I find Japan to be a land of fascinating contrasts and its mountainous landscape gives rise to many of them. Near vertical mountains are densely populated with trees, birds and occasionally idyllic rural farm houses etc. In contrast the narrow coastal strips (which are often so close you could throw a stone at them) are home to high density, utterly efficient, modern living. And yet they are worlds apart. The very close proximity of one to the other was both reassuring and at times odd. Rice was being hand planted in fields as the Shinkansen (fast train) whizzed by at several hundred kilometres an hour. Kyoto continues to nurture the ancient artisan traditions but is a major centre of electronics manufacturing. McDonald’s and 700 year old restaurants co-exist.
We were even lucky enough to stay in a renovated home in Kyoto which was a stunning example of old and new co-existing harmoniously. Old timbers and features strikingly highlighted by the boldly new. Geoffry Moussas was the architect and I’m keen to follow up his work.
I loved that we never had to go far to get our dose of trees. In fact we stumbled across them a number of times in completely unexpected places. In Hiroshima across from the port was a tiny island. It turned out to be largely beautiful, dense forest. Strangely it wasn’t mentioned in any tourist literature at all but was a highlight of stay. You could have been miles from the city but the reality was a distance our nearly 3 year old was happy to walk. Who would have thought this was possible?
Whilst the suburb-scape of the cities could rarely be described as pretty I was constantly pulling out my camera to photograph yet another beautiful little vignette. A bonsai on a step. A red door frame contrasting a plan facade. A discreet sign or door plate. Within the crowded city people still found abundant opportunities to create beauty and put their stamp on the environment. The lively creative spirit in even the dullest places was really inspiring. It was a great reminder that even tiny tweaks can utterly transform something mundane into a thing of beauty.
It seems the Japanese have made an art of both mass production and bespoke detail. Very impressive. Of course kimonos are a brilliant example of this. Each one follows a standard design and is made with panels of fabric in a standard width. There are millions of them and have been for decades. Yet each is folded and stitched to fit the individual. Many are hand painted. Most are hand stitched.
So to home – Manila. The world’s mostly densely populated city. Also a place of many contrasts and contradictions ….