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Sunday, March 30, 2003


Book bites

KYOTO: Seven Paths to The Heart of the City. Text by Diane Durston, photographs by Katsuhiko Mizuno. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2002, 67 pp., 2,800 yen (paper)

JAPANSCAPES: Three Cameras, Three Journeys. Text by Lucille M. Craft, Azby Brown, Charlotte Anderson; photographs by Ben Simmons, Johnny Hymas, Gorazd Vilhar. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2002, 67 pp., 3,800 yen (cloth)

"Not more coffee-table books!" I hear you cry. Well, yes, in the sense "Kyoto" and "Japanscapes" are large full-color books stuffed with more photography than information, but "no" because these books are actually worth more time than it takes to down an espresso.

"Japanscapes" is perhaps the more surprising of the two. With its glossy hardback cover and vibrant full-page images, there is a temptation to flick through the photographs, and ignore the text. Ben Simmons, Johnny Hymas and Gorazd Vilhar, are obviously talented photographers providing images of evocative and artistic merit; however, take a moment to read journalist Lucille M. Craft's account of Tokyo, architect Azby Brown's description of the countryside, or author Charlotte Anderson's explanation of Japanese culture.

Craft's observations -- accompanied by Simmons' modern, neon images -- are highly entertaining, commenting on '50s' actress Lauren Bacall's first impressions of Tokyo, as well as the journalist's own expectations and even disillusionment. In stark contrast, Hymas' countryside images of pinks, browns and greens are complemented by Brown's heartfelt reflections of Japanese countryside. Finally, Anderson does a grand job of describing various elements of Japanese culture, without reducing the text to a dull encyclopedic listing. You will move from Craft's "charmless, gray and brutally functional" Tokyo to Brown's "eye-catching, heart-stopping" countryside and end up at Anderson's "fashioned rare rocks and careful plantings" of shrines. A pleasant and very beautifully illustrated journey.

"Kyoto" like "Japanscapes" is a pretty good read. Each of Diane Durston's pieces read like a magazine travel article, offering plenty of detailed information and historical anecdotes. Best to read this before you attempt to wander around Kyoto, as it's not exactly a pocket guide, though the information provided is very useful: maps of areas, phrases to use with taxi drivers, and so forth. The "Seven Paths" are seven walking tours of Kyoto which -- rather refreshingly -- do not focus on temples and shrines. Instead Durston guides you through the pottery of Kyomizu, the geishas of Gion, the fabrics of Nishijin, and the sake of Fushimi.

Katsuhiko Mizuno's photographs, though not quite as artistic as those in "Japanscapes," are nevertheless nice enough to look at, and encourage you to go and see the real thing up close.

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