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Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Japan Country Living

Japan Country Living reviewed by Jake Davies.
Japan Country Living
Amy Sylvester Katoh & Shin Kimura
Tuttle Publishing
192 pp
ISBN-10: 0804818584
ISBN-13: 978-0804818582

When one looks at what is considered nowadays to be traditional Japanese culture one can see that much of it is derived from three main sources, firstly the elite culture of Heian Period aristocrats: the poetry, the costumes, the ceremonies and pageantry of Kyoto, etc. Secondly, samurai culture: the zen arts of tea ceremony, Noh theater, the castles, martial arts & ninja etc, and finally the urban culture of Edo: Kabuki, Ukiyo-e, etc.

Though these traditions have in modern times spread to larger sections of the population, historically they were not the culture of most Japanese. Most Japanese were not the aristocracy, samurai only ever made up about 10% of the population, and while in the Edo Period Japan was one of the most urbanized countries in the world, the vast majority of Japanese until very, very recently did not live in towns or cities but in the countryside, where the traditional culture is currently fast disappearing.

The countryside is also difficult for tourists to visit, neither having convenient transportation nor tourist infrastructure like hotels and English information. So that brings me to this book, which lavishly illustrates with great photos much of the traditional culture of the Japanese countryside.

With the stunning photography the book could stand as a coffee table book, and for many it will serve as a rich repository of ideas for interior and exterior design projects, others may find it awakening a desire to get out of the city to a life more hand-made.

The book is divided into four sections, though there is much overlap between the sections, the first being the architecture of the farmhouses, and the emphasis is on thatch. There are still plenty of thatched houses lived in throughout the countryside, though far more common, but not pictured here, are the thatched roofs protectively covered with tin. Thatchers still exist, I have seen more than a few structures being re-thatched, but so many thatched roofs are returning to the earth where they came from like so many traditional buildings.

The objects to be found inside rural homes are also extensively covered, not just the crafts and tools, but the kinds of things people collect, like dolls, fans, masks etc. The raw materials of country life are well covered: wood, stone, bamboo, paper, and of course the perhaps pre-eminent raw material - rice straw, from which more things can be made than you could possibly imagine.

Of course food is covered, as the countryside is after all where much of it comes from, and several recipes are included. If there is one color that is representative of the Japanese countryside, then that color must be indigo, the plant-based dye that colored what people wore, and the other uses made of the home-woven fabrics like noren, though in fact there are several hundred distinct and named variations of the color many of them found gracing the wonderful photos throughout the book.

The book is a celebration of a culture and tradition that is fast disappearing, and so there is, as with much of what is now classed as tradition, a tendency to romanticize and idealize, but it is still a living tradition kept alive rather than one being revived.

Most of the people in the book are elderly and will not be around too much longer, but they are living the only life they have known. Hopefully the book will inspire visitors to venture out from the crowds and concrete of cities like Tokyo and Kyoto and seek out what remains of the traditional culture of the people of Japan rather than the "Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous" that constitute so much of what is considered traditional Japanese culture. Oh, did I mention the fantastic photographs?

Jake Davies

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