Mapping Kyoto: An Affair of the Heart

Interview by Hana Murrell

Judith Clancy Kyoto 01

Judith Clancy is the author of three books about Kyoto, Exploring Kyoto, Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide and Kyoto City of Zen. She has mapped Kyoto in words and images, enabling countless people, residents and visitors alike, to explore the exceptional cultural, historical, religious and gastronomic heritage of this city. Being invited into Judith’s house for our interview felt much like stepping into one of the many pages she has written about Kyoto, pages which reveal the city’s unique, timeless identity. She lives in a beautifully renovated obi weaver’s studio, a project of the heart that was a natural result of her commitment to preserving and promoting machiya, traditional Kyoto townhouses. She has called Kyoto home since 1970, and had many insights into the life and soul of the city to share with us, along with a less well-known love of cats and enthusiasm for collecting art.

You have been living in Kyoto for over 40 years. Was there a moment when you realised that Kyoto was home?

There’s an attraction in the stars. I had wanted to live in Kyoto since I was a child. When I was 10, my elementary girlfriend’s father went to the Far East, and came back with wonderful stories and silk for his daughter’s dresses. At 14, I saw a Life magazine double-page spread on Bob Strickland and Clifton Karhu in front of their Japanese houses, and I thought that’s it, I want to live there.

I was teaching music in New Jersey when America was in the midst of the Vietnam War, which I was against then and now. The choice was to join and support, or love it or leave it. The position of paramedic in the Peace Corps in Korea came up, and I thought “Great, that makes me closer to Kyoto,” so I left America in 1967. After finishing my time in Korea, I travelled around South-East Asia for a month and came to live in Japan in January 1970, fulfilling my childhood dream.

My idea of being an adult was being sophisticated enough to discuss political, worldly affairs with others, and know about other countries. Maybe it was Kennedy’s influence — he was so worldly and gracious in my eyes. I needed to experience the world outside of America.
Living in Kyoto is an affair of the heart, and not an affair of money. Most of us have one or the other; you make a choice and live with it.

Who is the most inspiring Japanese person who has had an influence on you in Kyoto?

My ikebana teacher, Tamura Suiko. He was so fantastic, remarkable yet endearing, that I wrote a book about him. I published it myself; it was my first book, called Naturescapes: Tamura Suiko Flower Arrangements . He didn’t buy his materials; he went into the countryside and collected them himself. So I knew which mountain he got his witch hazel from, what river he got his dried wood from, and I was able to learn so much about being a classic ikebana artist. He taught me a lot about the erosion and restoration of mountains in the area where he lived, where there are immense carved images of Buddha. He did very big exhibitions, and for one of them he used a huge river weir. I asked him “How did you get that?” and he replied “It took me three days of drinking with fishermen.” He was one with his surroundings and made friends with everyone, as did his wife. He also opened my eyes to the beauty of things, even a weir retrieved from the river.

And he taught me the way to teach. He had a lot of patience, for I couldn’t understand his Shiga dialect. He would put an arrangement together slowly, and then say “Take it apart and do it again.” After doing this, he’d say “Wonderful.” That would go on for about a year. Then he would start to criticise gently. And to the advanced people, he would say, “That’s terrible,” which was a huge compliment. You were considered strong enough to take that criticism. Then you knew you’d made it. As my language skills grew, I could argue my viewpoint, always wanting to make my arrangements more dynamic, and he would accept it. Both he and his wife have passed away and I still miss them and correspond with their daughter-in-law. He was and still is a prime inspiration.

Is there someone or something that inspired you to start writing?

Yes certainly — John Benson, the original editor of the Kyoto Visitor’s Guide. I was at the Gosho, the Imperial Palace Park, with a birding group, hearing people referring to estates. I couldn’t see any estates, so I asked and they said that they meant the ruins of estates. And then it dawned on me that we were standing among where some 150 residences had once stood, surrounding the Palace, and which had belonged to families connected to the Imperial family. Sometime afterwards I met John at a party and said to him that somebody should write about that; he said “You should write about it.” I started writing walking tours for the Kyoto Visitor’s Guide, and that’s how it started, from my interest in birding.

Your second book, Exploring Kyoto, how did that come about? Is there anywhere in Kyoto that you haven’t explored yet?

