Posted by: cyradisnyc | December 1, 2008

Hello from the Shinkansen! Sayonara, Kyoto!

I am writing this on the shinkansen bullet train to Fukuoka. I didn’t really get a chance to appreciate on the way from Tokyo to Kyoto exactly how fast these things go. It’s really fast. Um. Yeah. I’m eating mini orange cookies and listening to Turandot while writing this.

I’m sad to be leaving Kyoto. It is a beautiful city, impressive not only for its past but for its present. These coexist with each other in such a striking way here. The city’s landscape is dotted with ancient temples that date back well over 1,000 years. Meanwhile, new buildings rise, but not so tall as to be overwhelming. The one building that truly felt like it would not have been in place in New York City is Kyoto Station, which is a giant complex glass and steel structure. (The bullet trains are actually on a monorail-ish sort of system at the moment. It looks like we’re about five stories up.)

I hope I get to return. I have only begun to scratch the surface of this city. Just on the walk from the hostel to Kyoto Station, I saw four or five more things that I wanted to investigate. Perhaps next time. Kyoto and its mysterious blend of past and present has become one of my favorite cities.

Before I left, Hwai-ling gave me a copy of Junichirō Tanizaki’s famous essay In Praise of Shadows. Tanizaki laments the impact of Western culture, and talks a great deal about how Western culture and Japanese culture are at aesthetic odds. Westerners love light, and Japanese love darkness. I quite recommend the article. While I don’t disagree with the essential argument, I do wonder how time affects his thoughts. The changes he saw beginning to happen when this was written in 1933 (I believe it was 1933; I can’t check right now) have only accelerated, and I would argue that in some ways, parts of his statements are no longer true. The Japanese have no need to feel left behind in the modern age.

Indeed, one could argue that the Japanese have surpassed Western civilizations—or at least, America. The easiest example lies in the auto industries of the two countries. The American automakers stifled innovation, ignored calls for more environmental cars, and worked to prevent legislation that would have forced these changes on them. It’s no small wonder that Americans are buying Japanese cars.

Related to this issue, the train system here is phenomenal. There is no good reason why we do not have this sort of a system set up in America. Japan is actually quite big. It is narrow but long. The train system efficiently links everything together, and makes travel between cities at opposite ends of the country easy. It is also cheap, considering. The equivalent distance I am going today on Amtrak would be twice as much and take three times as long. It would be easy enough to say that it is due to our love of the car and driving, and no doubt that is part of it. I think it is also part of a national reluctance to fund large-scale infrastructure projects like this.

The other thing I really noticed was the lack of homeless people and indignant. I saw one thing that might have been belongings of a homeless person, but that was it. Now, I definitely was not in the right parts of town to see something like this. I’m aware that is a problem here, but the difference in scope between Kyoto and New York is amazing. In New York, they’re pretty much everywhere. I seriously doubt that Japan is a great enough place that everyone has a home, but that they aren’t all over the streets is a major improvement from New York.

There was also significantly less pollution. This will sound gross, but my hair didn’t get dirty as fast as it does at home. That just raises all sorts of questions about the level of pollution in New York, and how much it sticks to me.

The city is so safe that no one locks their bikes up. They just leave them. Amazing.

I could continue, but I’m already afraid that everyone has gotten bored and stopped reading. My point is that Tanizaki would probably be amazed at how flexible his nation has proved to be. That probably does have a certain cost in terms of traditional aesthetics, but from what I have seen, many of the original sensibilities remain. I think that is what still makes his essay relevant over 70 years after it was written.

The darkness he describes can still be found in Kyoto, and probably in other Japanese cities as well. I suspect it may be easier to find in Kyoto. I’ll check back in with this once I see Fukuoka. For all our emphasis on the weirdness of Japanese culture, there is a real beauty to what I have seen so far. (With the exception of some candy wrappers.)

Of course, while in Kyoto I went to temples, historical sites, and restaurants. It is easy there to pass through modernity on your way to the past. Perhaps my impressions will change upon arriving in Fukuoka, but what I have seen is a culture that has learned how to incorporate its love of shadows into the western love of light. (See my photo of Kyoto Station’s interior for an example.) At any rate. I’m going to stop rambling now. I truly enjoyed Kyoto, and believe that Tanizaki’s love of shadows has not disappeared, it has just transformed into something that is recognizable as the same idea—but in a different form.


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