scattered throughout the city, a reminder of the city’s history and heritage. A survey done in 2003 revealed that more than half of machiya owners find the structures expensive and difficult to maintain. Unlike those machiya in very particular tourist-heavy areas or historically significant areas, which may benefit strongly from maintaining a traditional image, many machiya in Kyoto are simply used as houses, or as shops which, due to their location, goods, or other factors, could just as easily be operated out of more modern buildings.

Luckily, there are organizations working to protect and restore machiya. The “Machiya Machizukuri Fund” run by the Kyoto Center for Community Collaboration, the organization which published the book I so generously was given by the Society, is one of them. They work to not only restore machiya, but to have them formally designated as Important Architectural Objects, protecting the structures from demolition without the express personal permission of Kyoto’s mayor, and providing the owners of the structure a stipend from the local government to help with the expensive maintenance costs.

While I myself have not had the chance to see many machiya in Kyoto, I did visit Kanazawa earlier this year; the still-active geisha district there, known as the Higashi Chaya-gai (Eastern Teahouse Street), is made up almost entirely of traditional style machiya.
A minshuku (akin to a bed-and-breakfast) in the Chayagai. I wonder how much it costs to stay there. Must be a cool experience.
Fukushima Shamisen has been supplying shamisen to the geisha community here for over 150 years. Their building is relatively well-maintained on the outside, and shows many of the standard elements of machiya design. There are the mushiko mado windows on the second story, the long narrow ones with vertical bars that look like those on insect cages; the distinctive traditional roof tiles; the wooden fusuma sliding doors and noren over the entrance.
“Shima” (志摩), a former geisha house in the district, is now something of a museum, accessible to visitors to display what a gesiha house looked like and how it operated.

(All photos my own.)

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KYOTO–A Buddhist hall and an adjacent rest house at Daigoji temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site, were destroyed in a fire over the weekend.

Police suspect lightning may have caused the blaze at the temple, located in Fushimi Ward. Thunder was reported in the area Saturday night.

The one-story wooden Juntei Hall, with a floor space of about 147 square meters, was gutted. The hall is dedicated to the Juntei Kannon bodhisattva. A 50-square-meter rest house next to the hall also was destroyed.

Full article at Asahi.com

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