Matthew Stavros is a historian of early Japan at the University of Sydney, and I imagine that reading his book on Kyoto’s inception through to its medieval period is rather like attending a series of his lectures.

Kyoto: An Urban History
of Japan’s Premodern
Capital, by Matthew Stavros
229 pages.
University of Hawaii Press, Nonfiction.

His style is lucid, his language accessible, his structure compact and controlled, and he provides meticulous photographs, illustrations and maps throughout to aid and engage the reader — if only more academics would keep this in mind when publishing books.

“Kyoto: An Urban History of Japan’s Premodern Capital” is more an examination of the evolving personality of the city than of the personalities that shaped it. For sure, Stavros includes the powerful royals, shoguns and emperors that were influential, but time and again he returns to how the city was conceived of as “ideal” and what it became in reality. Stavros shows how Kyoto has — to this day, I might add — projected a sense of propriety. How it upheld this and fell short is the story of “Kyoto.”

Stavros writes that when it was founded in 794, and known as Heian-kyo, the city “was envisioned as an inert venue of imperial government and ritual, a place meant to accommodate the emperor, state institutions, the lives of its officials and little else.” As Stavros shows, this didn’t last. From the outset, the city failed to fill its projected scope and became a place for commerce and arts, for politics, power and, over time, religion.

Stavros uncovers much about the city’s intricate layout, its Byzantine postal addresses, its architecture and the shrines and temples that encroach on it. Essential and enjoyable reading for anyone interested in this ancient city.

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