Another Kyoto by Alex Kerr.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is the third of Kerr’s books I’ve read. The first, I found vital, the second not so much. So this sits neatly in the middle, for me. Where it departs from the first two books, though, is in its level of personality: in Another Kyoto I think the reader receives much more of a sense of the author as a person.
Why? Because this book focuses on parts of a city – Kyoto, as you’ve guessed from the title – and scrutinises them with exquisite focus. This is a at once travel book and a little treatise on tea and form, history and behaviour that makes you want to visit its subject and enjoy its riches anew.
But in Japan, compulsive behavior goes much further, and I think it’s because Japanese society, especially Kyoto society — hierarchical, inbred, focused on itself, aristocratic, and for centuries at peace — was a fertile breeding ground for repetitive detail. Compulsive behavior was constantly reinforced and refined, until it became art.
Another Kyoto isn’t aiming for a comprehensive survey, as earlier books may have done. Instead, this is the equivalent of a whispered conversation from a knowledgeable friend. It’s full of the sort of arcane detail that delights the enthusiast, and while there’s a lot of knowledge there’s not quite so much criticism as you’ll find in his earlier works. I like to think that this is because Kerr is writing about the things he loves, here, rather than becoming angry about the things he doesn’t.
The book covers a couple of topics in great depth, mostly things which may be considered either structural or ornamental to some degree: walls, tatami, plaques, gates, screens and so forth. There’s elements of history and design development in his writing, but it’s all anchored in the idea of observation: of actually going to the places and seeing the things you’re reading about. I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t save the book for a week in the city, so I could visit and experience what’s written about in person – such is the enthusiasm conveyed in the writing.
It’s well-illustrated throughout, with clear line-drawings indicating the concepts at hand, be it multi-screen painting or demon exhalation.
If you know a little about Kyoto – ideally you’ve been there already and have seen the tourist spots before – then this book is delightful. It’s a brief course in observation: Kerr’s lifetime of studying and living in Japan is distilled in a series of quasi-histories which serve the purpose of teaching the reader how to see. The book serves to draw attention to some parts of Kyoto which may otherwise be unregarded, except by locals. While they may eventually end up on the tourist trail, for now the places described in here – and very specific aspects of those places in particular – serve as a guide for those who want to go beyond the well-known.