Kyoto: A Cultural History
Kyoto, the ancient former capital of Japan, breathes history and mystery. Its temples, gardens and palaces are testimony to many centuries of aristocratic and religious grandeur. Under the veneer of modernity, the city remains filled with countless reminders of a proud past. John Dougillexplores this most venerable of Japanese cities, revealing the spirit of place and the individuals that have shaped its often dramatic history. Courtiers and courtesans, poets and priests, samurai and geisha people the pages of his account. Covering twelve centuries in all, the book not onlyprovides a historical overview but also brings to life the cultural magnificence of the city of "Purple Hills and Crystal Streams."
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I've been here seven years and I've been looking all over the place for a book in English about Kyoto's history. It's such a key part of Japanese history and culture that you would think there would be tons of work out there for the Anglophone in Japan. But no. Oh sure, there were plenty of books about walking tours, or the best places to go and see temples, or Kyoto traditional neighborhoods, but I couldn't find a general, comprehensive account of the history of Kyoto.
So finally, this year, John Dougill publishes his book. At 225 pages it's a bit thin, but it's very readable and very relevant, and to be honest, I wish I had read it before I came here.
He tackles the history of the city by way of its culture - art, religion, poetry, tea and so on. By looking at the changes in the arts and the creativity of Japan through the ages, he's able to plot the exciting, beautiful and occasionally tragic times in Kyoto's history.
The fun of reading about the city in which you are living is that you know the places that you're reading about. For instance, I found out that I live nearly dead-bang in the middle of the original site of Heian-Kyo, designed over a thousand years ago. I learned something that had been bugging me for a long while - who was living here, and what was this place called before it was Kyoto? Turns out it was the Hata and the Kamo families on the west and east sides, with a whole lot of nothing in between. And it was called Yamashiro. I found out who the statue of the kneeling samurai on Sanjo street was (Takayama Hikokuro, who struck the very first sparks of what would eventually be the Meiji Restoration).
And so on.
In short, this book made Kyoto new again for me, and that is a fantastic feat. I still want more history, but this will satisfy me for quite some time....
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