Hosting the world’s fair has become a means some countries have embraced to promote their economic progress and development agenda to an international audience. Since the event’s first run in 1851, which celebrated advancements in industrial technology in the United Kingdom and other countries, a number of host cities have witnessed a change in their skylines thanks to the construction of monumental landmarks completed as the centerpiece of the exhibitions. Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building, Paris’s Eiffel Tower, and Brussels’ Atomium were all finished just in time for the world expo in each respective city.
Late 19th-century Japan, however, took a different approach. Amid the euphoria of reopening itself to the world after centuries of self-isolation imposed by the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan was experiencing rapid industrialization under the watchful eyes of Emperor Meiji, the architect of the country’s rise as a world power. Taking its inspiration from the fifth world’s fair in Vienna, in which Japan had participated, the country held its first National Industrial Exhibition four years later in 1877, positioning itself as a meeting place for Western technologies and their Japanese counterparts. Taking place in Tokyo, the new capital of Japan since 1868 – a year after Emperor Meiji ascended the throne – the subsequent exhibitions were held under different challenges; the second event occurred at a time of high inflation and recession, while the third failed to attract more visitors due to an influenza outbreak and a long spell of rainy weather.
The fourth exhibition was initially scheduled for 1894, four years after the third, and Kyoto was chosen to host the national event, partially to reinvigorate the city’s sluggish economy following the transfer of the Japanese capital to Tokyo. However, thanks to popular demand, the exhibition was pushed back by a year to coincide with the 1,100th anniversary of the establishment of Kyoto. Modeled after Heian Palace which was burned down in the 13th century, Heian Shrine was constructed as the main venue for the fourth exhibition. However, as the new location where the shrine would be built was smaller than the old palace’s grounds, the structures were constructed 40% smaller than the long-lost palace.
The event was a success, drawing tens of thousands of exhibitors and welcoming more than a million visitors. Streets and accommodation in the city were improved, the streetcar was introduced for the first time to Japan during the exhibition, and the main venue itself was later turned into a shrine dedicated to the spirits of the first and last emperors who ruled from Kyoto. Despite being smaller than the original palace, Heian Shrine is still a sight to behold, a fact that’s evident as soon as one passes through its impressive Oten-mon (main gate). Painted primarily in vermilion, an auspicious color in Shintoism, its main hall and corner towers sit beyond the shrine’s entrance fronting a courtyard filled with bright white sand and pebbles separating the structures.
Beyond the walled enclosure of the shrine lies a beautiful Japanese garden filled with trees, ponds, pavilions and a covered bridge that follows traditional Japanese design and aesthetics. While the shrine’s main compound showcases grand architecture from Japan’s past, the garden exudes peace and tranquility with the emphasis on harmony with nature. If there is one thing the world can learn from Kyoto, it’s that moving toward modernity doesn’t necessarily mean pushing aside the past, as the story of Heian Shrine shows. Traditions, as long as they’re relevant to the values of modern society, are after all what make this planet a colorful place.