Posts Tagged ‘travel guides’

Machiya storefronts at Ogawa-Kami-goryô-mae, one of countless sights I would not have experienced/enjoyed if not for simply taking a walk (or bike ride) with no particular destination in mind. Immediately nearby you can find Fushin’an, a temple with some connection to tea master Sen no Rikyû, and the remaining foundation stones of Dôdôbashi, a bridge famous as the site of clashes between Hosokawa Katsumoto and Yamana Sôzen.

I have been following Michael Lambe’s Deep Kyoto for several years now, at least, both the blog and on Facebook, and have thoroughly enjoyed the posts, which come not from the perspective of a tourist, writing to a (potential) tourist, but rather from the perspective of someone deeply situated within the life of the city. I was fortunate myself to spend six weeks in Kyoto back in 2010 (and unfortunate that it wasn’t longer), six weeks which felt like (and continue, in my memory to feel like) several months at least – a real experience. During those six weeks, I of course visited tons of historical sites, and in fact spent a few hours nearly every day riding my bike off in search of one, and seeing what else I came across along the way. But, in those six weeks I also got a taste – just a taste – of what it might be like to live there more long-term. I was generously invited by a friend to attend his Noh recital, and to go to dinner afterwards, a private reception on the second story of a Mukade-chô shop. I went to a local public bath several times, and got to know a handful of wonderful cafés. The couple from whom I was renting a room invited me to go see their aunt’s paintings at the city museum.

Hanging out along the riverbanks at Sanjô, as people have been doing for centuries.

Through Deep Kyoto, I get a sense of this kind of life on a regular basis. If you’re visiting for just a few days, you’re going to go to all the big-name tourist sites, or at least as many as you can fit in. And for that, you’re going to want a typical sort of guidebook. But, if you’re going to be in Kyoto for longer, or if you’re like me and you’re not sure when you’ll be in Kyoto again any time soon, but you (want to) feel some sort of connection to the regular ongoing cultural events and life of the city, you’re going to be interested in art openings, performances, all sorts of out-of-the-way cafés, restaurants, shops, and sights. And that’s what Deep Kyoto provides. If I were living in Kyoto more long-term, this would be among my chief sources of information on all the exciting things going on, from wine festivals and record & CD sales to the International School’s annual bazaar, album release parties, and gallery openings. And that’s all just within the last month or two (May-June 2015).

So, I guess it should have come as no surprise that Deep Kyoto’s first book, Deep Kyoto Walks, is not your typical guidebook. Available only on Kindle, for the nice low price of US$7.99 or 811 yen, it contains 18 travelogues, stories, accounts, musings, by a handful of different authors, writing about different walks through the city.

I loved riding my bike around, and got a very different feel for the city as a whole, or for individual neighborhoods, than I would have gotten focusing only on the destinations. Indeed, whenever my father and I visit a city together, we do a lot more walking around, just generally getting a sense of the place, than frantically crossing off a list of must-sees. And I think this approach – whether on bike, or walking – works especially well for Kyoto. There is so much to see, it’s like almost every single city block contains at least one “destination” of note; and beyond that, Kyoto is such a historical, cultural, romantic, city, and that really comes out in “Deep Kyoto Walks.”

The Rokkakudô, seen through a Starbucks.

These, then, are not your typical “walks” that you’d find in a guidebook. They don’t say “look to your left, and you’ll see such-and-such. Such-and-such has a long history, and is famous for this-and-that. Be sure to notice the X and Y.” These are not pre-programmed tourist walks for you to emulate, per se. They are accounts of personal experiences, which bring the city to life, fleshing it out with the lives of people who have lived there and experienced the city for themselves, in a deep way, and I suppose setting a model or an inspiration for you to go and experience it for yourself. Still, these stories are deeply rooted (I used “deeply” at first in this post by accident, by coincidence, no pun intended; but now I’m just embracing it) in specific places in the city, and so one could certainly take them as guides to places to visit, as well.

