Rediscovering Kyoto

Review by Mari Katsui

Houses and Gardens of Kyoto. Photography by Akihiko Seki; Text by Thomas Daniell. Singapore: Tuttle Publishing, 224 pp., $39.95 (cloth).

[I] work as a guide for foreign tourists and though I mean to introduce them to the charms of Japan, instead it is often they who remind me of my country’s beauty. This is just like a husband and wife of many years: if someone is always there, we take them for granted and forget the things that originally attracted us to them until something reawakens us. This book, with its stunning photos and sophisticated writing can reawaken even Kyotoites to the beauty of Kyoto.
Akihiko “Alan” Seki, the photographer, has lived in London, Nairobi, Los Angeles, Singapore and Bangkok for more than twenty years as a representative of a trading company and news agency. This has enabled him to see Japan from the outside, and this outsider’s view allows him, perhaps, to see his country’s beauty more clearly than someone who has never left Japan. After retirement he devoted himself to photography, publishing three collections, all through Tuttle in Singapore: Asian Resorts; Ryokan; and The Japanese Spa.

Thomas Daniell, who provided the elegant text, is an architect who has lived in Kyoto for more than 15 years. He is the author of two books, FOBA Buildings and After the Crash: Architecture in Post-Bubble Japan. The well-researched text elucidates Seki’s photographs and shows a talent extending beyond the plans and blueprints with which architects are usually concerned. His deep knowledge of Japanese culture is reflected in each short essay.

The big difference between this book and other Kyoto photography books is the discernment with which the subjects have been chosen and the depth of Daniell’s writing. In fact, this book was planned and photographed by Seki according to ideas that he had nurtured while he was overseas. Preparation for the book took one year. Seki came to Kyoto fifteen times during the course of that year, and on each trip, he tried to visit sites together with Daniell.

The main character in this book, is of course, Kyoto, a city for which both Japanese and foreigners long. Indeed, Western and Asian visitors always choose Kyoto as their favorite Japanese city. The charm of this book would not exist without this important ingredient. The city has so many kinds of tastes you will never get bored. As a Kyotoite however, I can only feel that this book, which is so well done, could have been even better. If only Seki had had the opportunity to photograph Byodo-in at sunset, or Hakusason-so in the autumn with its beautiful maple leaves….

Since its publication last autumn, the book has been selling well. Who has been buying it? Perhaps people living in foreign countries longing to visit Japan… or maybe people who have been to Kyoto and remember the city fondly. Or maybe Japanese people who have foreign friends and want them to know Japan. This book is broad enough in its appeal to satisfy all these types of readers. It will make those who have visited Kyoto eager to return and those who have yet to visit eager to go.


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Mari Katsui

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