A small town with many records

by Massimo Pacifico

Before the Commodore Matthew Perry, in 1853, anchored his nine ships in the bay of Tokyo, defying the edict isolationist of the Togugawa dynasty that prevailed since two centuries in Japan, the country of the Rising Sun had remained strictly closed in on itself. No one was allowed to contaminate the islands of the archipelago with products and habits. Stories were told about Japan. There was talk of geishas and pleasure districts, of buildings built of wood and rice paper, incomprehensible ceremonies and rituals, of unbeatable samurai, gardens of stones, colossal statues of Buddah. The protophotographers, who exercised their art mainly in Yokohama, were ready and willing to represent that unknown world and they also idealized it, producing images of idyllic landscapes and everyday situations that had been cleverly staged in the studio. Even more, they refined a technique of watercoloring black and white prints taken with great cameras, which amazed for the sublime achievements in the nuance of tone and the perfection of the contours. Among these an Italian excelled, Felice Beato, of who’s life little is known, the brother of another photographer that Barnum readers already know (v. The photo albums produced in the studios of Yokohama were made with valuable decorated lacquer covers and were sold at the beginning of the 1900s at a high price, in the department stores of the time in Europe, from Liberty’s in London, to Lafayette’s in Paris… Furthermore, mystery enveloped the country’s image and even today, perhaps because of the natural reluctance of its inhabitants, the image of Japan is not exactly clear. Its products, always of excellent quality, have invaded the world and weakened the penetration into the markets of European industries with established traditions, but those that have not set foot on that land, which often trembles, find it hard to visualize the appearance of everyday life in a Japanese city.  BARNUM has therefore decided to publish a series of photographic reports made recently in different locations. The first is dedicated to:

Nara (370 thousand inhabitants), the first capital of Japan, founded in 710 in the plain of Yamato, western Honshu, south of Tokyo and east of Osaka. The city, modeled on the urban geometric structure of the Chinese city of Ch’ang-an, extends around the large Park (520 acres) that houses the shrine Kasuga, the Todai-ji, the Kofuku-ji temple with its five-story pagoda, lakes, smaller temples and thousands of deer (shika) considered messengers of the gods. The old town extends in the southern district of Naramashi, often with very narrow streets, almost lanes, along which old artisan’s shops and small inns nestle. On the main street, the Sanjo Dori, there are more modern buildings, banks, restaurants and (small) department stores. Throughout the year, but especially in the spring, cheerful, but tidy, students invade the sites of historical and religious interest, attracted, especially in the Todai-ji Temple, probably the largest wooden structure in the world (1688/1709), by the giant statue of the Vairocana Buddha (dates back to 752, and is 14.98 meters high) that also claims the world record for the sculptures cast in bronze and whose head has been repeatedly destroyed by fires and earthquakes. The current one dates back to 1692.


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