Kyoto's historic buildings are leveled in renovations

December 12, 1993|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau

KYOTO, Japan -- Preparing for its 1,200th anniversary, this ancient capital of Japan is trying to burnish its mystique as the repository of old customs and past splendor. But it has to contend with a national inclination to reconstruct everything in a modern way.

And, for those who care about the old stuff, it may be too late.

"Nowhere else will you find such cultural stock," says Tomoyuki Tanabe, Kyoto's mayor.

Indeed the Japanese, who tend to be precise about such matters, note that Kyoto, Japan's seventh-largest city and ancient capital, has 10 percent of the country's population but 15 percent of its officially certified "Important Cultural Properties" and 20 percent of the ultra-rare, also officially certified, "National Treasures."

It is a city of 1,000 temples and the cradle of the country's highly formalized ancient arts, such as flower arranging, Kabuki and Noh theater, and the tea ceremony.

But as in Rome, Venice, Paris and other old cities, Kyoto's struggle to balance its role as a living museum against an intense drive for modernization and growth has brought some disastrous consequences.

Huge swaths of picturesque old buildings have been leveled in favor of grim five-story concrete structures. Mysterious winding streets have been transformed into wide, traffic-clogged boulevards, and temple pathways have been transformed into parking lots and roads.

"The preservation movement is 20 years too late, if not more," says David Kubiac, a lecturer at nearby Ritsumeikan University who ran unsuccessfully for mayor.

Kyoto is planning for its next millennium with a goal of urban renovation almost inconceivable in America today -- vast, and fundamentally detached from existing institutions.

Notwithstanding the current recession, an entire new city on Kyoto's outskirts is being built. The Science City is to be completed in the next century at a cost of about $60 billion, encompassing more than a dozen research centers and 600,000 people. Municipal officials talk, perhaps fancifully, about adding

a museum five to six times larger than the Louvre in Paris, devoted to fine arts and to other cultural monuments.

Inside the old city, work is about to begin on a vast new train station; a controversial high-rise hotel is almost finished. A new subway is being laid through the heart of the city, and an above-ground highway is planned.

"Through these actions we would like to reinvigorate Kyoto," says Teiichi Aramaki, governor of the surrounding Kyoto prefecture.

More muted efforts in the past have largely failed. Since the early 1980s, the city's population has shrunk by about 100,000 residents to just over 1.3 million, and municipal officials voice concerns about whether, amid all the ancient culture, the city's current creativity is withering.

Critics argue that other problems pale before the city's own suicidal destruction of its lovely past. As recently as 1971, writers described the bleak view of the city from the central rail station as a suspended tidal wave of tile roofs. Many of these buildings were built and rebuilt during the millennium between 794 and 1868, when Kyoto was Japan's capital, home to the emperor and the center of politics and business.

With the shift of the capital to Tokyo, development largely ceased in Kyoto for almost three-quarters of a century. Influenced at least in part by the city's beauty and symbolic importance, Kyoto was spared during World War II even as Tokyo and other major cities were bombed into rubble. Approximately 350,000 wooden buildings were left unscathed at the end of the war, Mr. Kubiac says.

In an irony that has been frequently cited, Japanese were subsequently far less protective of Kyoto than the U.S. war machine had been. More than two-thirds of these buildings were destroyed by 1983, and since then they have been disappearing a rate of 2,000 to 3,000 a year, Mr. Kubiac said.

Kyoto, like most old Japanese cities, has witnessed a steady change from wooden homes to modern, heated apartments. For those who do not want to move, Mr. Kubiac said, offers are made that are difficult to refuse. Home owners in development areas who don't want to sell may have tiles torn from their roof by fraudulent inspectors.

On an official level, the Japanese government has been reluctant to block development. Despite international objections, Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, among the most famous buildings in the world, was knocked down in 1967, to be replaced with a nondescript, larger successor.

Reconstruction is an ingrained facet of the country's oldest traditions. For almost 2,000 years, the important Inner Shrine at Ise, mythical home to the god ancestor of the imperial family, has been destroyed and rebuilt every 20 years.

Still, reconstruction seems to have exceeded even this tolerance. For many years an informal restraint of 30 meters (98 feet) existed on building height limits, based on the height of one of the city's most scenic temples, the multi-tiered To-ji Temple Pagoda.

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