Thursday, September 4, 2008

Looking for Old Japan

The Japan Lady Isabella Bird visited in 1878 is gone. One can visit it in books and pictures, but there's almost nothing else left. World War II was unbelievably destructive, but before that the 1923 earthquake, the 1868 Meiji restoration, and any number of other fires and earthquakes had demolished swathes of the country.

Last winter I discussed my difficulties with the issue in Vienna* and Munich and Paris. Tokyo is even harder to think about - the Incurable Logophile mentioned this in a comment way back then. Almost everything in Tokyo is new, and even the old places are only old in certain respects. The Senso-ji Shrine in the Asakusa neighborhood, for example, dates from the 7th century. But the visitor won't find a scrap that old. Almost everything dates from the 1950s, or later. Actually, I think the two demon statues in the photo of the Treasure House Gate are pretty old. Not 7th century, though!

The Senso-ji Shrine is a functioning place of worship, visited by millions. It's kept freshly painted. Additions or changes are made every once in a while. It's not a museum. The visitor needs to mesh the history of the place with its current life.

I visited a samurai castle in the small city of Odiwara that I knew, the instant I saw it, was a restoration. The culprit here was not the Americans but the Meiji emperor, tearing down the centers of samurai power in the 1870s. The current building dates from the 1950s, and only the outside was restored - inside it was a museum of historical artifacts, mostly regional samurai stuff.

I'm not complaining. The world moves on. That's Yokohama Bay to the left - can you imagine Commodore Perry's black ships there, opening Japan to the outside world? I can't, not really. But I was looking for Japan's past, so I tried.

* See praymont's series of posts on cafés in Vienna. He did his homework. Vienna has chosen to freeze parts of itself in the Belle Epoque - a fine choice! - and as a result a certain slice of the past is always with the visitor. Tokyo does not work that way.

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