Those of you sitting at home watching movies like Karate Kid II and Lost in Translation should know better. Yes, Japanese culture spawned rock gardens, Zen temples, samurai, and Godzilla (which, incidentally, I NEVER heard mention of in two years), but the country is hardly full of kimonoed girls and Zen masters on every corner. In big cities like Osaka, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka, you’d be hard-pressed to find even one feature one might associate with postcard-worthy Japan. This is good... but not exactly ideal, considering what the Japanese have put in its place.
Forty plus years ago, one could roam the Japanese countryside, enjoying the comforts of traditional ryokan and perhaps missing any developments one would find appropriate in an urban setting… the "old Japan", as it were. But, as Alex Kerr points out, a trend is emerging:
"...Japan has become arguably the world's ugliest country. To readers who know Japan from tourist brochures that feature Kyoto's temples and Mount Fuji, that may seem a surprising, even preposterous assumption. But those who live or travel here see the reality: the native forest cover has been clear-cut and replaced by industrial cedar, rivers are dammed and the seashore lined with cement, hills have been leveled to provide gravel fill for bays and harbors, mountains are honeycombed with destructive and useless roads, and rural villages have been submerged in a sea of industrial waste.
Similar observations can be made about many other modern nations, of course. But what is happening in Japan far surpasses anything attempted in the rest of the world. We are seeing something genuinely different here. The nation prospers, but the mountains and rivers are in mortal danger, and in their fate lies a story – one that heretofore has been almost entirely passed over by the foreign media."
Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan
And, as evidenced by my initial reaction to Osaka, one passed over by foreign eyes as well, caught up seeking the "old Japan" and ignoring everything else: power lines, cemented rivers, cramped buildings, unnecessary monuments...
"It's part of the phenomenon of foreigners' exotic dreams of Japan. Mason Florence says, 'People come to Japan seeking enchantment, and they are bound and determined to be enchanted. If you arrived in Paris or Rome and saw something like the new [Kyoto] station you would be utterly revolted, but for most foreigners coming to Kyoto it merely whets their appetite to find the old Japan they know must be there. When they finally get to Honen-In Temple and see a monk raking the gravel under maple trees, they say to themselves, "Yes it does exist. I’ve found it!" And their enthusiasm for Kyoto ever after knows no bounds. The minute the walk out of Honen-In they're back in the jumbly modern city, but it doesn't impinge on the retina – they're still looking at the dream.'"
Kyoto was spared bombing during the war, only to begin destroying itself 20 years later with the erection of the tower. As my only glance of the city came six months into my Japanese life, the quote above describes my feelings perfectly: "Wow, so this is modern Kyoto... now where can I find these scenic temples? Snow falling on wooden rooftops?"
Japan's construction state did start becoming more visible to me over time. In 2007, I visited Kurokawa Onsen village in Kumamoto Prefecture, which Lonely Planet describes as "a tiny, forgotten village that you’ve been lucky to stumble upon".
When I was there, this was still more or less true, but it was not to be for long – a new super hotel was being finished and is probably already open for business. The only non-ryokan style of lodging in the village, it is a beige box with no aesthetic value, interrupting the steady line of houses under ten meters tall. How long will it take the government to build another one?
I’m kind of spoiled in this regard, as I lived in one of the few parts of Japan where it is possible to get truly untouched onsen, and I have no real problem with the small, grey neighborhood onsen of Kagoshima, as long as the baths are big and the water stays hot and soothing.
This construction frenzy, however, isn't just about onsen or major urban centers like Kyoto; it’s dominating every corner of the country in an ironic attempt to sell Japan as a modern nation. In doing so, it becomes one of the ugliest, but is still rather unique, in that no one has ever seen a country go to such great efforts to pave over its natural beauty. About 40% of Japan's trees have been replaced with sugi (cedar, also plentiful on Yakushima). Tetrapods line over half of what was once natural sand beaches, under the pretense of preventing erosion (in fact, causing more).
Newbie foreigners take all of this in stride, having never known the quaint pleasure of a Japanese village in anything other than photographs, as disconnected from them as knights, castles, and chivalry are from Europeans; they see Japan and force themselves to think "modern, modern, modern", and it blinds them to what could be, what should be...
"…in Japan, beauty no long comes easy; you have to work hard to see it."
To illustrate this better, let’s try a little exercise. Try to take a picture of a truly "Japanesey" sight and tell me how much you had to crop out to make it even remotely beautiful. Mt. Fuji doesn’t count.