Pensive view of a city’s declining identity


KYOTO: A Cultural and Literary History, by John Dougill. Signal Books, 2006, 242 pp., 2,500 yen (paper).

“Everyone knew,” the wartime narrator of Hisako Matsubara’s Kyoto novel “Cranes at Dusk” relates, “there was not a single Japanese city of over a million people that hadn’t already been bombed.” But Kyoto was spared the destruction, and it is the treasures and accomplishments of this great city, much, though not all, surviving to this day, that form the focal core of John Dougill’s new book.

Dougill details the founding of the city, its expansions in benevolent times, retractions in violent ones. Within the biography of the city are human biographies, the book illustrating the lives of its renowned artists, priests, gardeners and writers. Dougill has taken on the role of not merely guide but also art critic, historian, gourmand, collector of oddities. A discerning observer who picks out the choicest morsels from its cultural menu will be traveling in good company, albeit through a city mostly drawn along traditional rather than contemporary grids.

What appears to be free association, literary serendipity, turns out to be carefully crafted structure, the book’s transitions effortless, the digressions always fruitful. Dougill is adept at localizing content into its social-temporal context. Writing of the literary preoccupations of the early court, he notes, “Like writers in modern times who turn neurosis into novels, Heian versifiers found release in the ritualistic expression of life’s sad beauty.”

A well-known historian once commented that he was less interested in the victories of Roman armies than in the fact that, downwind on a march, you could smell a legion of centurions a good 30 km away. John Dougill brings some of this love of the neglected detail to his work.

Of the Heian courtiers Dougill informs, “A six-day calendar of auspicious and inauspicious days determined even the most mundane activities, such as nail-cutting and hair-washing.” Of the utensils used in the tea ceremony, we are told “pieces of iron are placed in the bottom of the kettle to create a calming sound reminiscent of wind whispering through pine trees.”

Although there are virtually no visible remains from the Heian Period, save some brocade robes, wooden statuary, screen paintings and garden foundations, it is an era strongly identified with Kyoto. Its court, comprising a privileged aristocracy with little knowledge of, or interest in the peasantry, arguably placed more importance on the creation and practice of poetry in life, love and protocol, than any other society in world history. In a world intently self-preoccupied with the finer things in life, Buddhist prophesies vied with the pleasures of the flesh, sparking “a tension between the attachments of love and a desire for non-attachment.” The problem of which path to follow seems to have been resolved by courtiers allowing themselves to pursue an amorous, even lascivious early life, before retiring into reclusive exile or, in the case of women, the stern orders of a nunnery.

As a resident, an active cell in the fabric of the city, Dougill is ideally placed to offer his commentary. The author’s erudition and perambulations around the city, have produced a pensive work that is historical, literary, and a cultural profile in the manner of Augustus Hare’s early guide to Provence or Mary McCarthy’s “The Stones of Florence.”

Dougill is a discerning writer who, one suspects, lingers long and hard over his rough drafts. Describing three Sen estates in north Kyoto attached to the powerful Urasenke school of tea, the writer gives us a well-matched comparison: “Here is the Vatican of the tea world, with ‘ambassadors’ in distant countries and important connections in high places.”

On the striking cosmetic effects of the geisha, he writes “The thick paste stops short of the hairline to leave a strip of naked skin, as if in a facial striptease.” Seated in a function beside a maiko (apprentice geisha), one groomed in the conversational dexterity that will be shortly required of her as a fully accredited geisha, the conversation advances from predictable remarks on the vigors of such an apprenticeship, to her fondness for the Beatles and David Beckham. “By now,” the author realizes, “I was no longer relating to a maiko as such: I was talking to an eighteen-year-old in fancy dress.”

Revisiting this city of modern-minded maikos can be a heartbreaking experience. In a city where the preservation ethic is so palpably weak, each year witnesses a little more of its heritage pulverized. Despite its flaws, however, it’s easy to get hooked on Kyoto. Dougill’s book, an engaging work of cultural geography, is an attempt to explain why this should be the case.