Kyoto Books

Books on Kyoto

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Zen Gardens and Temples of Kyoto

Zen Gardens and Temples of Kyoto.

by John Dougill; John Einarsen

ISBN: 978-4-8053-1401-2
Tuttle, 2017
Hardback, 144 pp

This handsome volume, a collaboration between writer John Dougill and photographer John Einarsen, joins Tuttle's growing collection of coffee-table books, which includes Dougill's earlier and equally impressive book Japan's World Heritage Sites.
Author John Dougill, a professor at Ryukoku University, is a longtime resident of Kyoto and expert in Japanese religions. Photographer John Einarsen founded Kyoto Journal. Both display their obvious appreciation and understanding of the essence of Zen Buddhism in this beautifully realised overview of Kyoto's unparalleled treasury of temples and gardens.
The book is designed not only to showcase the Zen aesthetics exemplified in the wooden structures and sculptured landscapes, but also as a primer on Zen itself. Readers will gain real insights into both the images on the page and the sites themselves, should they have the chance to visit. The first part of the book consists of lavishly illustrated short essays detailing such topics as Zen's historical origins and Kyoto's particular Rinzai sect, the key elements of the Zen monastery and garden, and the connections between Zen and artforms such as ink painting and haiku, the Japanese tea ceremony, and, counterintuitively, martial arts.
The latter two-thirds of the book take us on a tour of Kyoto's major Zen temples, beginning with Kennin-ji, Kyoto's oldest Zen temple, founded in 1202 and incongruously sited in the Gion pleasure quarter, through to the lesser-visited Konpuku-ji on Kyoto's eastern fringe, a modest place nestled in Kyoto's eastern foothills which honours the great haiku poets Basho and Buson.
In a bow to the needs of tourists, the historical, cultural and artistic sketches of each temple are complemented by at-a-glance boxes that outline foundation dates, affiliations, special features, opening hours, access, contact numbers - and even opportunities to experience zazen, sitting meditation sessions. With restricted temples such as Saiho-ji, or Kokedera, such pragmatic information can be a life saver: its exquisite moss gardens can only be viewed by postcard reservation in advance, which costs 3,000 yen and gives you only 90 minutes' access - less the time it takes you to trace a mandatory Buddhist sutra!

Richard Donovan

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Another Kyoto

Another Kyoto.

by Alex Kerr; Kathy Arlyn Sokol

Kindle Edition

Anyone familiar with and fond of traditional Japanese culture will surely know Alex Kerr. Despite having around half a century of engagement with Japan and having lived in Kyoto for four decades, Kerr does not come across as a jaded expat in Another Kyoto. The book bubbles with enthusiasm and is full of fun facts.
Although officially Kathy Arlyn Sokol is listed as a co-writer, Kerr's voice dominates the text and in the Japanese language credits he is listed as sole author. The book is based on the idea of writing down conversations they had when they visited temples and other buildings in Kyoto.
Kerr studied at Oxford University and at Yale, yet despite this don't expect a dull, dry academic text full of footnotes and references. The writing style is quite casual and easily comprehensible, frequently jumping from one topic to another, like an organic conversation rather than a meticulously prepared and polished lecture.
Although it mainly focuses on buildings and gardens that still survive, Another Kyoto is also packed full of facts about buildings that are long gone. Did you know that in the late 1500s Toyotomi Hideyoshi constructed a castle in Kyoto three times the size of Nijo Castle that was covered in gold? It was destroyed less than a decade after completion. Even if you knew that there is certain to be something that you can learn from this book, whether it is obscure temple vocabulary or the fact that it is not known who created the famous garden at Ryoanji Temple.
One thing that sets Kerr apart from some other Japanologists is his knowledge of China and Thailand. He uses to explain what is uniquely Japanese, rather than simply comparing Japan to the west. Kerr explains what artistic, architectural or religious ideas were imported from China and Southeast Asia and how they were adapted.
From his forty years of living in Kyoto as a keen observer of art and craft, Kerr offers fresh and interesting insight on many topics from walking on floors to recycling. Another Kyoto is divided into nine chapters that each tackle a different theme, for example walls or gates. Using this approach the reader is drawn into Kyoto, and even if you have visited the ancient capital numerous times, you will wish to return again and look at what you missed or misunderstood. The book also recommends lesser known temples, so is perfect for repeat visitors.
Another Kyoto seems on the surface like a love letter to Kyoto, but it is worth remembering that Kerr also attacked environmental destruction and damage to traditional culture in his other books: Lost Japan and Dogs & DemonsAnother Kyoto is not afraid to find fault with the city and also explores and explains how deep Chinese influence was in the former imperial capital.
One criticism of the book is that it lacks an index; this plus the fact that the book is split by theme rather than by building or geographical area of Kyoto makes it hard to re-locate information. Some temples are mentioned numerous times in the text for different reasons. But of course this is not a guide book and neither is it suitable as a first book to read about Japan. Recommended to anyone who enjoyed Lost Japan. If you fancy writing a book on Kyoto on an understudied topic, Kerr suggests tackling the many paintings on temple walls and ceilings.

