Category Archives: Architecture

Alex Kerr Book Launch Party – Another Kyoto

Last night I attended a book launch party for Alex Kerr’s latest book, Another Kyoto. The setting was a lovely old machiya townhouse in the Kamishichiken area of Kyoto where his friend and co-author, Kathy Arlyn Sokol has been living. Apparently about 70 people attended the event, and it certainly did feel like a crowd in the unseasonably hot weather. It was a nice occasion though, and I was happy at the opportunity to meet some old friends, and new people – and not least Alex Kerr himself!

Kathy Arlyn Sokol & Alex Kerr

Kathy Arlyn Sokol & Alex Kerr

Another Kyoto is a book born out of conversations that Alex had with his friend Kathy whilst strolling round some of his favorite locations in Kyoto. It is on the surface a book about architecture: gates, walls, floors and roofs… However, the book goes much deeper than that into the culture that has produced these architectural forms, into exactly why they take the forms that they do, into what these forms signify, and also rather interestingly it compares and contrasts these forms with those of other cultures with which Alex Kerr has a great deal of familiarity, those of China, or Bali, or Thailand for example. I am still only on chapter 3 myself but am finding it very absorbing and not least because of the style in which it is written. Kathy Sokol spoke last night about how the book is a transmission of old and erudite knowledge that has been passed down through generations of scholars to Alex, and now through him to us. And this is true. However, the tone in which it is written is so light and conversational that it really doesn’t feel like a heavy or scholarly book at all, but more like a chat with a particularly knowledgeable friend while sightseeing. That’s quite a balance they have struck there and it makes for a very enjoyable read!

John Dougill with Alex Kerr

John Dougill with Alex Kerr

Let me a add a quick word of thanks to John Dougill of the Writers in Kyoto group for suggesting last night’s event and also to Kathy and Alex for organizing and hosting it. I must admit I was very excited to finally meet Alex Kerr, whose book Lost Japan was a huge inspiration for me before moving to Japan in the 1990s. I was glad to find him in person to be just as amiable and friendly as I had imagined from his books. It was a very nice evening.

another-kyoto

More pictures and details about the event, plus a video link can be found on the Writers in Kyoto website.

Another Kyoto by Alex Kerr with Kathy Arlyn Sokol is available from Amazon.co.jp

Donald Keene on Kyoto: Then & Now

Donald Keene at his Tokyo home in October 2002. Picture by Aurelio Asiain. Taken from Wikipedia under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Donald Keene at his Tokyo home in October 2002. Picture by Aurelio Asiain. Taken from Wikipedia under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

On New Year’s Day the Japan Times published a wonderful article by the renowned Japanese scholar Donald Keene, reflecting on the changes he has seen in Japan over the past 70 years. In a fascinating account he tells of life in the immediate post-war years and after; a time of much hardship, but also, a golden age in modern Japanese literature and arts. In particular though, it was his experiences as a student in early 1950’s Kyoto that grabbed my attention. Professor  Keene painted a picture of a city far different from the one I know. Unlike other Japanese cities, Kyoto had been spared the ravages of wartime aerial bombardment, and the modern development that was to irrevocably change the cityscape was yet to come. How incredibly beautiful it must have been then! And what a thrill to roam through those perfectly preserved streets!

I enjoyed wandering at random in the city, fascinated by the names of places I knew from works of Japanese literature and history. The streets were surprisingly quiet, probably because at the time there were no privately owned cars in Kyoto, only company vehicles. I was delighted one day when I saw two elderly ladies happening to meet while crossing in the middle of Kawaramachi, the busiest street in the city. They politely removed their haori jackets and bowed to each other, not in the least worried by possible traffic. Of course, not everything in Kyoto was so pleasing. I saw slum areas not only around the railway station but in the middle of the city, and there were many boys eager to polish one’s shoes. But I managed to accept these sad results of the long warfare that the Japanese had suffered.

I was captivated not only by the city, but the surroundings and I visited every temple on the tourist map. I enjoyed walking along streets with rows of shops, all selling the same article, whether bamboo baskets, stone badgers, or dusty secondhand books. Most of these shops no longer exist, victims of progress.

Indeed the nostalgia is tinged with sadness. Though Professor Keene concedes that people in Kyoto now live far more comfortable lives than they did 60 years ago,  he still laments the changes he has seen, and continues to see in the urban landscape.

I do miss Kyoto as it was when I first arrived in the city.

The beautiful houses in Gion grow fewer each year and will never be replaced. The side streets lined with Japanese-style houses are either mixed with dreary apartments or totally destroyed. Kyoto streets on a Sunday are now jammed with cars. No old lady is advised to cross a street without caution. Greed and a demand for convenience have taken the place of beauty…

Oh to have a time machine! I often wonder how Kyoto residents of 60 or even 50  or 40 years ago would feel if they were to pay a visit to 21st century Kyoto and witness the changes that time and rampant development have wrought. Would they marvel at our modern comforts and conveniences, and envy our lifestyle in this age of consumption? Or would they mourn the loss of the city’s former grace, and bewail the loss of local community traditions?

Perhaps they would do both.

