Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

June 30, 2008

"Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide" by Gouverneur Mosher (Book review)

It seems to be out of print now, but perhaps it will bounce back as it has done so many times since it was first published in 1964: Gouverneur Mosher's Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide. This was my first guide to Kyoto when I arrived there as foreign exchange student of Kyoto University in 1982. There were very few guidebooks at that time (no Lonely Planet, no Rough Guide, no Gateway to Japan!) and Mosher's book stood out because of its high quality. I devoured the book and enthousiastically visited all the places he describes, even little Shinsen-en, the pond that is a small remnant of the original Heian palace gardens. I fell in love with Kyoto.
"I first came to Sakamoto on a quiet, mid-winter morning whose low sun was badly weakened by the haze over Lake Biwa." (Mosher on Enryakuji)
Since then, I have read the book several times from cover to cover, for it is more than a guide: the first half of the book is a history of Kyoto, told imaginatively around the temples Mosher wants to introduce (and although there are now other popular histories of Kyoto that reflect recent scholarship, as John Dougill's Kyoto, A Cultural History, I remain fond of Mosher's Kyoto). The second part contains detailed descriptions of these temples, with loving attention to art works; and the (shortest) third part is a travel guide, the only part of the book now outdated as Kyoto has changed much and tourism also. One nice point here is Mosher's advocacy of Kyoto's streetcar system, an elegant traffic solution much better than the stinking cars and buses that now clog the streets of the Old Capital.
"Here, in the depths of the mountaintop, is Saicho's tomb, standing alone wiith graceful dignity in a quiet, hidden hollow." (Mosher on Enryakuji)
Mosher delves into Kyoto's rich history, not only with contemplation, but also a sense of sadness at the list of cruelties and follies that human history inevitably is. He writes about the mighty monastery that Enryakuji on Mt Hiei once was, before Nobunaga crushed the power of the monks, and also about the rise of Amida Buddhism in Sanzenin in Ohara. The great Fujiwara clan is treated in the chapter on Byodoin, the Phoenix Hall in Uji.
"Truly, this is a building with wings, lighter than the air in which it floats [...] He (the Buddha Amida) is there inside this magical, floating building, looking in upon himself." (Mosher on Byodoin)
In Jakkoin, also in Ohara, he meditates on the fall of the Taira family. Chapter Seven, Anrakuji and Honenin, tells about the early persecution of Pure Land Buddhism. The Zen sect is treated in the chapter in Daitokuji. Ginkakuji serves to highlight the (mis-)rule of the Ashikaga clan, in Ryoanji he meditates upon the terrible Onin war and the destruction of virtually the whole of Kyoto. In Daigoji and Sanboin Mosher tells about Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Nijo Castle serves as a stage for the story of the Tokugawa.
"It is said that Nijo's garden was originally laid out without trees so that the shogun would not be saddened by the sight of the passing seasons." (Mosher on Nijo Castle)
Nice is also the inclusion of Nijo Jinya, an inn for feudal lords south of Nijo castle. He rounds off with Kiyomizudera, as the "All-Time Temple", although historically it should have come at the beginning of the book, for it preceded the founding of Kyoto.
"A deep ravine that works in through densely overgrown hills crowding close on all sides. On the slope... sits the little Tendai nunnery called Jakko-in." (Mosher on jakko-in)
As Mosher admits in his preface, he had to leave out many great temples for reasons of space: Nishi-Honganji, Chionin, Nanzenin, Tenryuji... He also leaves out the Shinto shrines, something he justifies by saying that Kyoto was a city dominated by Buddhism. That may be true, but Shinto (either allied with Buddhism in joint facilities like Gion/Yasaka or not) still played an important role - read the Genji Monogatari and you realize the popularity of the Shimogamo and Kamigamo Shrines and their festival. The Matsuo shrine played an important role in sake brewing, the Inari shrine predated the founding of the city.
"The old housekeeper at Anrakuji welcomes the rare visitor to her temple enthousiastically, for she has a fine story to tell, and the opportunity to tell it comes seldom indeed." (Mosher on Anrakuji)
The better the book, the more you miss temples that have not been included. I miss my favorite Shisendo, which Mosher calls "too special", but it could have been used to write about the life of Sinified intellectuals in the 17th century. Rakushisha in Sagano could have served as the pillar for an essay about haiku culture in Kyoto. Rokuharamitsuji would have made a great chapter about Taira Kiyomori (whose statue stands in the temple)... Kyoto's history is rich indeed; I very much would have liked to read what Mosher has to say about these and other interesting places.

In other words, Mosher should have written a second volume...

What is your favorite book about Kyoto?

P.S. My edition carries a reproduction of a beautiful woodblock print by the late Clifton Karhu on the cover.

Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide by Gouverneur Mosher, 14th printing, Charles E. Tuttle, 1992 (1st printing 1964, I have the 5th printing of 1982)