Good Read: Deep Kyoto Walks

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From time to time the question arises in online discussion forums: what’s the best way to see a new city? Some travelers plump for hitting the highlights by whatever means necessary, jumping from site to site by train, plane, or automobile. That’s a very effective means of checking off a list of “top ten temples,” or whatever, and can be fun in its own way (ask me about my four-day, whirlwind tour of southwest Iceland last March). It’s efficient, which is why most guidebooks are organized around such a style of travel. There is, however, another way of travel, one which may add little or nothing to your bucket list, and for which there are few guidebooks, but may give you a better understanding of the place you’re visiting – and just maybe the place you came from. That’s to get off the train… and walk. Immerse yourself in one area. Walk its sidestreets and alleys. Linger at neighbourhood spots which will never make a traditional guidebook but say something authentic about the lives of the people who live there – even if this means not checking all the “Must Sees” on a list. As John Ruskin puts it,

There was always more in the world than man could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.

“Thought and sight,” not “pace.” These are the goals of Baudelaire’s flaneur or, perhaps, Will Self’s psychogeographer: a sensitive, intelligent observer of the genius loci, the “spirit of place.”

These are the travelers for whom the ebook Deep Kyoto: Walks is meant. Michael Lambe and Ted Taylor — webmasters, respectively, of the blogs  Deep Kyoto and Notes from the ‘Nog — share the spirit of the flaneur, the psychogeographer. As Michael Lambe writes in the foreword,

Walking will expand your limited horizons of here and there, to the living breathing streets around you — until they too become your home. Walking will expand your limited idea of self to embrace your wider community. Walking will help you to slow down and enjoy this moment now, wherever you happen to be.

Deep Kyoto is part guidebook (there are maps, endnotes, and an index of places), part anthology of literary armchair travel narratives. Lambe describes it as “an anthology of meditative walks,” written by long-term residents of Kyoto. As such, each essayist is attuned to “the living breathing streets,” the highways and biways, the world-famous sites and local neighbourhoods, of Japan’s ancient capital.

And Kyoto is a city “ancient and elegant,” according to Joel Stewart, author of the essay “In Praise of Uro Uro.” However, it’s 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… the whole chaotic collage of the city.”

The eclectic selection of essays in the book reflect the “chaos,” the “mishmash” of the city. The writers travel to ancient shrines and modern suburbs; back in time to Kyoto as cultural epicenter of an ancient civilization, and forward again to the present. Indeed, there are 18 essays in this collection, including some by notable contributors such as Pico Iyer and I’m not going to annotate them here – a more detailed description of the contents is available in the reviews of the book available on Amazon – see in particular Patrick McCoy’s June 9th review. An extract from Judith Clancy’s Epilogue “On Foot in the Ancient Capital” is online at the Deep Kyoto website. For now, I’ll leave you with the final words from Ted Taylor’s introduction,

Like the beauty of a Noh mask, Kyoto’s expression changes with subtle shifts in the light, shifts that occur with the walker’s every step.

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