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Monday, September 01, 2014

Japan's World Heritage Sites John Dougill

Japan's World Heritage Sites John Dougill
Japan's World Heritage Sites
John Dougill
Tuttle, 2014
Full-colour hardback, 192 pp
ISBN 978-4-8053-1285-8

Most coffee-table photo books of Japanese scenes are destined to sit around as dust-collecting decorations rather than be consulted as bona fide reference works. But John Dougill's overview of Japan's UNESCO World Heritage Sites achieves the balance between attractiveness and utility that will ensure Japanophiles are hoisting it into their laps on a regular basis and using it to inspire them for the next trip in a country undeniably rich in both natural and cultural wonders. Given its scope, however, and the emphasis on photography befitting its coffee-table format, the book is an introduction to Japan's heritage rather than the definitive guide to it.

Since ratifying the World Heritage convention in 1972, UNESCO has registered 18 natural and cultural sites in Japan, although the number of individual spots is considerably greater, with places like the former capitals of Kyoto and Nara having registered a large number of shrines and temples, for example. The sites span the northern and southern extremes of the Japanese archipelago, from Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido to the Ryukyu Kingdom on Okinawa Island. They include such iconic spots as Mount Fuji, but also lesser-known gems like the far-flung Ogasawara Islands, which host not only amazing flora and fauna, but a remarkable blending of Japanese and Western culture and genes. Interestingly, both these sites were only registered in very recent years.

Dougill set out in 2012 to visit all the sites (17 at the time of writing), and his introduction adds a welcome personal touch to the necessarily fact-driven nature of the body sections. A noted Japan scholar (see my review of his fabulous city guide Kyoto), Dougill deftly directs his prose through informative geographical, historical and social overviews of each site while never overloading us with details. Indeed, the reader is likely to be left wanting more.

The book does not provide a list of suggested further reading. What it does offer, however, in introductory sidebars is up-to-date information on "practicalities" such as access and contact details, sometimes including webpages. Fittingly, the book concludes with a list of sites awaiting confirmation of World Heritage status. (In fact, since the book's printing, the Tomioka silk mill achieved registration.)

The full-colour photographs, some spilling over two pages, are consistently high quality, and often awe-inspiring. A mixture of the author's own take on the sites and the work of professional photographers, they always enhance rather than overwhelm the writing. Informative captions bridge images and text, while area maps and plans provide further visual orientation. You may not be able to plan your entire trip with Japan's World Heritage Sites, but it will definitely motivate you to make it.

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Richard Donovan

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