Simon Duncan

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Deep Kyoto: Walks

Deep Kyoto Walks.

Amazon e-book

Deep Kyoto: Walks is a collective paean to an adoptive city. (Though there are a few Japanese contributors, most are ex-pats.) Editors Michael Lambe ( and Ted Taylor, long-time residents and Kyoto-philes, realised that one way to explore Kyoto's hidden depths in written form was to engage their friends and acquaintances to document a favourite city walk. Whether by luck or editorial inducement, the writers have created a patchwork of complementary portraits of 'their' Kyoto that overlap enough to give us two or more views of iconic aspects of the city, but not so much as to become redundant. A peak that looms in the distance in one piece becomes the focus of the next; an historical figure intertwined with the city's history wanders through different parts of the city, leaving a distinctive legacy in each.

Indeed, the fundamental theme - while lightly trodden in the main - is history: of place, but equally of person. For many authors, the assignment to write about a memorable walk in a favoured city is also a challenge to look back on their own past, and observe how both they and the city have evolved in the intervening period. Kyoto the city is here a palimpsest of its residents' hearts, and we are invited to peer through the yellowing layers of washi paper.

Though not a book to be read in one sitting, there are many insights to be gained, both for the Kyoto virgin and veteran. Some of the writers are experts in Japanese cuisine or history, such as John Ashburne and John Dougill respectively. In general, they fall into two camps: the 'progressives' and the 'traditionalists': those who accept, perhaps even welcome, change in the city, and those who bemoan what has been lost and call for the protection of what remains. Pico Iyer, the most famous name among the contributors, appears to occupy the former camp, largely sanguine as he is in the face of the 'modernisation' that has occurred in the decades since he wrote his dreamy love letter to the city, The Lady and the Monk, and still revelling in the incongruities he observes.

This is a collection of fresh, invigorating prose which, while some of it may lack professional polish, makes up for it in enthusiasm and good research. If you have never been to Kyoto, reading it is likely to inspire a longer, lingering visit; if you happen to be lucky enough to live there, then it will get you out the door and exploring a new facet of Japan's 'cultural capital'.

Richard Donovan

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Zen and Kyoto

Zen and Kyoto: Buy this book from Amazon.

