The best books for understanding Kyoto

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

The Books I Picked & Why

Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide

By Gouverneur Mosher

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.


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Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital

By Judith Clancy

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.


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The Pillow Book

By Sei Shonagon, Arthur Waley

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. 


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The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto

By Pico Iyer

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.


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

By Mineko Iwasaki

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. 


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