Lessons from Kyoto

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Kyoto is a popular destination in Japan for appreciating cherry blossoms with the backdrop of temples that are UNESCO listed world heritage sites. This was a place I’ve always wanted to visit, and it is most certainly something that checks off the bucket list for me. Kyoto was also known as the Capital of Japan for more than 1000 years, a home for more than 2000 temples & shrines and the only place on the planet where you can find just about anything infused with matcha. Cookies, chocolate, beer, noodle, and even gyoza, all turned green.

Match anyone?

As I was sipping coffee on tatami in the first traditional Japanese house converted to a Starbucks in Ninenzaki, a building that took over 10 years to complete, I came to learn that during World War II, Kyoto was on the top of the list of targeted cities by the US. Designated for destruction ahead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with an atomic bomb, with the latter not even on the original listing, Kyoto managed to escape this misfortune because of one man, the Secretary of War Mr. Henry Stimson.

Initially, Kyoto was seen as the ideal target for such a weapon as the A-bomb because it was thought with the universities located there, the educated people would understand that this was not just any weapon, but something that was designed to stop the war there and then. Cold War tensions were already starting to rise with Russia which also played a part in the decision to preserve Kyoto with Mr. Stimson writing in his diary after a meeting with President Truman;

“He was particularly emphatic in agreeing with my suggestion that if elimination was not done, the bitterness which would be caused by such a wanton act might make it impossible during the long post-war period to reconcile the Japanese to us in that area rather than to the Russians.”

Henry Stimson

Henry Stimson was also thought to be personally motivated for the preservation of Kyoto. Hundreds of thousands of people died in those atomic bombings with the other two devastated cities also have a claim to being culturally sensitive sites and providing valuable assets to the psyche of Japan. As it turns out, Henry had been the governor of the Philippines for a time and was thought to have honeymooned in Kyoto. Maybe William Congreve was right when he wrote in his 1697 poem “No hell like a woman scorned.” Nagasaki may very well think so.

Despite being controversial at the time, this man was the reason Kyoto was able to preserve her cultural heritage and legacy.

In my opinion, we may not have another World War. Today’s wars seem to be religiously or commercially motivated. The middle east for its oil, Muslim mosques targeted by motivationally confused radicals and terrorists learning to fly with no thought of ever landing. It feels like our politicians are now fully invested in holding their jobs and acting on the direction of the voice that will win them the most votes, regardless of what transpires through their wedge politics.

In this world of disposability, heritage and businesses alike are being destroyed or disrupted every day in the name of religion or by technology. The only thing that continues to carry on for any longevity is hardly anything physical. Think of the largest companies in the world, Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, all digital platforms that contribute to an evolving changing face of the world we live in. It makes you wonder if Kyoto would have survived had the same discussion about preserving her taken place today.

Starbucks Kyoto

If we think about our evolving world in the context of a nation like Japan. I have to wonder what the future holds. The spirit and values that have been passed down from generation to generation. Their hardworking and devoted workforce is paying attention to detail and striving for perfection, taking great pride in their occupation, regardless of their station on the hierarchical tree of importance. Taxi drivers wear suit and tie, the cleaners are impeccable with their attention to detail. It is these values; commitment, pride, community and belief in something bigger than themselves, that has been inherited from generations past that serve to empower, preserve and recreate their cultural legacy.

Harajuku Girl

In stark contrast, the Harajuku girls, Tokyo Cosplay and anime addiction are leading the proud nation of Japan in a very different direction. As much as I loved and am loyal to Kyoto and all it stands for, I have sensational memories of dressing up as Mario and driving a cart through the busy streets of Akihabara. I have to say this also ticked off another item on the bucket list.

Kyoto taught me there is no place like Japan on earth. On more than one occasion I found myself thinking “Toto, I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore”. I look forward to returning, but on the next trip, I definitely will not be indulging in the matcha infused beer. I am very grateful to Mr. Stimson and President Truman, but my heart hurts at the tragic loss of life and the sheer enormity of the act of what transpired.

I’d love to hear about your experiences from Japan or how you feel about matcha, and as always, please subscribe below.


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