COLUMN ONE : Kyoto Losing Past to Progress : Nearing its 1,200th anniversary, Japan’s ancient capital is rent by controversy. A pair of new buildings will dwarf its temples and shrines, and preservationists feel increasingly besieged.


With bells tinkling in the wind and more than 40 multicolored carp in a pond outside, two elderly women serve green tea, candies and coffee to customers. White petals adorn bonsai trees at the edge of a rock garden.

Near the old wooden house converted into a coffee shop are tiny shops where artisans create cloisonne, pottery, dolls and handicrafts in a setting barely changed from 300 years ago.

This is Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan and the birthplace of much of its artistic tradition and religion. Here are found the 27-acre Old Imperial Palace where emperors lived until 1868, 1,600 Buddhist temples, 260 Shinto shrines and vast numbers of structures designated as “national treasures” and “important cultural assets.”


But there is another Kyoto today, too.

Take, for example, Takoyakushi Temple in the Kawaramachi section in the city’s center. The first four floors of its ferro-concrete building are crammed with restaurants, bars and nightclubs. From the street, a pedestrian can see only the rectangular exterior, crisscrossed with a metal design and covered with advertising banners. Only from the upper floors of a department store across the street can the traditional temple be seen.

Such intrusions of the ugly into the elegant, modernity into tradition and progress into preservation have been going on for years, largely without complaint.

But now the city that will celebrate its 1,200th anniversary in 1994 has been thrown into an uproar over a new challenge: Its commercial skyline--which had been limited to 149 feet, except for a single 432-foot sightseeing tower--is about to be broken.

Two 198-foot buildings--a rebuilt Kyoto Hotel and a new Kyoto Railway Station--will exceed not only the old limit but also the height of the 182-foot, five-tiered pagoda of the ancient Toji, or To Temple. It had been to Kyoto what the Capitol dome is to Washington.

The Kyoto Buddhist Assn. is leading a two-pronged protest--in court and in organizing citizens--to fight the new buildings. Other grass-roots movements have taken up the cudgels. And Kyoto’s small entrepreneurs say they, too, want their voice reflected in city decisions.

At stake, the protesters say, is not only the city’s skyline but its traditions, its democracy and its way of life.


“Historically and culturally, Kyoto is irreplaceable,” said Daien Matsumoto, chief priest-emeritus of the Kiyomizu Temple, built in 1633. “Traditional wooden architecture has beauty, warmth and artistic features that should be preserved,” he said, adding that more than 95% of buildings designated national treasures are wooden.

“I live in one of them,” he noted. Yet, “looking at Kyoto from above the city every morning, I see cranes throughout the city and the tops of more and more business buildings. The old atmosphere of peace is disappearing. . . . I feel deserted and lonely.”

Although the Buddhists concede that they face an uphill struggle, they have been persistent in their campaign to preserve what they consider a spiritual capital.

As part of the battle, the Kyoto Buddhist Assn. sought to whip up support by placing an advertisement last August in the New York Times, urging Americans, “who saved Kyoto during World War II” by not targeting the city for bombing raids, to protest to the hotel and “help stop the desecration of Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto!”

At one point, the association declared that hotel guests would be forbidden to visit its temples--a threat that induced the hotel to compromise with the Buddhists by cutting the planned height of the new building.

But the hotel reneged and the Buddhists took two further actions. They went to court seeking an order to enforce the compromise. And five Buddhist representatives bought $77,000 worth of stock so they could interrogate hotel executives at a stockholders meeting in March. Shouted down by gangsters apparently hired by the hotel, the Buddhists filed another lawsuit, charging the hotel with violating the Commercial Code.

The Buddhists--who caused another furor here in the 1980s when they unsuccessfully battled a tax on admissions to their temples--believe that a break in Kyoto’s skyline limits, coming on the heels of a five-year land-speculation craze that swept Japan until 1991, would hand unfair windfall profits to landowners, said Raitei Arima, director of the Buddhist association and chief priest of Dai-Komyo Temple.

Under a special system adopted in 1988, and applied for the first time to the 103-year-old Kyoto Hotel, commercial buildings in the city’s center now can be as tall as 198 feet, if at least 40% of the land is given over to public park space.

“We desperately want space for the public in the city center,” said Toshiharu Higashikawa, a municipal official. “The hotel is providing nearly three-quarters of an acre of open area to the public by erecting its new building 30 feet farther back (from the perimeter of its land) than the old building.”

So controversial is the Kyoto Hotel project--only a third of Kyoto residents surveyed in one poll supported it--that its representatives turned down requests for an interview.

As for JR West Railways, it appears to have decided from the beginning to challenge a 149-foot height restriction in the area of its station. All seven designs submitted in an architectural contest called for 198-foot structures, the height of the winning entry, or taller to replace the present two-story station built in 1952.

“We could have constructed a building with the same floor space as the winning design within the 149-foot limit. But it would have looked like an oil tanker,” said Tetsuhisa Shima, planning manager of the railway’s subsidiary, the Kyoto Station Development Co.

A city commission is debating whether to raise the height limit. But with both the city and the prefectural (state) government owning equity in the station development company, there is little doubt the plan will be approved.

