Climate Change of the Everyday: Kyoto & The Kurama-dera Temple

A panoramic of the battered landscape of Kurama-dera. The water from typhoon rushed down the mountainside with violent force creating an avalanche of felled trees and destroyed ancient shrines that are such an important part of the cultural heritage of Kyoto.

A panoramic of the battered landscape of Kurama-dera. The water from typhoon rushed down the mountainside with violent force creating an avalanche of felled trees and destroyed ancient shrines that are such an important part of the cultural heritage of Kyoto.

On my last day in Kyoto on a 2018 tripI took a little one car train to the base of the mountains to visit the  Kurama-dera temple and then have a bath in an onsen that looked out onto the surrounding mountains. The temple was magnificent, both earthy and regal and the bath refreshing. On vacation, I simply wanted to visit this temple as a friend with impeccable taste recommended I go there. When I arrived I was greeted with a site I had not expected to see but had witnessed many times before in my climate change coverage. Weeks before typhoon 25 had passed through the region and left a wide swath of destruction in its wake. Little was spoken about what happened and no tourists had been warned what they might see upon their arrival to the temple. As the tourists, myself included, walked around there was shock and sadness all around. Kyoto’s cultural gems were breaking apart due to climate change.

As I walked through the destruction I thought back to the Kyoto protocol, signed in 1992, and how precient the choosing of Kyoto, the city of great cultural heritage and ecological vulnerability, was. The very destruction that the city of Kyoto hoped to avoid was falling upon it with great consequence. From the eroding ruins of Viking expeditions in Scotland to the damage caused in Kyoto our rich human past is eroding away.

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Since Kyoto I’ve seen other small changes that rarely make the news, but taken together represent the large scale shifts we’re seeing because of climate change. What interested me here was that, in Kyoto, these shifts are now just blending themselves into daily life. The destruction that was all around us became a backdrop to the day an oddity that reminded us that something major had just happened, but on a sunny day with the temple half opened the destruction did not take center stage but played a secondary role. Unlike the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011 or the recent hurricanes in the US the cyclone that swept through the region did not obliterate in entirety, but did cause great damage. When I contemplate the future, these larger than normal events, will continue to punctuate our daily lives and in many ways define how we live our lives. Taken together these small scale events will cost billions and disrupt just as many people’s lives.

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On the way down the mountain in a small cable car a deep sense of sadness overtook the people in the tram. As we descended on both sides of the tram the avalanche of dead trees that once constituted a living breathing forest was all encompassing. As the poet Dante descended into his hell I felt that we were descending into an ecological hell of our own making.

On the way down the mountain in a small cable car a deep sense of sadness overtook the people in the tram. As we descended on both sides of the tram the avalanche of dead trees that once constituted a living breathing forest was all encompassing. As the poet Dante descended into his hell I felt that we were descending into an ecological hell of our own making.

An avalanche of destruction following typhoon 25.

An avalanche of destruction following typhoon 25.

The battered landscape of Kurama-dera. The water from typhoon rushed down the mountainside with violent force creating an avalanche of felled trees and destroyed ancient shrines that is such an important part of the cultural heritage of Kyoto.

The battered landscape of Kurama-dera. The water from typhoon rushed down the mountainside with violent force creating an avalanche of felled trees and destroyed ancient shrines that is such an important part of the cultural heritage of Kyoto.

Our shared cultural heritage is threatened by climate change.

Our shared cultural heritage is threatened by climate change.

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The interior of a home along a hiking trail that was destroyed when an avalanche of water ran down the hill overwhelming everything in its path. Japan’s prime minister said: “Unprecedented  torrential rain  and landslides ravaged the residents of western  Japan  this summer, killing more than 200 people, and ruining hundreds of thousands of livelihoods.”

The interior of a home along a hiking trail that was destroyed when an avalanche of water ran down the hill overwhelming everything in its path. Japan’s prime minister said: “Unprecedented torrential rain and landslides ravaged the residents of western Japan this summer, killing more than 200 people, and ruining hundreds of thousands of livelihoods.”

Following typhoon 25 Shinzo Abe broke his silence in addressing Japan’s challenges as it relates to climate change stating in the Financial Times that “Japan will preside over the G20 next year and focus on accelerating the virtuous cycle of environmental protection and economic growth.” Writing about and presiding over the G20 with the environment in mind are important, however the dialogue must continue and that means that the public needs the knowledge to distinguish what is unfolding all around them.

Kurama-dera was lucky to have survived the worst. Its main structures were mostly untouched. But as the trees fall all around us, we’re eroding the ground that supports the place of our prayers, the shrines of people’s ancestors and the traditions associated with these rich lands.

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I had only a short time to get to know Kyoto and I want to get to know it further. I fear that the wonderful gardens, ancient buildings and temples that I visited will all be washed away by climate change. And for the generations coming after us, if we are to hand off this planet and the cultural gems such as Kyoto to them, solutions must be implemented now. In order for that to happen an informed, engaged and concerned public is essential.

An ancient tree still stands where many others fell.

An ancient tree still stands where many others fell.

A day before my trip to the mountains I visited many such gardens, beautifully interact behind temple walls. Behind the walls they became a symbol for me, precious little enclosed gems protected from much of the outside world. However as the winds and rains become fiercer the walls are a false sense of security.

A day before my trip to the mountains I visited many such gardens, beautifully interact behind temple walls. Behind the walls they became a symbol for me, precious little enclosed gems protected from much of the outside world. However as the winds and rains become fiercer the walls are a false sense of security.

Jake Price