Kyoto’s Spirit of Place, Revealed

This review first appeared in Kyoto Journal 99, December 2020, pages 196–197, where all the page references that I include here were omitted.
Originally written in August of 2020. See a short video about this book. See the Japan Times review of this book.       +

Kyoto: A Literary Guide by John Dougill, Paul Carty, Joe Cronin, Itsuyo Higashinaka, Michael Lambe, and David McCullough. Manchester, United Kingdom: Camphor Press, 2020. 116 pages, 6 by 9 inches, ISBN 978-1-78869-208-3. $14.99 (paperback). Available on Amazon.

This is a book I wish were twice as long, or three times. Its translation team has selected and arranged a refreshing mix of poetry and occasionally prose from the full sweep of Kyoto history and offered it as a literary guide to Japan’s ancient capital. This is not a guide that gives us maps and bus routes to find Rakushisha, the Philosopher’s Walk, and Buson’s grave. Instead, it offers literature written in and about the city of history. We begin in the Heian period of a millennium ago, and progress though all eras of Kyoto history—which often represent Japan’s history—reaching contemporary topics of today’s post-Meiji period. Where else in one volume would we find writing (mostly poems) by Sei Shōnagon, Murasaki Shikibu, Yoshida Kenkō, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, Bashō, Buson, Issa, Shiki, Yosano Akiko, Santōka, Gary Snyder, Edith Shiffert, and Cid Corman? When I reached the final page, I wanted the book to go on, with even more of the collection’s fresh translations and pleasing way of representing not just different parts of the city but celebrations of place through more than a thousand years of Kyoto history. The limit of the book’s selections itself testifies to the riches available, choosing the suitably Japanese path of understatement. What’s more, the collection’s complex content is elegantly designed and augmented by artwork and photographs (the latter mostly by John Dougill) to represent all of Kyoto’s times and places.

        The book’s introduction tells us that Kyoto: A Literary Guide grew out of meetings of the Kyo-centrics, a group of translators that has met monthly in Kyoto for “poetry in translation” discussions for ten years. Its members are John Dougill, Paul Carty, Joe Cronin, Itsuyo Higashinaka, Michael Lambe, and David McCullough. As such, this book is a monument to the group’s dedication and friendship as much as it is a celebration of Kyoto’s literature. As they explain, “the historical framework helps give the material context” (xii) and their hope is that, “As you browse through these pages, perhaps something of Kyoto’s distinctive spirit of place may make itself felt” (xiii).

        Nearly every period of Japanese history is given a brief overview before selections from that period appear. Here’s a selection from the Heian period (794–1185) of chapter one, a poem by Sosei Hōshi from the Kokin Wakashū imperial anthology (9):

                Wherever I look

                willow is mixed with cherry blossom—

                the capital, indeed

                has turned into a spring brocade

On the opposite page is a painting by Buson, “Birds in Willows and Blossoming Peach Tree.” And then this from the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, by Fujiwara no Tadahira (14):

                If the maple leaves

                atop Mount Ogura

                only had a heart

                they would keep their colour

                until the emperor’s procession

One of the book’s generous footnotes (one for every poem or prose passage) tells us here that “The poem was written following a visit by retired Emperor Uda to see the autumn colours on Mt. Ogura in Arashiyama. He wanted his son Emperor Daigo to see them too, so he ordered a courtier, Fujiwara no Tadahira (880–949), to compose a suitable poem” (14). Opposite this we see a photo of Mount Ogura with the famous Togetsu Bridge in the foreground.

        Likewise, opposite the following poem by Izumi Shikibu is a photo of a “Memorial rock at Kifune Shrine inscribed with Izuki Shikibu’s poem” (18):

                Reflecting on my life—

                the fireflies above the stream

                seem to be my yearning soul

                wandering free of my body

The original Japanese text and romaji appears with each poem or prose selection, giving readers additional ways to enjoy and study this collection.

        From the book’s second chapter, on the Kamakura period (1185–1333), we have a famous selection from the Heike Monogatari (30), Kamo no Chōmei’s “The river flows on without ceasing / and yet the water is never the same” (33), and a selection from Yoshida Kenkō’s Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness), concluding with “Life is wonderful because it does not last” (37).

        From chapter three, on the Muromachi period (1336–1573), we have this poem from Ashikaga Yoshimasa, founder of Ginkaku-ji, Kyoto’s celebrated Silver Temple, about a mountain that rises above the temple (43):

                My hut stands at the foot

                of the Moon-Awaiting Mountain—

                with what fascination I follow

                the light of the moon

                as it inclines across the sky

        The book skips the brief Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573–1600). Chapter four’s overview of the Edo period (1600–1868) tells us how, during its time, “the arts flourished, especially kabuki, bunraku (puppet plays), and renga (linked verse). It was also a golden age for haiku, led by the influential Matsuo Bashō” (53). And of course, the book would not be complete without the quintessential Kyoto poem by this great master of haiku (57):

                even in Kyoto

                I long for Kyoto—


The poem appears with a portrait of Bashō by Buson, and the following is Buson’s poem, “set in the grounds of Konpuku-ji in Kyoto’s north-east, where Buson restored a dilapidated hut in which Bashō had stayed about a hundred years previously.” Buson “named it Bashō-an and erected a stone monument to honour his predecessor” (66):

                when I die

                let me be near this monument—

                withered pampas grass

This chapter also includes a rice-planting song, “Please buy me a Kyoto comb” (68), and Issa’s homage to the pagoda at Tō-ji, Japan’s tallest wooden tower (71):

                just the pagoda

                of Tō-ji is visible—

                summer grove

        Chapter five, on the Meiji period (1868–1912), begins by telling us that “In a surprisingly short space of time radical reform and rapid industrialization transformed a feudalistic Japan into a modern unified state” and reminds us that, “In literary terms the ancient capital was represented as the essence of Japaneseness, in contrast to the Westernising Tokyo” (77). Here we have the modern tanka of Yosano Akiko, and the following haiku by Shiki about a visit he made to Kyoto (87):

                so quiet—

                the end of the year

                at innermost Chion Temple

        The last chapter covers the post-Meiji period (starting in 1912), beginning with the following Santōka poem, quoting a mantra from Pure Land Buddhism (93):

                spring wind—

                when the doors open

                namu amida butsu

Showing further variety are song lyrics by Nagata Mikihiko, in “Gion Ballad” (96), and an excerpt from Mishima Yukio’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, published in 1956, “the most famous novel to be set in Kyoto” (98). Gary Snyder, who famously studied Zen in Kyoto, makes an appearance with his poem “Kyoto: March” (104), as does Edith Shiffert with a “New Year’s Eve” poem (106) and Cid Corman with “Getting On (Fukuōji)” (110). The latter three poems began in English but are all translated into Japanese, showing the translation team to be skilled at moving in either direction. Closing out the book are poems by Ken Rodgers (112), editor of Kyoto Journal, and Chris Mosdell, a lyricist and poet who has written lyrics sung by “Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, and Yellow Magic Orchestra” (114). As we can see, the breadth of selections is extraordinary, like the breadth of time the book seeks to represent, even while it confines itself to Kyoto-specific literature. This is a book that delivers on its promise, of making felt Kyoto’s distinctive spirit of place.