Kyoto is an amazing city of contrasts. A bustling city of around 1.5 million people, which is central Kyoto, not the surrounding areas, this mega city seems to go on and on and is connected to Osaka through an unbroken series of medium and high rise apartment buildings. It’s crazy to think that this combined urban area consists of around 20 million people.
It’s an astonishing and busy place. I arrived by Shinkansen, aka the bullet train, from Tokyo and managed to find my way through the crowded station onto the subway and eventually to the hotel. Not trying to get through a crowded train station carrying a pair of skis was a wonderful bonus this time around. Instead of skiing, I was out exploring some of the astounding history and culture of Japan.
Other than trying to get through Tokyo station in peak hour, I’d not been out into any major Japanese cities before and this was a fascinating experience. The outward impression I have of Japanese cities is that they’re kind of ugly. There are lots of tall buildings which on the outside look dull and grotty, interspersed with a few amazing ancient castles, temples and traditional styled houses.
A massive population, random sprawling developments, recessions and years of deflation, haven’t helped the look of many of the cities in Japan. Functionally, over design seems to have been the thought at the time. Despite this outward appearance, once inside one of these mega cities, you can find endless hidden gems of the ancient world, living right alongside colossal skyscrapers. The cities have simply grown up around and consumed so many of these places that were once focal points of small villages and townships.
Kyoto, for example, has a lot of temples and I mean a lot! Everywhere you turn, there’s another temple staring back at you. You can be walking down a laneway and a simple old wooden doorway can take you into another world. I came across many of these by chance. I had a fairly general map from the hotel which indicated areas where the major temples were, but on the way there I found temples in the middle of shopping centres and in amongst suburban housing areas.
The moment you step through one of these doorways, it feels as if you’ve stepped back in time and out of the city. The change of atmosphere is stark. Gone are the bustling noises of traffic and the manic pace of the city. Instead, you’re surrounded by a serenity that’s further enhanced by delicately tended gardens and bamboo water features that continue to flow gently. No wonder the zen garden is such an art form, as it can dramatically transform and create a quiet space, even amongst millions of people.
I found the same experience time and time again as I stepped inside an ancient building. It feels a world away from the hectic pace of the surrounding city. The Imperial Palace, nearby castles and countless temples were all the same. Somehow, time has stood still inside these spaces, whilst the city has exploded around them.
Another interesting place which provided the same dramatic contrast, was the Japanese Gardens next to Himeji Castle. There’s a major four lane road right out in front and a massive car park opposite. Inside, however, is a serene series of masterfully designed and maintained gardens where I heard the birds chirping for the first time in days and saw huge koi fish swim lazily through the ponds, expectantly popping their mouths out whenever someone’s shadow appeared over the water. Buffeted by solid traditional Japanese walls, these gardens are a wonderful example how the old and the new within huge cities co-exist.
Koko-en Garden Near Himeji Castle
From here, you can walk ten minutes down the road to a gaudy neon lit mall, filled with seemingly endless shops and constantly swiftly moving crowds of shoppers and commuters rushing through one of seven identical Starbucks stores that line the streets. This dramatic contrast shows the underlying complexity of the modern world and the desire to escape to quieter and more relaxing times and spaces from the past.
There’s something wonderful about both sides of this mix of old and new. It’s important to preserve and value our global heritage and cultures and at the same time we still need to build cities which can leverage the technological advances and advantages that are being continuously designed and developed in the digital age. Whilst we can all hope that city design into the future will be less ugly than what it is now, the reality is that this is just the surface and once you step inside, you’re only moments away from a serene green space or a preserved vast estate. Working out how to best link all of this together with some thoughtful design, is definitely going to be an ongoing challenge for the next few generations, but the possibilities of future cities which connect both old and new in a seamless manner is an exciting prospect to anticipate.