- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 18, 2005

KYOTO, Japan — Founded more than a millennium ago as the “capital of peace and tranquility,” Japan’s ancient city of Kyoto in recent decades has been anything but.

Fierce debate has erupted over how best to showcase Kyoto’s priceless heritage. Aligned on one side are Buddhists and preservationists, who say the graceful city — shortlisted for atomic bombing during World War II but spared because of its fabulous cultural patrimony — has been ravaged anyway by rampant development.

Urban blight, critics say, has been allowed to pervade almost every corner of the 200-square-mile former imperial capital, on a scale that would be considered criminal in other centers of world culture. The birthplace of the tea ceremony, Kabuki drama and flower arranging is fast becoming just another Japanese jumble of neon, fast food and karaoke.

But the lightning rod for opprobrium — even from sister cities Florence in Italy, Paris, and Edinburgh in Scotland — has been the city’s futuristic central railroad station, built in 1997 at a cost of $1.3 billion. Kyoto Station, which houses transportation terminals, a shopping mall and other amenities under a 200-foot-high atrium, would be at home in Manhattan or Los Angeles. Although winning praise from some travel writers and architects, the steel-and-glass complex is reviled by observers such as author Alex Kerr.

To longtime residents such as Mr. Kerr, Kyoto represents the signal failure of Japan to leverage its tourism assets.

“Japan is torn between two extremes,” he wrote in “Dogs and Demons,” an indictment of Japan’s postwar economic development, “old-shabby or new-sterile — and often a combination of the worst of both defines the look of modern Japan.”

A writer for the Economist vented similar wrath. “If Kyoto cannot be protected, what hope is there for the rest of Japan?”

Unrepentant city planners argue that the traditional wooden townscape so beloved to Westerners was killing the area’s tourism and retail sales. Until as recently as a decade ago, Kyoto had the lowest percentage of large retail stores among Japan’s 11 major cities.

With its festive atmosphere and packed weekend concerts, Kyoto Station, however offensive to traditionalists, has succeeded commercially well beyond its planners’ wildest dreams. The station is emblematic of a return by retailers from suburbs to cities and, says commentator Akira Nishimura, enables consumers “to satisfy their big-city aspirations.”

“Kyoto isn’t just a warehouse of old stuff,” counters a city tourism representative. “The beauty of Kyoto has been its ability to rapidly adopt the new. The coexistence of old and new is just as much a part of our tradition.”

That’s not to say that modernists always get their way in Kyoto. A $2.4 million iron-framed footbridge patterned after the Pont des Arts on the Seine, which was to traverse the Kamo River, had to be mothballed at the eleventh hour in the face of massive protests.

Kyoto, modeled after the Tang Dynasty capital of China today known as Xian, remains the undisputed cultural treasure trove of Japan, packed with 1,600 temples and 400 shrines. Last year, more than 45 million visitors converged on attractions such as the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), the Ryoanji rock garden and Gion, the centuries-old geisha quarter. Seventeen of Kyoto’s finest assets were inscribed in 1994 as World Heritage Site properties.

But this tourism-reliant city of 1.5 million argues that it must respond to a changing customer base. Instead of Anglo-Saxons interested in glimpsing the “real” Japan of Buddhist iconography and other sacred sites, the Kyoto tourist profile has shifted dramatically toward Asians, who can see plenty of multiarmed Buddhist statues without leaving home.

There also are dwindling trainloads of Japanese students on high school field trips, another lucrative source of tourist income for Kyoto.

Although a whopping two-thirds of all foreign tourists staying at least one night in Kyoto in 1960 were American, the U.S. share had fallen to one-third last year, reflecting the rising importance of Asian markets for Kyoto, especially the Republic of China (Taiwan), South Korea, China and Hong Kong.

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