Reviews / June 2017 (Issue 36: Writing Japan)

Another Kyoto

by Ian Yates


Alex Kerr with Kathy Arlyn Sokol (authors), Tetsuji Fujihara (illustrator), Another Kyoto, Sekai Bunka Publishing, 2016. 336 pgs.


In Another Kyoto, we have a meticulously written, deeply thought out, original, enjoyable and at times brilliant examination into just how architecture connects to deeper meaning in the old capital of Japan. However, to be direct and upfront, this book may not be for everyone.

It may not be for you if you are a casual tourist, or a first-time visitor to the old governmental and current cultural capital of Japan. It may not be for you if Kyoto is simply a daytrip after Harajuku and Akihabara, or if your visit to the city is placed directly between seeing AKB48 and heading to Osaka to catch NMB48. There are hundreds of guidebooks for those visitors, and Kyoto will open up its magic to them, too… but this book is for a different reader.

Of course, it may be that reader is you. This book may be for you if you find yourself entering the sites of the city for a second, third, tenth time. It may be for you, if while there, you turn just slightly away from that shine catching everyone else's eyes and focus on something that is beautiful in a way that you just can't quite explain. And it very well may be for you, if between Harajuku and Akihabara, or while waiting for AKB or NMB, you want to know and understand just a bit more about the city. If this sounds like you, then there is no better book available.

So, now that we are hopefully on the right footing to begin, let's open up and meet our guide for a very different trip around the well covered historical behemoth of Kyoto. Let's allow Alex Kerr along with co-author Kathy Arlyn Sokol and the beautiful illustrations of Tetsuji Fujihara to show us another Kyoto.

This work should be described as an essential and wonderful further step in the English writing available on the subject of Kyoto. However, as the initial warning was meant to hint towards, this is not a simple book, nor an easy read, even though the tone does consistently remain friendly and casual. The first hint towards this difficulty is that a quick search will reveal that the work contains neither a map, nor any type of annotations or indexing. So, while the language flows beautifully, it runs in a stream of conscious fashion, bouncing from idea to idea and place to place. Therefore, when approaching this book, you should either have a) a good knowledge of the destinations covered or b) a city guide close at hand to reference and mark with all the places you are going to visit.

Mr. Kerr here will act as our knowledgeable and friendly professor, never hand-holding or speaking down to the reader, but giving us, in this relatively short work, a masterclass in aesthetics, architecture and Japanese beauty. Kerr's single concession towards helping the reader is to provide numerous sketches, which demonstrate the author's points, while also turning this study into a work of art, as visually appealing as it is mentally stimulating.

Alex Kerr has been a staple in Japan for many years, known and respected as an expert on Japanese drama, art and calligraphy, but also known controversially for his tough, though honest and loving, view of Japan in his previous book, Dogs and Demons. With Another Kyoto, Kerr turns the focus away from the future and back to the history.

Each chapter of Another Kyoto takes on a loose topic and then whirls the reader around the city to any and every possible place where its depths can be revealed. Many of the topics centre on architecture at its most basic levels; "Gates," "Walls," "Floors" and "Screens" are just a handful of the chapter titles. These chapters begin with the specific architectural feature suggested by the title and grow out into more detailed and widespread explorations of the meanings behind them. "Gates," for example, takes us quickly from the entrance to Higashi-Honganji on to the newer entrance to Heian shrine and then back down south and then up the mountain to the jaw-droppingly photogenic Fushimi Inari. This journey serves to illustrate how these gates, the ones rushed past after paying an entrance fee, are not merely the separation of the outside from the inside, but the embodiment of what the author terms as "Limination," or "doing away with ambiguity".

Kerr makes an interesting and counterintuitive point here. While Japan is often seen as a difficult culture, or at least more ambiguous than many Western cultures, the separation of ambiguities is always clear. The ambiguities of office politics are left at the door to the Izakaya bar, and the ambiguities of outside relationships are left at the gate, or Genkan to one's own home. As such, these Kyoto gates are nearly magical in allowing guests a clear line of entrance, where all the extraneous troubles are left outside, at least for a short time. Such magic requires more than just a door, and readers are encouraged to appreciate the time and detail put into these magic separation lines.

In-between such specific (though widespread and free flowing) investigations into architectural features, Kerr also looks at the theory of Shin Gyo So, or Formal, Semi-formal, Informal. Here, China is placed in the role of Shin, Korea in Gyo and Japan in the lowly So. Again, through specific examples, Kerr paints an interesting idea, that while Japan took on the place of the poor, simple informal artist, the true beauty of Japan is in making the So, the low and informal, absolutely perfect and breath-taking. While classic Chinese art may shine, Kerr would argue that the single flower placed in the grey vase in an empty alcove holds far more beauty, and all the more so for its lack of shine.

All these exploration of art and architecture eventually leads Kerr straight to hell. Pardon? Well, Kerr takes us in the final chapter to a far lesser known part of Kyoto in Senbon Enma-do, an oft ignored temple near Tenmangu Shrine. Enshrined here is Enma the king of Japanese Hell and the one who stands in judgement, deciding who shall pass on to heaven and who shall be sent to hell. Kerr ends the book here in a very personal and esoteric way, by confronting the statue of Enma and allowing himself to be judged. What does Enma have to say? You'll have to reach the ending of the book yourself to begin to understand. Or, maybe you actually have to make the trip out the back of Tenmangu and over to Enma-do and confront the devil himself. Maybe bring your copy of Another Kyoto, sit in the courtyard, amongst the architecture, near the statue of the devil, and put it all together.

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