Deep Kyoto Walks: A Review

They say Kyoto is ancient and elegant. And this is true. Sort of. But Kyoto is also a mishmash of architectural madness, from post-war era concrete buildings on up to recent prefabricated monstrosities made of plastic. It’s all over the place aesthetically and I love it. … [E]ventually the whole chaotic collage of the city seeped into my life and work, so I gave up lamenting “progress.”


I am comforted by knowing the city well enough to know where my own private “old” Japan still exists, and also I must say that I have a fondness for urban grunge and the detritus of modern city life. I love the forgotten corners, the less trod paths, unknown buildings stained with the patinas of age and all of the head-turning eclecticism. For me, a lot of the magic lies in the nameless details here that change day to day, and the light as it shifts from season to season. To see all of this stuff for what it is, see what the city continues to become, and accept it all, right alongside the cultural icons here is what makes things all the more interesting. It’s connecting the dots; seeing the continuum between present-day Kyoto, as a functioning, transforming city and it’s romantic past.

––Joel Stuart, “In Praise of Uro Uro”


I had to acknowledge that I had to come to Japan in order to see that a 7-Eleven here was just as Japanese — as foreign — as any meditation-hall, and no less full of wonder (or even kindness and attention). Sanctity lies not in any object but in the spirit you bring to it.

––Pico Iyer, “Into the Tumult”

These two quotes, taken from the recently published Deep Kyoto Walks, edited by Michael Lambe of Deep Kyoto and Ted Tayler of Notes from the Nog, perfectly encapsulate the spirit of the city I call home, and the collection of eighteen essays from long-time residents are as diverse as Kyoto herself.

This book should not be considered a guidebook. While it is true that there are directions, here and there, on how to find the intimate locations mentioned in Deep Kyoto Walks‘s pages, the true heart of the collection is in the people, and their experiences, both as Outsider Looking In, and Already Through the Looking Glass. A memoir of multiple consciousnesses, readers can expect to be taken into the lifeblood of Kyoto’s real culture, not just the stereotype emblazoned by so many years of postcards painting geisha crossing red-lacquered bridges.

Step into the tsukemono (pickle) shops of Nishiki Market, the mish-mash architectural landscape of Kyoto’s ever-changing streets, ancient forests and mountain trails, shrines with less than peaceful origins, and the many smiles (or scowls) of Kyoto natives.

While there were some essays that didn’t really speak to me on a personal level, there were many that built up in syllable the virtues I know to be true of the great city of Kyoto. A wide variety of narrative styles also fill the pages of this book, ranging from the poetic and eclectic, to the more intimate and accessible. Nearly all of them offer unique historical insights––some information of which even most Kyoto-born residents are not aware.

Be prepared for not every moment to be a glowing recollection––many of the authors share a disappointment in the decline of the traditional structures and culture within the old capital, and the general “urban progress” arriving in its wake.

My personal favorites from the collection include:

  • “Ghosts, Monkeys & Other Neighbors” by Bridgett Scott, mainly because this is my neighborhood, and Scott characterized it perfectly.
  • “Into the Tumult” by Pico Iyer, for Iyer’s wonderful considerations and easy-flowing prose.
  • “Old School Gaijin Kyoto” by Chris Rowthorn, for his delightful descriptions of food and the life of an English teacher in Japan that I could relate to.
  • “Kamogawa Musing” by John Dougill, for he wrote of my own favorite place in Kyoto––the great Kamo River.
  • “Gods, Monks, Secrets, Fish” by John Ashburne, for the zen and food mixture by one of the coolest Japanese Buddhists in my memory, Dogen.
  • “Across Purple Fields” by Ted Taylor, for an intimate glimpse into the heart of Kyoto’s quiet, interconnected neighborhoods.
  • “Hiking Mt. Atago” by Sanborn Brown, because I have never explored this part of Kyoto, and Brown’s essay made me excited to break out the hiking boots.
  • “In Praise of Uro Uro” by Joel Stewart––arguably one of the strongest essays in this collection––for his beautiful prose and turns of phrase, as well as the light, unassuming delight he took in his “walk”.
  • “Rounding Off: The Kyoto Trail” by Perrin Lindelauf is possibly the only true ‘guidebook’ style essay in the collection, but it is a wonderful introduction to one of the most gorgeous walks in Kyoto (one I have yet to complete).

DeepKyoto-cover-0423-finalYou can pick up an ebook copy of Deep Kyoto Walks on Amazon (click the image). Included in the ebook are appendixes with some definitions of the rarer Japanese terms in the essays, as well as maps showing the locations of the walks in the essays.

I can easily recommend this book to anyone with a passable knowledge of either Japanese culture or history––an intent to travel to Kyoto is not required in order to enjoy its interior.

Perhaps the most important thing that Deep Kyoto Walks accomplishes is, like the morning ritual of a zen temple, a fresh raking of the sands of impression the mind holds for places in time. I leave my own “walk” through these pages with a new perspective on this city that has so captured my heart, as if I am just arrived, all over again. And there really is no greater delight than the knowledge that there is a bunch of “new” to be learned, and your own feet can take you there. As Michael Lambe states in his foreword:

“Let’s go for a walk.”

12 thoughts on “Deep Kyoto Walks: A Review

  1. Again thanks for sharing. I feel a little cheated as I think your personal comments about the place you find yourself are just as revealing, personal and poignant as any of those you review.
    I have never had a reason to want to visit Japan. Some for the reasons you give keep me from going. I have always been a Europhile.

    I have always enjoyed Joan Didion’s, Slouching towards Bethlehem, may be for the same reasons you enjoyed the “Walks.”


    1. I really want to visit Europe. Some day…. it’s just not in the cards right now. I think the only place in the world I have no real interest in visiting is South America. Not sure why.. it just never caught on in my head. Hopefully when I’m old and gray I still have enough energy and cash to hop on a world cruise and just see it all. 🙂


      1. Funny thing about South America. I have never had the urge. I have even turned down teaching assignments there. But then I have even an unfounded fear of traveling in the East because of the intricacies of their art. Go figure!


  2. I think it’s always interesting to read another person’s perspective about the place we consider home.


    1. I agree. I think, for the most part, the contributors really hit the nail on the head. I think what makes it really good, though, is it makes you think about your own perspective in ways you wouldn’t have otherwise observed.


  3. As visiting Japan is probably not in my future, I think I would really enjoy reading this collection in order to get a sense of the spirit that others have captured. Thanks!


  4. And again, another book I simply can’t wait for my dad to read. Having lived there for a few years himself, he seems to have left most of his heart in the country and feels a constant tug to return and reclaim it. Physically, it’s an impossibility for him now, but simply the act of “walking” with each essayist, will be one of the sweetest tastes of his other home he’ll have had in a long, long time.
    Thanks, Alex. 🙂

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    1. What a small world! If your dad ends up reading it, I hope it fulfills that need in him. I know sometimes I realize that staying here indefinitely is probably not likely, and I worry about the same bug. There’s something about this place that certainly “grabs a hold” and changes you fundamentally.


  5. Thanks for that illuminating review. I’m one of the contributors, but what you had to say about Joel’s piece in particular made me want to go back and read it again… I thought the collection was interesting for the very divergent tacks that people took. It made the anthology more appealing I think than if the walks were all in the same mode of writing…


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