Kira Bavisha comments on Japan’s juxtaposing architecture, and what it represents.
Before leaving for Japan, I was excited yet slightly apprehensive. As a Modern Languages student, the thought of immersing myself in a completely new culture should have been my cup of tea: however, the prospect of spending two weeks there without any knowledge of the culture or language besides a frivolous konnichiwa and arigatou was surprisingly daunting. I soon realised that while the contrasts between Britain and Japan are stark, so are intra-Japanese relations, most notably portrayed by the architecture of the different major cities.
From the moment I arrived in Tokyo, culture shocks struck me like bullet trains. People waiting for the signal to turn green before crossing roads rather than walking when the coast was clear and the lack of homeless people lining the streets were just a couple of examples of blatant disparities between Tokyo and London. However, what was most shocking was how Tokyo transformed itself from one district to another.
I began in Asakusa, a district famous for its religious temples and festivals, particularly Sanja Matsuri, a Shinto festival that takes place in May during which roads are closed from dawn until dusk. Asakusa is at the heart of Tokyo’s Old Town, with architecture dating back to the Edo Period. The people found in Asakusa reflect this ancient architecture: Japan has an ageing population, and this district is saturated with elderly people, many of them coming to the Kaminarimon (Kaminari Gate).
Contrastingly, the district of Shiodome represents the fast-paced lifestyle of Tokyo that so frequently makes headlines, where overtime is the norm and showing up to work on time is considered to be showing up late. The structural embodiment of ‘work hard, work hard and work harder’, it is hard to believe that this district has similar architectural properties to Asakusa. Shiodome has now become the spearhead of Japanese modernisation, a heartland of business and commerce, and an area where the term ‘ground level’ does simply not exist. I was amazed to see such a transformation between districts that are so close together, a symbolic portrait of how the differing architecture in these two districts is emblematic of the populations that live within one city.
Kyoto is a compact city. Previously the Imperial capital of Japan during the Edo Period, Kyoto maintains its status as the centre of Japan’s culture. Home to the kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) and over two thousand other religious sites, it is often concluded that Kyoto is stuck in a pre-modern era. It is refreshing to see how the Kyoto prefecture has not demolished its pre-war buildings and replaced them with modern skyscrapers or blocks of flats, but rather chosen to preserve its architecture of tiny historical streets filled with authentic Japanese flavour.
Hakone is without a doubt the most peaceful place I have ever been. A small town in the Kanagawa prefecture, Hakone is a designated National Geopark. With limited notable architecture, Hakone oozes minimalism, its scenery providing its focal point of attraction. A sister city to St. Moritz and known for its main feature of Mount Fuji, I was astonished to see that this town hadn’t been converted into a Westernised hub filled with branded hotels and known food chains, despite the amount of tourists that stay there every year. I stayed in a traditional Ryokan, a Japanese inn made entirely of wood that has existed since the Eighth Century, featuring communal bathrooms and onsens (traditional Japanese hot springs). This architectural beauty was nothing like I had ever known: its constructional simplicity had a certain unconventionality to it, in that it lacked the luxuries of traditional Western hotels such as lobbies, lifts and even beds.
My experience in Japan was utterly thrilling and I am still amazed at how juxtaposed the country is between each major city. Its architecture and what that represents is something that I have been unable to find in Britain. Japan’s link to its past and its preservation of its history shows that despite its numerous innovations, architecturally, it is still living in a pre-modern era, a sight that is refreshing to see as a tourist.