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Kyoto : ugly or beautiful

noyhauser

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Originally posted by senseiman
IAlso, arnadstephen, just as a correction to your post, Kyoto has in fact been bulldozed. I've been there on many occasions, its a city of ugly plastic and concrete as far as the eye can see just like every other city here. In the guidebooks you see pictures of pretty temples, but those are all well framed, close up pictures. If the camera gave you a wider view, you would see the giant pachinko parlors, power lines and concrete mountains that surround them. Its a depressing place to visit.
ooh I disagree with that quote highly. I spent 4 months living in Kyoto last summer, in Miburo (home of the Shinsen-gumi.) and I think Kyoto has done quite well both perserving the historical parts of its past as well as allowing for development of the city. I've travelled alot, and Kyoto really reminds me of a lot of the more beautiful cities in the world, very much a European city set into the natural surroundings of Vancouver British Columbia (sans the ocean)

Most of the Temples there are in protected areas, that havent seen major development. I can't think of one that is surrounded by anything more than a quiet suburbia, which is what they were set in when they were built. (They are quite tasteful normal japanese houses if you ask me). The only one that may have seen a bit too much development is one of the temples to the south (its name escapes me but its the pagoda one), but it ran into the misfortune of being built right beside the major arterial highway in and out of Kyoto. The main roads like Kawaramachi, Sanjo, Karasuma, Gion and others were always major commercial centers, so the development on them has seen commercialized growth, like high rises and other buildings that are considered "ugly". But these are limited to the center of the city, not near any temples. Around the major temples and sites, like Nijo-jo and Kinkakuji which are based in areas that are suburban in nature, there is very little in the way of ugly plastic growth. Most of Kyoto still retains the roads from the pre-meiji period, seriously hampering the ability to create large scale development (Miburo is the perfect example). Also the major temples that are situated in the foothills on the eastern bank, have seen little or no growth. The blood temple and 1000 budda temples sit in very very quiet areas surrounded by forests on , with the nearest commercial development a University. There are also little rivers on the east bank that are very quiet and add to the setting. Also you must realize that Kyoto has nearly a thousand historical/religous sites, and protecting each and everyone is a near impossibility, but the concentration of commercial activity on the west bank of the east river as well as Industrial activity to the far south has preserved Kyoto into a beautiful hybrid of a city. Truthfully it is one of my favorite cities in the world (beside Prague and Vancouver B.C.), because of the fact that it is so well developed, maintaining the best of both worlds.
 

senseiman

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I agree with you that the temples and historic sites in Kyoto are very well preserved and a select number of neighborhoods on the outskirts of town have been too. The temple with the Pagoda you are thinking of is Toji temple, I go there a couple of times a year to see the monthly antique market.

I can't really agree with your general assesement though, that Kyoto is a well preserved, attractive city. If you go to the Higashiyama area you can find some really fantastic temples and neighborhoods with wooden houses (alas, concrete poles with power lines abound even there), but outside of that rather small area, the rest of the city centre is absolutely hideous. I agree with Alex Kerr's assesement when he compared Kyoto to cities like Paris. In Paris, you can enjoy walking along the streets, if you want to go from landmark to landmark, you will enjoy the experience because you are passing through a beautiful city which has maintained its cultural legacy in its architecture. Of course the suburbs of Paris are horribly ugly, but the city centre is really fantastic.

In Kyoto, on the other hand, if you want to go from, say Kinkakuji to Kiyomizu temple, you have to pass through some of the ugliest urban blight on the face of the earth. The city centre itself, that is to say the centre of Modern kyoto's cultural life, is absolutely hideous. If you want to see anything attractive at all you get herded into the main temples that are preserved and absolutely saturated with tourists. When you arrive in Kyoto, you are greeted by that giant grey battleship of a station. Ignoring the south side of the station, which is completely lost, if you head north towards the historic centre of town you will see not a single wooden building nor any sign of Kyoto's cultural heritage. Its all pachinko, McDonalds and concrete.

In other words, it is virtually impossible to enjoy Kyoto because while the landmarks have been preserved the city itself has died a horrible death. You can spend a few hours wandering around the 'historic' neighborhoods surrounded by thousands of other tourists and knowing full well that the second you take a wrong turn you will be back in the concrete jungle again. Then, you'll get tired of it, think "well, I've seen all Kyoto has to offer" and then want to leave. Unless you are a die-hard historical buff who has a lot of patience, it is virtually impossible to stay in Kyoto more than one or two days and not get sick of it.

But in other cities in the world that have properly preserved their heritage, like Paris and Prague, it is possible to spend days on end in the cities that both maintain their liveliness and their archtectural heritage and still not want to leave. You will never feel this way in modern Kyoto, thought probably about 40 years ago it would have been possible to.
 

mdchachi

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For whatever reason, the Japanese seem to have much less connection and nostalgia with their past than people in other places. In many other countries if you have a 100-year-old house or neighborhood there will be efforts to preserve its form and beauty (perhaps modernizing it for modern life). In Japan, it's just considered to be old and outdated and a prime candidate for destruction.

