Ruins mark the space where something used to be: A castle, a government office, a police barracks. They outline a history, in the vaguest possible terms, of what was once worth something.
Growing up in a variety of batshit-crazy religions conditioned me to believe that if the container is gone, so is the essence. The body dies and the soul leaves. You drink out the Coke and you toss out the bottle. But in Japan, ruins mark a different relationship to decline and disappearance.
I can walk up a hill outside my house to stone stairs that stop abruptly on a platform covered with wild grass. There’s an abandoned playground to the side; an owl weather vane and then more stairs, which lead to (barely) a path in the forest and then, deeper in, a stone turned tall, written with a 1,000-year inscription in Kanji that I can’t read and which (for that reason alone) I imagine to contain some incredibly profound wisdom of the east.
I could hear thunder rumbling off by the city. Closer, the desperate chirping of dwindling and horny cicadas, the rustling of wind through trees, chanting monks and crowds of men cheering for a baseball game, the digital beeps of the railroad crossing. The only thing missing was an old man asking if I would accept a quest.
This scene, from “Funky Forest,” is a solid approximation. In Japan, if you aren’t too jaded or cynical about westerners “commuting with nature” in “Zen temples” like “douchebags,” you may be able to experience something simultaneously primal and simple, modern and overwhelming, and connective: A sense of peace that comes from man-made sounds invading the otherwise isolated natural world.
Growing up in America, where nature is a distinct and separate “other,” I could enjoy nature when we “went” hiking or camping. Nature was a planned event: Segregated, gone to and not gone through. In Japan, nature is thicker. It pushes up stones on the sidewalk, it floods canals, it sends boiling water out of stones. You feel like a tree when you sweat. And once a week, the local news reports on a monkey attack.
For this reason, I presume, the ruins of public spaces are left to be overrun by nature in Japan. Memory and the decay of the memory occur simultaneously. Nature is trying to change the world: You see suburban sprawl interrupted by lush forest; rain destroying laundry; apartments opening up to centipedes. The area surrounding the local shrine is hidden by thick vegetation; remnants of ceremonial stones show up periodically, and the scene is drowned in a mash-up of environmental sounds and the perpetually beeping racket of civilization.
Buddhism presents three characteristics of the physical world:
1) Impermanence: Everything eventually melts or expands into nonexistence.
2) Permanent Appetites: Nothing will ever fully, finally satisfy us.
3) The lack of any permanent “self.”
All of these are packed into the idea of wabi-sabi, which celebrates objects that show awareness of their age and eventual fate, what Lafcadio Hearn described in his 1895 visit to Japan:
“Buddhism taught that nature was a dream, an illusion, a phantasmagoria; but it also taught men how to seize the fleeting impressions of that dream, and how to interpret them in relation to the highest truth. And they learned well. In the flushed splendor of the blossom-bursts of spring, in the coming and the going of the cicadae, in the dying crimson of autumn foliage, in the ghostly beauty of snow, in the delusive motion of wave or cloud, they saw old parables of perpetual meaning. Even their calamities — fire, flood, earthquake, pestilence — interpreted to them unceasingly the doctrine of the eternal Vanishing.”
The idea of ruins is this concept writ large. What is sacred and meaningful remains, though the building itself is left to dissolve. It celebrates the natural, inevitable end. The ice in your drink melts, and eventually your favorite restaurant closes. Photographs fade. People leave and people die.
Ruins in Japan are precious things left to find their own endings. These buildings don’t just fall into disrepair and collapse; they dissolve and, along the way, continue to reveal themselves, just as they did in their living forms.
Americans are preservationists; we fight death with all kinds of bullshit: Plastic surgery, historic registers. It’s not in our DNA to allow something to collapse without building over it. We’ve never even entertained the idea that leaving something to dissolve is a way of honoring its true nature. We demolish and rebuild, we “get over it.”
But the way that things end is still uniquely and exquisitely theirs.
Click below for notes.
1. Ruins are in different states of recovery. In Dazaifu, a ruin is marked off by a fence in the center of the city, and behind that fence are a couple of stairs and three stones, all that’s left. The ruins of Fukuoka Castle, on the other hand, include a moat and two towers.
2. I think this is Alan Watts: “Sitting quietly, doing nothing. Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.”