History & Heritage
June 21, 2018

Urbanist Abroad: Day 17 – Kyoto and Hiroshima

In less than two hours and at speeds up to 285-km/h, Gordon Price travelled from Kyoto to Hiroshima on Thursday, via Japan’s Shinkansen “bullet train” line.

The destination was the Hiroshima Peace Memorial; the main draw here is the former Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, now commonly called the Genbaku Dome, or Atomic Bomb Dome.

The building was the only structure left standing near the hypocentre of ‘Little Boy’, the first atomic bomb ever used in war, which dropped on August 6th, 1945. It delivered near-instant death to 70,000, with another 70,000 to later die as a result of radiation poisoning. Injuries and related horrors took many more, to say nothing of the tens of thousands to perish three days later in Nagasaki. Today, Genbaku Dome is a UNESCO Heritage site.

From the train, Gordon took many photographs of the urban world that has cropped up along the rail line (including the photograph above of sunset over Kyoto), with his usual engaging commentary.

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On Wednesday, a visit to The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto (known as MOMAK, naturally).

In addition to familiar names like Braque, Chagall, Chihuly, Hockney, Kindinsky and Lloyd Wright, our tireless, urbanist documentarian Gordon Price took in some renowned Japanese artists, likely unknown to many Westerners, but worth some investigation:

  • Léonard Tsugouharu Foujita, Japanese–French painter and printmaker, whose Book of Cats (1930) is one of the highest-priced rare books ever sold; it is ranked by dealers as “the most popular and desirable book on cats ever published” (take that, GIPHY)
  • Kaii Higashiyama, writer and artist particularly renowned for his Nihonga style paintings, and one of the most popular artists in post-war Japan.
  • Hishida Shunsō, pseudonym of Japanese painter Hishida Miyoji from the Meiji period, he played a role in the innovation of Nihonga.
  • Oda Kaisen, who specialized in landscapes, figures and kachoga (bird/flower-paintings); known especially for the Suiboku-ga style of Japanese monochrome ink painting, a technique first developed in China during the Sung dynasty (960–1274).
  • Tomioka Tessai, the pseudonym for painter and calligrapher Yusuke, whose early early works followed the bunjinga styles of the early 19th century, often featuring Chinese landscapes. It is estimated he painted approximately 20,000 paintings in the course of his career

Just a few photographs today, and a compelling video — peeking down lanes and alleyways into another world…

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At just over 500 hectares, Nara Park in Japan is 20% larger than Vancouver’s Stanley Park, and a short day trip from Kyoto for editor-in-chief Gordon Price and his group.

Best known for a 15-m tall bronze statue of Buddha housed within the largest wooden building in the world, the park is also noteworthy for its conspicuous population of Sika deer.

Also known as “bowing deer”, the Sika often bow their heads before being fed special deer cookies sold within the park. However, Sika also tend to bow heads to signal an impending head-butt. On average, someone is injured by a Sika deer every couple of days; there were 164 injuries (mostly bites) recorded in the last fiscal year. Perhaps this is its own line item in the park’s annual report. 

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As you may have heard by now, a magnitude 6.1 earthquake hit Osaka, Japan early this morning (Sunday at 10:00 pm PDT).

Less than 60km separates Osaka and Kyoto, the latter city of course being where Gordon Price, his travel partners and the SPUR study group are winding down the trip’s final days. All is OK for them. Fewer posts than usual today, but you understand why.

That said, interesting snippets below from the experience.

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Nothing like topping off a Japanese trip with a good earthquake. And this morning in Kyoto was a good one – 6.1 (out of 7) on the Japanese seismic scale (5.1 on the Richter) . This was severe even for the locals, something they might get only every five years or more. Hard to photograph an earthquake. It’s not what you’re thinking about when the floors are rolling beneath you. The trains of course stopped rolling afterwards, completely screwing up the schedules on which thousands are dependent – leading to lines backing through the stations even in late afternoon.

A post shared by Price Tags (@pricetags) on Jun 18, 2018 at 12:18am PDT

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It was just the kind of earthquake we need: sufficient to shake things up but not so severe as to cause major damage or loss of life. But because Japan gets these kinds of quakes, and worse, they prepare. Not only do they have logistical plans prepared (all those helicopter pads) but they also prepare their population for how to survive 72 hours without support. We got a tour of their emergency centre which not only includes big rooms with lots of desks and screens, back-up generators and life support but also a hands-on education centre. (I think I could now figure out how to make a reasonable toilet out of cardboard box boxes and plastic bags.)

A post shared by Price Tags (@pricetags) on Jun 18, 2018 at 12:33am PDT

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Mainly I learned that it is possible for a culture to respond to catastrophe without chaos. I was not in a public space when the shaking occurred, but I didn’t get any sense of panic. Disruption occurred, but there was prepared response. And soon enough afterwards, the trains resumed and people got on with their lives as soon as they could. Would we respond that way? Kind of doubt it. We live in denial, we’re ill-prepared, and so need the occasional shake-up to remind us of the inevitable. Something the Japanese live with as a regular part of their existence.

A post shared by Price Tags (@pricetags) on Jun 18, 2018 at 12:46am PDT

More from Gordon on Instagram here.

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For one thousand years (794 through 1868), Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan; indeed, the name literally translates to English as ‘Capital City’.

Following his coronation, Emperor Meiji (affectionately known as ‘The Emperor’ — he made Japan great again) ushered in a new era of enlightened rule. He abolished feudalism, proclaimed a modern democratic government for Japan, bestowed the name ‘Tokyo’ on the formerly small fishing village of Edo, and then made it Japan’s capital.

Where did this leave Kyoto? Today, the city is one of the best preserved in all of Japan, with 2,000 religious places; it helps that its place was taken by Nagasaki among the list of cities targeted for atomic destruction by the United States in the waning months of World War II. As such, it is one of the few Japanese cities remaining with an abundance of prewar buildings.

The culture seems torn between two world, from some of the evidence in Gordon’s photographs, and no doubt we’ll see more, as his study tour draws to a close this coming week.

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Some final bits of “real Tokyo” as Gordon Price departs this prefecture of 13 million people, just one part of the world’s most populous metropolitan area at almost 38 million. And we ask, “what core values do people embrace in an urban world some 15-20 times the size of our own?”

He’s shown us many examples over the past week, but in the following video (12+mins) by the Fung Brothers, we see two worth considering:

  • Convenience: Best represented by Family Mart, an institution like a grown-up 7-Eleven
  • Mario Kart: Those buggies seen outside the Apple Store on Day 6

Perhaps the latter one isn’t what we would traditionally consider a value, but it’s hard to define what this is. Recreation? Transportation? Product placement?

Whatever it’s expressing, Mario Kart is low intensity, individualized, and fun; and while there has been a spate of crashes in the past year, they’ve seemingly resulted mostly in property damage and injuries. Whereas in many North American cities (most prominently these days, Toronto), using the device called a bicycle is almost akin to a death wish.

Can you imagine the council debate on Mario Karts in your city? How different is it from a scooter, a hoverboard or even an e-bike?

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