Originally published in Japanese in 1993 (with the English translation following in 1996), “Lost Japan,” the first book by Alex Kerr, has recently been re-released by Penguin. A fascinating chronicle of Kerr’s diverse interactions with the country, the book spans such subjects as restoring a traditional Japanese house in the Iya Valley in Shikoku to collecting Japanese antiques often found languishing unloved in the kura (storehouses) of family homes.
Kerr is superlative not only in bringing a connoisseur’s eye to the artefacts and architecture of his adopted homeland, but also in providing revelatory insights into the country in general. He provides an illuminating exploration of many hidden, magical aspects of Japanese culture from the mandala of temples studded around Nara to the ancient brothel district of Tobita in southern Osaka.
Kerr also provides an acute critique of the way Japanese often fail to prize their own culture and allow bland modernity to displace the aesthetic standards of the past, an argument considerably expanded in his follow-up book “Dogs and Demons.”
One of many memorable details informs us that Kerr keeps a hossu (fly swish), an important Buddhist symbol, on his coffee table as a sign that home should be a place where cares are be swished away. Elsewhere he discusses the hibutsu (hidden Buddhas) kept by some temples and only revealed on special occasions. The book itself almost seems a kind of hibutsu, bringing into the light so many features of Japan that many people, both Japanese and non-Japanese, didn’t know existed.