The main reason for writing the book was that there wasn’t any information that made any sense to me about the city, just dates that meant nothing to me. So I had to dig around, thinking “What am I looking at?” Exploring Kyoto is the completely visual result of six years of research. There isn’t really anywhere I have yet to explore. I’ve mapped the entire city, these books are my maps. I drew them, and I corrected them, thousands of times. Please remember, this was a long time before Google!

Do you think there have been any improvements in the signage or information for tourists since you wrote Exploring Kyoto?

Not a lot, but there have been some. The signs are now in three languages, Chinese, Korean and English.

Last June I met a Chinese mother and son from San Francisco, on Marutamachi Street. They said “We have three hours — what shall we do?” I said, “Go and have some soba at a nearby shop I recommend and then go to Heian Shrine to see the irises.” The mother had just a map, no book, no information. There’s nothing in the hotels or other places to find information like that, but at least there’s the Kyoto Visitor’s Guide….

The temple pamphlets still do not convey much. I was sitting outside Konchi-in in Nanzen-ji temple, writing about the Zen sect based there, and the wife of the temple priest came out and asked me what I was doing. She said, “Oh, I want to buy your book afterwards.” I asked if she spoke English, and when she said no, I asked why she wanted to buy the book. She said, “If you can explain it then maybe I can explain it!” There is little unified opinion about what religion is or what it means. So the pamphlets focus on dates usually, but for us foreigners our questions are about the visual, such as “What’s that rope around that tree?” and the sects.

What has the city done that is good? And on the other hand, what have they missed and could improve?

What they’ve done really well is maintain places. They are landscaping the Kamo River very nicely, and shrines and temples are maintained beautifully. They replanted the trees on Oike Street and put car parking underneath. They’re putting in more bicycle parking places. The streets are very clean, there’s no litter at all.

The 500 yen bus pass is great, although they could make it a bit easier on the buses by having an explanation in English about the change etc. The No.12 bus particularly is a nightmare, with schoolchildren and tourists. I have suggested that they give the bus drivers papers with English, Korean and Chinese written on them, so when a passenger doesn’t understand a destination, the driver can show the passenger who can point to the appropriate line.

I don’t like however the revitalisation of Gion, and the Japanese don’t like it either, they’ve Disneyfied it, with all the evenly laid flagstones from China. I am really unhappy about the new aquarium in Kyoto with its 2,000 yen entry fee; I wanted a skate park for kids, like in San Francisco. My design was to make a big loop line and rent out unicycles, line skates and skateboards. The road would be marked with Kyoto landmarks, teaching the layout of the city. Kids need that, there’s nothing for young kids or teenagers in the city. Line skates are forbidden in Kyoto, but it’s a flat city, actually great for line skates.

Another vision for the future is that I would like to see a summer music camp for kids, like Interlochen, but in the north part of Biwako. It’s cool there in the summer, and you can go swimming. Then parents wouldn’t have to send their kids to France or Germany to study music. Such a project needs a lot of backing, but I would like to see it happen.

I also wish there were more spots for birding, though there are some in the Gosho. Many birds have come back, since the water quality of the Kamo River has improved.

What were the origins of Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide?

I was discussing Exploring Kyoto with Peter Goodman, of Stone Bridge Press, and I said “I really would like to do a guidebook on restaurants.” And Linda his assistant said “That sounds nice”, and I went off running with that. That was six or seven years ago. I ate my way around Kyoto, and I’m still eating my way around Kyoto.

Peter Goodman had a great idea to put a photo essay in the middle of the machiya book. The well-known photographer Ben Simmons had asked me to collaborate for a book of his, so I asked for his help and Ben came down and started going around with me. I wanted the characteristics of the machiya photographed, characteristics which are impossible to describe fully with words. It was difficult to put the book together, with text crossing the Pacific and corrections getting confused. I regretted that the photographs were only in black and white, but it’s available in colour on Kindle.

I have about 20 new places to add to the book. For example, Kichijojo’s closed down, which had very reasonable kaiseki. I went to another restaurant recently however and saw the same staff there. Misen, the new restaurant, also serves a mini-kaiseki lunch. I enjoyed the 880yen opening day kaiseki special. Another place across the road from Misen, Gyoko, is a sushi restaurant and another good lunch. Hopefully, these and others will appear in a second edition. I only covered lunches because they make reasonable choices for the visitor.

