Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Modernizing Kyoto for Better and Worse

According to a recent New York Times article,a developer plans to build a mammoth aquarium complex in central Kyoto. The aquarium, to open in 2012, is to have a dolphin pool, a penguin park, and a giant wave pool. The developer, Orix Real Estate, says that the complex will bring at least two million more visitors to the city each year. Those opposing the plan say, "Kyoto should not be building concrete boxes. Kyoto's residents and its visitors care more about preserving old neighborhoods. We have the wrong idea of economic development, and it is destroying the city."

I am not sure where I stand on this issue. As someone who has written a novel about a guide leading a tour of Japan, I have strong feelings about the country. The first time I visited Kyoto it was a museum city, untouched by The Great Pacific War (we deliberately did not bomb Kyoto because it held so many cultural treasures). This was before the giant Post Office Tower, before the massive Kyoto Station, before thousands of wooden homes and businesses had been torn down and replaced with concrete and stucco. I've often thought I was lucky not to live in the city through the period of its greatest modernization. It would have broken my heart.

Which, of course, is nonsense. I didn't have to live in the drafty, uncomfortable houses. It's not my city, not my country. I have no say in what the Japanese do or don't do. If they want to use the wood from an old temple to heat the bath water, that's their business. (Reportedly, an American scholar saved the Phoenix Temple from such a fate in the Meiji era.)

The Times reported that Japan attracted only 6.79 million foreign visitors in 2008--fewer than Ukraine. Ukraine! There seem to be at least three problems: The cost to get there from the US or Europe, the cost of touring there, and questions over what foreign tourists want to see. Chinese tourists, for example, have ancient temples of their own. Officials say the new aquarium will attract more Chinese.

Perhaps. But it seems to me that most of us travel for pleasure to have experiences we cannot have at home. If Kyoto becomes a pale imitation of any other city, why go there? It was, in my limited experience, utterly unique. Now in some areas it is just like any other Japanese city. And destroying one of its few parks is not—again, my opinion—going to add to its charm.

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