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Monday, July 07, 2014

Deep Kyoto Walks

Deep Kyoto Walks
Deep Kyoto: Walks
Amazon e-book
Reviewed by Richard Donovan

As I write in July 2014, the city of Kyoto has just been voted best destination by Travel + Leisure magazine. What underlies such a perennial distinction? Seen in overview, Kyoto is, arguably, not a particularly distinctive or beautiful city. It lacks the architectural integrity of somewhere like Florence, one of its sister cities; it has torn down much of its old domestic and industrial architecture and replaced it with squat concrete blocks. Yet the precincts of its some 1600 temples and 400 shrines, its encircling undeveloped hills, and its bisection by the Kamo River have protected swathes of green and open spaces, allowing the city and its residents to breathe. This, its flatness, and its relative safety make it an eminently walkable city.

But what makes Kyoto a great city is its amazing historical depth, belying this geographical planarity. Residents know these cultural contours remain untraversable to the average tourist, with their mere couple of days in the ancient capital. Many of its ex-pat residents started out as tourists, and never left.

Deep Kyoto: Walks is thus a collective paean to an adoptive city. (Though there are a couple of Japanese contributors, look elsewhere for such a perspective.) Editors Michael Lambe (www.deepkyoto.com) 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 viewpoints on 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. The dodgy noodle store that sustained an impoverished student may have long ago been replaced by a pink apartment block, and youth by middle age, but traces of both store and student remain and have been recorded for posterity. The city is here a palimpsest of its residents' hearts, and we are invited to peer through the yellowing layers of washi paper.

This e-book is not to be consumed in one sitting, for doing so risks both physical and mental fatigue, as one is dragged down yet another picturesque lane with its inevitably quirky denizens; into the sixteen-hundredth temple, the four-hundredth shrine; through yet another potted history. Taken in moderation, there are many insights to be gained, both for the Kyoto virgin and veteran. My advice would be to read a few pieces in succession, for the editors have generally devised to juxtapose pieces with something in common. Such triangulation not only helps the reader to put things in geographical perspective (along with the helpful appendix of maps for all walks), it also gives one a sense of what it must be like to be part of a foreign community in a self-consciously famous city.

Indeed, there are conflicts in perspective, perhaps the biggest being between 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. He has made a name for himself in juxtaposing the incongruities he has encountered around the world, with an easy authority referencing other writers and thinkers from East and West. His relativism challenges us to avoid "reductive dualisms", but here it seems a little tired on his return journey to old haunts in the bustling city centre: his equation of the charms of his favourite convenience store with those of a Zen meditation hall rings rather hollow.

In general, however, 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'.

Deep Kyoto: Walks is available from Amazon USA | UK | Japan

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