Texture And Memory
Japan is sometimes accused of not doing enough to preserve its visual and architectural heritage, making the ancient ugly with garish signs and decoration or tearing down buildings considered to have some historic or aesthetic value. The recent closure of the Hotel Okura in Tokyo brought a lot of criticism, not just from fans of […]
Japan is sometimes accused of not doing enough to preserve its visual and architectural heritage, making the ancient ugly with garish signs and decoration or tearing down buildings considered to have some historic or aesthetic value. The recent closure of the Hotel Okura in Tokyo brought a lot of criticism, not just from fans of modernist architecture, but from lovers of Japanese design.
The Tendency To Tear Down
The willingness to tear down the old to make way for the new really came to prominence during the Meiji restoration, which began in 1868, when Japan entered a phase of rapid renewal and modernisation. From 1872 to 1914, silk production went up 1200%, while the number of merchant steamships went from 26 to over 1500 and the length of rail track rose from 26km to 11400km. A lot of old buildings made way for new structures and many products came in from overseas, from food to furniture, changing aspects of Japanese life.
But, in a way, the symbolic destruction of the old had deeper roots. During the Edo Period, when Japan was ruled by a series of Shoguns. Castles, for example, were routinely torn down when considered no longer of use, partly as acts of political power. While walking the Nakasendo Way, I passed the town of Tsamago, where the nearby fortress was torn down in the early 17th century, because it was considered a threat to travellers on the way and also to national unity.
A short distance from that ruin was the sign you see at the top of this post, marking the effort to preserve old buildings in the area. While we can no longer see the old Tsumago Castle, we can see other impressive buildings in the area and the conservation of the post towns gives their streets such a remarkably un-modern look (helped by the absence of advertising and overhead wires) that you often feel unnervingly like you’ve stumbled onto the set of a period film.
Memory And Texture In A Matsumoto Cafe
I was pondering all this while seated in a cafe in Matsumoto, a few blocks away from the historic old Crow’s Castle, an impressive old black and white keep that is now a famous tourist attraction but, at several points in its past, was also destined for demolition.
The cafe was in a quaint, mostly historic, though recently gentrified riverside shopping district. In many ways, it’s typical of the trend amongst hip, young cafes here; plenty of wood and metal giving off an industrial vibe that softened b touches of mid century Californian modernism and ever so tasteful decorative touches, mostly using antique or recycled materials (like a wooden shipping pallet turned into a plant holder na magazine rack).
As I ran my hand over the rough hewn wood used for the tables, I was reminded how much of a role texture still plays in contemporary Japanese life. Texture is the memory a material possesses, the way it recalls the journey from raw material to processed form. When we become aware of the texture of a thing, we connect with its provenance, where it comes from, as well as its style and design, the way it was made.
Classic Style In The Shadow Of Mount Ontake
Two days before that cafe experience, I was walking through some of the quietest valleys I’ve experienced in Japan, along outrageously green and lush paths that seemed intent on reclaiming every human effort to make a mark back into themselves, with plants and moss slowly consuming markers, pavers and even path side furniture.
Eventually, I made my way out to a small road that led to a valley with a majestic view of Mt Ontake. In the valley there was a quaint cafe and the owner took an interest in my FujiFilm x100s camera. He asked if it was new, since it looked like a film career. I replied that it was, in fact, a digital camera and he said, “yes, with a classic style.”
This sensitivity to “classic style” is something I find all over Japan. New things, made with an older style, perhaps with an older technology, or in a way that is reminiscent of an older age.
Classic style is kind of like preservation. It isn’t keeping things for the sake of keeping them, but remaking them in a way that sustains a sense of identity, or tradition. The classic style can actually be renewed and reinterpreted from generation to generation. It’s permanent, but not fixed. It’s as much an idea as it is something we can hold in our hands.