Reflections on two cities


Having written over 10 guidebooks myself, I speak from experience when I say that working on these projects is a mixed blessing. Writing a first-time guide to a little-known part of the world, with the freedom to innovate with format and content, can be a rewarding task, but where there is a rigid template, it can be a thankless task. It’s something of a miracle then, to find these two new guidebooks to Tokyo and Kyoto that seem freshly minted.

TOKYO: 29 Walks in the World’s Most Exciting City, by John H. Martin and Phyllis G. Martin. Tuttle, 2012, 288 pp., $24.95/¥2,520 (paperback)
KYOTO: 29 Walks in Japan’s Ancient Capital, by John H. Martin and Phyllis G. Martin. Tuttle, 2011, 376 pp., $24.95/¥2,520 (paperback)

Both works are unusual in that they recall the intimate, more personalized style of guidebook writing that typified the now collectable travel guides of the Victorian age. Such books are distinct for being highly original, erudite and literary. One recalls the charm of Augustus Hare’s guide to Provence, his descriptions of Avignon, a city that, despite the vulgarities and intrusions of the modern age, continues to hold the visitor in thrall. The same might be said of Tokyo.

Well-illustrated with photos, prints and comprehensive maps, these are cultural guides, dispensing with the usual exhaustive listings of hotels, shops, restaurants and cafes, unless a site is of architectural or historical interest. Beginning with a brief but lucid history of the city, the guide quickly launches into the walks themselves, beginning, aptly enough, with the splendidly restored Tokyo Station.

Though the writers have not overlooked newer sights like Tokyo Skytree, the book does not neglect the arcane and esoteric. If you need to know the exact location where clandestine studies of Dutch medicine and anatomy were conducted, the location of a statue of the statesman Shimpei Goto, where an eminent Buddhist deity is worshipped in a Shinto shrine, or the contributions made by notable figures you may never have heard of, like the fingerprint identification pioneer Henry Faulds, likely you will find them here, restored to their proper eminence.

There are rare sightings as well, including one of my favorite antiquarian bookstores, Isseido, in Jimbocho. One is grateful for the inclusion of little gems like the Daimyo Clock Museum in Yanaka and International House, a fine postwar building with a garden designed by Jihei Ogawa in the back lanes of Roppongi.

Largely a tribute to a city the authors clearly have an immense affection for, they do not shy away from criticism when they feel a subject has fallen short. Of the Dai-ichi Insurance Building, a prewar structure, they find the contemporary face-lift given to the facade lacking, noting, “Whatever character the front of the building once had, it has now been effaced.”

Three times older than Tokyo, it is only natural that Kyoto, the former imperial capital and a city of infinite culture, is allocated a larger page count for this guide by the same writers. Few would disagree with their contention that Kyoto emits an “ambience that few other cities can offer.” What distinguishes this title from many others purporting to be the last word on the subject is its highly detailed content, reflecting a rare cultural depth and appreciation of subject.

Samples of this finite detailing are the inclusion of the memorial house of the Meiji era potter Kawai Kanjiro, a temple garden bristling with sago palms, a plant brought to Japan by the Portuguese, and the patently niche appeal of the Steam Locomotive Preservation Hall. An unlikely location jammed up against a factory wall turns out to be the resting place of one of Japan’s most eminent female writers, the Heian Period author Lady Murasaki Shikibu of “The Tale of Genji” fame.

The authors include intriguing sites on the periphery of the city as cultural supplements, like Takao Village, Ohara, Kurama and a considerable number of spots situated on the shores of nearby Lake Biwa. Naturally, major sights are included, but only those that have the requisite cultural gravitas. These include the vast temple complexes of Enraku-ji, Daitoku-ji and Myoshin-ji, catacombs of culture, where the visitor can easily get lost, or engrossed, for an entire day. Alternatives to the city’s inexhaustible number of gardens and temples are provided in the form of sights such as yuzen textile studios, exquisite teahouses and sake breweries.

With such literary guides in hand, however, it is tempting to seek out a quiet corner of a temple compound or garden, open their pages at random, and relish these descriptions of two great cites.

Stephen Mansfield is a British photo-journalist based in Japan. He is the author of several books on Japanese and Asian subjects.

  • kyushuphil

    I wonder if these guidebook authors quote from, chew on, quibble with, and mediate over things other guidebook writers and other writers in general have said of these same places.

    Don’t great cities spur great conversations?