Yes, we have had our fifth trip to Japan and had a busy week in Tokyo and a relaxing week in Aomori. I will be updating this blog with more tales of our adventures when time allows. Since we’ve been back, I’ve been busy at work and busy with family. One thing I have managed to do is read a new walking guide to Kyoto.
Readers of this blog will know that my husband and I first went to Kyoto in 2009 on our honeymoon. The city had a deep impact on me. It was a place where I simultaneously felt like an outsider looking in and completely at home. We have been back four times, each time trying to dig deeper into the city’s history and, by extension, into the history of Japan. When I found out that the man behind the Deep Kyoto blog was putting out a book of walks written by people who have made Kyoto their home and properly tried to get beneath its surface, I was excited. The Deep Kyoto blog has given us tips on how to get more out of the city than would be possible if we just followed the standard tourist experience. More importantly, it has helped us, as vegetarians, find places to eat where we could still experience Japanese cuisine.
I’m pleased to say that my excited anticipation of the book was rewarded. It’s not a guide book in the traditional sense. It is a guide to how the city ticks and what it gives to those who move there. This review is more of a record of my thoughts as I read each chapter, and I’ve added in some photographs from our trips as memories of my own, triggered by the walks. My shorter review is on Amazon, Library Thing and Good Reads. (N.B. all three reviews are identical, choose whichever site you use most regularly.)
For those who prefer their guidebooks in printed and bound format, I understand that releasing the book as an e-book first is a way of testing the waters, and that if it sells well a crowd funded hardcopy might be released in the autumn. I haven’t got a major problem with the electronic format (I read it on a Kindle 3 in black & white, but also viewed it on the Kindle app on my Nexus 7 to compare – not much difference in format but the pictures are in colour and I could navigate from the maps in the book to Google maps and follow links to websites easily), but I would prefer a real book that I can flick through and see the maps more easily without having to navigate to a link at the end of the chapter, click it, then hit the back button until I’m back at the point I diverted from. I would definitely add a hardcopy to my growing gang of walking guides to Japanese cities.
What about the content, though?
From the foreword: “What better exercise than to stretch your legs? And when you feel burdened by life’s concerns, get outside and walk them off.”
The foreword introduces the tone of the book – walking as emotional therapy and trigger for memories. The calm, reflective tone sets this guidebook-that-isn’t-a-guidebook apart from other books in its genre. It is meditative, reflective, an insight into the city by people who arrived there as outsiders but now call it home.
From the introduction, this passage sums Kyoto up very well for me: “Kyoto rewards the walker through all five senses. In Hanamikōji at dusk, the glimpse of an apprentice geisha as she ducks into a taxi on her way to her next appointment. Along the Path of Philosophy, catching the scent of cinnamon from a shop specialising in Yatsuhashi, Kyoto’s traditional confectionary. Taking a break from the summer heat with a shaved ice on the slope leading up to Kiyomizudera. The clack of traditional looms from behind the bamboo sudare blinds in Nishijin. The cooling relief of Shimogamo’s thick forest.” All cities can be read using all five senses. Being in Kyoto, though, is sometimes akin to being in an ukiyo-e, it is so refined and elegant and retains so much of its history. Unlike Tokyo or Osaka, it is a city that encourages you to pause, take stock, reflect on the things you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste. Kyoto doesn’t demand your attention, but like the quiet person at a party, it can hold your attention in intriguing ways that sometimes change how you view the world.
Time Travelling on Gojō was particularly interesting to me because we have stayed in a machiya on a narrow street between Gojō-dori and Mimizuka, so have a little knowledge of the area.
The walk contained hidden gems that I want to seek out next time we are in Kyoto, and the humorous and gentle style of Jennifer Louise Teeter made me feel I was on the walk with her, sharing her experience. A good start to the book!
Red Brick and Sakura was another interesting read, as it covers, in a way that perhaps only someone from the industrial north of England will fully appreciate, an area of Kyoto we have yet to explore. There is something about Victorian/Edwardian/Meiji red brick that soothes the northern soul. For me, the child of an engineer, employee of a science & industry museum, Michael Lambe’s narrative about the creation of Kyoto’s canal system opened my mind to another aspect of the city, mixed in with the traditional view of the place as Japan’s Heian capital.