I like and enjoy modern Kyoto but I don't find it any more attractive than other Japanese cities. That's the shame -- it could have been so much more.
 

Maciamo

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Originally posted by noyhauser
I spent 4 months living in Kyoto last summer, in Miburo (home of the Shinsen-gumi.) and I think Kyoto has done quite well both perserving the historical parts of its past as well as allowing for development of the city. I've travelled alot, and Kyoto really reminds me of a lot of the more beautiful cities in the world, very much a European city set into the natural surroundings of Vancouver British Columbia (sans the ocean)
Have we been to the same city ? I can't agree more with waht Senseiman said. Kyoto is a pack of drab concrete with some nicely preserved temples mainly on its edges. I've been struck by how similar building were in Kyoto and Tokyo actually (at least Tokyo's shitamachi where I live). 99% of the houses are less than 100 years old and that's not because of earthquakes or WWII (the city was spared bombing, because Americans have respect for historical heritage that Japanese have not).

As for the comparison with European cities, you must be talking of German or Eastern European cities that were flattened down after WWII and rebuilt of concrete. Have you seen any bluestone (like in medieval castles), "cut stone" (like in Paris, London, most Italian and Spanish cities...) marble, brick (like in Amsterdam)... ? Not a trace !

Most of the Temples there are in protected areas, that havent seen major development. I can't think of one that is surrounded by anything more than a quiet suburbia, which is what they were set in when they were built.
Agree with that. Lots of temples were built outside the city, especialy zen ones, to inspire to some peace and quiet for meditation. Some were built on surrounding hills and are a bit difficult to reach on purpose.

The only one that may have seen a bit too much development is one of the temples to the south (its name escapes me but its the pagoda one),
Toji, Higashi and Nishi Honganji are all near Kyoto station. The pagoda is Toji. Not only are they surrounded by concrete, I was dismayed to see that they were rebuilding Nishi Honganji in concrete when I visited Kyoto last year.

... but it ran into the misfortune of being built right beside the major arterial highway in and out of Kyoto.
That reminds me of the joke of the American tourist (I know you're Canadian, and I am not saying all Americans are like that or anything) who visit Windsor Castle (UK) and says : "That's a beautiful castle, but that's a pity they've built it so near from the airport !".

I guess your highway is also a few centuries more recent than the temple your are talking about.


Most of Kyoto still retains the roads from the pre-meiji period, seriously hampering the ability to create large scale development
Kyoto's street are perpendicular in a grid plan, like those of modern American cities. It is indeed the same as back 1000 years ago during the Heian period, but its streets are larger than those of the average European cities, and frankly not very different of Tokyo.

Also the major temples that are situated in the foothills on the eastern bank, have seen little or no growth. The blood temple and 1000 budda temples sit in very very quiet areas surrounded by forests on , with the nearest commercial development a University. There are also little rivers on the east bank that are very quiet and add to the setting.
I grant you the rest. Kyoto is not so depressing as Senseiman would have it. It still has lots of peaceful spots (when tourist groups aren't invading them) and historical sites - though a huge part was destroyed, which isn't the case of most cities in Western Europe. I actually like Kyoto, but as a city, I would never qualify it of beautiful. It's outskirt is a nice collection of scenic and historical spots, but most of the city doesn't distinguish itself from the rest of Japan, except the small area of Gion, which is a jewel. Unfortunately, I would like to have seen all the city left in the same traditional style of wooden houses as Gion. That is what Kerr is grieving...
 

Maciamo

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Originally posted by mdchachi
For whatever reason, the Japanese seem to have much less connection and nostalgia with their past than people in other places. In many other countries if you have a 100-year-old house or neighborhood there will be efforts to preserve its form and beauty (perhaps modernizing it for modern life). In Japan, it's just considered to be old and outdated and a prime candidate for destruction.
Ancienty is relative. I was raised in a nearly 300 year old house, which is more modern inside that any houses I've entered in Japan (or most other countries actually).

For Japanese, a 30 year-old house or flat/apartement is very old. For me a 100 year-old house is quite new. In Italy, lots of houses in cities like Florence or Rome are over 500 years and some still inhabited farms and castles around Europe easily date back to the 13th or 14th centuries.

Obviously Japan isn't Europe. It's traditional architecture is made of wood, which rots with time. Owing to earthquakes and WWII, few old buildings survive nowadays. What's more, Japan's climate is such that living in a wooden house (with wall 1cm thick) is almost unbearably hot in summer and cold in winter. Even "modern" (just by name) concrete houses and mansions have no insulation. I was told that buildings older than 10 or 15 years also suffered from bad ventilation or laid-out, which is why they are shunned by people nowadays. I don't want to be carping but Japanese houses till the early 80's were primitive by European standard. And they haven't made much progress with that... That explains why most Japanese want to live in a new house (that is as new as possible, counting in single years, not in decades) and can't conceive that some Europeans might live in centuries old constructions that are actually more confortable that their "ultra-modern" concrete blocks.

