Ben Hills

Painted in the bold black characters of the Japanese script, the notice is propped beside the entrance arch, confronting visitors to Kinkaku-ji, the fabulous Golden Pavilion, the greatest architectural treasure of Japan’s imperial past. “This temple opposes (construction of) the high-rise Kyoto Hotel, which will destroy the city landscape,” it declares. Therefore, from December 1, we have banned visitors who are staying there, and at …” It goes on to name four other hotels operated by the group.

The tourists pause and peer at the sign, then hurry past for their first sight of the stunning three-tier pagoda, glistening with gold leaf, its image reflected in a carp-filled lake. Six centuries old (give or take a major rebuilding job, after it was burnt down in 1950 by a demented acolyte), it still floats between heaven and earth as its builders, the Ashigaka shoguns, decreed. Even Paul Keating was impressed.

Similar signs stand outside the other great heritage buildings of this, Asia’s most beautiful city. The exquisite Silver Pavilion, where the Japanese tea ceremony was perfected; the Kiyomizu temple, perched precariously on a mountainside, where pilgrims have come for more than a millennium to drink the healing spring water; and the striking five-tier pagoda of the To-ji temple, Kyoto’s unofficial city symbol.

These are the crown jewels of Japanese civilisation, and 38 million visitors – half a million of them foreigners – come here every year to admire them. That’s 10 million more than Disney World in Florida, which is usually reckoned to be the world’s top tourist destination. It goes without saying that this is streets in front for style.

For more than 1,000 years, Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan; it remains the country’s greatest centre of culture and learning. It is where kabuki was first performed – on the river banks not far from where the current theatre stands; where Japan’s Renaissance priest Kobo Daishi devised the Japanese syllabary (script); where its poetry, music and the ritual of the tea ceremony reached their height of refinement. The Tale of the Genji, Japan’s first novel, was written here in the 11th century; Rashomon, Kurosawa’s movie classic, was set here nearly 1,000 years later. Now this ancient city, which is celebrating the 1,200th anniversary of its foundation this year, is facing its greatest threat.

Kyoto over the centuries has survived fires, earthquakes, floods, famines and plagues – as well as General Curtis LeMay’s Superfortresses, which incinerated hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed a third of Japan’s national treasures, but were ordered to spare Kyoto and neighbouring Nara because of their priceless heritage. This time the barbarians are inside the gates. Kyoto’s authorities are hell-bent on a building binge which would see neighbourhoods destroyed and Kyoto’s ancient shrines, temples, palaces and castle overshadowed by huge glass-and-concrete skyscrapers.

Already, a walk through the city confronts the visitor with the raw scars of where thousands of the traditional tile-roofed, wooden buildings have been torn down, leaving muddy vacant lots on which offices and apartment blocks are sprouting. Garish pachinko (pinball) parlours and sleazy strip-joints have opened among the elegant, traditional restaurants and kimono shops of the Gion district, where painted maiko, apprentice geisha, can still be seen clopping through the streets to their assignations at the ochre-walled Ichiriki-tei, Japan’s most famous tea-house. And there is worse to come.

“They are trying to turn it into Tokyo,” says Kojo Nagasawa, a seventh-generation Buddhist priest who is leading the fight to stop the bulldozers. “In the name of revitalisation, or internationalisation or whatever they call it, they are going to turn the city into something that is no longer Kyoto.” Mr Nagasawa, a plain-spoken man with a shaven head, rimless glasses and the blue robe of the Tendai sect, is the director of the Buddhist Association, which represents more than 1,000 Kyoto temples. “We priests are normally peaceful people. We read our sutras and give sermons. But when something like this happens, we cannot keep quiet.” If Tokyo is Japan’s Los Angeles (without the guns), Kyoto is its Paris or Florence. These last three are actually sister cities – although Kyoto’s turbulent priests are afraid that if the developers have their way, it will end up more like a fourth ugly sister no-one mentions, the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

To mark the city’s anniversary, the government has announced plans for $A80 billion worth of publicly funded development over the next 10 years -freeways, subways, a convention hall and business centre. Up the road, Japan’s answer to the multi-function polis, Kansai Science City, is being built. The final straw – what drove the priests to erect those keep-out signs at the temples – was a decision by the city council to raise the height limit on downtown buildings to 60 metres, allowing structures of up to 16 storeys to be erected.