So even I can afford them, as a student!

Yes, exactly. You might not know if you really like it, so go have a 1000 yen lunch. And if you really like it go back at night and pay the night time price. Most places have gardens, so you get to see a beautiful garden during daytime hours and eat a meal. You pay for lunch in a beautiful setting – lunch doesn’t get much better than that. And I love meeting all the people — machiya are small, only seating 10-30 people — there are only a few people working there and working hard. After publication, I would go around with cards to let them know they were in my book, and they would ask, “Will this cost us money?” I would say, “No, it’s done, I’ve finished the book.” I gave out these announcements to encourage them to print out an English menu, advising them that they might get some customers who don’t speak Japanese. Running a small restaurant is a struggle, it’s good times or bad times, you have to buy your food that day or the day before and use it, or throw it out. So there’s a waste factor, and it’s heavily labour intensive. I hope that I can help some people to make a living; that’s been very satisfying.

How do you make a machiya restaurant profitable?

It’s rarely profitable; it’s a work of love.

Are you involved in machiya restoration projects with the city government groups?

I have worked with the World Monument Fund. They had decided to redo three machiya structures, although the Fund usually takes care of much larger projects, such as Angkor Wat. I was interpreting for the Machizukuri Centre down on Gojo Street, an NPO for the preservation of machiya, and I met the staff and helped a little when the Associate Director came to Kyoto to review their first project. Thereafter, Peter Goodman sent a number of Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide complimentary copies to the Machizukuri Centre so they could sell them there, and raise some money. The first project was a tiny community centre from where NHK partly shot an episode of the series ‘Cool Japan’. Last year, the second project was completed, and is now a gallery. The third one is under consideration now. There are many old houses in Kyoto, some with no inheritors, others with too high maintenance costs or even some with crumbling kilns. The Associate Director looks at all the prospects, and then reports his findings to the Board of Directors.

This is remarkable because it is the first time foreign money has come in to do preservation work in Japan, and significantly, that the World Monuments Fund has directed their attention to small projects. A friend of mine bought an old ochaya, a tea house where geisha entertained, in Kanazawa and received money to maintain the façade, to keep the neighbourhood attractive. There’s nothing like that here in Kyoto. But there are a tremendous number of places which are crumbling, for inheritance tax reasons, or due to termites, and people getting older; if Kyoto doesn’t act, their image will change forever.

One dream of mine is to buy another place, fix it up and do vacation rentals with it.

Judith Clancy Kyoto machiya house tokonoma

What are the practicalities of preserving a machiya?

There’s a big effort just in workmanship. Not a lot of young people are getting into this kind of carpentry. Maintenance of a house costs a lot of money, especially tile roofs. To live comfortably certain changes need to be made too, for example in my house I put insulation under the roof, and heated flooring to use in the winter.

Machiya are not expensive, not anymore anyway. Buying and renovating my house came out to 20 million yen, which isn’t so much when you consider the rent money over a long term. Houses however have no value, only the land, so people think “Might as well tear it down.” When people get older, they sell their houses to move into somewhere more manageable, like an apartment, rather than fixing them up.

What is the value in preserving machiya/old wooden buildings which once were built to be knocked down easily and rebuilt, and when preserving takes a lot of effort?

You preserve your identity; the iconic identity of Kyoto is in its architecture. If you look at Korea, which was completely levelled during the war, they’ve got to re-invent all of their identity. When you get older, your parents then dear friends start to die, and with them go your memories, because nobody triggers them. Nobody comes up to you and says, “Oh do you remember that car we rented one time…” and that happens all over the world, and it happens with people, and it happens with houses, gardens. Here in Kyoto they have the legacy to preserve because it wasn’t destroyed during the war, so why destroy it now?

The owners of the machiya restaurants and cafes, they want to keep community intact. The sense of community you get during jizobon festival, when everybody comes together in August and shares food and the local priest prays for everybody’s well-being and gives the children a lecture about obeying traffic signals and listening to their elders. It’s wonderful, and parents and grandparents watch their neighbours grow and connect.

Judith Clancy machiya Nishijin house koinobori Kyoto

You are living in a beautifully renovated house in the Nishijin district — please tell us about that.

