Kyoto Summit: Developers destroy the city of good intentions

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The Independent Online
Kyoto is said to be Japan's most beautiful city. But Richard Lloyd Parry says the city now hosting a great world environmental summit is being destroyed by the developers

Kyoto, they say, is the most beautiful city in Japan, but you would never think so to look at it. Arriving here by train, as thousands of people have for this month's summit, is one of the world's great travel disappointments. In front of the station is a choked tarmac plaza of buses and taxis, overshadowed by a hideous tower painted in red and white.

After a day or two, the city's beauties - its temples and old wooden neighbourhoods - emerge shyly out of the general clutter. But for much of the time Kyoto is just a wealthy, ugly, chaotically ill-planned cityTo many Kyoto people, the situation is getting worse.

In the past five years, and in the face of strong local opposition, the city administration has aggressively pushed through a series of controversial projects which are changing the look of Kyoto for ever.

The climate summit negotiations on global warming have put the situation in ironic focus: a UN environment conference, held in a city whose historical appearance is being swept away by a wave of construction.

"Kyoto's traditional environment is being destroyed so quickly," says Shincho Tanaka, chief priest of the ancient Shimyo-in temple.

"The strange look of these buildings, the height of the houses, the pinball parlours and supermarkets. Kyoto is 1,200 years old, but the idea of historical continuity is completely lost on the government."

Three projects have galvanised opposition, although so far the government has refused to give an inch to its opponents. In 1994 the old Kyoto Hotel was replaced with a glass-and-concrete structure twice the original height, ruining the city's low-rise skyline. Then there was the new railway station, a 60-metre-tall, 200-metre-wide oblong which opened this year in defiance of more protests. Now attention is on a third struggle - the battle of the President's Bridge.

The story began a year ago at a banquet in Tokyo attended by Kyoto's mayor, Yorikane Matsumoto, and his former Parisian counterpart, the French president, Jacques Chirac. 1998 marks the 40th anniversary of the Paris- Kyoto sister-city relationship and, to mark it, Mr Chirac had a bold suggestion: a replica of the Pont des Arts would be built over Kyoto's equivalent of the Seine, the Kamo river.

Mr Matsumoto enthusiastically announced it on his return. The response of fellow citizens was less warm. "Our first reaction was shock - people thought he must be kidding," says Marc Keane, a landscape gardener and chairman of the International Society to Save Kyoto. "But apart from the dumbness of the idea, there's the complete failure of the city to consult with anyone. Even in Paris, there was eight years of debate before the original Pont des Arts was built. Our mayor made up his mind and announced it in three days."

Mr Tanaka said: "These bureaucrats don't appreciate the difference between French culture and Japanese culture. The river is alive ... and we have to respect it ... I don't really want any new bridge, but if there is a new one, it should be a small, pretty wooden bridge, not something like this."

You don't have to be a Buddhist priest or landscape designer to question the wisdom of the project, and the appropriateness of a French bridge to a traditional Japanese city.

The former is an undeniably elegant structure of curving iron arches; the latter are characterised by wood, bamboo and natural materials in delicate and subdued structures. To some, the battle has been lost and one more construction project can do no more to harm an already ruined city. All over Japan, there are links between city officials and the construction industry - Kyoto's own construction chief was recently arrested for allegedly accepting bribes in connection with a subway line. And beyond the official arrogance, the bridge's opponents see a deeper and longer-term problem - Kyoto's inferiority complex about its own culture and its relationship with the rest of the world.