Book Review: Kyoto: Seven paths to the heart of the city

Kyoto: Seven paths to the heart of the city, by Diane Durston. Five out of five stars, for story inspiration, practical information, and sheer loveliness. The pictures of ceramics, silk threads, and Kyoto locals engaged in various traditional occupations alone are breathtaking. Combine that with the various maps and practical information, and you have a “walking guide to Kyoto” that reads like a worldbook for a fantastic setting.

As it should. Just looking at shots like the tunnel of a “thousand torii” that leads up the hill behind Fushimi Inari Taisha, I see places that have been depicted in at least a half-dozen anime set in the times of the Meiji Revolution and the Shinsengumi. If you’re in one of those fandoms and you want the background of what it looked like, this is an awesome source.

And for more than just setting photos. This book covers the history of the machinamai, the wooden rowhouses of Kyoto, and how the organization of those houses and businesses led to neighborhood cultures then and today. There are bits on architecture, historical preservation, traditional crafts, what’s still being practiced and what’s been impacted by modern life. The book covers seven districts; Sanneizaka, Gion Shinbashi, Sagono Toriimoto, Kamigamo Shaké-machi, Nishijin, Fushimi, and Uji.

(If you’re wondering, “Wait, Fushimi as in the Battle of Toba-Fushimi?” Yes. That Fushimi. And the book also directs you toward Teradaya, gouges of the swordfight still intact, where Sakamoto Ryoma escaped shogunate forces by darting out a window in the nude.

…Sometimes history is just ridiculously awesome.)

Each district comes with a walking map, suggested times of year and day to see specific points of interest and crafts in progress, an estimate of “time you’ll need to see the most interesting things”, and taxi driver instructions in Japanese. There are also separate sections on crafts, cuisine, the tea ceremony, festivals, and where to find up to date travel information and books in English while in Kyoto.

Of particular note, while you can find plenty of sushi and the like on offer, kaiseki meals and Kyoto cuisine (Kyo-ryori) in general are quite different. For protein, for example, there’s less fish, and instead an extensive use of yuba (skimmed from boiled soy milk) and fu (similar, from wheat). This is the kind of detail you want to know if you’re setting a story in a specific place and time.

Also, don’t miss the little pictures on the back cover. It’s one thing to read about kai-oi, the shell-matching game, and another to see a pair of painted shells from a set, so you can visualize the players turning them over to reveal painted scenes from poetry and literature.

All this and flowing writing, too. For example, “The combination of a castle full of thirsty samurai, navigable rivers, excellent rice, and pure water contributed to making Fushimi the saké capital of Japan.” Put that together with the pictures of artistic sake labels and the crafters at work, and even a teetotaler would be interested to go and see.

Put together, a treasure of a guidebook, and proof that history never has to mean boring.

Note, I have the second edition, circa 2003. Great for fanfic and story inspiration, but if you’re Kyoto-bound, check if there’s a more recent one.


14 thoughts on “Book Review: Kyoto: Seven paths to the heart of the city

  1. A castle of drunk samurai seems like a great way to start a civil war that lasts until three generations are dead.

    I mean, color me cynical, but I can’t help but think that stuff like ‘the right to cut’, so much communication going unspoken (and thus people having to guess and not always getting it right), combined with a loss of self-control due to being sozzled, would have everyone with functioning self-preservation instincts getting the fluff out of there.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Akshully…

      There’s apparently some reason to think that the WWII drinking culture in Japan wasn’t that much different from current Japan’s.

      Drinking erodes self control, but drinking erodes self control.

      Which means that it can function as a group social activity. If you don’t kill each other in drunken fights, maybe you can trust each other sober.

      Cultures have definitely existed which thought this sort of thing was a really good idea.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You know, I can see the logic in that. In my case it might be blitzed on caffeine, but there’s a distinct case to be made for considering any law in an altered state of consciousness, specifically so you can come up with “weird consequences this law might allow”.

        Because if there’s one thing we know about humans, ANY crazy loophole will eventually be exploited.


      2. I think that may have been one of the ‘definite’ examples I was thinking of.

        Second and only other definite may have been the Japanese Diet.

        Which is good to remember, because WIP. On the other hand, right now civil war and collapse of faith in government is a little to close to heart for writing it to be very tolerable. So even noticing that my eventual winning PM needs to have a cabinet assembling arc ala Luffy recruiting a crew doesn’t overcome the fact that it isn’t an escape for me, and that my imagination fell short of reality.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. If you don’t mind a low-budget presentation, there are several excellent Kyoto travel videos on Amazon Prime Video which are by this travel agent named Dennis Callan. There’s “Kyoto, Japan”, “Kyoto, Japan Temple Gardens at Inari” and so on. Basically, it’s the thing that cruise tours do where they video the places that people toured, so they can show their friends back home where they went. Mr. Callan goes to some interesting places, and the important bit is that he shows the surrounding areas also.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Check your local library systems for travel videos, especially digital ones.

        Amazon Prime has a lot of Tokyo travel videos. Tokyo Canal in Cherry Blossom is another weird one — a guy kayaking down an urban canal overhung with cherry trees!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Actually, it’s a really skinny inflatable canoe, not a kayak.

        There’s also a documentary about blind female Japanese shamans/mediums in Honshu: Itako: Visions. I’ve heard about these folks. Sometimes they do seances or offer other communication with the dead, sometimes they treat alleged possessions, and sometimes they supposedly allow themselves to be possessed by gods or other spirits. They’re considered to be on the occult/necromancy side of things by some, the religious side by others.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Okay, that Urban Canal in Cherry Blossom video was a trip. You see a lot of Tokyo folks out on the rivers and canals, you see modern canal locks, you see at least one big landmark, you see business use of boats with cargo, and you see cherry trees. Keep watching after the credits, because you get to sit and watch a cherry tree for a good five minutes. While listening to music by Sarasate, one of Sherlock Holmes’ favorite violinists. It’s a refreshment of the spirit.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Satoyama — There’s a channel on Bitchute called Radioman, and he just put up a video of a song by VNV Nation called “When Is the Future”. It looks, from the subway/train names, like the video was shot in Tokyo at night.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I’ve actually been watching that music video on Youtube. The lyrics are ones I like. Dorothy Grant mentioned VNV Nation over at Alma’s a week or two back.


        Liked by 1 person

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