Just off Kyoto’s beaten path, the symbolism runs deep

Sekaibunka Publishing Inc., 336pp. Price: ¥1,700 plus tax

“Another Kyoto” by Alex Kerr with Kathy Arlyn Sokol, illustrated by Tetsuji FujiharaIf you plan to visit Kyoto, I recommend you go in mid-April, when it is not very crowded after the cherry-blossom viewing season ends, and visit Chion-in temple to participate in the Midnight Nenbutsu, a free annual event on the night of April 18 at its Sanmon gate. The massive Sanmon gate, a national treasure that is usually closed to the public, is illuminated by dim candlelight, with priests slowly chanting the “Nan man dabu” prayer and beating a wooden block. Visitors to the gate can join the chanting and beating anytime from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. You may find yourself almost slipping into a trance.

“Another Kyoto” does not provide such event information, but it will open your eyes to the meaning of gates themselves. The book focuses on lesser-known symbolic elements of traditional Japanese architecture, classical arts and aesthetic sensibilities to help you better enjoy your (next) visit to Kyoto.

The content is distilled from author Alex Kerr’s half century of living in Japan and the knowledge he has accumulated through meeting various professionals. He is a seasoned Japanologist whose previous books include “Lost Japan.”

Kerr’s writing is far from dry scholarship. It is easy to understand and often based on his own experiences. Readers may feel as if they are on a guided tour led by the author.

The book’s nine chapters mainly cover architecture and fixtures such as walls, floors and screens.

The first chapter, “Gates,” poses a question: “A temple visit always starts with the gate. But why are there gates without doors?” His answer refers to more than 30 structures, with such observations as, “At the gate, you reached the end of your journey to get here; and the start of a new, internal journey,” and “On entering you became a disciple of those who dwell beyond the gate.”

Particularly interesting is the third chapter, which explains “shin gyo so,” a set of aesthetic elements deeply rooted in Japanese culture and lifestyle. Kerr says the elements contributed to building Japanese identity.

The concept originates in three styles of calligraphy — shin (standard script, meaning “true” in Japanese), gyo (a little more relaxed) and so (abbreviated and difficult to read, but a favorite of calligraphers).

“Of the main forms of Japanese aesthetic thought I believe that shin gyo so is one of the most thought-provoking,” he writes.

He applies the three styles to various things in the world that have three levels — formal, semi-formal and informal; serious, normal and funny; realistic, impressionistic and abstract; and porcelain, stoneware and earthenware.

Kerr also refers to things coming to Japan from China as being seen as highly polished, those from Korea as less so, and those from Japan itself as rough and unpolished.

The three styles deeply penetrated the Japanese tea ceremony. The cultivated elite of Japan exalted the so style above the shin style, with a paradoxical result. “It was because of national pride ... The imperfect, lumpy things got incredibly polished and refined by the tea master. The levels reversed.”

He observes, “Over the centuries Japan seems to go through phases, bouncing between the two poles of shin and so.”

Kerr recommends the garden at the Daisen-in subtemple of Daitokuji as a sophisticated example of the shin gyo so mechanism at work.

“Discoveries could be found just a few steps off the well-beaten tourist path,” the author suggests. Through his eyes, familiar old places can suddenly look new.

— Hiroko Ihara, Japan News Staff Writer


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