Kyoto's Urban Heritage


Christoph Brumann, professor of anthropology at the University of Cologne, seeks Kyoto's heritage beyond museum walls.

"Something original has to be done to make their continued existence viable and meaningful."

The city of Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital, was spared from the U.S. bombing during World War II. Today it boasts some of Japan's oldest buildings, temples and customs that attract tourists from around the globe. Christoph Brumann wandered beyond the obvious tourist spots to talk to Kyoto's natives and discovered some of the ways that citizens today are keeping their heritage alive. He presented two cases at a colloquium sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center on Nov. 24, 2008.

The Kyomachiya Boom

The Kyomachiya, the Kyoto town houses, are large traditional houses made of wood, straw and paper. They house up to 2,000 people and are known for their small inner gardens which are appreciated because they reflect Japan's four seasons. The kyomachiya survived World War II only to face extinction in the postwar period when smaller families meant less space was needed and it became costly to maintain or fit the houses with modern day conveniences. Many were torn down in favor of more cost efficient high rises. Kyoto's citizens changed that in the 1990s by pushing to preserve the town houses. To this day the movement continues through the efforts of "private individuals, families and small to medium sized companies who own or rent the houses and the small scale architectural and craft firms who repair and renovate them."

Some houses undergo "freezing preservation," that is retaining as much of the original features as possible. These houses are often used for exhibitions, lectures or other cultural activities such as tea ceremony or other lessons. Other renovators agreed that "something original has to be done to make their continued existence viable and meaningful." Today many renovated town houses serve as cafes, restaurants, shops, and galleries, to name just a few.

Gion Festival

The Gion Matsuri, or Gion festival, has been performed in Japan since the tenth-century. The festival's highlight, the float parade, takes place on July 17th. Kyoto's citizens build the 32 floats paraded through the streets every year. "In five centuries, the names, topics and appearance of the floats have changed only in tiny details making for a spectacular case of cultural continuity," said Brumann. Since the festival is already recognized as cultural heritage, preservation is not a concern, though the motivation behind the festival has changed somewhat. These days few of Kyoto's citizens believe the festival helps to protect the city against illnesses as their ancestors believed. These days, the motivation is fun; as suggested by the prominence of the float parade which once started as a side show for the deities, but is now the festival's most popular feature.

Presently, the Japanese government subsidizes festival costs and a standing committee established by the National Agency for Cultural Affairs supervises the preparations. The festival, however, is primarily run by the citizens of Kyoto. The floats are large enough to seat up to 60 musicians and they are pulled by 30 to 40 volunteers through the streets on the day of the parade. "Participants take great care to observe everything is as is also by preparing photographic documentation of festival displays and detailed manuals which are then used for the next year to reproduce everything faithfully," Brumann explained. However, while the appearance of the floats stays the same, a few details have changed. The originally small parade has grown, the parade route switched to larger streets to accomodate more spectators, and when not enough citizens live in neighborhoods responsible for the floats, local businesses have stepped up to plate.

In 2001, one neighborhood violated the taboo on female participation by secretly allowing two girls to join the musicians riding on their float. Instead of issuing punishment, authorities announced that the neighborhoods involved could decide whether or not they would allow females to participate. While there is no rule against non-Japanese participants their numbers have also grown in more recent years.

In both cases, Kyoto's citizens are preserving these traditional aspects of Japanese life and not academics or formal organizations. Brumann hopes their example will help clear academic assumptions by demonstrating that heritage is more than frozen relics behind museum walls.

Published: Thursday, January 22, 2009