Arima of the Buddhist association charged that the building was designed not as a station but rather with an eye “toward making profits” from the 90% of the floor space that will be devoted to hotels, department stores and shops.

It would appear so. JR West was saddled with more than $8 billion worth of old Japan National Railways debts when it and six other rail firms were created in the privatization of the former government-run system. Last year, it spent another $8 billion to buy its share of the Bullet Line running from Tokyo to Fukuoka.

Both the hotel and the new station are scheduled for completion in time for the city’s 1,200th anniversary.

But Kyoto’s problems extend far beyond the hotel and railway station. Even temples and shrines, the main receptacles of traditional architecture and culture, aren’t exempt.

To preserve its view from a mountainside, Kiyomizu Temple spent $8 million to buy nearby land on which the owner planned to build a condominium. But Kiyomizu could afford the purchase. It is visited by more than 3 million tourists annually, paying admission fees of $2.50 for adults and $1.60 for children.

But with only 50 or so of Kyoto’s temples and shrines able to make a living from tourists, the temptation is to sell land, Arima said. More than 20 inner-city temples have done just that, moving into the mountains and pocketing “more than half of the land proceeds as profit.”

Land values, Matsumoto said, are astronomical. Many plots around Kiyomizu are worth up to $12 million, he noted.

“Temples have to do something to make ends meet,” commented Koichi Uda, a city official.

Matsumoto added: “In reality, it is hard to maintain temples as they existed centuries ago. As you can see from the proliferation of new cults in Japan, modern-day Buddhism is irrelevant to many young people. More serious work is needed by Japan’s 140,000 priests (who) have fallen down in evangelism.”

But most of all, the expansion of Kyoto’s population from 800,000 at World War II’s end to 1.46 million now exerts a pressure for “progress” that both city officials and ordinary citizens find hard to resist. “We must give top priority to the livelihood of the 1.5 million people who live in Kyoto. The city must be a place to live,” Higashikawa said.

Uda, the city official, added: “Just maintaining old things is not what Kyoto is all about. . . . If we just preserve the old, Kyoto would become a museum. Kyoto must fulfill the functions of a modern economy but at the same time retain its tradition and culture.”

While most preservationists agree with City Hall on that point, the Buddhists do not.

Arima said he feels that a population of 800,000, the city’s size in 1945, would be “ideal” for Kyoto. “No environmental destruction would occur, and the people and the culture could coexist,” he said.

Even the structure of the old town, which became Japan’s capital in 794, complicates preservation efforts, said Yasuhiro Orita, a lawyer representing one citizens group. Kyoto’s streets are laid out so closely that they form blocks shaped like unagi nedokoro , or eel beds. These long, thin blocks naturally induce landowners to build tall, thin buildings to maximize the land’s commercial value, he said.

Further, the wooden houses that provide much of Kyoto’s outward charm are growing old. Many have rooms without sunlight. Fire regulations have been tightened, making preservation ever more difficult. Young people seeking central heating and air conditioning are moving to the suburbs. More and more, drab apartment houses are sprouting up as an alternative in the city.

But the biggest problem, critics charge, is City Hall and what they condemn as its secretive, bureaucratic and undemocratic decision-making.

Sahei Tsuda, a sixth-generation maker of the traditional yatsuhashi cookies, also complained that local officials turn a deaf ear to small-business owners. Tsuda, a member of the Chamber of Commerce executive committee, said city planners should focus on helping the small shopkeepers and artisans who live and work in a single location. He contended that open space is unnecessary, adding, “It’s tiny shops lined up one after another that provides vitality.”

A survey last summer by NHK, the radio and TV network, found that Kyoto residents overwhelmingly support height limits but are divided on what those should be. And as for the more than 40 million tourists who spend an estimated $18.4 billion in Kyoto annually, they show slight concern. “What they complain most about is the narrow streets, which they say should be broadened,” said Koji Adachi, a taxi driver.

Factional fighting, moreover, divides the preservationists, including the Buddhists. Many of the city’s grass-roots movements are supported by the Communist Party, a fact that dissuades ordinary citizens from getting involved, activists said.

And discrimination against descendants of feudal-era burakumin --”untouchables” who once performed “dirty” work as butchers and leather-tanners--impedes development in the one run-down area of the city that contains little of traditional value. (Where the burakumin descendants would move is the major problem.)

It is not that City Hall has ignored preservation. A quarter of the city--primarily the mountain area--has been placed off limits to any development. Other sections designated for preservation for their beauty or history are subject to severe restrictions.

But no attempt has been made to encourage builders to use traditional wooden construction or design new buildings in Kyoto-style architecture outside of the historical sections of the city. “Kyoto is becoming ugly overall because it’s cheaper to use steel and concrete than wood,” activist lawyer Akira Nakajima complained. “The city administration should have done something earlier, but it permitted undisciplined development of new architecture and old buildings, side by side.”

Taneo Oki, a Kyoto-born architect who works in Tokyo, observed that “Japanese have an ability to blot out things they don’t want to see. Japanese have an eye for beauty but not for ugliness.”

Higher Profile Troubles Ancient City

Kyoto, the stately ancient capital of Japan, has been thrown into an uproar over its skyline. Two 198-foot buildings--a rebuilt Kyoto Hotel and a new Kyoto Railway Station--will exceed the old limit of 149 feet.