The best books about Kyoto

3 authors have picked their favorite books about Kyoto and why they recommend each book.

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Kyoto

By Gouverneur Mosher,

Book cover of Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide

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.


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."

Exploring Kyoto

By Judith Clancy,

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

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.


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 Lady and the Monk

By Pico Iyer,

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

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.


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."

Temple of Wild Geese and Bamboo Dolls of Echizen

By Tsutomu Minakami,

Book cover of Temple of Wild Geese and Bamboo Dolls of Echizen

Perhaps it's because I’ve lived in Fukui and have been to Echizen where the famous bamboo dolls are made that I found this novel so compelling. The novel’s uniqueness comes partly from its focus on a character who makes traditional bamboo dolls produced close to where I now live in Kanazawa, an hour north of Echizen, and part from the style of storytelling, which might be described as sparse but richly imagistic, and evocative of an all-but-lost past. The novel can easily be viewed as a modern folk tale, and moments unfold in the rural setting of 1920s Fukui that border on the mysterious-if-not-quite-supernatural. The relationship between the doll-maker and his wife is indeed strange, yet much can be extrapolated beyond that strangeness through all that’s left unsaid and un-acted on.


Who am I?

My book recommendations reflect an abiding passion for Japanese literature, which has unquestionably influenced my own writing. My latest literary interest involves Japanese poetry—I’ve recently started a project that combines haiku and prose narration to describe my experiences as a part-time resident in a 1300-year-old Japanese hot spring town that Bashō helped make famous in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. But as a writer, my main focus remains novels. In late 2023 the second in a planned series of novels set in Ishikawa prefecture will be published. I currently live in Kanazawa, but have also been lucky to call Sapporo, Akita, Tokyo, and Fukui home at different times.


I wrote...

Kanazawa

By David Joiner,

Book cover of Kanazawa

What is my book about?

In Kanazawa, Emmitt’s future plans collapse when his wife, Mirai, suddenly backs out of negotiations to purchase their dream home. Disappointed, he’s surprised to discover her subtle pursuit of a life and career in Tokyo, a city he dislikes. While resisting her efforts to move to Tokyo, Emmitt becomes drawn into the mysterious death thirty years prior of a mutual friend of Mirai’s parents. It is only when he and his father-in-law climb the mountain where the man died that he learns the somber truth and discovers what the future holds for him and his wife.

With an intimacy of emotion inexorably tied both to the cityscape and Japan’s mountainous terrain, Kanazawa reflects the mood of Japanese fiction in a fresh, modern incarnation.

Atlas Historique De Kyôto

By Nicolas Fiévé,

Book cover of Atlas Historique De Kyôto: Analyse Spatiale des Systèms de Mémoire D’une Ville, de Son Architecture et de Son Paysage Urbain

Only an organization with the deep pockets of UNESCO could have supported and produced this magnificent historical atlas of Kyoto, covering more than 15 centuries of urban development through comprehensive data connected to stunning and informative maps analyzed by two dozen leading historians, urbanists, architects, and cartographers.  As site to more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than almost any other city, Kyoto has drawn UNESCO engagement across several decades. This volume captured that work at the beginning of the twenty-first century through essays arranged chronologically drawing on the built environment to trace Kyoto’s physical, economic, cultural, and political evolution. The spectacular maps tell the story even for those readers who struggle with the French text.


Who am I?

I am a comparative urban specialist who came to Japanese urban history through my aspiration to place Russian urban studies within a comparative context.  Several Japanese and Western Japan specialists encouraged me to advance this exploration by examining capitalist industrial urbanization in Japan.  Historians and political scientists -- particularly at Kyoto National University -- provided a platform for me to expand my engagement with Japanese urbanization; relations which have continued for some three decades.  More recently, I included Kabuki in The Muse of Urban Delirium, a collection of essays that seeks answers to the challenges of urban diversity, conflict, and creativity using various performing arts – opera, dance, theater, music – as windows onto urban life.


I wrote...