For most of its 12 centuries, the tallest structure in Kyoto has been the 56-metre To-ji pagoda, three tiers of which still jut defiantly above the jumble of ticky-tacky development that has washed to its walls. The first building to breach this historic limit is the Kyoto Hotel, built on the site of the oldest Western hotel in the city – across the road from the graceful Edwardian city hall, and smack in the middle of what would be the inviolable historic centre if this were Florence or Paris.

The city fathers are proud of the public open space around it which they have won from the developer. But to most Kyoto residents this great, gleaming grey architectural alien is (to borrow Prince Charles’s unforgettable phrase)”a hideous carbuncle on the face of a dearly-loved friend”.

Even though the hotel is due to open in July, Kojo Nagasawa does not believe the battle has yet been lost. “The temples have been here for more than 1,000 years. We will still be here long after the Kyoto Hotel group has gone bankrupt,” he says. The association has now turned its sights on an even bigger development – one that the local and national governments actually have a 60 per cent stake in, through one of Japan’s so-called “third sector”companies.

After being halted for two years by protest action, work has begun on a site next to the Kyoto bullet-train tracks on what will be one of the most grandiose station developments in all Japan. Housing a hotel, department store, shops and offices, the building will cost $A1.3 billion and will stretch for nearly half a kilometre, rending Kyoto in two with a 60-metre wall of glass and concrete, and dominating the To-ji pagoda just 10 minutes’ walk away.

Even this, says lawyer Akira Nakajima, is just the start. At least two more skyscrapers – one of them a new headquarters for the city council – are on the drawing board. “If we don’t stop them now, or at least slow things down until we get a new government, Kyoto will be destroyed.”

Nakajima represents a group of 3,000 Kyoto residents who have sued the local governments to try to stop the developments – and preserve Kyoto’s historic streetscapes. It is, he admits, an uphill battle – although opinion polls show that he has more than 60 per cent of residents on his side. At the last election, the pro-development mayor came within 50,000 votes of being beaten by a communist, so incensed are the residents.

The seeds for the rape of Kyoto were sown, he says, during the “bubble economy” years of the late 1980s. Up until then, Kyoto had been a city in gentle decline (its resident population is not much bigger than Brisbane’s), with its traditional craft industries such as textiles, ceramics and paper disappearing.

Then a new word entered the local vocabulary – jiage, land speculation. Out-of-town entrepreneurs descended on Kyoto, driving up prices by 60 per cent and more a year for half a decade – even now, you can pay $2 million for a decent apartment, almost as much as in Tokyo. Strong-arm tactics were used to evict people from houses their families had occupied for generations. In the most notorious case, 40 or 50 burakumin (low-caste Japanese) families in a suburb called Zaimokucho were forced to sell out to a front company headed by a man with a plastic cap over a missing finger – a traditional punishment among Japan’s yakuza gangsters.

At the best guess, 100,000 of Kyoto’s traditional blackened pinewood row-houses – around a third of the city’s entire housing stock – were torn down during the past decade, causing enormous social dislocation apart from the obvious aesthetic damage. Whole neighbourhoods of homes, shops and community bath-houses have been obliterated. Many have been replaced with hideous three- and four-storey concrete apartment blocks which for some reason are called “manshons” here. Vast tracts of land all around the city have been left empty, waiting for the next boom.

Nakajima blames it all on “outsiders who have no feeling for the city and its history – they are only interested in money”. The hotel, for instance, is owned by a Tokyo frozen-food company; the station development consortium is led by the national government-owned J.R. West railway company.

“We are not going to give up this fight,” he says, pointing out that anti-development forces in the city have had some victories over some of the more outrageous proposals. A plan to dam the Kamo river which flows through the city has been shelved, a golf course which was to have been carved through the wooded hills above has been stopped, a plan to build an apartment block practically in the bushes at the base of the Kiyomizu temple was knocked on the head.

