Kyoto: How green is this city?

It's synonymous with green issues, but does this place have any eco-friendly credentials, asks Mark Rowe
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The Independent Travel

At first sight, you may wonder whether the decision to secure the world's most important climate-change treaty in Kyoto was taken by deeply cynical environmentalists who thought the agreement would wither on the vine more quickly than you could say "George W Bush".

You can't miss the characterless urban sprawl and heavy industry: Kyoto has 1.5m inhabitants and is Japan's fifth largest city and, as such, its aesthetic and environmental appeal is not immediately obvious. This initial disquiet may be compounded by the spectacle of the space-age central train station. It's the sort of building that makes architects pat one another on the back and wait for the awards to flood in. In this case, what ensued was a deluge of complaints from environmentalists and preservationists, furious at how the station had blocked out Kyoto's mountain skyline, and how its glass façade was out of keeping with the city's traditional dwellings.

But be patient. Just as the Kyoto Protocol took seven years to be ratified (and remains unsigned by the United States and Australia), so Kyoto's environmental credentials are revealed over time. Rather than employing hi-tech eco gadgets or innovations, these values are built into the fabric of the city: in the age-old way of life that still can be found in some districts; the severe refinement of its temples, or in the 300 cherry trees that line both sides of the Kawa river embankment. Kyoto, the great green-associated city, is a beautiful place to visit in its own right and a visit will help you judgejust how strong its green credentials are.

The city was home to Japan's emperors for almost 1,100 years and can boast up to 2,000 temples and shrines, around 200 gardens and 17 World Heritage Sites. We have Henry Stimson, American Secretary of War in 1945, to thank for the way Kyoto looks today. Aware of Kyoto's historical and architectural value, he persuaded President Roosevelt to drop the city from the list of potential targets for the atom bomb.

This extraordinary escape had little or no bearing on the decision to hold the momentous agreement on climate change here in 1997. Nor was Kyoto selected for any association it had with the environmental movement. Rather, the decision to hold the meeting was in part down to the international merry-go-round of political conferences (it was to some extent Japan's turn to host such an event). Kyoto had opened a new conference centre, and the city fathers were keen to showcase it. That said, there was doubtless an element of vision involved, according to Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth. "In some ways it was something of a risk for Kyoto to take the plunge," he said. "People knew there was going to be a momentous decision but it was also on a knife edge."

There would be a pleasing symmetry were Kyoto a showcase of best environmental practice, but the true picture is more complex. If you want a city straining to be carbon neutral, go to Newcastle, which is aiming to become the first city to entirely offset its carbon dioxide emissions. And, of course, by flying to Japan you will contribute to the problem of climate change - aviation contributes 4 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, and this is reinforced by the fact that contrails deposited at 30,000ft further magnify climate change (a process called radiative forcing). The true eco-city does not yet exist, though, rather unexpectedly, it may soon do so: Dongtan, near Shanghai, is being designed by the engineers Arup as the world's first truly sustainable city, with its energy produced from sustainable sources. The first phase is due to open in 2010.

Back in Kyoto, the tourism industry is playing its part. Four hotels: the Kyoto Brighton Hotel; Hotel Granvia; the Okura; and the Karasuma Kyoto; subscribe to an environmental policy whereby they pledge to use energy-efficient light bulbs, fit taps and showers that use less water and generally adopt a more sustainable approach.

Kyoto's old quarter, located in the east of the city close to the Kamo river, is where you'll find Kyoto's green heart. Modern Kyoto, like any developed city, has more plastic and metal than it knows what to do with; in these old streets it is wood that dominates in what has been described as a "carpentered forest" of houses built with traditional materials and encompassing a low-impact way of life. Wooden buckets, paper umbrellas, sagging beams, calligraphy brushes, bamboo baskets, all are hallmarks of an ancient city that was built from what its early settlers and founders discovered when first they arrived.

Wander around the age-old and contiguous streets of Sannen-zaka (Three-Year Slope) and Ninen-zaka (Two-Year Slope); it is here that you'll find examples of the machiya, the distinctive family establishments that have been running for hundreds of years, and sometimes for 10 or more generations. They are also known as "bedrooms of eels" thanks to an architectural style that comprises a series of rooms peeling off a long corridor that can be up to 100m in length.

It is also here, in the exquisite grounds, some of which houseKyoto's most delightful religious buildings, that Kyoto shines through as a green city with few equals. The temples amount to a compendium of finesse, taste, calm and seclusion (the last of these applies once the tour buses have departed): Heian-jingu, a vermillion-gated shrine to Japan's first and last emperors; the striking Zen temples of Daitoku-ji, where you will find the painting-like garden of Daisen-in; and the gold-leaf Kinkaku-ji, or Golden Pavilion.

Kyoto is designed for exploring on foot, though where distances are too great you can use the efficient metro or bus networks. One of the best ways to explore the city is by bike, which can be hired for around £6 per day. Strike out on your own or travel with a guide, who will show you around the machiya dwellings or whisk you between teahouses until your bladder can take no more.

And it is perhaps on a quiet day, sipping tea in a teahouse, that the gentle ebb of life that demonstrates how Kyoto has pulled back from the mainstream, is most apparent. Some of the finest teahouses can be found in the magnificent strolling garden of the Katsura Imperial Villa. A walk in green surroundings, amid persimmon and maples, followed by a cup of the smoky green tea, called hojicha, can bring to mind the Greek proverb: "A society becomes great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in."

The eco-city of the 21st century doesn't have to be too clever to get it right.

Return flights to Osaka, the closest airport to Kyoto, start at £700 with Japan Airlines (0845 774 7700; jal-europe.com). For more information about Kyoto contact the Japan National Tourist Office (020-7734 9638; seejapan.co.uk)

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