Mammon grips heart of Japan's ancient temples: Terry McCarthy in Kyoto finds an ancient sykline of dreaming pagodas is falling victim to commercial greed

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IN A back street of Kyoto's Gion pleasure quarter, between discreet geisha houses and bars, a robed monk stumbled drunkenly along one night last week. He took a pack of cigarettes from his sleeve, and as he leaned over unsteadily to light up, a gold watch glinted on his wrist. He was not coming from prayers.

A mile away, in wooded hills on the eastern fringe of Kyoto, is Kiyomizudera, one of the city's most famous temples. Founded in 780, and rebuilt in the early 17th century, it has a large wooden platform overlooking the treetops. 'To leap from the platform of Kiyomizu' is a popular saying, meaning to take a plunge into the unknown.

But one evening recently the platform was closed to pilgrims and taken over by an airline company for a piano recital. Uniformed air hostesses greeted guests, while the monks disappeared behind sliding screens. Corporate public-relations events are becoming common in the 'Pure Water' temple.

Kyoto is celebrating its 1,200th anniversary. Over 1,500 exhibitions, plays and festivals have been organised. But far from being a celebration of the longevity of Japan's cultural and spiritual capital, 'Kyoto 1200' has been overshadowed by a debate over whether the city is selling its soul to Mammon.

Kyoto was founded in 794 by the Emperor Kammu on a plain watered by rivers and surrounded by hills. Its design was a copy of the ancient Chinese capital of Chang-an (today's Xian), with streets laid out in a grid. It was the capital until 1868, when the government moved to Tokyo.

Kyoto has always attracted artisans, religious leaders and men of letters. Temples and shrines were built, and ceremonies in the Imperial Court propagated the arts of scroll- painting, the tea ceremony and the making of kimonos.

Some still see Kyoto as the repository of all that is finest in art and religion. Others complain that Kyoto is becoming a stage-set for tourists, sacrificing a refined way of life that had survived for more than a millennium.

Traditional wooden houses are being destroyed to make way for concrete office blocks and condominiums. Formerly severe building restrictions are being relaxed to allow the construction of tower- blocks, obscuring the view of temples and pagodas.

An alliance of monks, lawyers and citizens has attempted to preserve the city's skyline. But the weight of money behind big business is steamrolling resistance.

Already the 60 metre-high Kyoto Hotel has been built, and is due to open in July. It spoils the view from Kiyomizu temple, and dwarfs the five-tier pagoda of Toji temple, whose height of 45 metres had in the past been the ceiling for new developments. A multi-lane elevated motorway cutting through the south of the city has been given the go-ahead.

'If things go the way they are now, the north of the city will be a tourist theme park, and the south will be a concrete jungle,' said Akira Nakajima, a lawyer who led the campaign against the building of the Kyoto Hotel. 'Many people in Kyoto feel we should think of the future, because at the present level of destruction, there will be little left of Kyoto by the next 100-year anniversary' in 2094.

Kyoto is a centre of Zen Buddhism, which produced flower arranging and the tea ceremony. But money is undercutting the old spirit of simplicity, spawning lucrative businesses far removed from the intentions of the early Zen monks.

'The tea ceremony has degenerated into social chic for brides-to-be,' said Jeff Shore, associate professor at the Buddhist Hanazono University in Kyoto. The practice of young women learning the tea ceremony to improve their marital prospects is referred to as hanayome shugyo, or 'flower- bride training'. It makes the schools teaching the tea ceremony very rich. But Katsuhisa Moriya, a professor of history at Mukogawa University, denied Kyoto's arts are being corrupted by money. 'As long as (these arts) are a living tradition, they will withstand the pressure of money,' he said.

Of the 80,000 old houses left in Kyoto, some 60 per cent are uninhabited, he claimed. 'Young people do not want to live in them - they prefer to live in the suburbs, where the taxes are cheaper.' As a result, the population of Kyoto is now falling.

The problem for Professor Moriya is not that Kyoto is forgetting its past - on the contrary. 'Kyoto is quite oppressed by its history. People are too conservative. We need to revitalise the city'.

(Photograph omitted)