Second Metropolis: Pragmatic Pluralism in Gilded Age Chicago, Silver Age Moscow, and Meiji Osaka

By Blair A. Ruble,

Book cover of Second Metropolis: Pragmatic Pluralism in Gilded Age Chicago, Silver Age Moscow, and Meiji Osaka

What is my book about?

Second Metropolis compares North America's, Russia's, and Japan's "second cities"--Chicago, Moscow, and Osaka—at the height of their capitalist industrial expansion between 1870 and 1920.  The book discloses the extent to which social fragmentation, frequently viewed as an obstacle to democratic development, fostered a "pragmatic pluralism" that nurtured pluralistic public policies. Such policies are explored through six case studies that illustrate how even those with massive political and economic power were stymied by the complexity of their communities. These three cities, though the products of very different nations and cultures, shared an important experience of inclusive politics during an era of extraordinary growth and social diversity.

Fashion History from the 18th to the 20th Century

By Taschen,

Book cover of Fashion History from the 18th to the 20th Century

Fashion is, of course, a visual medium. It’s also one with a very long history. If you want to get familiar with what people have been wearing for the last few centuries, this is the book. All the garments are taken from the Kyoto Costume Institute, a place I hope to visit one day. I’ve read this book cover to cover several times (even accidentally purchasing it more than once!), and I consider it an essential volume in my research library.


Who am I?

Clothing is one of the most important aspects of our humanity, of the things which make us who we are. We use fashion to identify allies and enemies. To express our interests, politics, and belief systems. To make a statement about who we are to the outside world. To show our identity or ethnicity. Or to indicate our affiliation with certain groups. Fashion is everywhere, but compared to other disciplines, is very rarely talked about. Though I'm a lingerie expert, fashion in its totality interests me. I’m excited every time I learn something new, not just because I enjoy pretty garments, but because I also learn something about the nature of who we are.


I wrote...

In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie

By Cora Harrington,

Book cover of In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie

What is my book about?

A comprehensive and accessible illustrated guide to lingerie from intimates expert Cora Harrington, founder of The Lingerie Addict, the internet's top intimate apparel blog.

While many love the idea of wearing special underthings, lingerie can be intimidating. How is it supposed to fit? How do you take care of it all? Is lingerie really for me? In this beautiful and empowering guide, lingerie expert Cora Harrington demystifies intimate apparel, making it accessible to all sizes, ages, and budgets. Covering everything from basic bras and panties to special occasion wear, shapewear, hosiery, corsets, and more, this no-nonsense handbook empowers you to confidently buy, wear, and care for the underpinnings of your dreams.

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

By Yukio Mishima, Ivan Morris (translator),

Book cover of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

Mishima’s personal story is as dramatic as any of his fiction – on the day that he completed the final novel of his “Sea of Fertility” tetralogy he printed the novel out, laid it on his desk, then he and a band of supporters took a military leader hostage and demanded that the Emperor be restored to power in Japan. The ill-fated coup attempt ended with Mishima committing seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment). While the tetralogy is likely his most famous work, his best in my opinion, is Temple of the Golden Pavillion, a novel loosely based on the burning of the Golden Pavillion of Kinkaku-Ji by a disturbed Buddhist acolyte in 1950. Mishima’s harrowing depiction of the young acolyte’s slow descent into madness will have you disturbed as well. 


Who am I?

I love the challenge of taking a headline, a photo, or a curious little footnote in someone else's history, and fleshing out all the details to make it a full-blown story. Here are five books where I think this task has been taken to entirely other levels.


I wrote...

One Night in Mississippi

By Craig Shreve,

Book cover of One Night in Mississippi

What is my book about?

After his brother is brutally murdered in civil rights era Mississippi, Warren Williams drifts across the country, estranged from his family. Decades later, when the US Dept of Justice begins re-opening similar cases, Warren finds purpose again. His search for closure leads him to a small northern Ontario town where he confronts the last remaining perpetrator who is still at large, as well as his own long-carried guilt.

