Urban Kyoto tries on an old look

New rules seek to chop off decades of runaway buildup

by Eric Johnston

KYOTO — First-time visitors to the ancient capital of Kyoto usually arrive expecting to see quiet temples and rock gardens or an abundance of old wooden buildings set against the backdrop of the surrounding mountains.

Those things exist, of course. But decades of rampant urban development means the visitor must stroll through the ancient temples while mentally blocking out the tall modern buildings that surround them or squint past the flashing neon signs of modern downtown Kyoto in order to clearly see the mountainsides.

In the coming years, though, visitors may finally be able to enjoy the Kyoto one sees in the travel brochures. In mid-March, the city passed a series of ordinances limiting the height of new or renovated commercial buildings in the downtown area to 31 meters, or roughly 10 stories. The current height limit is 45 meters.

Buildings in other parts of the city that are designated mixed commercial-residential areas will have to lower their heights from the current maximum of 31 meters to 15 meters, or roughly five stories.

Rooftop advertising and flashing neon signs will also be banned, and restrictions placed on the color, shape and architectural design of new or renovated buildings to create a less flashy, more subdued urban atmosphere that looks, according to a City Hall bureaucrat, less like modern Tokyo or Osaka and more like traditional Kyoto.

The new ordinances will go into effect Sept. 1 and all buildings are expected to comply with the new regulations within seven years. Kyoto estimates that about 1,800 buildings in all will have to be modified to conform to the new restrictions.

The new regulations come at a time when Kyoto officials are finally paying attention to a problem they turned a blind eye to for years: urban blight and the destruction of Kyoto’s natural environment.

During the late 1980s and 1990s, concerned Japanese and local foreign residents sounded the alarm over the construction frenzy. Ancient two-story wooden buildings known as “machiya” were torn down within days and replaced by glass and chrome high-rises as the landowners cashed in on the inflated land prices of the bubble economy years.

Owners who didn’t want to sell were sometimes harassed into giving up their property by yakuza thugs or goons hired by construction companies.

In 1994, the 66-meter-high Kyoto Hotel, which is more than 20 meters higher than the official limit, opened right beside City Hall, arousing strong opposition from a group of Kyoto Buddhist monks, who went so far as to take out an ad in The New York Times asking for international support in halting the project because it would spoil the view.

The controversy over the hotel, along with the Kyoto Station building, which opened in 1997 and was praised as sleek and modern by some and cold and grotesque by others, forced Kyoto to begin re-examining its policies.

By the late 1990s, a drop in the annual number of tourists visiting Kyoto was also a point of concern among local business leaders, even as the city’s international profile received a great boost after the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol on the environment in December 1997.

The new ordinances, as well as a separate one taking effect Sunday that requires buildings on plots of 1,000 sq. meters or more to have rooftop gardens, are signs that City Hall is more serious about preserving Kyoto’s natural and visual environment than it’s ever been.

Kyoto’s tourism industry also welcomes the new restrictions. Over 47 million people, including 730,000 foreigners, visited Kyoto in 2005 and expectations are that the ordinances will help attract even more tourists in the future.

But is it too late? Long-term residents agree most of Kyoto’s traditional ambience has already gone.

John Einarsen, the founding editor of the quarterly magazine Kyoto Journal, which has long campaigned for a variety of measures to preserve and restore Kyoto’s aesthetic beauty, was ambivalent about the new ordinances.

“The new height limits will not affect the views or aesthetics, as most of the buildings in the downtown area of Karasuma-Sanjo are already 10 stories high. However, it may keep out the architectural monstrosities that are so ghastly in other parts of Japan,” he said.