Slow Kyoto

Slow City Kyoto

Online Feature by MARC P. KEANE
In 1986, as part of a general reaction to the onslaught of a globally-based, fast-food mentality that was eroding local cuisine and culture and, specifically, as a protest against plans to build a McDonalds in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna, Carlo Petrini, professor and food columnist, along with representatives from fifteen countries, founded the Slow Food movement. The purpose of the movement is to promote the joy, as well as ecology, of excellent, local cuisine. They now boast 100,000 members in 150 countries and organize a host of annual events around the world that center on reviving local food culture.

In July of 2000, an offshoot of the Slow Food movement was begun called Slow Cities. According to Slow Cities president, Paolo Saturnini, mayor of Greve-in-Chianti, Italy, the Slow Cities movement wants “to protect real cities. Speciality and particularity are our wealth. They enrich our civilization, they enrich our time, and they enrich our cities. We need to defend them.” The Slow Cities movement is in part about slowing down, as Petrini put it, about trying to “preserve us from the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency. This is what real culture is all about: developing taste rather than demeaning it.” Kyoto could stand to learn from that alone, to remember that it is not in the best interest of a cultural city, as Kyoto rightly claims to be, to urge for the greatest speed of life because cultures of any depth do not stem from speed and efficiency but from careful, slow work.

The removal of all the zelkova (keyaki) trees from Oike street comes to mind. They were cut down, or transplanted out, to allow for a new road design, one that would achieve maximum traffic flow; maximum speed. The designers, unfortunately, got what they wanted, a road that achieves transportation ideals but feels awful to walk along and is frightening for pedestrians to try to cross. Very clearly, speed does not equate with culture. But the Slow Cities movement is not only about regaining a slower pace of life. More importantly, the movement is about focusing on the merits of local culture — the “speciality and particularity” that Saturnini describes as the wealth of a city — and bringing those merits to the foreground in the life of the city. Simply put, the movement is about how to live a cultural existence by making the most of excellent, local culture.

Now the image of a convenience store comes to mind. Kyoto city has one of the highest concentrations of convenience stores per capita in Japan. This just stuns me. Of course convenience stores, with their cheap plastic signage and overly bright fluorescent lighting, are an eye-sore in any historic city, and for that reason alone they should be restricted by urban design codes, but that is not the reason that their quantity in Kyoto shocks me. Convenience stores pride themselves on their national uniformity. Walk into any one, from Sapporo to Kumamoto, and they offer the same selection of national-brand soft drinks, snacks, magazines, homegoods, and tasteless food. They incorporate no local culture. So what does it say about Kyoto, a city with 1200 years development of a “special and particular” culture, that it contains more of these stores that scorn local culture than any other city in Japan?

Of course there are explanations. Kyoto had a regulation forbidding large-scale stores (which, by the way, the mayor recently did away with). This was meant to protect the existng small mom-and-pop stores. Convenience stores, due to the small square-footage of individual shops (not the size of the parent company), were not governed by the regulation and without the competition of large-scale stores, they flourished. In fact, they flourished to the point of totally eradicating local mom-and-pop stores. The other reason given for why there are so many convenience stores in Kyoto is that Kyoto is a university town, and the college-student age group makes up the bulk of the patrons for convenience stores. But these reasons not withstanding, the incredible proliferation in Kyoto of convenience stores shows that the disruption of the townscape that they cause and the fact that they seem to disdain local culture, is not a big problem in the minds of the people in power who regulate the city nor the customers who frequent the shops.

The over-abundance of convenience stores in Kyoto only goes to highlight the importance of the Slow Cities ideology for Kyoto. The Slow Cities movement, having grown out of a food-oriented project, is still focused on local products and hospitality. That in itself is very important for Kyoto, but if we expand the venue to include architecture, gardens, music, clothing, and all the many, many other aspects of Kyoto culture, then we truly nurture Kyoto’s historic and cultural environment.

More information about the Slow Cities movement can be found at First click on “Slow Food in Italy and Worldwide,” then on “Slow Cities.” Also visit the Sloth Club Japan’s website:

The Slow Cities Charter

Take into account first and foremost the natural environment when maintaining and developing both the surrounding region and the urban fabric of your town, reclaiming and reusing what’s already there before building anything new.

Promote technology only if it improves your environment and urban fabric.

Promote the local production of healthy food that does no harm to the environment and that is not genetically modified, if necessary giving your local institutions the authority to safeguard the development of local products.

Safeguard local products that are rooted in your community’s culture and tradition and that contribute to making your town unique, including events and places that allow for direct contact between consumers and quality products.

Promote a kind of service industry that allows visitors real contact with your town and the things that make it special, removing physical and cultural obstacles that block this kind of contact.

Promote among townspeople (and not just those who work in the tourist trade) the knowledge of what makes your town unique, as well as the fact that your town has become a Slow City. This is particularly important among young people and in schools, where kids should be introduced to local, quality products.

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