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Book Review: Another Kyoto By Alex Kerr With Kathy Arlyn Sokol

An enchanting and fascinating insight into Japanese landscape, culture, history and future!

Another Kyoto book coverAlmost a follow up to his ‘Lost Japan’ the book is a written record of conversations between Alex Kerr and his colleague and friend the author Kathy Arlyn Sokol on their visits to various sites around Kyōto. As Kerr points out the various sections delve into and expound three major influences; South East Asia, China and Japan. It takes an “off the beaten path” look at what he has seen many times before, picking up on the details that usually go unnoticed when visiting temples and shrines. More casual in style than Kerr’s previous publications his chatty style makes this guide very accessible even if the information that it contains is much more about the ‘esoteric’ in the everyday. Thankfully the book is blessed with a plethora of illustrations that complement the text well. Kerr scatters the pages with the names of places as though the reader is already familiar with them and indeed for someone who has been visiting Kyōto for thirty years many of the places are very familiar but the first time visitor who might be intending to use this book to complement their visit will probably need to do a little general background research as general guide to those places and their locations this book is not.

Each chapter considers an element of Kyōto’s traditional built environment; gates, walls, floors, tatami (floor mats), plaques, fusuma (sliding screens) and (standing) screens, except for two chapters, one on Shin Gyo So, which is an attempted examination of the Japanese tripartite philosophical sense of formal/semi-formal/informal and their inter-relationship, and the other, the last chapter, on Enma, the King of Hell. Kerr’s generally chatty style belies his knowledge of esoteric and arcane facts which, as the book points out, have been thoroughly cross checked. It opens up a vista for the serious visitor which has a far wider perspective than the often involuntarily uninformed tourist visit, getting under the ‘skin’ of Kyōto in a way that opens the door a little on the, oft perceived, imperturbable Japanese and their traditions. In light of this future visits to what were perceived as already familiar places in Kyōto will need to be reviewed in situ accompanied by the book and thankfully the paperback version which unfortunately doesn’t seem to be available in the UK comes in a very handy eminently transportable size.

In some places Junichirō Tanizaki’s ‘In Praise of Shadows’ (In’ei Raisan – 陰翳礼讃) is referenced and like Tanizaki’s book ‘Another Kyōto’ occasionally generalises. Though they both reflect on the traditional built environment that is where the similarity ends, Tanizaki’s book reflecting much more on the aesthetics of form rather than the detail, though they would probably make the perfect companion pieces.

‘Another Kyōto’ is a very welcome addition to the list of publications on the city’s shrines, temples, ancient buildings and gardens but it is probably one more for the seasoned aficionado than the single visit tourist.

‘Another Kyōto’ is available from Amazon UK on Kindle (£9.14) and hardback (£29.80)

Alex Kerr and Kathy Arlyn Sokol Deep Kyoto

Alex Kerr and Kathy Arlyn Sokol at the book launch (Deep Kyōto)

A video clip of the book launch which took place in Kyōto

Alex Kerr Japan Society

Alex Kerr (Japan Society)

Alex Kerr’s website: http://alex-kerr.com/

Reviewer Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

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