Amidst the bustle of modern Kyoto lies a world of vermillion Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples gilt with tarnished patinas of bronze and gold, flaking with age and the effects of the tempestuous seasons. This year, I visited Kyoto at the height of summer. In August, Japan is not spared from the vicious heat. I could feel the land sag under the pounding of the sun’s rays. It is said, however, that the temples of Japan offer solace for the weary traveler in all seasons, offering shade and a meditative space in which to escape the strictures of the world. According to guidebooks and websites, these places are oases of calm tucked away amidst the bustle of quotidian existence.
Needless to say, however, that this glimmering vision is, at times, not quite borne out by reality. To step into a Buddhist temple in Kyoto is not quite the transcendent experience it is made out to be. First, of course, there are the often exorbitant entrance fees. Second are the crowds of tourists from all over the world, in their little flag-waving tour groups, jockeying and hustling for position at an appropriately photogenic spot where they grimace at a camera whilst chattering excitedly to themselves before being whisked away to another destination. Third are the endless “entry prohibited” signs and carefully placed barriers that shunt sightseers along a safe, well-defined route, like a dungeon crawl in some sword and sorcery RPG. Lastly, the stalls at the end point selling a variety of overpriced and vaguely relevant souvenirs: temple charms, sweets and trinkets. In a world like that, how is solace to be found amidst beauty?
You see, travelling is an aesthetic experience. The tourist is the visitor to the vast museum of the sightseeing destination. The temples and shrines of Kyoto are art. The distinction of tourism as a form of artistic appreciation is that art is often interactive; photo-taking lets the aesthete take back and isolate pieces of the art, and the freedom to explore the area lets the aesthete define his or her own, unique path of experience. And the art piece itself is, of course, of the greatest importance; it is art because of its exceptional and transcendental beauty, be it a natural landscape, a building or an experience.
As a form of artistic appreciation, however, sightseeing has its own dark side. Art is inextricable from power and money. The best art is sold for millions to the highest bidder. Deciding what is good art is often not so much a democratic process, as it is decided by a cabal of self-declared experts who dictate what is worth seeing and what isn’t, by their own byzantine criteria of selection. How does one decide whether the resplendent Kinkaku-ji, a golden pavilion that appears to float over a beautiful pond, deserves to be designated a UNESCO world heritage site, when the mysterious and alluring maze of torii gate pathways that is the Fushimi Inari shrine isn’t? Having been designated sites of special beauty, they open the floodgates to thousands of tourists, generating opportunities for economic gain through the selling of trinkets and souvenirs, and the charging of entrance fees. Finally, they make it necessary for the immense volume of visitors to be channeled along a strictly defined path so as to avoid congestion and despoiling the attraction. It becomes a self-reinforcing cycle: tourists, faced with a dearth of information, turn to guidebooks that invariably highlight the most famous and glamorized sites, generating further income flows.
The worst part is that any traveler, myself included, is part of the problem. These places belong to the world, and as such everyone has as much of a right as I do to see them. But the act of opening up these places of beauty is to besmirch them, to turn them into less than they are, to transform the transcendent experience into one less profound. The alternative — limiting these attractions to a select few, whether through exorbitant fees or a draconian application process — creates toll gates from which the powerful can potentially screen supplicants based on their political or economic clout. That is a worse solution.
Of course, one could suggest visiting these places in their off-peak seasons, or visiting less well-known temples and shrines. But that, too, is a diminishing of the experience. Say what you will about aesthetic beauty being accessible even in the most everyday places, but I believe that the unique brand of aesthetic beauty that is the holy grail of the sightseer is found less in the commonplace, but in the exceptional. Otherwise, why travel when one can appreciate the everyday beauty around himself or herself? Likewise, in a place like Kyoto, where temples and gardens are placed in a hierarchy of beauty, the most beautiful, grand or transcendent experiences are almost invariably the most visited.
What’s a sightseer to do? The very act of aesthetic appreciation sullies the art that is being appreciated, like an artsy version of the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle. One way or another, there is no escape from this catch-22, at least in a much-visited destination like Kyoto. Of course, there are pockets of wild beauty in the world that are inaccessible by the average sightseer. I’ll grant you that. But of course, there’s the eternal lament of the traveler: if it weren’t that difficult to get to, I’d be going already.