Pockets of Beauty

There are very few truly beautiful cities in Japan. In fact, I have yet to visit one. That’s not to say I don’t like Japanese cities. On the contrary, I like many of them very much. I love Tokyo, Kobe, Hiroshima and Kyoto amongst others for myriad reasons, but an aesthetically pleasing whole is not one of them. And yet, here’s the thing – every Japanese person I have ever asked has told me that Kyoto is beautiful. ‘Very beautiful’, they usually say. Why do our views differ so?

Well, it’s how you see pockets of beauty, I think. In Kyoto, the old Gion area is nice, there are plenty of beautiful old temples and shrines and The Philosopher’s Walk makes for an extremely pleasant stroll. There is a lot to like and a lot that is pleasing to the eye. But, for me, those pockets of beauty to not negate the hodge-podge nature of the architecture downtown, the unsightly power lines which blight almost every view, and the apparent lack of thought regarding what to build and where. Paris, to me, is a beautiful city with pockets of ugliness. Kyoto, like many Japanese cities, is its inverse.

My own hometown has a pleasant view of mountains. Many of the people who live here tell me, and it would seem in seriousness, that they live in a beautiful town. If they do, they must love factory chimneys and buildings created with such an eye on functionality over appearance that they make prisons look glamorous.  To be frank, there is no way any sane person could think this town is beautiful, and I can only assume that they think a distant mountain’s beauty trumps the nearby factories’ ugliness. You can find a pretty temple here and a quaint shop there, but generally the town is fairly charmless.

The locals, however, seem to be able to see that pretty temple, to admire that quaint shop and to stand in awe of those distant mountains and blissfully ignore the rest. Those things are beautiful, ergo the town is. But you wouldn’t fancy a right old boiler with defrosting chicken arms, a cellulite arse, hairy armpits and a full moustache because she had a really pretty little nose, and nicely trimmed fingernails, would you? Of course not. Because she’s still a boiler. But I think the Japanese can see the nose and the fingernails above and beyond the rest. You can go for a walk in the country and it might be strewn with rubbish and old tyres and the odd abandoned television or refrigerator, yet people will spot a pretty flower or nicely coloured leaves and sigh at the beauty of Japanese nature.

I envy such an ability, because I want to like my hometown. I really do. But in truth, the best I can say about it is that it is in a good location from which to go to other places. If I so choose, I can wake up and decide to drive to the Olympic ski resorts of Nagano. In the summer, the pretty, sandy beaches of the Izu peninsula are close enough to escape to for a weekend. Even the excitement and bustle of Tokyo isn’t to far away. Yes, my adopted hometown is in a good place. It just isn’t one.

 

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12 Responses to Pockets of Beauty

  1. Blue Shoe says:

    I think part of it is also a form of pride, perhaps. Most Japanese people I’ve met love to take pride in Japanese things. They may full well know that only a few spots in their city are really beautiful, but they want to be proud of it. Or maybe they really don’t know, never having been to places like Paris.

  2. Kenan Lucas says:

    I am reading “Lost Japan” by Alex Kerr and he describes the exact same thing. You have no doubt heard of it? I am a fraction into it but it is a fascinating read.

  3. judi(togainunochi) says:

    Perhaps in Japan, “beauty(really) is in the eye of the beholder”. 😀

  4. Jeffrey says:

    I’ve been to cities on all the main islands and there are, just as you describe, pockets of beauty in most of them. The perimeter of Kyoto (higashiyama to the north to the west) is uniformly attractive. There are neighborhoods in Tokyo that are attractive in a contemporary fashion. The neighborhoods adjacent to the historic temple/shrine district of Nara are nice. The downtown core of Sapporo is nice in a modern sense. There are even a few nice areas in my Japanese “home town,” Nagoya, that, until the Bubble, was long one of the most down at the heel cities in Japan.

    But are the metropolises of Japan all that different from those in any country? Does anyone think all of London, Paris or NYC attractive? I’ve never been to the first two, but lived for three years in the latter. Much of Manhattan is impressive and much of it is beautiful if you like cities dominated by late 19th and early 20th century architecture. But there isn’t as much to recommend in the outer boroughs, and above 125th Street in Manhattan, the poverty increases dramatically and many buildings are in pretty poor repair, pockets of gentrification notwithstanding.

    This web site is very illustrative of this. Most of the cities profiled looked better 50 or, in the case of Shanghai, just twenty years ago than they do today.

    http://weburbanist.com/2011/02/21/then-now-the-stunning-speed-of-urban-development/

    I think the only place in Japan that I’ve been to that is, on the whole, beautiful to me, is Takayama. However, most people consider it, along with a number of other more remote villages, to be a living museum. Much like Venice, these towns (never cities) exist more for tourists than as viable communities in of themselves.

