The best books for understanding Kyoto

John Dougill Author Of Kyoto: A Cultural History
By John Dougill

Who am I?

Kyoto is one of the world’s great cities. I first came here in 1994, its 1200th anniversary, and was entranced by its many treasures. In the city’s river basin were fostered the traditional arts and crafts of Japan. This is the city of Zen, Noh, the tea ceremony, geisha, moss and rock gardens, not to mention the aristocratic aesthetes of the Heian Era. Here in the ancient capital are imperial estates and no fewer than 17 World Heritage sites, including the Golden Pavilion and the divine Byodo-in. Faced with this wealth of wonders, I tried to weave them into a coherent story – the story of a most remarkable city.


I wrote...

Kyoto: A Cultural History

By John Dougill,

Book cover of Kyoto: A Cultural History

What is my book about?

Kyoto, the ancient former capital of Japan, breathes history and mystery. Its temples, gardens, and palaces are testimony to many centuries of aristocratic and religious grandeur. Under the veneer of modernity, the city remains filled with countless reminders of a proud past.

John Dougill explores this most venerable of Japanese cities, revealing the spirit of place and the individuals that have shaped its often dramatic history. Courtiers and courtesans, poets and priests, samurai and geisha people the pages of his account. Covering twelve centuries in all, the book not only provides a historical overview but also brings to life the cultural magnificence of the city of "Purple Hills and Crystal Streams."

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide

By Gouverneur Mosher,

Book cover of Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide

Why this book?

This was my introduction to the major sights of Kyoto. As well as providing essential information, there is an extra section suggesting how to value each sight on a deeper level. It helped me appreciate just how special Kyoto is. That it has stayed in print for so long is testimony to its worth.

Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide

By Gouverneur Mosher,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Kyoto as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This Kyoto travel guide presents the best tourists sites in Japan's spiritual and historical capital.

With this guide the visitor needs no further assistance to learn all that a place has to offer. It is factual, concise, and complete. This Japan travel book is generously illustrated with photographs, maps, route plans, and building plans, as well as a selection of reproductions from old prints and picture scrolls.

The sights were specifically chosen to give foreign visitors a broad understanding of Kyoto's political, religious, and cultural history. Among them are the ancient Phoenix Hall of the Byodo-in, the famous rock garden…


Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital

By Judith Clancy,

Book cover of Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital

Why this book?

Kyoto is known for its many famous sights. But wandering around the backstreets and through the many pockets of nature brings rewards of a completely different kind. Armed with this guide by long-term resident Judith Clancy, I enjoyed many happy days exploring lesser-known routes while appreciating the advice about places to eat and what to look at.

Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital

By Judith Clancy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Exploring Kyoto as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This revised and updated edition of the Japan travel classic and cultural guide gets you wandering from downtown quarters to remote mountaintop temples and features expanded information on new museums and gardens now open year-round for viewing.

Judith Clancy's expert research weaves a rich narrative of Kyoto's history, local lore, and artistic and religious background to guide you through your journey.

Includes:

31 explorations including 5 mountain routes, 17 World Heritage Sites, Arashiyama, Kiyomizu-dera, Philosopher's Walk, the city's 6 Zen temple complexes, and much more Detailed maps tracing each route Over 30 descriptive photos Tips on etiquette and behavior A…


The Pillow Book

By Sei Shonagon, Arthur Waley (translator),

Book cover of The Pillow Book

Why this book?

Still today Kyoto is haunted by the magic of its Heian past (794-1185), when an aristocratic elite indulged in aesthetic pursuits, particularly poetry writing. Without an understanding of the period, it is impossible to understand modern Kyoto. The classic work is The Tale of Genji, but it is too heavy a tome to carry around, so the much slimmer and more accessible Pillow Book is recommended. I loved the Willdean wit, the sharp observations, and the intriguing lists. I’m sure you will too, for unlike Genji it has not dated. 

The Pillow Book

By Sei Shonagon, Arthur Waley (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Pillow Book as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the tenth century, Japan was both physically and culturally isolated from the rest of the world. The Pillow Book recaptures this lost world with the diary of a young court lady. Sei Shōnagon was a contemporary of Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote the well-known novel The Tale of Genji. Unlike the latter's fictionalized view of the Heian-era court, Shōnagon's journal provides a lively miscellany of anecdotes, observations, and gossip, intended to be read in juicy bits and pieces.
This unique volume was first rendered into English in 1889. In 1928, Arthur Waley, a seminal figure in the Western studies of…


The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto

By Pico Iyer,

Book cover of The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto

Why this book?

Pico Iyer is a noted travel writer with a gift for capturing the spirit of place. In this fictionalised version of time spent in the city, he captures many of its salient aspects. The seasonal round, the Zen tradition, the sense of transience, the allure of Japanese arts. I found myself nodding in recognition of the many insights that pepper his prose. The only book that compares with it is Kawabata’s Koto (The Old Capital), less substantial and wreathed in nostalgia.

The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto

By Pico Iyer,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Lady and the Monk as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Pico Iyer decided to go to Kyoto and live in a monastery, he did so to learn about Zen Buddhism from the inside, to get to know Kyoto, one of the loveliest old cities in the world, and to find out something about Japanese culture today -- not the world of businessmen and production lines, but the traditional world of changing seasons and the silence of temples, of the images woven through literature, of the lunar Japan that still lives on behind the rising sun of geopolitical power.

All this he did. And then he met Sachiko.

Vivacious, attractive,…


Geisha of Gion: The True Story of Japan's Foremost Geisha (Memoir of Mineko Iwasaki)

By Mineko Iwasaki,

Book cover of Geisha of Gion: The True Story of Japan's Foremost Geisha (Memoir of Mineko Iwasaki)

Why this book?

For many tourists, Kyoto is synonymous with geisha and maiko (geisha in training). With their gorgeous clothing and white faces, they epitomise exoticism. However, those of us who live here see them with greater respect, for we know how hard the training is and how they embody the rich tradition of Kyoto arts and crafts. Memoirs of a Geisha was a worldwide hit, but the fiction gave an outdated picture. Personally, I find the Geisha of Gion to be more revealing and written by a true insider. 

Geisha of Gion: The True Story of Japan's Foremost Geisha (Memoir of Mineko Iwasaki)

By Mineko Iwasaki,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Geisha of Gion as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The extraordinary, bestselling memoir from Japan's foremost geisha.
'A glimpse into the exotic, mysterious, tinged-with-eroticism world of the almost mythical geisha' Val Hennessy, Daily Mail
'[An] eloquent and innovative memoir' The Times

'I can identify the exact moment when things began to change. It was a cold winter afternoon. I had just turned three.'

Emerging shyly from her hiding place, Mineko encounters Madam Oima, the formidable proprietress of a prolific geisha house in Gion. Madam Oima is mesmerised by the child's black hair and black eyes: she has found her successor. And so Mineko is gently, but firmly, prised away…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Kyoto, Japan, and geisha?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Kyoto, Japan, and geisha.

Kyoto Explore 18 books about Kyoto
Japan Explore 371 books about Japan
Geisha Explore 9 books about geisha

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Inland Sea, Autumn Light, and The Roads to Sata if you like this list.