Christopher Harding

In search of Japan

Another Kyoto by Alex Kerr reviewed

‘Much of what I say may turn out not to be true.’ Hardly the ideal beginning to a guided tour. But Alex Kerr is not your typical tour guide, briskly selling a place to a time-pressed group via a few must-snap essentials — the glint of the sun off Kyoto’s Golden Temple and its still waters; the demure shuffle of geisha; winter rays radiating through a bamboo grove. Kerr is more the lone local you’re not entirely sure you should trust, sidling up and engaging you in conversation. Why do temples have gates without doors? Are they entrances — or exits? Ever thought about that? No? Come on, I’ll show you.

Kyoto is home turf for Alex Kerr, both as a long-time resident and as a fierce critic in previous books (Lost Japan; Dogs and Demons) of how modern and especially postwar policy-makers have trampled on Japan’s closely intertwined natural, aesthetic and spiritual inheritances — mile after mile of generic suburbia full of ‘boxy buildings’ and car parks; waterways and mountainsides coated in concrete; money splurged on roads to nowhere, alongside eyesore monuments and third-rate museums that planners rather idly expected would bring in tourist money (they mostly didn’t). Too much of the Asian art and architecture that Japan received, re-worked, and preserved across centuries has been lost in the process. ‘The treasure house at the end of the Silk Road that had been Japan,’ writes Kerr, ‘shrank down to the treasure chest of Kyoto.’

Another Kyoto is a celebration of what this city has helped Japan to hang on to, in architectural terms especially. But it is an indirect sort of celebration. This is not an introduction to Kyoto, more an initiation, bordering on a recruitment attempt, into the ways of seeing — of looking and questioning and pondering — that have deepened Kerr’s love of the place across decades.

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