The Pillow Book

By Sei Shonagon, Arthur Waley (translator),

Book cover of The Pillow 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. 


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."

Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens

By David A. Slawson,

Book cover of Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens: Design Principles, Aesthetic Values

I love that this book uses clear language to explain how design principles in Japanese gardens are transmitted from master to apprentice, the effect those principles have on the way we see and experience a garden, and the connection of the gardens to cultural values. The final section is a translation of a classical garden manual, and the descriptions of “reading” and placing rocks is fascinating – you will never see a rock in the same way again!


Who am I?

When I first saw an image of a Japanese garden, it was unlike anything I had seen before. I just knew I had to visit Japan to see the gardens and try to understand the culture that produced this artistry. I later had the opportunity to work for a small Japanese architecture firm in Tokyo. During those seven years, I explored gardens, landscapes, villages, and cities, trying to absorb as much of the culture as I could. Japanese gardens still fascinate me, and I love learning about contemporary designers and gardeners in Japan who are keeping the traditional spirit alive, while exploring what a garden can be in the present day.


I wrote...

Zen Garden Design: Mindful Spaces by Shunmyo Masuno - Japan's Leading Garden Designer

By Mira Locher,

Book cover of Zen Garden Design: Mindful Spaces by Shunmyo Masuno - Japan's Leading Garden Designer

What is my book about?

Zen Buddhist priest Shunmyo Masuno understands that today's busy world leaves little time or space for self-reflection, but that a garden—even in the most urban of spaces—can provide some respite. In his words, "The garden is a special spiritual place where the mind dwells." With this in mind, Masuno has designed scores of spectacular Japanese gardens and landscapes with the aim of helping people achieve a balanced life in the 21st century.

This book explores Masuno's design process and ideas, which are integral to his daily Zen training and teachings. It features 15 unique gardens and contemplative landscapes completed in six countries over as many years—all thoughtfully described and documented in full-color photos and drawings.

Snow Country

By Yasunari Kawabata, Edward G. Seidensticker (translator),

Book cover of Snow Country

Again, I have a personal connection to the setting of this book, as I visited the same ryokan (Japanese inn) in the mountains of Niigata prefecture where Kawabata wrote much of this novel. There seem to be two types of reader experiences with this book—one in which readers feel the characters are too cold and unrelatable, and others who find a melancholy beauty in the old way people used to live and relate to each other. And there’s certainly warmth in the character of Komako, the geisha who wastes her dreams on an unrequited love, if not in Shimamura, the man who visits for long periods and plays with her heart. Snow Country contains such masterful writing that I copied it out once when I was younger in an effort to learn from Kawabata’s masterpiece.


Who am I?

My book recommendations reflect an abiding passion for Japanese literature, which has unquestionably influenced my own writing. My latest literary interest involves Japanese poetry—I’ve recently started a project that combines haiku and prose narration to describe my experiences as a part-time resident in a 1300-year-old Japanese hot spring town that Bashō helped make famous in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. But as a writer, my main focus remains novels. In late 2023 the second in a planned series of novels set in Ishikawa prefecture will be published. I currently live in Kanazawa, but have also been lucky to call Sapporo, Akita, Tokyo, and Fukui home at different times.


I wrote...

Kanazawa

By David Joiner,

Book cover of Kanazawa

What is my book about?

In Kanazawa, Emmitt’s future plans collapse when his wife, Mirai, suddenly backs out of negotiations to purchase their dream home. Disappointed, he’s surprised to discover her subtle pursuit of a life and career in Tokyo, a city he dislikes. While resisting her efforts to move to Tokyo, Emmitt becomes drawn into the mysterious death thirty years prior of a mutual friend of Mirai’s parents. It is only when he and his father-in-law climb the mountain where the man died that he learns the somber truth and discovers what the future holds for him and his wife.

With an intimacy of emotion inexorably tied both to the cityscape and Japan’s mountainous terrain, Kanazawa reflects the mood of Japanese fiction in a fresh, modern incarnation.

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