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May 4, 2015

"Deep Kyoto: Walks" (Book review)

When you visit Kyoto for the first time, you simply can't avoid visiting famous spots like Ryoanji's Stone Garden, the Silver Pavilion and Nijo Castle. And some unseen force (convention?) compels you to make a selfie with the Golden Pavilion as background. But once these and other touristy preliminaries are out of the way, you can take a deep breath, for now you are free to really start exploring and enjoying Kyoto as a city. Of course, you don't do that by tourist bus, but by using your own legs. Kyoto happens to be one of the world's cultural cities that is most suitable to explore on foot. Kyoto in fact begs you to start walking... walking is the only way to see Kyoto properly.


That was also the experience of the authors of Deep Kyoto: Walks, a wonderful new book containing the records of 18 residents of Kyoto who introduce their favorite walks in and around the city. The book has been carefully edited and contains clear maps to help you find your way. It is, as editor Michael Lambe writes, "an anthology of meditative walks that express each writer's deeper relationship to the area in which they live." Most of the writers are foreign residents and all have put down their roots in the Ancient Capital. They have lived here for something between 10 and 40 years and are all "old-Kyoto hands." This book is therefore an excellent guide for those who have had enough of touristy sights and finally want to see the real Kyoto. The authors are all well-versed in Japanese culture and history and prove to be thought-provoking and reliable guides.

The charm of this anthology is that the authors - whose profiles are given at the back of the book - all have quite varied interests. John Ashburne, for example, is a writer on Japanese food culture and a dashi specialist who takes the reader to his favorite shops in Nishiki, "Kyoto's Kitchen," in an article spiced up with delicious musings on food. In contrast, poet Stephen Henry Gill has embellished the walk he guides through Sagano and Arashiyama with interesting poems - no doubt stimulated by the fact that in the early 13th c. Fujiwara Teika compiled here the classical anthology Hyakunin Isshu and Basho's haiku disciple Mukai Kyorai owned a cottage, called Rakushisha ("The House of Fallen Persimmons"), where the master stayed when he visited Sagano.

Travel writer Perrin Lindelauf engages in his hobby of mountain walking by following the Kyoto Trail, that runs through the eastern, northern and western hills that encircle the city. He cuts up the 75km long trail in bite-sized bits, starting with Higashiyama and its temples and shrines; then a climb up Mt Hiei and descent into Kyoto's northern villages; a quiet stroll through Kitayama's forests; and finally a walk through the river valley of Takao and Arashiyama.

There are two more mountain walks in the collection. Shiatsu specialist Miki Matsumoto observes the "Ki," the vital essence, of Daimonji - famous for the huge bonfires lighted here in the evening of August 16 - on a climb of that mountain to enjoy the view over Kyoto. Sanborn Brown is not only a teacher at Osaka Kyoiku University, but also an avid cyclist, so he proceeds on two wheels to Kiyotaki - but from there he has to rely on just his legs for the arduous climb up Mt Atago. He makes this climb on the night of July 31, the annual Sennichi Tsuyusai Festival, when people come to the shrine to receive amulets preventing fires - a festival that was once so popular that there was even a funicular railway line up the mountain.

Travel writer and tour guide Chris Rowthorn delves into his own past by retracing the spots connected with his first visit to Kyoto in 1992, such as his lodgings, language schools and favorite bars. "Intending to stay a year, I stayed 18. I came with a suitcase and left with a wife, two children, and more stuff than you can cram into a shipping container." I guess others who have fallen in love with Kyoto have had a similar experience.

Michael Lambe, the chief editor of the present book, takes us on two walks: one is a tour along various music bars in Kiyamachi, the other a tour of monuments of Japan's modernization in the Meiji period. This last walk starts at the Incline in Keage, part of a hydroelectric power generation project undertaken in 1891 by the young engineer Tanabe Sakuro. Water was brought via a canal from Lake Biwa to supply the city's industries and an aqueduct of red brick was built in the grounds of Nanzenji (which blends so perfectly with the wooden temples that it now looks as if it has always been there).

Other writers take a stroll in the neighborhood of their Kyoto residence. Bridget Scott, who has studied Butoh and traditional Japanese dance and is a shiatsu therapist, lives near Shisendo and takes us to that magical temple (in fact the villa of a 17th century recluse), as well as to nearby Enkoji, and finally Manshuin and the Sagi no Mori shrine (all personal favorites of mine, as my first Kyoto home was also in this area). I also enjoyed reading how American artist Joel Stewart "wanders aimlessly" (uro uro as he calls it himself) from Daitokuji north to beautiful Shodenji. Shodenji is far off the beaten path and has a wonderful garden looking out towards Mt. Hiei. Travel writer Ted Taylor takes his little daughter on a promenade of his neighborhood, Murasakino (near Daitokuji). He visits no temples or gardens, but just saunters through a mundane section of Kyoto, showing us how interesting the real face of the city is.

Kyoto University lecturer Jennifer Louise Teeter, who lives near Gojodori, takes us on a long excursion that starts with the Gojozaka Pottery Festival (held on August 7) and the magical house and studio of mingei potter Kawai Kanjiro, and then north to Rokuharamitsuji Temple with its marvelous statues... and a shop selling "child raising ghost candy."

Japanese ceramics specialist Robert Yellin guides us along the Philosopher's Path, where he has his Yakimono Gallery (which alone is reason enough to come here). John Dougill, author of Kyoto: A Cultural History, one of the best books I know about Kyoto, takes us on a walk he frequently makes to Ryukoku University, where he is professor: from Demachi Yanagi along the Kamo River to Gojo, observing the different faces of the Kamo River which can be rightfully called the "heart of Kyoto."

Izumi Texidor Hirai guides us through one of her favorite Kyoto spots, the Botanical Gardens, again a very attractive destination that is blissfully free from tourists. The gardens afford a magnificent view of Mt Hiei and preserve part of the original vegetation of the area, besides being a great spot for hanami. On the other hand, Pico Iyer, the internationally famous writer of The Lady and the Monk, walks from Sannenzaka to Pontocho, showing us the contrast between the quiet path stretching along the temples at the foot of the Higashiyama hills and the noisy city bustle that engulfs you as soon as you step out of the Yasaka Shrine unto Shijodori.

Judith Clancy, known from various guidebooks such as Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital, which years ago already introduced us to the "Way of Walking" in Kyoto, wraps up with an epilogue in which she muses on the joys of experiencing the Ancient Capital on foot.

Two artists have contributed in kind, rather than recording walks: washi artist Sarah Brayer has made the beautiful cover and woodblock artist Richard Keith Steiner has contributed a wonderful mokuhanga of Daimonji.

It cannot be stressed enough: to really get a sense of Kyoto, to feel the pulsing heart of the city, you must walk. Kyoto is not only interesting for its temples, craft shops, restaurants, museums and gardens, but also as a city in its own right: it is great fun to observe the residents whose lives are partly lived on the streets, and to enjoy the city's ever changing expression. That is why Deep Kyoto: Walks is also a great read for those who are familiar with Kyoto and already have made many similar walks. I particularly enjoyed the different perspectives the various writers bring to Kyoto, the personal way in which they express their relation to the city. It in fact made me feel that I want to live in Kyoto again myself.

Deep Kyoto: Walks is a wonderful tribute to the city we all love.
Deep Kyoto: Walks is available from Amazon. 
Deep Kyoto, the website of Michael Lambe. 
I would like to thank Michael Lambe for providing a review copy.