Wait, come back!
For those of you who have stayed, pat yourself on the back. Dr. Matthew Stavros, a professor at the University of Sydney, has written a wonderful book: Kyoto: An Urban History of Japan's Premodern Capital.
As a Japanese history student, I was grateful for every text, map, and explanation in English on the Heian Period (794-1185) I could get my hands on. There is a lot of great scholarship in English. But often, you find yourself turning to Japanese texts for explanations about basic things, like, what did this piece of clothing look like? How far is the entrance to the palace from this particular gate?
Sometimes you can end up staring hopelessly at stuff like this:
It's awesome to live in the age of Google Maps. However, there is no Google Maps for the year 1000. Not even MapQuest.
But there is Matthew Stavros's book.
Stavros has painstakingly researched maps and texts to give an explanation of how Kyoto was founded in 794, how it grew, and why it ceased to function as the capital. He maps the capital. He maps the Imperial Palace. The book is packed with drawings, maps, and clear explanations. How much of the city would a certain aristocrat get for his or her house? Well, it depended on their rank at court! Stavros answers with diagrams.
There's a map showing markets, liquor stores, palaces, war damage... For me, this book is invaluable for its maps and explanations about how space was used in the capital. We take maps and our modern sense of space for granted. Space, in the past, is a great mystery being discovered by historians.
When reading old diaries or stories, it can be easy to gloss over place names. I've been there. Sometimes I do not want to spend thirty minutes trying to figure out where this old street was—or is this a house's name? Shoot me.
After reading this book, I feel as if I have a much stronger sense of what this old city was actually like. I know that sounds crazy simple. But it's crazy crucial. Where did Genji of The Tale of Genji live? What does that mean?
Learning these things can mean all the difference in understanding someone's wealth and power. Did you live on 5th Avenue in New York? Oh. I see. You live in Newark. That's... really not the same thing...
Stavros argues that the layout and development of Kyoto was meant to create a sense of inside and outside. Power literally came from the space you occupied. Where was your house? Your house showed your rank, which showed your place at court, which showed your value... Buildings and neighborhoods were arranged around the monarchy and the layout served to illustrate that.
My only critique of the book is a common one for scholarly works... The writing is fine, but not gripping by any stretch of the imagination.
Also, props to the University of Hawai'i Press. This is a gorgeous book. The dust jacket is a stylish gold screen. The actual cover is gold cloth embossed in green. The pages are glossy, filled with color pictures. The layout is elegant.
This should sit on the shelf of any student of Japanese history. Or anyone who wants to learn more about this historic city. Or just people interested in cities. It's not a binge-read book, but a slow nibble that will nourish your brain. I'm excited about his next book.
It's worth the $50. Go for it.
Look at the map above. If you could work or live anywhere, where would you pick?
(Court of Abundant Pleasures doesn't sound too bad. But I'd take the Tea Garden "Chaen" in the northeastern corner.)