Book Review: Structures of Kyoto: Writers in Kyoto Anthology 4 | Review by Jean Pasley
My first thought on reading Structures of Kyoto (Writers in Kyoto Anthology 4) was that I must go back to Kyoto. I have visited the city many times, lived there for months on end, and this book reminded me of what a special place it is and how much I miss it. It also alerted me to how much I missed while I was there. In this anthology, writers share their insights, knowledge and experiences of life in Kyoto, from the sublime tea ceremony to the other extreme: a school trophy made out of a rubber duck taped to a plastic plinth. There is something here for everyone.
The wonderful title of Mark Hovane’s essay, Rocks, Gravel and a bit of Moss, gives a sense of playfulness that belies the erudite content of this excellent essay and indeed of the entire anthology.
Did you know that Ryoanji is the second most photographed garden in the world? No? Neither did I.
I expect there is much I don’t know about Zen gardens. Hovane writes, “Knowing historically that these spaces are, on one level, 3D representations of 2D Chinese ink paintings is a good place to start” your study of these enigmatic spaces.
Reggie Pawle recalls a monk telling him that “Zen practice is like tying yourself up with a rope and then, in that condition, finding your freedom.” It seems that the harder you try to understand Zen the more elusive it becomes. Pawle says you learn “by doing rather than by analytically figuring things out.” His essay offers an amusing glimpse into the bewildering concept of Zen.
It is interesting how you can live somewhere and remain oblivious to the significance of what you are seeing all around you.
How many times have I walked past five-tiered tower-like structures without realising the profound importance of them? These are gorinto and they are “primarily associated with memorialising the dead.” In Jann Williams’ intriguing and informative essay, Beyond Zen – Kyoto’s Gorinto Connections, I learned that the five geometric shapes stacked on top of one another that form the structure of gorinto are the cube, sphere, triangle, semi-circle and jewel. The five shapes represent the elements of the universe: earth, water, fire, wind and space and they embody the interconnectedness of all creation. The next time I see gorinto, I will pay more attention.
Catherine Pawasarat writes about how she spent untold hours at the annual Gion Festival before she started delving into the understated rituals taking place. She asks the question: “How can we humans long so deeply for significance in our lives and be blind to it at the same time?” Pawasarat explains the gruesome origins of this spectacular thousand-year-old festival during which the main deities, the god of storms and the goddess of rice, are welcomed every year to purify the city and its inhabitants.
This book contains many little gems and nuggets of wisdom. Did you know that monks used to use green tea to help them stay awake during long periods of meditation, or that the sound of an iron kettle boiling on the charcoal brazier in the teahouse creates a whispering sound known as matsukaze, wind in the pines?
Apparently, “a ladleful of cold water poured into the kettle causes this sound to cease and creates a moment of utter silence and peace.” This, Rebecca Otowa tells us in Structures of Tea, is “one of the many wordless moments in tea ceremony that have the power to lift one out of ordinary sensation.”
There is another side to life in Kyoto. In Ina Sanjana’s heartfelt piece, Sunrise over the Kamogawa, we feel the loneliness of a homeless man, who “would like to hear someone say his name. Even in contempt.” And in Karen Lee Tawarayama’s science fiction set in 2050, The Life Dispensary, the summer heat has become unbearable not just for humans but for other bewildered creatures who are forced to take refuge in ponds, springs and rivers. This sad story highlights the climate crisis and a possible future intensifying of the sweltering heat that Kyoto already suffers during the summer months.
The unique landscape in and around Kyoto is depicted beautifully. Travel with Edward J. Taylor on a winter’s day to the village of Ohara where he hopes to walk “through fields of snow, the white purifying valley, called the Pure Land.” Stay with him through an area of “small forest between two massive beds of moss from which small jizo statues sprout like mushrooms.” Or enjoy John Einarsen’s elegant piece about the Dragon Gate of the World. “It stands alone atop wide stone steps, its three doorways always open to a forest, and beyond, mountains, keeping nothing in nor anything out.” The forest is “wild and free and vast beyond imagining.”
Vast beyond imagining, as is Kyoto, a city where the secular world and the spiritual world stand side by side. During Obon, the annual Festival of the Dead, the souls of the ancestors return to visit their families. At the end of the three-day festival huge bonfires are lit on the surrounding mountains to guide the spirits back to the heavens. The fires can be seen all over the city. In Lisa Wilcut’s beautiful poem, Okuribi, two recently bereaved people stand on their hotel roof and toast a departing spirit while gazing at the fires burning in the distance; “the spirits almost palpable in the haze that hovers over the city.”
Structures of Kyoto Anthology 4 is an eclectic mix of things personal, poetic, aesthetic, magical, modern and ancient, gathered together in an informative, thought-provoking collection. Enhanced with photographs and illustrations, this is a delightful book to dip in and out of.
It will amuse, inform and move you, whether you live in Kyoto, are simply passing through, or are dreaming about this ancient city from the other side of the world.
Award-winning writer/director Jean Pasley lived in Japan for many years. Her debut novel Black Dragonfly was published in 2021. Set in late nineteenth century Japan, it is a historical novel based on the remarkable experiences of the Irish writer, Lafcadio Hearn.
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