I clearly recall Donald Richie, described by Michael Ondaatje as, “a beautiful and subtle writer,” lamenting the lack of an English-language literary salon in Japan, an omission that forced him, as he put it, to “(live) alone in the library of my skull.” Were Richie alive today, he would likely be a fully paid up member of Writers in Kyoto, a group of authors whose influence is already being felt in literary circles.
WRITERS IN KYOTO, Anthology.
Founded by established writer John Dougill in 2015, Writers in Kyoto was formed with the purpose of creating, as the editors of this anthology express it, a “sense of community,” to “help foster a literary culture for published English-language authors associated with the city.” Membership, as translator Juliet Winters Carpenter, notes in her foreword, “does not require being a resident of Kyoto, but having an affinity for it.”
Great cities need discerning voices to articulate their magnetism and essence. Alex Kerr, smitten, but sufficiently in command of his faculties to write a candid account of the city, one devoid of the warping effect of nostalgia, applies his connoisseurship of taste and judgment to the opening piece of this collection, “Primal Memories.” Without compromising the critical methods that define his work, Kerr finds elements of the contemporary city that match his initial enthrallment.
Ian Josh Yates begins his contribution to the anthology with the line, “I hate Kyoto!” The writer is not alone in having a complicated relationship with the city. Over time, however, Yates, who attributes the collapse of a personal relationship to the city, and is rankled by its snooty elitism, permits it to work its magic on him. Sitting on the banks of the Kamo River, clutching a can of beer, he is compelled to admit that, watching the flow of locals, they “seemed more like artists than snobs.”
At Honenin, an immensely important but curiously underappreciated temple, Allen S. Weiss, in a little under two pages, turns erudition and scholarship, as he has done in his searching, beautiful books on Japanese aesthetics, gardens and pottery, into richly associative prose. In a gesture, akin to offering ripe pomegranates and olive oil at the base of a Byzantine sarcophagus, the author, approaching the resting place of the great, transgressional author Junichiro Tanizaki, places three yuzu citrus before his tomb, imagining the recipient’s “desire that his mistress forever tread upon his grave, with bare feet if possible.”
In “A Different Kind of Tourist,” Amy Chavez walks her aging mother into the ground touring the city, inadvertently breathing fresh air into exhausted destinations. In the process, she begins to reappraise her mother, a visitor of a particular stripe, one who, despite her daughter’s grumbles about living as a foreigner in Japan, “defended the idiosyncratic ways of the Japanese while remaining neither bewildered nor bewitched by them.” Chavez, a writer with an instinctive gift for avoiding cliche, recognizes in her mother a tourist drawn to the “art of every day,” one for whom “mundane living were the salient details.”
Simon Rowe’s contribution is a well-crafted piece of fiction that reminds me a little of the Japanese children’s book, “Ofuro Daisuki” (“I Love the Bath”), in which a small child, taking his evening soak, finds himself joined by a benign menagerie of ducks, turtles, penguins, seals, even a hippopotamus, each materializing from the steam. Rowe’s excursion into magic realism is more alarming, his protagonist encountering in the waters of his local bathhouse a hostile, oversized carp, and Raijin, the god of thunder.
Attributable, perhaps, to Kyoto’s ability to bring out the closet spiritualist in its foreign residents, many of the entries in this anthology touch on journeys of self-inquiry, propelled by a yearning for knowledge and truth.
In “Encountering Kyoto,” Ken Rodgers, exploring reclusive gardens and dilapidated buildings, comes across the figure of Kurama Temple’s Bishamonten, the city’s northern guardian, whose visage, embodying multiple states of mind, is “devastatingly fierce; achingly gentle. Enraptured; profoundly bored.” It is obliquely suggested that the encounter highlights the author’s own flawed quests. Without being able to accurately define the divine messaging of theology, the writer is able, nonetheless, to appreciate in the arcane paradigms of Theravada Buddhism, a faith that is a “way of simply coexisting mindfully and ethically, without self-delusion, in this transient world.”
When asked how he sees the future shape of Writers in Kyoto, Dougill, who is surprised that the group has expanded to almost 50 members, says they are making efforts to reach out to more Japanese writers. “It may be a little ambitious,” he adds, “but my dream would be for us to hold a bilingual literary festival one day with Kyoto-born Haruki Murakami as the keynote speaker.”
In poring over the fine samples of prose and verse selected for this anthology, readers may join the company of authors who, in their intimate associations with the city — and in writing that is by turns studied, witty and rancorous — revalidate Kyoto’s role as a boundless wellspring of inspiration.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5