I looked at many houses for eight months. But when I opened the door to this genkan, something happened; I felt it in my brain, in my body. It was a past sense of beauty that has been handed down to us, and I fell in love and decided to buy it.

My house used to be an obi weaving studio, weaving the beautiful obi belts worn with kimono. In fact, most of the houses in this neighbourhood were or still are obi makers. Then there’s a spinning operation at the end of this street, a dyeing works, a workshop making silk neckties sold in Paris and New York. Go to Nishijinkaikan, they have a program that introduces shokunin, artisans, and you can watch them labouring over their creations, it’s most impressive.

The floors of my house were below the garden level because it was essential to keep the humidity in the room for the silk’s flexibility. The ceiling was built very high to accommodate the loom. Sunlight entered the loom room, because Japanese artists always worked in natural light when using dyes, even in the retail shops, hence the lattice fronts, to ensure that colours were shown in the light they were likely to be worn in.

When I was first shown this house with a realtor, I went outside and I asked the group of four ladies huddled in the corner with their brooms, what they would think of a foreigner moving in. Nishijin is a world of its own, and business is usually kept within the family. Then one of them said, “Well, if you speak Japanese as well as you do, I suppose it’s OK.” A few days later, a neighbour’s daughter said, “You’ll really feel comfortable in this neighbourhood,” and that sealed it for me.

I had plaster walls, tile-work and a tokonoma, a decorative alcove, put in. The structure was raised to accommodate floor heating. The living room is the more elegant side; the dining room is the more mingei, folk art, side. I like primitive and abstract art, so that gets displayed in the living room where my ikebana is. On the wall of the dining room hang the small miniature pictures that are from China, Christchurch, Istanbul, Morocco; art I pick up when I go to these places. I also collect woodblock prints. It was after going to a Clifton Karhu exhibition that I started print buying and became a great Karhu fan. The cover of Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide is a woodblock print by Karhu.

Your most recent book, Kyoto: City of Zen, provides great inspiration about where to visit in the city…

Yes that’s the best thing about it, and because of the photography visitors are sure to see what’s in the book. I hate books where you get excited by a beautiful photo, and then you get there and it was a seasonal event, it’s closed, or it doesn’t look like that. This happens especially because of the creativity of the photographer, or because the photographer was given special permission to photograph something people are often not allowed to see. With Kyoto: City of Zen you’re sure to see all the places pictured. This makes it a very satisfying work.

Is there a book you would still like to write?

I hope to write a book about my interactions with my neighbours based on my cats, whose garden they visited that they shouldn’t have… a whole slew of stories. I particularly want to write about my cat Pu-chan. Pu-chan and the backstreets of old Kyoto. He made a lot of friends in my old neighbourhood; I have many stories about him.

Finally, by reflecting on your experiences in Japan, could you answer this question, “What does ‘Japan’ mean to you?”

I recently read The Donald Richie Reader in which he talks about how much reflection on your own personality your setting gives you, but especially one that’s outside of your own country. When I was working in Korea, I met a Professor of Comparative Religions and he said: “You’re American, you speak English, and you’re always going to dichotomise everything. Now you’re in Korea, it’s poor, it’s dirty, and you’re always going to think of that in connection to how to describe the country in English.” So what’s very important is that you learn to express degrees, and in Japan, like in Korea, they use a lot of onomatopoeia, so it’s not just raining, it’s poro poro poro, or a more insistent boro boro boro. Not just heavy and light rain. And the Professor said to become a truly international person, you should live in three countries and learn three languages and this way you give your life balance, and a deeper meaning, instead of “Us and them.” This has served me well, because truly a lot of people get into an “Us and them” conundrum. It’s given me another viewpoint that I never would have had if I hadn’t lived in a third country and learned another language.

Kyoto city is an affair of the heart for me. I love the history, the art, design sense, spatial images, space of houses, safety and quiet. If you live abroad, you have to conform to the standards of the society, if you’re really going to live in it. I like Japanese standards of humanity, morality, safety, friendship… Kind of 19th century ideas perhaps, but they suit me. I like going to the shrine with neighbours every year to be blessed. It’s very comfortable to live in this city.

kyoto journal logo red


Hana Murrell

Author's Bio


Photography by Paul Crouse