Beauty

When I visited Kyoto in the early ’80s, I immediately declared it my favorite place on earth, and almost nowhere I’ve been since then has shaken it from its position.  (Its only real competition so far has been Udaipur, India.)  Of course, I knew Kyoto had changed considerably since then–everything has.  When I arrived there this past summer, I’d been reading a book called Lost Japan by Alex Kerr that lamented the demise of traditional Japan, so I wasn’t surprised when I emerged from Kyoto’s newish train station, a shiny black fifteen-story monolith, hailed a taxi, and found myself barreling down a city street that in no way resembled the graceful images in my memory. 


As I rode a bus, following a pair of European tourists who seemed to
know what they were doing, I watched out the window as an urban
landscape streaked past revealing no sign of the quaint little byways I
remembered.  I followed the Europeans off the bus and onto a sidestreet
where a crowd of tourists stood eating ice cream cones, then turned a
corner and arrived at the entrance to Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion
(so called because it was originally supposed to be wrapped in silver
foil to match Kinkaku-ji, the more famous Golden Pavilion). 

I paid, then followed a crowd of kids in school uniforms along a path
and around a corner–and there it was, the Silver Pavilion, exactly as I
remembered it, though I seemed to be seeing it from an entirely
different vantage point as if the landscaping had changed, or maybe I
had changed.  Tears came to my eyes as Ginkaku-ji and I stared at each
other, two old friends meeting after so many years.  Then I did what all
tourists do: took a bunch of photographs, including one of myself that
turned out to be mostly a picture of my nose.

I strolled through the grounds taking photos of the temple and its
adjacent rock garden until I had captured it from every conceivable
angle, then exited and wandered up a meandering street alongside a
canal.  Known as Philosopher’s Walk, this path leads to several other
Buddhist temples and some Shinto shrines.  I walked slowly, even
meditatively, as if philosophizing, ducking into every temple or shrine
that I passed, and found myself flooded with a feeling of transcendent
calm that can best be described as Zen-like. This was the Kyoto I
remembered, and though perhaps, as Alex Kerr asserts in his book, its
soul is imperiled by modernity, it was still more beautiful than
anything I could imagine.

When I got back home, Maryland looked like absolute crap.  The wooded
trail where I walk my dog suddenly struck me as a mass of overgrown
weeds, and everywhere I went, hideous housing developments spread
through the landscape like a cancer. 

One of the things Kerr laments about contemporary Japan is its penchant
for concrete.  In his other book, Dogs and Demons, he describes the way
fears of environmental catastrophes such as floods and landslides have
caused the government to clear-cut forests, restructure mountains, and
cradle every river in cement.  After World War II, many of Kyoto’s
historic wooden townhouses (machiya) were torn down to make way for
something more “modern,” and only recently have attempts been made to
preserve them.  According to Japan.com, “The powers that be have at long
last realized that there is money to be made out of historic
preservation, and appear genuine in their effort at keeping at bay the
ubiquitous wrecking ball.”

Driving around Maryland, I found myself wondering what Alex Kerr would
make of it.  Kerr has lived in Japan for most of his life, and Lost
Japan was originally written in Japanese, but he is an American whose
father’s military career took him around the world.  If he thinks Japan,
which seemed to me to be quite breathtaking in a number of ways, is a
concrete jungle, what would he say about our love affair with vinyl
siding? 

When I first left the Takoma Park-Silver Spring area some years ago, I
lived on a 600-acre horse farm that backed onto the state park.  Now
that farm is a housing development, and while our house is still there,
it’s surrounded by other houses, and where our back garden lay is a
street called something like “Melody Lane” which I like to think is a
nod to our songwriting.  I try to avoid driving past it because it makes
me want to vomit: the destruction of the undulating horizon where
horses were once silhouetted, the overcrowding alongside a street that
is designated “scenic,” the sheer stupidity of it all–it just makes me
sick.  What kind of idiots let greedy developers overbuild next to a
tiny road in an area where the schools are already overcrowded and the
water resources are fragile, thanks to a toxic dump not far away?  It’s
easy to look at Kyoto and wonder how anyone could be dumb enough to tear
down machiya when it’s clear that they’re the kind of historic
resources that attract tourists.  It’s a lot harder to look at the mess
we’ve made of our own landscape.

Yeah, I know, people have to live somewhere–my point is that housing
doesn‘t have to be ugly, and it doesn‘t have to be stupid.  Driving past
our old farmhouse, you can’t help wondering if the people who designed
the development ever actually looked at what they were doing.  Most
likely, the only thing they looked at was a calculator.

I was pretty sure, in fact, that aesthetics did not figure into anyone’s
calculations when it came to development, but then last week, I
happened to be looking out the window while flying into BWI and I
realized something: while all those modern developments–and there are
acres of them–seem from the ground to have been flung into random
patterns like handfuls of jacks, from the air their streets, which lead
nowhere, curve gracefully, and the houses and their little lawns create a
pattern not unlike that of a flowerbed.  Seen from on high, those
developments have the lines of, say, a Japanese garden.  What a
beautiful place Maryland is, I thought as we landed–at least, from the
air.

Enhanced by Zemanta

About the Author

Abby Bardi
Takoma Park expatriate Abby Bardi explores the wickedness of modern life in her Voice column, "Sin of the Month." Born and raised in Chicago, Abby has worked as a singing waitress in Washington, D.C., an English teacher in Japan and England, a performer on England’s country and western circuit, and, most recently, as a professor at Prince George’s Community College. Author of "The Book of Fred," (Washington Square Press: Simon & Schuster 2001), she is married with two children and lives in Ellicott City, Maryland.