You can imagine my shock, being used to 1m deep stone walls with insulation and double glazing, which keeps it cool in summer and warm in winter, coming to Japan wherehouses have 5cm cardboard-like walls that keep the maximum humidity in the muggy summer months and is bone-chilling in winter, even under my quilts and warm pyjamas. That gives me at least a good impression of how life was in former centuries.
 

senseiman

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I gotta agree with what is being said here. There does seem to be a sort of stigma about owning old houses in Japan. Its such a shame because the traditional style houses are so beautiful and the new ones being built to replace them are so ugly. I can imagine that it would be much cheaper to renovate the old style houses rather than tearing them down and rebuilding them, Kerr seems to allude to this in his book. I wish more people would do that.

Last week I had an interesting conversation with a German architect who is on assignment with the UN in Osaka for a 3 month period. I asked him what he thought of Japanese architecture and he told me that he loves the old buildings, but 95% of the new houses he has seen are completely garbage. He says most of them will be completely rotted within a decade because of the low quality of construction, which cannot deal with moisture effectively.

I wonder if there isn't some sort of cultural connection. Everything that gets built here has the look of only being here temporarily. That makes it easy to tear down old buildings without remorse and build shoddy new ones in their place knowing that they will be replaced in a few years time anyway. There seems to be little appreciation that a nation's architecture is a key part of its cultural heritage. This allows cities like Kyoto, which as Maciamo points out was completely spared during the war, to look just as drab and sterile as every city that was bombed flat.
 

senseiman

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Here is a quote from Kerr's book about Kyoto that sums it up well. It was made by professor Tayama of Bukkyo University:

"In its scale, and for its natural beauty, this city (Kyoto) had a close to ideal environment. Now let's see what we can do to destroy this environment: First let's chop up the soft line of the hills with high apartment buildings with laundry hanging from their terraces. As for places where we can't build anything, not to worry, we can darken the sky by stringing a web of telephone wires and electric lines. Let's have cars drive through Daitokuji Temple. Let's take Mount Hiei, the birthplace of Japanese Buddhism, and turn it into a pakring lot, and on its peak let's build an entertainment park....
Let's have gasoline stations and city buses broadcast electronic noise under the name of "music"...and let's paint the buses with designs of children's graffiti. If we make sure that all the buildings are mismatched and brightly colored, that will be very effective...And to finish it off, let's fill the town with people who happily put up with this unpleasantness. This Kyoto I have described is actually a failry generous portrait."

I don't think I can put it any better than that!
 

senseiman

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That is horrible! Its such a shame that the world is run by people with such little sense and taste. In China it is much worse, what little survived the cultural revolution is being gutted by industrialization and neglect. I guess we are lucky to be in Japan, for all its faults.
 

Maciamo

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Actually India is better than Japan for historical sites preservation, mostly because of religion. Old temples are still actively used and it would be a sacrilege to destroy them.

The only worrying issue I noticed in India was for some huge abandoned maharaja palaces, like in Orchha and Datia (
check here ). They aren't in bad condition and the government doesn't want to knock them down, but anybody can enter anytime and the only guides are local children.

However, in other places, the Indian government has taken up control of important national heritage, for the displeasure of backpacker tourists, who now have to pay about 50 times more than Indian to enter the premises - the price is the same for Indians and foreigners, except the currency : rupees and US$, and who wants to pay 10 bucks to see a particular temple in a country where each city has hundreds of them. So Indians are certainly not demolishing their heritage like Japanese or Chinese, but while foreigner discrimination is not officially approved in Japan, it is government-sponsored in India (20$ to see the Taj Mahal, free for Indians).
 

arnadstephen

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This is interesting !

So Koyto has lost some of its charm. Still from the pictures
I have seen, their seems to be this beautifull temple/monastary
on a hill with this great wooden "type" porch.

In the background is beautifull scenary of a small
valley.

These post, make coming here, all worth it.
 

senseiman

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That is true. There are a lot of really fantastic places around Kyoto to see, especially for people who like hiking. Its too bad about the city itself though.
 

arnadstephen

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This may be an odd request, but when bring up cities that
were bombed flat, we should hestitate a bit.

Cities that were bombed, always created large civilian
casualties. No matter the reasoning behing the bombing.

. This allows cities like Kyoto, which as Maciamo points out was completely spared during the war, to look just as drab and sterile as every city that was bombed flat.
.
 

senseiman

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I'm not sure what point you are trying to make. Of course the bombing of Japanese cities were terrible, among the worst atrocities commited in human history though few Americans would like to admit it, and one should treat the subject with care.

My point was that Japanese cities that were bombed, including the city I live in, lost there beauty in the destruction and this was no fault of their own. In Kyoto's case it was completely spared the ravages of war but it went about tearing down its traditional beauty voluntarily in the so called interest of 'modernization'. The Kyoto city government has a lot to answer for.
 

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