    I agree with you, though, that many Japanese are amazingly myopic in this regard. That being said, most of our friends who have visited us stateside readily acknowledge how much cleaner and better organized (save for the dearth of public transit) cities like Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco are compared to Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya.

    • I think there is a difference with a lot of European cities. As I mentioned in the piece all cities have pockets of ugliness but I think Paris for one is still a beautiful city. The architecture from hundreds of years ago survive, you can look down some of the Grand Boulevards and see a uniformity of design and parallell lines of buildings all the same height, there are far stricter building regulations than in Japan, a boat ride down the Seine takes in stunning views …etc etc There isn’t a city in Japan to compare, aesthetically. I like Tokyo every bit as much as I like Paris, but for entirely different reasons.

      Actually, yes, Takayama is nice. Haven’t been there for a long time, but seem to remember it being as you say, like a kind of model tourist town.

      • Jeffrey says:

        I was thinking about the historic cores of many European cities and how beautiful they are, even those that had been rebuilt after WWII. But because so much of Japanese cities had been burned to the ground, much of the beauty of Meiji and Taisho era architecture was lost.

        There are so many places/cities built in Europe from the 17th-19th century of stone and brick that it wins hands down in terms of manmade beauty.

      • Yes, and Japan has to contend with earthquakes etc and has often had to get buildings up quickly. There are many reasons for a lack of beautiful buildings and aesthetic consideration in town planning – it’s not all thoughtless design but I may have suggested it was more than I wanted to!

  5. David says:

    Although Japanese people are notorious for crazy nonsensical urbanization, I want to say that general ugliness with pockets of beauty can apply to pretty much any modern city in the world no?
    You mention Paris, but after having lived 5 years there, I’m telling you, it’s also about pockets of beauty (they’re just a bit bigger than elsewhere).
    In Japan, I think beauty can definitely be found in villages though if not in cities.

    • Perhaps so – but the pockets are certainly bigger in many European cities! Whilst I haven’t lived in Paris, I have lived in France and spent a lot of time in the capital. Visiting is not the same as living there, I know, but I guess what I am saying is that I think most tourists coming to Paris for the first time would find it much prettier than almost any major Japanese city. Of course, as Judi said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I am sometimes frustrated in Japan because I see how beautiful some places could be with just a little more thought. A blinkered western viewpoint, no doubt, but mine all the same!

      That said, I wouldn’t change Tokyo for anything. That crazy urbanization just adds to the city’s energy and life. Some smaller cities, however, don’t have that energy and feel and we are left with a place that could be so much nicer. Just sticking power cables underground would be a huge start.

      • David says:

        We agree that European cities are generally more beautiful.
        And the crazy urbanization of Tokyo is the main reason why I wouldn’t mind if I never set foot in that city again (I don’t like big cities if you couldn’t tell).

        Can they stick cables underground with the earthquakes and all?

      • I’ve heard both that they can and can’t put cables underground. Earthquakes are often cited as a reason for not doing so, but they have done it in some places so it can be done. Whether it can be done everywhere, and whether having them underground is any more dangerous or difficult than having them on long pylons dug into the ground, I don’t know.

  6. Mr. S. says:

    This is an excellent topic, and discussion. I am not sure that the Japanese public ignores the ugliness in the way that you describe, but I do think they narrow their field of vision and crop out the reinforced concrete all about them.

    The simplest amelioration of the ugliness is just what is also lacking in new suburbs of Anglophone countries: trees! Did you know the main reason that there are so few mature trees on Japan’s private property (and the reason that roof-lines are cut-off at such odd angles) is because you have to pay for the shade you cast on your neighbour’s property? Asinine in a country that could use a lot more shade in the summer, wind-break in the winter, and greenery in its cities.

    You touch on ‘shakei’. That and trees are what make two of my favourite gardens in Japan: Ritsurin-koen, in Takamatsu, Shikoku; and Okochi-Sanso-In in Arashiyama, Kyoto. But I am a Torontonian: I cannot abide a city that’s not green (loathe LA!).
    http://www.pref.kagawa.jp/ritsurin/gaiyou_e.html
    http://www.traveltojapan.eu/Kyoto_Okochi-Sanso_villa.html
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borrowed_scenery

    Despite that, Tokyo is exponentially more interesting than any city in N. America, besides New York, perhaps. In a similar vein, I have the following posts on my blog about Japanese, versus N. American, urbanism:
    http://hanlonsrzr.blogspot.com/2010/11/japanese-versus-n-american-streets.html
    http://hanlonsrzr.blogspot.com/2010/12/japanese-versus-n-american-streets.html
    http://hanlonsrzr.blogspot.com/2010/12/japanese-versus-n-american-streets-cars.html

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