In a chapter entitled “Old School Gaijin Kyoto,” Chris Rowthorn writes about his experiences in Kyoto in the early ’90s as a young man his mid-twenties. He touches on big-name sites like the Gosho – the Kyoto Imperial Palace – though only as a public park he happened upon in his wanderings one day, and stopped to scarf down an orange on one of the park benches. He talks about the English school he worked at, and the Japanese language school he took lessons at, not that either do anything for the aspiring tourist, but I suppose that’s not the point. Most of the chapter is dedicated to talking about cafés, bars, and restaurants he enjoyed during his time in Kyoto – these, too, are written from his own experience, a first-person autobiographical anecdote, and not necessarily as a “guide” to the reader, though one could certainly take him up on his recommendations and search out some of these places.

Some chapters take a somewhat more standard form. In “In Praise of Uro Uro,” Joel Stewart walks us through an actual walk through the city, from Daitoku-ji, past Imamiya Shrine, through some neighborhoods and other sights not explicitly named, to Shôden-ji, a small temple I have certainly never heard of, but which from Stewart’s story sounds like a precious hidden gem. A number of the other chapters follow this similar form, providing an actual walk one could recreate, from one place to another, commenting on history and things to note seeing, though still from the point of view of personal experience, of a traveler’s anecdotal story, not through the voice of a tour guide embedded in the oh-so-artificial tourism industry.

The Takase Canal, which runs alongside Kiyamachi-dôri.

A chapter by Michael Lambe entitled “Up and Down the Ki'” takes the reader on a bar crawl in Kiyamachi and Pontocho – probably Kyoto’s most famous or stereotypical nightlife district – with a particular focus not only on the bars, and drinks, but also on music.

The book ends with an Epilogue by Judith Clancy, author of Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital and Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide: Affordable Dining in Traditional Townhouse Spaces, two books which I own but must admit I have yet to get around to reading at all, but which I imagine are quite useful. Having lived in Kyoto for 40 years, Clancy writes in general about the experience of walking around in Kyoto – the experiencing of the city itself – and what one gains by looking around, and especially looking down. I find this amusing, and intriguing, pointing to just how special and different Kyoto is, as so many writings will advise you to look up in New York, for example. In New York, or Tokyo, you look up, and you see the architecture, the impressive height of the buildings, the impressive totality of the urban environment. In Judith Clancy’s Kyoto, you look down, and notice potted plants outside of rows of houses along a quiet side street. I quite appreciate her closing words,

Nihon ni Kyoto ga atte yokatta. Thank goodness Japan has Kyoto. … I agree.”

And I agree as well.

The book’s appendices contain bios of each of the authors, representing a fair diversity of Kyoto experiences, and a set of nice maps to help guide you through your own exploration of the city. If you’re reading it on a device with proper capabilities, each clean and easy-to-read map is also accompanied by a link to view the same area on Google Maps. I don’t personally own a Kindle (read this on my clunky laptop), and am not well accustomed to such devices, but for one who is, I can easily imagine this working well, to have just the map open, full-screen, as one walks around the city, possibly taking breaks at a temple or a café to read through the chapter. Just remember to look around, and experience Kyoto for yourself – don’t get lost in your screen.

As for me, I cannot wait to go back to Kyoto again.

All photos my own.

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“Japan Travel Guide: The Ultimate Itinerary Planner: All the cool places, the ass kicking festivals, and the sweetest cherry blossom spots you need to plan your trip to Japan” by Emma Chan and Christopher Crane launches today, and I’ve been asked to spread the word. It is a short (~60 pages) and very basic travel guide which could serve as a good very basic intro for a Japanophile on their first trip to Japan.

The guide consists largely of very brief descriptions of sites and events in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Okinawa, and one of the things I really like about this guide is that unlike many other guidebooks, it’s not seemingly aimed at the generic world traveler, either the backpacker (at one end of the economic spectrum) or the high-powered jetsetter (at the other). This is a Japanophile’s guidebook. It doesn’t guide you to only the most standard touristy sites, doesn’t exoticize Japan as a “travel experience” in general, but rather as a Japan experience in particular, and it doesn’t focus on super expensive things to see and do.

