Sydney’s concerns with urban density, congestion and environmental issues were brought into perspective on my recent visit to Japan, where the concepts of living in both city and regional areas take on new levels of meaning. From the natural wonderland of Nagano Prefecture (for a skiing indulgence in Hakuba and side trip to visit a Macaque ‘snow monkey’ onsen) down to the sprawling megacity of Tokyo, then a cultural shift to Naoshima Island on the Seto Inland Sea, and to the former imperial capital of Kyoto, it was fascinating to see how a population more than 5 times that of Australia exists in a land area that is just 5% of ours!
Yes there are many reasons for this huge disparity, but the capacity for efficient utilisation of available land and resources along with fast, clean public transport was a revelation. A Shinkhansen bullet train has to be experienced to be believed for the sheer pleasure of being transported smoothly in comfort at 320km per hour, giving access to major cities and regional towns along the spine of Honshu and Shikoku with some amazing scenery along the way. Fast train talk again seems to be evident here, and if ‘value capture’ evident in Japan was to be applied here there might at last be a vision to link Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne with a few regional stops on the way.
At the other end of the transport spectrum, many bicycle riders without helmets or Lycra are free to share footpaths with pedestrians, thereby diminishing car numbers and road conflict – and the culture of communal respect seemed to nurture an awareness of the need for tolerance. Order in the public domain, no rubbish or graffiti, pride in presentation and operational efficiency were also evident as spin offs of a Japanese capacity to think and act with consideration of the individual responsibility in helping to maintain communal harmony – but this did not carry through in many narrow streets where an overhead jungle of cables was seemingly at odds with the high-tech, innovative image of Japan.
Looking past social issues, degrees of self-sacrifice and certain demographic peculiarities that stymie what our western values hold as freedom of expression, there is such a strong sense of the aesthetic values in fashion, design, presentation and customer service. From the qualities of Prada or Issey Miyake stores in Aoyama to main street shops of Kyoto or laneways leading to a Buddhist temple in Nagano, pride in the product and engagement with the market seemed of paramount importance.
Transferring this perception to the architectural sphere, it was hard to not be impressed by the way architect Tadao Ando has crafted spaces for artworks by international and local artists on Naoshima. The Chichu Museum dedicates special spaces (among others) to the last of Claude Monet’s water lily series and several James Turrell light-works, while the Benesse House Museum where we stayed is woven around numerous works by the likes of Christo, Stella, Giacometti and Sugimoto. Elsewhere several site-specific sculptural installations continued the sort of place-worship sensibility common to the native Shinto religion, and also evident in many Zen-crafted gardens of Buddhist temples.
Such landscaped grounds in Kinkaku-ji (home of the Golden Pavilion) and Ginkaku-ji Temples in Kyoto were evidence of the Japanese appreciation of a spiritual world translated into the natural environment. Maintaining and caring for these gardens is very labour intensive, but this is where employment of elders in the community and other low-tech public services keeps them engaged and active in paid duties rather than on a pension – likely a step too far for our work and retire ethos, but perhaps necessary with their population in decline at less than 1.5 births per family.
This aging population also includes artisans who carry on traditional crafts, some such as indigo dyeing that date back almost 1,000 years. A visit to the Kyoto studio Aizen Kobo in the textile district revealed a 3rd generation business producing a range of vibrant indigo hued fabrics that are exported world-wide from a humble shop-house that would fit within a small suburban Sydney block – subject of course to different planning controls!
In a land of contradictions where egalitarian urban life seems to endure many pressures, Japan may offer more than a few clues to how a future Sydney might consider dealing with so many challenges ahead – with a bit of Zen to help us on the journey!
This article appeared in the Lane Cove local paper, The Village Observer.