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Vernacular Atmosphere

                  Jessica Von Wendel

                I step off the train and enter Osaka.  I am standing in the midst of ten Japanese students who are taking me around the city.  They speak English fairly well, and I already get the impression of how much Japan is like America.  I hear English instead of Japanese, we are dressed in the same type of clothes (although they are more fashionable), and we talk about the things that we both know, like television and movie stars.  However, we are very different.  They have retained Japanese customs despite being modernized.  The city itself is the same.  It contains both transnational urbanism and vernacular architecture and history.  Here is a cityscape of vast contrasts full of international influence. 

                Japan has been able to preserve a very ancient history despite becoming one of the most modern nations in the world.  The old and the new are juxtaposed right next to each other.  In one photo I captured the skyscrapers of downtown Osaka with a traditional temple building in the midst of a forest in the foreground.  Two seemingly opposites, yet the vernacular temple and transnational urban city are almost complimentary to each other. 

                This same traditional temple might be called vernacular when compared to a skyscraper, but in comparison with its immediate surroundings it actually becomes the new transnational.  Osaka castle was burned down and has been recently rebuilt adding an elevator and fresh paint.  It lost its originality and is more of a high tech museum enclosed within a shell of the ancient ideal.  Surrounding the castle are woods.  As we walked through them, I noticed large blue tarps tied to trees.  My friends explained that this was one of the biggest tent cities for Osaka’s homeless.  However, these were not simple tents; these were two bedroom townhouses, complete with a covered cooking area.  In social scientist, Takashi Makimura’s article, "The Urban Restructuring Process in Tokyo in the 1980s: Transforming Tokyo into a World City" he discusses sociospatial transformations resulting from globalization that have influenced residential recomposition and displacement.  It is possible that these homeless communities are the result of urban transnationalism that pushed them out of their old communities.

                These homeless constructions in the middle of a forest at the base of a castle became the vernacular; old and recycled to shelter the inhabitants from the elements, but more real than a new make-believe, urbanized, fortress. 

                At another temple in Kyoto, the atmosphere was ancient and mystical.  Religious rituals were being performed, incense was burning and the structure itself invoked a sense of awe.  I looked to my left and ten feet away sat a souvenir stand and the atmosphere faded.  All the way up the hill were little shops selling everything from good luck charms, bowls, Buddha statues, fortunes, and decorative chopsticks.  How had the introduction of these little shops affected the overall meaning of making a visit to this sacred site?   Buddhism itself preaches against desire and materialism yet here were shops making money selling trinkets to visitors. 

                Everywhere in Japan I saw the vernacular and the transnational intermingled.  In America we say that we are a completely modernized nation.  In Japan the process is still under way.  The remains of the past are still tucked away trying to hold on as new cities sweep in and business booms.  Most assume that modernization is an inevitable end to progress.  While the vernacular temples are protected as heritage sites, that doesn’t stop their impact from being lost in the transition. 

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