To Motoyoshi Shimoda, this is a battle not just about aesthetics, but about economics. Shimoda is the director of the committee, funded by local governments and businesses, which has been working for the past eight years to put on a good show for Kyoto’s 1,200th birthday.

Launched in a blaze of stationary fireworks on New Year’s Eve (rockets were banned for fear they would set fire to what’s left of the old city), the celebrations will last the entire year. There is a program of 1,200 events ranging from international conferences (one of them, ironically, on conserving historic cities), film festivals and sports events to the Gion Matsuri, the traditional festival of lantern-draped floats in July. The city is already booked solid for this event, which is expected to attract more than a million people.

This sort of tourism brings more than $A7 billion to Kyoto every year, says Shimoda, making it one of the city’s most important industries. “But if we carry on like this, it will all be destroyed. In my opinion, not a single building of any value has been built in Kyoto since the war. Look at the Kyoto Hotel – it is a glass and concrete cube. Who will come here to look at that?”

The tricky assignment of explaining the city’s planning policies to the foreign media falls to Sadamichi Fukushima, whose card modestly, and misleadingly, describes him as “sub-manager, guidance section, building guidance division, City of Kyoto”.

In Japan if you don’t let the bureaucrats”guide” you, you are dead – elected officials have little say in government at any level.

Fukushima says that the new 60-metre height limit will apply only in one area of the city downtown, and won’t detract from the major attractions. He insists on accompanying the visitors down to the street to demonstrate how the new Kyoto Hotel has actually improved the view. “It is a beautiful building, but you will never convince some people,” he says.

The council, says Fukushima, is trying to balance preservation with development. “There are other things as well as old beauty,” he says. “Some people think that Kyoto should be a museum city in a glass case – but it is a living city and if it doesn’t grow, it will die.”

But what the council’s critics fear is that if it does grow the way the council wants, it will die, too – from loss of identity. Because it is not just the grand sights – they will be preserved somehow – that attract visitors to Kyoto. It is the intimate scale of the city, its lines of sight to the river that flows through it, and the mountains that stand over it on three sides – iced with snow in the winter, burning with fires to attract ancestral spirits during the summer Bon festival. Kyoto people, unlike Tokyo-ites lost in their concrete maze, give you directions to turn north or west, instead of left and right.

Because of this, the city has long been a favourite with Japanese and foreign artists, writers and academics who enjoy strolling along the narrow streets, over burbling canals, past the timber tenements, ancient tea-houses, art galleries and blossom-filled gardens that inspired the city’s historic name, Heian-kyo, the “capital of peace and tranquillity”. Wealthier visitors(prices start at $A700 a head, without drinks) can enjoy Japan’s most refined cuisine served on antique porcelain at restaurants such as the Kitcho, in a tatami room beside the Oi River.

It is all part of the fabric of this great city, says Kojo Nagasawa, the Buddhist priest-turned-conservationist. Destroy the setting, and you diminish the treasures. “If the Emperor Kammu (Kyoto’s founder) came back to earth today and saw the plans they have for this city, he would summon his magical powers to destroy them.”

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 26 March 1994
Edition: Late
Section: Good Weekend
Sub section:
Page: 30
Word count: 2480
Keywords: Property development
Photography: Mayu Kanamori, Hiroshi Inoue
Caption: 8 Illus:
1. Gate keeper: Kojo Nagasawa beside the sign barring Kyoto Hotel guests from temples.
2. the giant hotel overshadows traditional housing
3. another anti-development priest, Taicho Mori
4. Next stop, tomorrow: the old world and new clash in Kyoto
5. Below, the tiered pagoda at the To-ji temple was once the tallest structure in the city.
6. Hiroshi Inoue plans for an apartment block at the base of the Kiyomizu temple were knocked on the head.
7. At Ryoan-ji temple: the priests don’t want their culture swept away. If traditional festivals such as Gion Matsuri suffer, tourists may not be drawn to Kyoto