I have benefitted greatly from the guides on this writer’s Deep Kyoto blog as a visitor to the city, so walking with him in this book was an added bonus. I want to go to Yamatoya café now, and I have learned about the Shinshidō bakery chain (the branch on Kyoto station is a regular port of call for us when we’re in the city on holiday) and want to go to the café also established by the man who started the bakeries. Most of all, I want to explore the history of the canal and the engineer responsible for making it happen.
Ghosts, Monkeys and Other Neighbours is a very intimate, personal account of a favourite walk through more areas of Kyoto that are unfamiliar to me. Because I don’t know the places being described, I felt more of an outsider eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation. My lack of familiarity meant I couldn’t get a handle on the space Bridget Scott was moving through, but there is enough in the account to make me want to do some more research.
Climbing Mount Daimonji is a perfectly formed meditation on the transience of life, its endless flow of unique moments, and how we relate to nature.
I have never climbed Daimonji. Perhaps now I will. Perhaps I will gain an appreciation, like Miki Matsumoto, of how precious each person is in their individuality.
Not Sure Which Way To Go is about doing away with conventional guidebooks and following your curiosity, with the idea that getting lost can be an effective way of really getting to know a place. Personally, I only like to get lost in a controlled way! I’ve been lost in Japan and it made me feel 6 years old, silently frightened while trying not to cry. But the idea of taking random turns and seeing what you encounter appeals to me. We have been ‘lost’ like that in Japan also, and happened upon things we would never have seen had we stuck to the prescribed tourist trail. The Philosopher’s Path is another area we haven’t explored fully.
We have been to Ginkakuji (pictured above), but now I have bookmarked a page in my e-reader that describes the area around the pavilion, which I’d like to go back to and explore further.
Into The Tumult didn’t really speak to me at first, perhaps because the walk part of the piece is raced through by the author, perhaps because I have done a similar walk many times in Kyoto.
I didn’t feel that my previous experiences were enriched by the narrative. The reflection on why Pico Iyer likes this particular walk was more engaging. I liked his reflections on how the modern and everyday aspects of Kyoto are just as special as its historic mien, and his reminiscence about moving there from his comfortable existence in Manhattan, when the area he takes us through was not the tourist hub it is now.
Old School Gaijin Kyoto is a portrait of a particular time and a particular type of person. Chris Rowthorn is refreshingly honest about his younger self. The piece is amusing, interesting in its depiction of what Kyoto was like for a foreigner in the early 90s, and in the author’s discovery of how things have changed 22 years on. I’ve been to some of the places that were his regular haunts, others I wouldn’t want to visit because I’m not a young man in my 20s! I have bookmarked the page about Ing, though. Ing sounds just my cup of tea.
John Dougill’s Kamogawa Musing is one of my favourite pieces in the book.
Here we meet the river that flows along the east side of the city, and bump into people who call it home, people who sojourn in quiet contemplation, and I meet Rai Sanyō, whose essays helped bring down the shōgunate but lost Kyoto its capital status. I learn why the Kamogawa is so astonishingly concrete in places, and the story behind the statue at Shijō bridge that we first saw two years ago, as we nibbled away at another edge of the city.
Gods, Monks, Secrets, Fish is a pilgrimage of sorts, a walk to discover the gastronomic thoughts of Dōgen by. The best part of this chapter for me, bluffness of Bradford born John Ashburne aside*, is the guided tour of the stores in Nishiki market and the history of its name. Each time we stay in Kyoto we make a pilgrimage of our own to Nishiki and have made blind purchases from many of the stars revealed here.
I wish my spoken Japanese was better than it is, I would love to quiz the vendors about their wares.
(*My best friend is from Shipley and I have Bradford weavers among my antecedents, so I loved seeing Kyoto through Yorkshire eyes.)
Across Purple Fields is a stroll through author Ted Taylor’s neighbourhood to buy a beer at the local sake shop. More reflection on the changes to Kyoto’s suburbs than true walking guide, it is nevertheless a charming insight into the hidden parts of the city where tourists rarely go, deliberately at least. It put me in mind of the settings for Sōseki’s novels. For all that traditional houses are making way for apartment blocks and car parks, there is still a sense of the old way of living in the structure of the blocks and the public/private world of houses crammed together.
