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Redefining to rescue Kyoto

KYOTO -- When people talk about traditional Kyoto culture, all the "a" verbs come out -- everyone appreciates it, everyone admires it, many adore it. So why is it disappearing so rapidly?

More importantly, can this trend be reversed?

Kyoto Mitate International is a new nonprofit organization tackling this pressing question in a relevant way for the gamut of Kyoto fans, from cultural cognoscenti to tourists seeking hopefully for the "real" Japan.

"Mitate" means "to select," "to judge," and in tea mitatemono denotes the discarded objects rescued by tea masters for their beauty and usefulness, giving them new lives. For Mitate International, this approach to Kyoto's traditions is key for revitalization.

Mitate will launch its new mission with a day of refined indulgence of the senses Nov. 12 at Hakusa Sonso, the exquisite Meiji Era villa of nihonga painter Kansetsu Hashimoto. From 2 to 6 pm, artistes and dilettantes alike can soak up the traditional harmony and beauty of Hakusa Sonso's garden and architecture. There will be live music on the shakuhachi and biwa and Edo Period nihon buyo dance, while guests may try their hand at tea ceremony, ikebana and calligraphy.

Note the hands-on opportunities available Nov. 12, and the small but significant element of choice, usually discouraged in a traditional Japanese environment, which nowadays tends to be formal. Under the aegis of Mitate, one can enjoy the arts at leisure and to the extent that one is interested. Mitate offers the best of Japanese culture combined with the contemporary "my pace" mentality, a synthesis with which many traditions are struggling.

For those interested in the social, economic, and political dynamics of what is happening to Kyoto's traditional culture, renowned author and critic Shuichi Kato will speak early in the afternoon.

Anyone who has spent time in Kyoto, the supposed mecca of traditional Japanese culture, is shocked not a little by its clunky urbscape, and the alarming decline of cultural traditions. With Japanese in general and Kyotoites in particular so proud of their unique and rich cultural history, how can this be?

"The practices of preservation and philanthropy are obvious to Americans, but not yet so to Japanese," explains Mitate chairman Marc Keane, a Kyoto-based landscape designer and author of the book, "Japanese Garden Design."

Mitate International is the progeny of the International Society to Save Kyoto, an all-volunteer group that worked for the conservation of tradition Kyoto for six years. With Mitate, the ISSK members decided to go to the next level: full-fledged status as a non-profit organization, with a full-time office and staff.

This means that Mitate can undertake rewarding projects for which ISSK never had the resources. This also means that people who would like to see Kyoto's traditions prosper have a locus for their interest and energy: Mitate's goals are to provide ways to help people learn more about traditional Japan, to cultivate both appreciation and conservation.

"The idea that a culturally sophisticated community is a healthy one is not very strong here," says Keane, elucidating the paradox that perplexes most visitors to Japan.

Fortunately for the general public, most of Mitate's projects are open to anyone, opening up some of the often-closed doors of tradition Kyoto culture.

For example, this month will see the first of a monthly series of tours of famous Kyoto machiya, or townhouses. Though machiya facades are considered a classic Kyoto scene (and are a favorite backdrop for Japanese TV dramas), these traditional wooden structures are under siege from high inheritance taxes and apartment complex developers.

This walking tour will visit several machiya, with stops to explore inside three particularly interesting examples. Knowledgeable guides will explain the features of the traditional design and aesthetics of the architecture and gardens.

The tour will also touch on the modern issues around machiya: what it is like to live in one, why contemporary urban planning does not incorporate machiya but how it could very easily do so. The tours will change every month, and may also be custom-made for groups coming to Kyoto.

Keane himself leads a hands-on course in traditional Japanese gardening at Hakusa Sonso, providing first-hand insight into the joys and challenges of maintaining a traditional Japanese home and garden.

Mitate International has a talented and erudite membership, including many international scholars and professionals, and their vision is ambitious. Hoping to locate in a machiya in the near future, members will refurbish it for comfortable modern living with traditional aesthetic harmony, making it a model for machiya residents who love their homes but are frustrated by the lack of modern comforts.

A teahouse in this machiya will provide a forum for Mitate issues, and serve teas from around the world, letting Japanese tea hold its own as visitors savor the global tea tradition.

Simply put, Kyoto Mitate International is a center for cultural events, education, and preservation, including networking, experimenting with new forms, and publishing -- all with a healthy dash of the refined savoir vivre at the heart of Japanese traditions.

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