I remember being a study abroad student, my first time in Tokyo, and being so eager and excited to see both the ultramodern “wacky Japan” and also the traditional and historical side of Japan. I wasn’t interested in the super standard touristy things – the kind of things a non-Japanophile would be looking for, visiting Tokyo only once in their lifetime alongside trips to Florence, London, and anywhere/everywhere else. I was interested in those things that might specifically appeal to a Japanophile like myself.

Akihabara, Tokyo’s center of anime/manga/video games and electronics, way back in 2003.

This travel guide addresses those interests, those interested parties. For the Kyoto section, it touches on not only Nijô Castle, Gion, and Kiyomizu-dera – the standard must-see tourist sites – but also the International Manga Museum, and a couple suggestions for live bars, and advises against the touristy bar scene at Kiyamachi. Similarly, for Tokyo, the guide mentions Meiji Shrine, Sensô-ji, Tokyo Skytree – a lot of the standard things – but also cat cafés and French pastry bakeries. The guide’s sections on festivals includes not just the most traditional things like Gion Matsuri and Aoi Matsuri, but also AnimeJapan, and Asakusa’s annual Samba Festival (yes, as in Brazilian samba).

There are definitely places mentioned here I have never heard of, let alone been to, which I think is saying something – I have been fortunate to visit Japan five times now, and to go to pretty much all the most major sites in Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, and Kamakura, as well as to many other places. So, if you can recommend gardens, temples, bars, cafés that I’ve never heard of, it means you’re going off the well-beaten path. Good on you.

The Great Buddha (Daibutsu) at Kamakura.

The guide can be far too basic at times – for example, devoting only a paragraph to Kamakura, saying very little about what to see there, how to get there, how to get around while there, but only saying very general broad basic things about it.

Kamakura is a small city at the south of Tokyo. Simply put, it’s beautiful. If you’re into
visiting shrines and temples, spend the day there and pay your tribute to the giant Buddha
of Kōtoku-in. The city hosts five Zen temples. Visit the eastern part of the city, which is
more tourist-free and still full of sacred places. Here, you can witness a tea-ceremony,
walk through a sky-scraping bamboo forest, and face the Pacific Ocean.

On the flip-side, though, they could have done the same for Nara, but instead they do a nice job, devoting quite a few pages to giving Nara more or less as in-depth a treatment as Tokyo and Kyoto. I’ve been to Nara several times, but still absolutely learned something from this section of the guide – next time I go back, I’ll know where to find a saké museum, and reportedly excellent curry.

The guide also includes a brief section on Okinawa, which is more than can be said of many Tokyo/Kyoto-centric guides. As with Kamakura, we get only the briefest descriptions of a dozen different places, and basically nothing at all in-depth. For the capital city of Naha, the guide says only that you can find all of Okinawa here, in one place, but makes no mention at all of Shuri castle, Naminoue Shrine, or any other specific sites.. instead guiding the reader to a theme park Okinawa World in Nanjô, a bit of a distance away from Naha. But, still, I guess it’s good that they’ve mentioned Ôgimi-son, Yaeyama, and a handful of other things a bit off the beaten path, rather than repeating the standard things about Kokudai-dôri (International Street – Okinawa’s equivalent to Times Square, the super touristy area that probably should not be the center of your Okinawa experience).

Ashita no Joe hanging out on Kokusai-dôri in Naha.

So, all in all, this guide is probably best as just a starting point, to be used in concert with other resources, which can fill it out, flesh it out, tell you more about each of the cities and sites mentioned so briefly in this guide. But, the guide is only 99 cents on Kindle from Amazon, and right now (for a limited time, I presume), it’s free!! So, at those prices, it certainly cannot hurt to grab it up.

All photos my own.

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