In Search of ‘Lost Japan’

by Kelly Monaghan

Ishikawa-mon in Kanazawa

As someone who came of age believing that Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo was way cooler than Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars, Japan has held a special fascination for me. I also clung to the vague belief that the Japanese were a nation of flower arranging traditionalists who kept alive the samurai spirit even as they whipped Detroit at its own game and slapped Japanese names on every electronic appliance in the American home.

So it came as something of a shock as I prepared for a trip there several years ago to read Alex Kerr’s Lost Japan. The book is both an elegiac evocation of traditional Japanese culture and a keening lament for what Kerr sees as Japan’s bone-headed insistence on throwing out its heritage and pouring concrete over everything that’s left. Surely not!

Yet a visit to Kyoto and environs offered disturbing evidence that Kerr was on to something. Those who have been there know that Kyoto is both a ruthlessly modern city and a repository of some of Japan’s most fabled architectural and cultural treasures. Yet there is seemingly no dialogue between the city’s two disparate personalities.

Pachinko parlors and karaoke bars are within easy reach, but if your tastes run to traditional Japanese art forms — Noh, Kabuki, Bunraku — you’ll be hard pressed to find a performance, unless you are there during the few times a year when these rarities are on offer. Kyotans don’t seem to be much more interested in modern forms of live entertainment (pop music excepted); theater seems virtually non-existent and serious music concerts are infrequent. Now I must confess that this presented no real problems for me. But the beautiful and mysterious woman I travel with is much more of a culture vulture than I and her deprivation was keenly felt.

Kyoto’s major monuments are justly famous. The Kiyomizudera temple is a symphony in wood. Nijo palace is an aesthetic delight. The Zen garden at Ryoanji manages to rise above its status as an instant visual cliche. But unless you get to each of these early in the morning it’s hard to escape the feeling that they’re historical theme parks rather than part of a living tradition. Hordes of chattering schoolchildren are trooped mindlessly and hurriedly through the grounds, pausing only to try out their soon-to-be-forgotten English on hapless gaijin (foreign) tourists. The adult tour groups aren’t much better, with the commentary from their guides, blared through electric megaphones, drowning out any chance of quiet contemplation. It was hard to shake the feeling that these lovely gardens and quiet temples were somehow out of place.

Back in modern Kyoto, the growing number of homeless people in the city’s subways is sad testimony to the fact that there are tears in Japan’s fabled close-knit social fabric. On the other hand, where else but in Japan would you find someone whose house is a cardboard box stepping out of his street shoes to don house slippers when returning home? And perhaps a city that could offer me the Philosopher’s Walk could be forgiven its garishness and its day-glo-haired East Village wannabes. And wasn’t that a geisha I just saw hurrying to a high-priced party forever closed to an impecunious gaijin like me? While Kyoto may have dashed my illusions it also offered tantalizing hints that the Japan of my dreams might still exist.

I was determined that on my next visit I would find, and savor, the “real” Japan, the Japan without neon and beeping toys, the Japan that would allow me to believe that I had stepped back in time, the Japan that I sincerely hoped was not lost, simply misplaced. These articles are about what I found.