To the casual tourist, overwhelmed by its splendour, Kyoto may seem like an everlasting, unchanging city, with its ancient temples, regular street grid, and restaurants and guesthouses older than most countries.
In reality, it is anything but. The city had been undergoing changes since its inception; even the first ambitious, Tang-dynasty inspired plan for the Imperial Capital was never fulfilled before reality forced its gravity centre east, closer to the river. Over the following centuries, wars and politics, fires and floods had shaped the city with a constant flux, making the remains of the past all the more precious.
And it is still changing now. The changes range from subtle to dramatic, and perhaps none more so dramatic in recent years than the massive influx of tourists from East Asia. Always Japan’s busiest visitor hot-spot, Kyoto has now become Asia’s Venice, at times stifled and overwhelmed by the tidal wave of people. Not only the Chinese – though they are by far the most visible – but Koreans, and ASEANians have joined this multitude; with its 1.4 mln population, Kyoto is relatively tiny by Asian standards – a mere fraction of places like Hanoi, Seoul or Bangkok, not to mention Shanghai – so it doesn’t take much for it to feel crowded.
The most immediate effects on the tourist infrastructure are drastic, but of course not all bad. Gone are the “busy” and “quiet” seasons – the Japanese may only care about Kyoto in spring bloom and autumn leaves, but foreigners come and go as they please. The influx of money is noticeable – new ryokans, shops and restaurants spring up everywhere, old ones get a new coat of paint and some badly needed update of decor. Enriched by increase in taxes, the city splashed out on fancy new boulevards all along the Kamo River. Knowledge of English language is now properly enforced: the “old guard” of native English speakers from US or Australia may have been more tolerant of the Japanese ways, but the new tourists had to learn English themselves, and they don’t have patience for the clerks and cashiers being unable to utter anything beyond a few platitudes. In a surprising twist, it seems the locals now welcome Western faces with relief and almost joy: such is the paradox of the casual xenophobia that makes the old, familiar devil appear better than the new one. And yes, some of the new wave can be famously rude, and each such trespass of manners is widely reported in the local media, but before the Chinese it used to be the Americans who bore the brunt of all that pointing and mocking, and let’s face it, compared to the Japanese anyone will seem rude and obnoxious.
But that is not the only thing that’s changing in Kyoto. The other change is more subtle, one that needs several visits to appreciate: the skyline. The modern buildings in Japan tend to have a lifespan of about 20-30 years. That means most of the current crop, built at the threshold of the Lost Decade, is now horribly outdated: bad taste renderings of post-modernist kitsch, gaudy monstrosities in raw concrete and ceramic tile. Luckily, this era is coming to an end. One by one, the old cubes are being replaced by buildings of the new style. Gone is stained grey concrete, shaped in random protrusions, patched with plastic or ceramic to look like a bathroom turned inside out. In its place are black panels, cold steel, wood trimmings. The gaudy arrogance of the 1990s is replaced with the subdued elegance, matching the old environment rather than shouting over it. It is all very heart-warming, though it does keep me wondering if in 20-30 years these new builds won’t look just as old and out-dated?
And then there’s yet another change – the cars. For some unfathomable reason – whether it’s the newly found confidence in Abenomics, prevalence of hybrid engines or changes in road tax – or all of the above – the Kyotoites ditch their fun and practical, colourful, small kei cars, in favour of massive, tank-like people movers, all shining chrome and black steel. Once cars like these would have been the domain of mobsters and celebrities, now they’re parked everywhere, sometimes dwarfing the houses they’re “attached” to. Quite what anyone may need these monsters for in the streets that are barely wide enough for two mopeds to pass, is anyone’s guess.
The smallest scale of change is also the most personal. Of the ancient couple making red bean paste sweets in Tominokoji street, only the husband remains fit enough to serve customers – the wife is now too frail and ridden with diseases of old age. Since they don’t seem to have any apprentices, inevitably one day we’ll find their small shop closed forever. And they’re not the only ones in Shimogyo-ku – these are the streets filled with tiny old shops run by tiny old men and women. Their passing marks the passage of time in the most poignant way. But despite all of this, the Kyoto – our Kyoto – remains, and, against the odds, thrives.