Kyoto Keeps a Foot In the Past

Japan's ancient imperial capital is unique among the country's major cities

ON the back streets of Gion, Kyoto's fabled entertainment district, the only illumination is the light that filters through the paper doors of the old wooden houses. The high-pitched laughter of geisha, charming a party of wealthy businessmen, breaks the silence of these quiet quarters. Down nearby tiny lanes cobbled with stone, visitors dine in elegance on the straw-matted floors of ryokan, traditional inns. Ladies dressed in rustling silk kimonos carry a succession of servings, the food arranged into miniature sculptures as pleasing to the eye as to the palate.

In the green hills above the geisha houses and the inns, Buddhist monks pray before statues of Buddha in temples of wooden pillars and slanted tile roofs first built 1,200 years ago.

Walk the streets of Kyoto, Japan's ancient imperial capital, and you will find yourself suddenly transported to scenes that are unchanged from those of centuries ago. The preservation of Japan's rich and textured past in Kyoto is unique among Japan's major cities, all the rest of which were largely destroyed by American bombing during World War II. Kyotoites proudly refer to their city as ``the furusato [hometown] for all the Japanese people.'' It has the quality of Florence, Italy; London; or Boston; of a handful of the world's cities where a visitor can turn a corner and catch a glimpse of history.

But Kyoto shares a dilemma with those cities - the need to preserve the past while developing for the future. It must be home to 1.5 million citizens as well as a destination for the 40 million visitors who come each year.

``We have to cherish tradition, but at the same time we have to think about how to make this city attractive in the future also,'' newly elected Mayor Tomoyuki Tanabe told the Monitor.

The political life of Kyoto is sharply divided by the conflict over development. Mayor Tanabe was backed by the conservative Liberal Democrats (LDP), who have ruled nationally for more than 40 years. He narrowly defeated the candidate of the Japan Communist Party (JCP), which enjoys backing equal to the LDP despite Kyoto's conservative reputation. The Communists, who backed the previous three mayors, accuse Tanabe and his supporters of pursuing development at the cost of preservation.

``Some people are trying to make Kyoto like Osaka or Tokyo, cities we call towns of iron and concrete,'' charges Kinya Sasai, vice chairman of the Kyoto JCP.

Kyoto sits in a valley in western Japan, surrounded on three sides by green hills, open only to the south. Two rivers flow from north to south through the city and tiny canals thread their way through the town. Many of the 1,655 Buddhist temples in Kyoto sit at the feet and on the summits of the hills, surrounded by ancient groves of bamboo and forests of dwarf maple.

Kyoto's natural beauty and its historical sites, including the palaces, castles, and villas of the imperial family, attract tourists from around the world. Tourism accounts for a quarter of the city's economic activity, municipal officials say.

Traditional crafts remain a major part of Kyoto's economic life. Artisans practice skills which go back to Kyoto's origins 1,200 years ago, turning out products such as fine pottery, lacquerware, woodblock prints, and woven textiles.

Though these crafts are a symbol of Kyoto, they are in danger of dying out. Children of the weavers do not want to spend the long years and hours necessary to learn the craft. ``Young people don't have the patience for this,'' laments Sankitchi Akiyama, who, with his wife, has been weaving elaborate designs of silk, used in kimonos and other garb, for some 30 years.

The Kyoto government is trying to support the traditional industries, says Mayor Tanabe. But it also looks to modern industry to promote growth. Kyoto has spawned a number of high-tech companies, many of which are outgrowths of traditional pursuits. The Nintendo Company, for example, went from making toys to becoming a world-famous maker of family video games and computer software.

But business seeks more modern transportation from the industrial areas in the south to the old city district. Commuters living across the hills demand a new east-west subway line - only one north-south line now exists. There is talk of building highways, which Kyoto has so far done without.

Kyotoites worry about the pressure of developers who want to build high-rise apartments and office buildings here. Land prices have recently risen dramatically, ``because big capitalists from Tokyo and Osaka are buying land here,'' asserts Mr. Sasai.

``In the future, it can't be helped that some part of the town has high-rise buildings,'' the mayor says. But he proposes that the old northern part of the city be preserved while development of housing and industry is focused in the south.

Buddhist priest Shinko Onishi, chief administrator of Kiyomizu temple, shares the concern about the development bias of the city administration. His dramatic temple, sitting on tall wooden stilts in the hills, is one of the largest tourist attractions in the city. The monks depend on the revenues from those tourists.

``Such tourists don't come here to see buildings,'' he remarks.

Almost all citizens express their love for Kyoto in a dread of becoming like Tokyo, the megalopolis that stole their role as the capital of Japan. ``Tokyo is not a city where people can live,'' says Kyoto University historian Katsuhisa Moriya. ``People here are mild-mannered and gentle, but in Tokyo everybody is noisy and disorderly,'' says weaver Akiyama, who admits to visiting there once.

Kyoto is a city of ``human scale,'' the historian agrees, and the true embodiment of Japanese culture. ``Tokyo is not Japan,'' he declares with a finality that would find few dissenters along these ancient streets.

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