by John Einarsen

ISBN: 4-8970-4202-X
135 pp

John Einarsen's Zen and Kyoto is a welcome guide for those with an interest in visiting the ancient capital and entering the world of Zen. As a young aspirant studying in Hokkaido, Einarsen sojourned to Kyoto, where after running out of funds, he wrote, Xeroxed and assembled by hand a guide for Westerners visiting Kyoto. Now, a quarter of a century later, the circle is complete and the book realized.
The guide comprises an overview on Zen, a short history, the Heart Sutra, maps, contact numbers, and events, venerable monks and a closing section on Zen and culture. Between his words are his photographs, which give the book an almost sublime beauty. The images allow the words to penetrate still deeper.
Written in both English and Japanese, it will also help Japanese people with their English-speaking guests. A guide, a light, with bits of ancient wisdom such as this quote by D.T. Suzuki, "Life is a sumi-e painting which must be executed once and for all time without hesitation, without intellection, and no corrections are permissible or possible. Zen therefore ought to be caught while the thing is going on, neither before nor after. It is an act of one get hold of this fleeting life as it flees and not after it has flown."
And just when a feeling of self-satisfaction begins to arise in one's breast about the amount of knowledge acquired, the final page of the book breaks our illusions with: "Random ideas are relatively innocuous, but ideologies, beliefs, opinions, and points of view, not to mention factual knowledge accumulated since birth are shadows which obscure the light of truth." And we are thrown back to where we began, empty. That is Zen. No mind; alive and well, thriving in the ancient capital of Kyoto.

Sherry Nakanishi

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Old Kyoto: A Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants, and Inns

by Diane Durston with a forward by Donald Richie

Kodansha International

ISBN: 4-7700-2994-2
240 pp

In spite of much self-inflicted post-war destruction, Kyoto retains much of its past, often hidden down an alley or behind a simple noren curtain. A good PR man would say that "the old way of life goes on in the ancient capital as it always has," and, yes, there is indeed some truth to this cliché And Diane Durston has found and compiled and given solid proof of it in one lovely paperback.
The first edition appeared in 1986, and has become a bible for a certain type of traveler. Neatly divided into regions within Kyoto, Old Kyoto highlights primarily family establishments that have been in business for at least a hundred years. Often these generations-old establishments are still housed in the same machiya (Kyoto-style town house) in which the business was founded. Here you will find unmatched craftsmanship, gorgeous inns, and some of Kyoto's legendary restaurants.
I have lived and roamed in Kyoto for coming on nine years, and was stunned by the jewels in this book I had never heard of. Old Kyoto is annotated throughout with maps, prices, directions, descriptions, etc. This is very highly recommended and goes well with another classic Kyoto guide, Durston's own Seven Paths to the Heart of the City.

C. Ogawa

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Lonely Planet Kyoto

by Chris Rowthorn

ISBN: 174104085X
234 pp

The latest version of Lonely Planet Kyoto is updated and as comprehensive as previous guides. Author Chris Rowthorn has a keen eye for both the large picture and the small details that make up the great and terrible of Kyoto.
The guide features sections on culture, how locals eat, history, excursions in and around the city. There are sections on flower arranging and tea ceremony, and, for foodies, a food glossary.
Kyoto is chock-a-block full of temples and shrines, museums and shops, fine hotels and ryokan. It is also a city built on a human scale and meant to be seen on foot. Lonely Planet Kyoto has a section of Walking Tours suitable for any traveler. Clear, well-done maps accompany these.
This text is both portable and comprehensive. An invaluable guide to a priceless city.

C. Ogawa

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Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide: Affordable Dining in Traditional Townhouse Spaces

by Judith Clancy

Stone Bridge Press

ISBN: 161172001X
288 pp

Machiya are traditional wooden homes that were built in Kyoto over the centuries. Like townhouses in other great cities, they spoke to the aspirations of their residents and also the aesthetic sense of a specific time and place.

The Kyoto machiya are made of wood and paper, have tiled roofs, inner gardens, and serve to demarcate social space (front rooms were for business, the inner rooms for family and intimate friends).

Central Kyoto consisted until about 1980 almost entirely of machiya. Unlike all other Japanese cities, the city was spared US Air Force bombing.

However, following defeat in World War II, machiya came to be seen as old-fashioned, dark, cold, and redolent of poverty.

