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I recently picked up the revised 2005 edition of Old Kyoto by Diane Durston (photography: Lucy Birmingham), upon the recommendation of my good friend Kathryn. I’d hesitated for a while, thinking it a guidebook, and something which could only be of use for someone actually physically in Kyoto. However, it proves itself to be a wonderfully enrapturing look at what remains today of old Kyoto, written in a way that makes you feel as though you are there, bringing alive the atmosphere of old Kyoto and not requiring you to be there.

The core of the book is a series of looks at individual shops, restaurants, and ryokan (traditional style Japanese inns), including hours, a rough price range, and other such guidebook information. But it goes on to describe each location for a full 2-3 pages, detailing the shop’s history, the master’s traditional craft skills, or the inn’s rooms, gardens, and atmosphere, each description evoking images of the romantic Japanese world of the past which you thought was gone, unattainable, forever.

Indeed, these traditions are fading, and while a great many shopowners and craftsmen are taking over the family business, and continuing the traditions, many are not. Land is in great demand in Kyoto, traditional buildings are expensive to build, repair, and maintain, and demand for traditional goods has (I’d imagine) never been lower. Attitudes about modernity have fueled the destruction of traditional Japanese culture in a major way since at least the 1850s, and that is not going to change any time soon. So, in a way, at the risk of being melodramatic, for lack of a better word, this book is a memorial to the Kyoto that has been lost, and continues to disappear more and more every day.

Old Kyoto is more than that, however. I was initially tempted to skip over the Introduction sections, as I would in any guidebook. I expected it to skim the surface of Japanese history, telling me things I already know, or things simplified to the point of being misleading or outright incorrect. I expected it to devote pages and pages to tourist information like how to hail a cab, how to understand Japanese addresses, all sorts of other things quite useful to the uninitiated traveler in Japan.

I discovered, however, that these introductory sections are in fact among the best descriptions I have ever read of many key elements of Japanese urban history. Durston ties together disparate subjects – from Noh theater to tea ceremony to shogunal banquets to kabuki and the “floating world” of the geisha, describing the effect of each on the development of the urban merchant class, its culture and its crafts – painting a clearer and more complete picture of pre-modern to early modern Japanese urban life than I have ever read before. I cannot count the number of times I had an “aah, I see” moment while reading these pages. In everything from the relationship between Shinto shrines and merchant guilds to the disasters of the 1450s, shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa’s retreat from politics & administration and the resulting “Higashiyama bunka”, to the organization of the city into neighborhoods and the way the city rebuilt itself after each disaster not in any centralized way but through the independent efforts of each neighborhood rebuilding itself, Durston provides facts and stories I never knew before, and ties them together, weaving a beautifully complete and clear picture of life in the city.

Though still something of a guidebook, I intend to read this cover to cover, exploring through its pages a Kyoto I hope to experience for real some day – hopefully before it disappears completely.

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