To imagine a better future, we must look to the past. Each day, here in Fushimi, I look out my window at a parking lot, where but 30 years ago there stood a beautiful house and garden designed by the legendary architect William Vories. Once it was the pride of the family who had it built, but their descendants decided to pull it down because it made more economic sense. To go to my local supermarket I cross a canal once lined completely with cherry trees. Only a few trees now remain, most having been ripped up to make way for profitable housing. Probably, only a few people locally remember these things, and doubtless most local residents familiar with the town as it is now, would be amazed if they knew what has been lost. That’s why it is important to preserve these memories. If it was possible then, to plan and build with forethought for community and a pleasing environment, why shouldn’t it be possible now?

Looking ahead I do fervently hope that one day, both local and national government put into place policies and planning regulations that allow us to enjoy the best of old world beauty and a modern agreeable lifestyle. To dream of such a future might seem idealistic, but it’s far from impossible. Just look at this.

To read the full article by Professor Keene please visit the Japan Times website here: Donald Keene reflects on 70-year Japan experience

See also: Two Views from Yasaka Shrine Separated by Time.

Matcha Tea & Machiya in Kyoto – Two Articles for GuideAdvisor

Whether you are interested in tea ceremony or traditional architecture, two pieces I wrote for GuideAdvisor earlier this year, offer my top tips for for your trip to Kyoto.

ga machiya

The first article is on how to find the very best machiya:  the traditional wooden townhouses of Kyoto. After decades of neglect and outright destruction, machiya have been undergoing something of a boom in popularity in recent years.

Climb a hill on the outskirts of Kyoto, and you’ll look upon a city transformed. Fifty years ago, you would have seen a sea of low lying tiled rooftops, and here and there a shrine, temple or villa rising up like islands lapped by baked tile waves. Machiya, the old wooden townhouses most closely associated with the city of Kyoto in Japan, covered the landscape… Machiya were the houses of merchants and craftsmen, designed to be lived and worked in. Long sturdy structures of simple grace, they closely lined the city’s narrow streets, the style of lattice-work at front giving tell-tale notice of the business within. Today that old skyline, with its sweeping sea of tiles has gone, and the cityscape initially presents to the eye a jumble of gray and brown apartment blocks, city offices, and pachinko parlors. If you go and explore the city though, the older more traditional buildings are still there, down amidst the looming towers of modernity, and their dark wooden beams and refined latticework still enchant us with the flavour of old Kyoto.

You can read the rest of the article here: Looking for the Lost Machiya Buildings in Kyoto.

ga matcha

My second piece is a guide to enjoying matcha tea in the ancient capital, whether in traditional tea ceremony, or in the many matcha flavored food products that are on sale here.

Due to the close vicinity of Uji’s tea fields Kyoto has a long association with matcha tea: the powdered green tea used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The monk Eisai first brought this powdered tea from China to Japan in 1191, along with Zen Buddhism, and the two traditions have been closely linked ever since.

In Kyoto, Eisai founded the city’s oldest Zen temple, Kenninji, and on its grounds you can find a teahouse designed by the legendary 16th Century tea master Sen no Rikyu, who is responsible for developing the refined tea ceremony that we know today. Called variously Chado, Sado or Cha-no-yu, this ceremony ritualizes the act of preparing, sharing, and tasting tea into a slow, meditative process that emphasizes simplicity, grace and serenity. Yet despite the simplicity of the ceremony itself, the Way of Tea is intimately bound up with many other traditional arts such as calligraphy, ceramics, flower arrangement, and Japanese cuisine. So if you want a gateway into Japanese culture and philosophy, a cup of matcha tea is where you start!

You can read the rest of the article here: Go Green in Kyoto! Enjoy the Famous Tea Ceremony Then See How a New Generation is Serving up Matcha

And while you are about it, why not check out pro-photographer Paul Crouse‘s piece on the 10 Best Photo Spots in Kyoto.

See also: The Health Benefits of Japanese Green Tea

William Merrell Vories – A 50th Anniversary Memorial Tour in Ōmi Hachiman

vorie posterWilliam Merrell Vories was a brilliant and prolific architect who was active throughout the Kansai region in the early 20th century. He is said to have built up to 1600 buildings over a 35 year career, all while leading an active life as an educator, entrepreneur and Christian missionary. Many of the buildings he designed are still standing today, including quite a few in Kyoto. This month, the city of Ōmi Hachiman in Shiga, where Vories made his home, is commemorating the 50th anniversary of his passing with a series of special events. Last Saturday, Mewby and I visited Ōmi Hachiman to take a tour of some of the beautiful buildings that Vories built there. Until November 3rd, you can get a special “passport” for 1,500 yen that will give you access to all of the buildings on the tour, many of which are also exhibiting material related to his life. Passports and maps are both available at the tourist information center at Ōmi Hachiman station. You can also download the map as a PDF here: 市内マップ&展示案内. Even if you can’t go before November 3rd, you can still visit or view many of the buildings on the tour after the special exhibition is over, but I would give yourself a good day to walk around all the sites. I really enjoyed visiting this town and would very much like to learn more about this  extraordinary man.

Here are some pictures from our day.

Mewby meets W. M. Vories.

Mewby meets W. M. Vories.

Ikeda Machi Jūtakugai (池田町住宅街), the Western residential area of Ikeda town, is a cluster of homes designed by Vories very early in his career. He had a house here himself, but that has long gone and can be seen only in old photographs. Three fine buildings do still remain though. Continue reading