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Walking and talking — a review of Another Kyoto

Another Kyoto by Alex Kerr and Kathy Arlyn Sokol

Alex Kerr’s latest book Another Kyoto is another take on an old city, but in an old sort of way. Those of us who read a lot of historical work are conditioned to diligently check each footnote and to closely examine the bibliography (silently judging the book, even before we read it). Non-scholars too expect sources even when doing the daily task of reading an article on Wikipedia! However, Another Kyoto is an oral history, a conversation with a tour guide of deep knowledge, and not beholden to your scholarly standards. He says it right in the Preface:

Much of what I saw may turn out not even to be true. Although it should have been.

That doesn’t fill one with much confidence so early in the book, but Kerr’s conversational tone and profusion of insights (mundane, holy, and profane) draws the reader in quickly. Another Kyoto is a pleasurable read, bursting with knowledge, and it is best to just go along for the ride.

Kerr has spent a very long time in Japan working in traditional Japanese architecture and interior design on top of doing a lot of academic work on East Asian culture. For many years he worked in the Ōmoto “School of Traditional Japanese Arts.” (Those of you familiar with aikidō will know something about Ōmoto-kyo). With all that experience in the arts, Another Kyoto feels like getting a lesson from a martial arts sensei — an oral transmission from a recognized master. One does not ask one’s sensei for a footnote! Luckily, at the very end of the book there is a credit to Kanazawa Yoshiko who “spent hundreds of hours looking up arcane facts.” (Many people are credited in the creation of this book, but we should especially mention the co-author Kathy Sokol, a long-time collaborator of Kerr.)

Kyoto is an amazing city: the cultural centre of Japan with twelve centuries of history. It was one of the few cities in Japan that was not bombed in The War, and thus has many treasures to share, all packed in a relatively small area that you can ride your mamachari (bike) across in about 30 minutes.

I lived in Kyoto from 1999 to 2005 (minus a year for going back to Vancouver to finish my degree). As my wife is from Kyoto, and her people are still there, we visited countless times while living in Nagoya and go back each year from Canada. Kyoto is my “hometown” in Japan.

While living in Kyoto, I often played the tour guide and delighted in taking people to not just famous places, but also some of the strange, off-the-beaten-path locations. I remember taking a group of martial artists from Canada to Nijō Castle to walk the Nightingale floors and admire the layout from the perspective of 築城術 (chikujōjutsu — the art of castle fortifications); to a rock garden in a Zen temple which gives homage to Jesus Christ; and to the shrine of a famous 10th century occultist who once had an army of rats to do his bidding. I loved seeing the surprised wonder on my guests faces. Reading Another Kyoto, I was the awestruck guest.

Another Kyoto takes a novel approach to introducing the city, through chapters about the types of things you will see: gates, walls, floors, tatami, plaques, fusuma, and screens. Each chapter gives you a cultural/intellectual history of the item, points out some excellent examples in Kyoto that you can visit, and more often than not provides some observations on Japanese culture as a whole. Sometimes these cultural observations can get a little uncomfortably close to the trope of “white dude explains mysterious Orient” (ahem… a trope that might describe yours truly). However, Kerr is sensitive to this, and acknowledges it as the kind of speculation one engages in while enjoying a leisurely stroll, and not scholarly analysis. His is a perspective gained through experience, learning, and love. It is this passion that shines through, and inspires one to not only turn the page, but also to visit Kyoto yourself.

One interesting choice was to not include photography in the book. If you want to see the actual monuments he mentions, you will have to go to Japan. However, for those that haven’t been, the book doesn’t leave it totally up to your imagination: it is filled with excellent illustrations by Tetsuji Fujihara and Vitsanu Riewseng. There is a section of the book where Alex Kerr muses on time:

Kabuki actor Tamasaburo once said that a characteristic common to all classical performing arts is that they take time. I think Tamasaburo has said something important there, because the appeal of old things does seem to have something to do with the time that people once had at their disposal, the time it took to create something, the time that people had to think about these things in the old days.

I think choosing to not use photography is a great expression of this sentiment. The painstakingly detailed illustrations of the gates, walls, plaques and statues are works of art in themselves.

There are insights into the everyday — like an explanation of why on exterior walls of Japanese buildings the plaster starts a meter or so above the ground:

… the lower half of the wall is surfaced with wooden planks. This is to protect against rain wearing away the lower wall, and in the past, against mud splattered by passing carts and so forth.

There are insights into Japanese aesthetic concepts like shin gyō sō, but Kerr also contributes his own insights and hypotheses. For example, he coins the term “limination” which means to deliberately signify a threshold between two otherwise ambigiously separated spaces. What others might simply regard as a smooth transition, or a gradation, the Japanese set out to define a hard line. He gives the examples of torii — gates with no walls — defining the mundane from the holy; of tatami edgings; and of how the Japanese define the four seasons (funny aside).

When reading about the cultural and intellectual history of greater Asia, it is easy to see Japan as a backwater. So many of the major thinkers in Asia spring from India and China. Buddhism moved from India to China to Korea and Japan in a northeasterly path. Japan is an island nation on the far edge of Asia, and not much (other than imperialism) moved from East to West. However Kerr makes the point that Japan is where all Asian culture ends up, to be revered, preserved, and even refined. Many tourists come over from mainland China to see the old temples of Japan in order to discover their own past, long since destroyed in continental wars and revolutions. This book gives the reader a new appreciation for Japanese aesthetic.

Although the book has “Kyoto” in the title, the lessons can be taken for visiting any traditional building in Japan. Kyoto suffers terribly from overtourism, which will likely increase as many foreigners visit Japan next year for the Olympics. So if you are visiting Japan, but not Kyoto, this book could still be a good resource. That being said, next year I will be in Kyoto visiting family, and am really looking forward to following up on the many, many highlights I made in this book.