Blue Sky and Hiking Mount Atago both explore the Saga-Arashiyama area north west of Kyoto. Blue Sky interested me because I have heard of the work being done to clear Mt. Ogura of rubbish, and because my husband and I have trodden the same route this piece follows, but in a daze because we had tried to do too much in one very hot day.
It was good to walk the route again virtually with a knowledgeable guide, and I learned why the bamboo groves are fenced in with brushwood.
Hiking Mount Atago revealed a ritual akin to the Kurama Hi no Matsuri we went to on the trip we took for my 40th birthday a few years ago, but a ritual less fraught with fire-related danger! I love these annual rites of passage, where communities follow ancient paths, physical and spiritual, up mountains and grow closer through the physicality of the experience. Both were engagingly written, humorous recollections of individual experiences.
In Praise of Uro Uro is a celebration of aimless wandering, seeing what you see and embracing Kyoto’s transience along with its longevity. Joel Stewart shares my love of the small expressions of individuality you can encounter by looking differently and wandering through back streets.
By choosing not to stay in hotels but renting apartments or machiya in Kyoto, we have seen some of the quirks of Kyoto and found small local shops and restaurants that we would otherwise have missed. I can recommend taking a diversion from the main streets. Kyoto’s grid pattern means you’re unlikely to get lost. Stewart’s is a walk through a part of the city I am unfamiliar with and will definitely explore more next time we are there.
Izumi Texidor Hirai takes us to the Kyoto Botanical Gardens.
When we visited, I had the sense that the gardens are a locals’ treasure, something that Hirai also alludes to. In this walk through her favourite spots, she reveals a lush green space, a place of different seasons and surprises. One surprise for me was that there is a library hidden inside carved mushrooms in a children’s playground. Hirai links stories to her favourite spots, the rose garden, the conservatory and the lawn, but also talks about the other things that can be seen. Her description of the zigzagging bridge brought back memories of my own, of a different zigzagging bridge, while one of the memories she shares made me laugh out loud!
Ted Taylor’s second piece, A Long March, is only 6 pages long and isn’t a walk like the rest in the book. It doesn’t explore the city, or point out places of interest. Instead, it reminds the reader of the ongoing effects of 2011’s earthquake and tsunami and the challenge to move away from nuclear power. I was unaware that there are 15 nuclear reactors north of Kyoto. The thousands of people who have made this march each year since the disaster are very aware.
I only needed to read a couple of pages of Up & Down the Ki’ to know that this walk would be invaluable. I’m going to make my husband read it. When we met, and discovered a shared love of music, we ran through all the gigs we had been at together and wondered why we hadn’t met sooner. One of our repeated regrets each time we visit Kyoto is that we didn’t see more of the nightlife. We have tried, but the places recommended by Rough Guide and Lonely Planet have proved oddly soulless. We have passed other bars and baulked at going in, aware of being foreign, wary of making a mistake. This walk could just be the ‘in’ we need. A love of music is a great leveller.
The first section of Perrin Lindelauf’s personal adaptation of the Kyoto Trail reminded me of the time we went to Fushimi Inari, got lost going up the mountain and ended up at Tofukuji! Perhaps, if we go again, we’ll use a map and do it properly.
I found Lindelauf’s voice very much that of a professional travel writer, honed from years of filing copy that has to be punchy and immediate. Personal taste, but I prefer the style of the other writers. Not that there’s nothing to be had from the piece. His description of the section of the trail that doesn’t fit with most tourists’ idea of a good time felt like I was discovering the trail with him and for me is the best part of this chapter. More of his humour shone through in the writing and he included some interesting snippets of the area’s history. By the end of the chapter, Lindelauf’s writing is more reflective and I warmed to him.
Judith Clancy wrote the epilogue. Her book of walks through Kyoto is one of the best walking guides I have ever bought. The warm tone of this epilogue explains why. She makes a poem of Kyoto life.
The bios of the authors at the end is a lovely inclusion, adding to the sense of who they are that has been garnered already from their walks. Chris Rowthorn’s bio in particular was a revelation – I would never have guessed his day job from his chapter in the book. I stand by what I said about Rough Guide and Lonely Planet above, though!
This is a great book for anyone who has been to Kyoto and would like another perspective on the city, as well as for anyone who is planning a visit and wants to do something a little out of the ordinary. I plan to pick individual places to explore further, rather than following entire walks. Although some of them that go to unfamiliar places are tempting.