From that point on the city went on a spasm of self-destructiveness, attempting to "modernize" the cityscape by tearing down the graceful homes and replacing them with pre-fab or concrete structures, parking lots, and pachinko parlors. Finally, in the late 1990s, the city - or rather, many young people - came to its senses and realized what it had wrought.

Many of the old homes that were spared the wrecking ball have been converted into restaurants, art galleries, and cafes. Long-time resident of Kyoto Judith Clancy has lived in Kyoto for four decades. She has written about Kyoto music, tea ceremony, and ikebana. In addition, she is the author of Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital.

This guide is a list of affordable restaurants and cafes in Kyoto that are housed in a machiya. Clancy has maps of several sections of the city in which these establishments are common. For each restaurant or café, there is a description of what it serves and a photo of the building in which it sits.

For either a tourist or resident of Kyoto, this is a wonderful guide to eating out in Kyoto. Kyoto machiya house not just traditional Japanese restaurants but a number of French, Italian, Chinese, American and Thai eateries. The introduction alone, which details the history of the machiya, is worth the price of the book.

C. Ogawa

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Seeing Kyoto

by Juliet Winters Carpenter

Kodansha International

ISBN: 4770023383
96 pp

Juliet Carpenter has managed to go over well-trod ground without seeming trite; quite to the contrary, the photos and text in Seeing Kyoto make even a long-time resident realize anew how much beauty is compressed into one city. Flipping through the book, one can imagine the days of old when aristocrats and samurai lived in Kyoto. Juliet Carpenter goes into the cultural history of Kyoto, as well as its artistic, culinary, and historical treasures. In addition, Carpenter introduces nearby Nara, the capital prior to Kyoto. There is a wonderful foreword by tea master Sen Soshitsu. Seeing Kyoto is an introduction and overview of one of the world's finest cities. From ancient palaces to sacred temple grounds, classic Japanese gardens to treasured artworks - a great work.

C. Ogawa

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Houses and Gardens of Kyoto

by Thomas Daniel


ISBN: 480531091X
224 pp

Houses and Gardens of Kyoto is a beautifully written and photographed book that is a must have for anyone with an interest in Japanese architecture, gardens, or the city of Kyoto.

Architect and Kyoto resident Thomas Daniel is one of those people easy to envy: in addition to practicing architecture and holding down a job as a professor at an elite university in Kyoto, he writes very, very well.

Houses introduces traditional houses and gardens from every major period of the city's history. These range from monumental Buddhist temples and summer villas to personal homes and small inns.

All of these structures have a garden - whether a "borrowed landscape" or "dry landscape" - that complements it.

Kyoto was the capital of Japan for more than a millennium, and in spite of war, fire, and modernization still retains an inexhaustible trove of Japanese cultural history.

A wonderful work.

C. Ogawa

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Courtyard Gardens of Kyoto's Merchant Houses

by Katsuhiko Mizuno; translated by Lucy North

Kodansha International

ISBN: 4-7700-3023-1
152 pp; 150 color photos

Author and photographer Katsuhiko Mizuno leads you on a tour of the gardens located within Kyoto's machiya, or townhouses. The tsuboniwa - courtyard gardens - are distinct and subtle, and are rarely seen by tourists or even Kyoto residents themselves.

They were built by the merchant class that created the housing stock in what is now downtown Kyoto. This lavishly photographed book contains pictures of 81 gardens from 52 private homes, inns, restaurants, and teahouses.

The text also includes diagrams and explanations of the stones and other details that make up the gardens.

For those who love Japanese gardens or the unique architecture of the Kyoto townhouse, this is a perfect book.

