Category Archives: Recent Publications

Deep Kyoto Walks

The view from Mt Hiei north to Ohara.

The view from Mt Hiei north to Ohara.

Last year at a pub Christmas dinner I was introduced to Ted Taylor, a friend of friends and the co-editor of a book of walks around Kyoto. Learning I had recently published a book, he invited me to contribute an article to the collection, called Deep Kyoto Walks.

It turned out that Ted and his co-conspirator, Michael Lambe, writer on the great blog Deep Kyoto, had assembled an all-star line-up of Kyoto experts and I was sneaking in at the very end of the project. I was both honored and intimidated to be included in the company of well-known writers, artists and journalists. I don’t know everyone, but Chris Rowthorn was the first to help me get into travel writing and thanks to his counsel I was able to publish my first book last fall. Bridget Scott is an extraordinary dancer, a real expert on Kyoto and a dear friend. The headliner for the book is Pico Iyer, who is about as famous as it gets in the travel writing industry. I’m eager to read his piece about how he first came to Kyoto.

Ted remembered me from my very first published article (much to my shame and horror), a piece on The Kyoto Trail for Kansai Time Out, so he suggested I expand that theme into a full circumnavigation of Kyoto. It sounded good, except for being January. Nevertheless, I spent the next couple of weeks covering sections of the 69km route a bit at a time, even though it meant I needed to ski down part of Mt Hiei in my running shoes.

Walking around most of the city I have called home for eight years was a good chance to reflect on all the experiences I have had here. I was in conversation with a friend once and I said that Kyoto always felt big to me. If Canadian towns are all stretched out with nothing much in-between, Kyoto is corrugated with history. I don’t know how many times I have turned down a random side alley and stumbled into something wonderful. This is literally true sometimes: I once nearly got run over by a horse in a festival procession because I popped out of an alley too quickly.

In any case, the book, Deep Kyoto Walks, is out now! I hope readers unfamiliar with Kyoto will be able to see some of its sides through this diverse collection.

Death of a Magazine

Last Issue of KTOI’ve been out of Japan for a while, so I was behind on the news that Kansai Time Out had gone out of business. KTO was the oldest English publication in Japan and unlike a lot of English language magazines based in non-English-speaking countries, it’s editors actually gave a damn what was put between the covers.

It’s a huge loss to Kansai and Japan, as the competing monthlies are either free and lousy/trivial (I’m looking at you, Kansai Scene!) or glossy and content-light. KTO only cost ¥300 (about $3USD) per issue and had a great text-to-advertising ratio, though perhaps that was what killed it off. I haven’t been able to reach the former editor in chief to ask.

On a personal note, KTO gave me my first shot at writing before a large audience, cracking voice and sweaty palms and all. Christopher Stevens, the editor, made me jump through hoops, writing little pieces, before he would even look at a longer travel article I had written for his magazine, but it was for the best… that first long piece was UGLY.

I eventually wrote three travel pieces, one on Basic Japanese Buddhism, and was then invited to do a column on statues of deities and historical figures scattered around the region. In total wrote about twenty pieces for the mag over two years and was always happy to contribute to it.

Now that KTO is defunct I may post some of them online here so that the rest of you not living in Japan can have a look.

I don’t know what will replace KTO: Kansai Scene will fill in with events listings and Kyoto will cover the highbrow pieces, but I doubt that anything will pop up with a similar mix of Arts, Politics, and Japanese Culture.

Those of you living in Kansai, what are you reading? Do regional magazines matter? I sure think they do.

While I’m at it

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I should mention too that this month my column in Kansai Time Out is about En the Ascetic, a 7th century mountain priest who started a sect of syncretic Buddhist mountain worship that still exists today. His statue is at Ishiba-ji, in Shiga prefecture, and is one of my favorites so far.

  I am continually surprised and happy to contribute to KTO: for a regional, second-language magazine, it has a good layout, great community of contributors, and a lot of content for three bucks. I just wish my articles from it would be online somehow.

Snow Country

 

The Geisha Matsuei, Kawabata's model for his heroine KomakoMy latest article has been up for a month now; have a read if you haven’t yet. It describes Yuzawa hot spring, a resort town in the mountains close to Tokyo, where Japan’s Nobel Prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata was inspired to write his classic, Yukiguni (Snow Country). I read Snow Country just before I came to Japan and was both entranced and mystified. The story focuses on a wealthy Tokyo dilettante and his failed love affair with a mountain geisha. The dilettante cannot love, yet pursues the young woman, who in turn falls in love with him at the peril of her reputation. 

 

Mountain resort geisha were not as fortunate as their city counterparts. While geisha in urban centers were esteemed performers and were often privy to many closed-door deals and secret goings-on, the mountain geisha performed for weekend guests, groups of men without their families looking for a good time. Shortly after they meet, Shimamura, the dilettante, asks Komako, the geisha, to bring him a woman. She refuses, embarrassed and angry, and says that no such women exist in this hot spring. Shimamura insists but Komako refuses; ultimately the young geisha that arrives is brought by his inn’s caretaker, but by then Shimamura has lost his appetite.

When he seduces Komako, the themes of beauty and harshness in Kawabata’s sparse, haiku-like prose really begin to show. Komako slowly falls into disrepute, but like the snow of the mountains, her beauty and purity seem untouched, as she loves Shimamura without restraint. The sparseness of the prose can be bewildering though, and the first time I finished the novel I was entranced but totally confused. Relationships between characters are very vague: much is left to nuance, atmosphere, the reader filling in the blanks with a wealth of shared cultural knowledge (for the Japanese anyway). It was both beauty and confusion, epitomized in my reaction to Kawabata’s book, that brought me to Japan; I can’t say I have made much headway in understanding, but the beauty is still here.