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by John Dougill

ISBN 0-19-530138-2
242 pp

Author John Dougill has lived and taught in Kyoto for many years. Here he brings to bear his Oxford academic credentials on what is, in many ways, a similar city - a somewhat enigmatic entity brimming with history that holds a special place in many people's imaginations, whether they have ever been there or not. Indeed, this book is part of Signal Books' "Cities of the Imagination" series, which seeks to capture the essence of famous cities as diverse as Calcutta and Moscow. Dougill has certainly achieved this aim in his Kyoto.
The book is billed as a cultural and literary history, and such it is, but Dougill's great enthusiasm for Kyoto enlivens the meticulously researched details to the point of general accessibility. The author is the ideal host: witty, with an ear for the entertaining anecdote; and at the same time effortlessly knowledgeable and unafraid of rendering an opinion where appropriate. The structure of the book is ten thematic strands that approach the city from numerous different viewpoints, thus allowing us to get an overview of the key elements that inform Kyoto without feeling overwhelmed. We begin with "City of Kammu", the eighth-century Japanese emperor who attempted to escape the "straitjacket" of Buddhist politics by moving the seat of power from Nara to Kyoto. After many side excursions to the Cities of Zen, Noh and Tea, among others, we end up in the City of Geisha. Wendy Skinner Smith's elegant line drawings are a great accompaniment on our journey.
This book would be an excellent gift for someone coming to Kyoto, someone who has lived here some time, or even someone who simply has a place for Kyoto in their imaginative heart.

Richard Donovan

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Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion

by Donald Keene

Columbia University Press

ISBN: 0-231-13056-2
208 pp

Donald Keene's latest contribution to the field of Japan studies is a masterpiece on the development of Japanese aesthetics and kokoro (heart, soul, mind), much of which evolved during the Higashiyama Period at the Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji) under the leadership of Ashikaga Yoshimasa. Shogun at the time of Onin War (1467-1477), which destroyed nearly all of Kyoto, Yoshimasa was a hapless leader who devoted himself instead to the pursuit of beauty.

In this period, Noh and ink painting flourished, the tea ceremony "originated in a small room at Ginakaku-ji where Yoshimasa offered tea to his friends," and with it the Japanese art of flower arrangement was born. Keene acknowledges the judgment of most historians - that Yoshimasa was weak, extravagant, incompetent in affairs of state, and unable to end a meaningless war and its incumbent famine and suffering - yet posits that he has yet to be recognized for his contribution to Japanese arts and taste. In the midst of wholesale destruction, Yoshimasa precipitated a Japanese renaissance.

Though respecting his grandfather Yoshimitsu, the builder of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), he had no interest in emulating either his life or works. Yoshimasa's Silver Pavilion stands in stark contrast to his grandfather's Golden Pavilion, the later coated in gold leaf, the former the epitome of Kyoto cool wabi sabi understatement.

"The simplicity and reliance on suggestion of the buildings and gardens at Higashiyama may indicate that a man who had earlier exhausted the pleasures of extravagance had at last achieved a kind of enlightenment," writes Keene.

This concise work is a complex web of murder, chaos, and endless war that destroys everything in its wake. And, simultaneously - amazingly, ironically, unbelievably - the period gave birth to some of Japan's best-known art forms. As an insight into medieval Kyoto, there is no better place to begin.

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Kyoto: 29 Walks in Japan's Ancient Capital

by John H. Martin and Phyllis G. Martin


ISBN: 1-8645-0039-5
386 pp

Kyoto is the ancient capital and modern-day center of tourism, industry, and traditional culture in Japan. The city was founded some 1,300 years ago and managed to avoid bombing during World War II (though the damage during the Onin War was tremendous).
Kyoto as a result has a wealth of historic sites, including 17 World Heritage sites and more than 2,000 temples and shrines.
Kyoto: 29 Walks lays out 29 easy-to-use walking tours through the city.
More than 100 color photos and 40 full-color guide maps and diagrams of individual sites make this an indispensable guide.
Each walk comes with a huge amount of detail and background information.
The beauty of the photos makes this almost coffee-table book like in its quality. Yet, it is small enough to carry around.
This reviewer has lived in Kyoto for 15 years, and we learned much. Highly recommended.

C. Ogawa

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