Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Deep Kyoto Walks

The editors of the new e-book Deep Kyoto Walks subscribe to one of my basic tenets, ie that the best way to learn about somewhere is to get out and explore on foot. They have collected together 20 walks around the former capital Kyoto and its vicinity. It is no mere guidebook though. The 16 writers are, with a couple of exceptions, non-Japanese who, by chance or design, have made Kyoto their home. I haven't done the math, but for sure their collective experience of the city must be at least  200 years. With 16 different writers you get a mixed bag of concerns. Some focus on history, some on nature, some on food, and a few do include some of the  well known tourist attractions, but they are all very personal walks, so  it is as if you have your own personal guide along with you pointing out things you may not notice or that locals would take for granted and not mention to you. Some of the writers will appeal to you more than others. From some of the pages there is a distinct odor ( I would not go so far as to use the word "stink") of Zen, and there is a bit of pretentiousness to some, though to be fair it would be hard to write about Kyoto without pretentiousness as the city was founded on the pretensions of the rulers and has been fueled by the pretensions of its inhabitants ever since, especially since the capital moved to Tokyo. The focus of the walks and the styles of the writing are varied enough that everybody should find more than enough interesting and enlightening. My own personal favorite was the piece by Michael lambe whose walk delved into some of the more modern history of Kyoto. Each walk has enough detail to be easily followed but each also has its own map. I would recommend the book to anyone planning on visiting Kyoto, anyone who plans to revisit Kyoto, and even anyone who doesn't plan to visit.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Inside Track: Japan


With the increasing popularity of tablet computers and dedicated ebook readers the range of reading material available at a lower cost than print has ballooned, but it has also spawned a new type of publication,  ebooks that don't exist as hard copy, available at very low cost, for example Inside Track: Japan by JapanVisitor.

Starting in 2005, and its associated JapanVisitor Blog has been written by a team of long-term Japan residents from Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, and Shimane. No prizes for guessing who the Shimane member is :). This little book is a collection of more than 60 of the most popular articles from the blog. By most popular is meant these are the articles that had the most visits, and I can say from my own blog that the posts that get more visitors are sometimes surprising, so what we end up with is a very diverse collection of topics.

There are a few of the major tourist sites in Japan:- Hikone Castle, some temples in Nara, Tokyo Tower, etc, but a lot more quirky, off-the-beaten-track sites like a Meteor Museum, a Shaving Museum, and the tunnels dug towards the end of the war for the government and Emperor to retreat to. All of the articles include access information, prices, opening times etc.

Another group of articles I would classify as "tips":- getting around by train, being vegetarian in Japan, and even some language tips on talking about the weather, and a whole slew of articles on miscellaneous things like Batting Centers, Japanese bicycles, Ladies shaving......

I read to learn things, so a good book is one that I learn a lot from, and I have to say I was surprised at how much I learned from this little volume. On sale for the same price as a cheap cup of coffee, well worth the purchase.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Japan in the 21st century

Japan in the 21st Century
Environment, Economy, Society

Pradyumna P. Karan

University Press of Kentucky


ISBN 978-0813191188

This is a geography textbook on Japan. Apparently there hasn't been a new one for a long time.

From beginning to end it is crammed with facts, figures, and statistics. Of course on their own statistics can be quite boring, but the author manages to point to meanings that are illuminating.

The book has hundreds of photos as well as charts, graphs, and maps. The maps in particular are clear and useful.

Being a geography book there are informative chapters on the physical nature of Japan, its landscape, geology, climate and weather etc, and a brief overview of the human history. Each of the regions of Japan are given their own section. The demographics and society chapter covers all of the pressing issues in Japan today,... the aging society, falling birthrate, immigration, etc. Politics, economy, industry and the post-industrial landscape..... it's hard to think of any aspect of Japan and it's society that isnt covered.

A nice feature is sections called "field reports" where a particular aspect is studied in depth.

If you only have time to read one book on Japan, then this would be it.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sacred Texts & Buried Treasures:

Issues in the Historical Archaeology of Ancient Japan

William Wayne Farris

University of Hawaii Press

ISBN: 0824820304

333 pp

Farris's book is a much needed addition to English-language scholarship on early Japanese history, and not only that, it is that rarest of books, a highly readable book on archeology that manages to bring to life and make real aspects of life in Japan in the period of 100 AD to 800 AD.
The books contention is that the explosion of archeological research in Japan during the past few decades has challenged many of the assumptions held on early Japanese history that until now had been dependent on just a few written sources. He has chosen four topics and explores in depth what Japanese archeology has discovered that throws new light on them.

The first topic is the great "Yamatai Debate".
The first written records of Japan come from China in the 3rd Century when Chinese historian Chen Shou wrote of the "Wa" people who lived in a country called Yamatai, ruled over by a shamaness named Himiko. Just exactly where Yamatai was is the subject of the ongoing Yamatai debate. Until the late 19th Century it was believed that Yamatai was the country known as Yamato, present-day Nara Prefecture, in the Kinai, but for the last century Japanese historians have been split between believing Yamatai was in the Kinai, or in Northern Kyushu. This section of the book reads like a mystery novel, as each new piece of archeological evidence is used as proof for one side of the debate or the other, and sometimes even both interpret the discovery to their own advantage. If there will be a solution to the debate, it must be somewhere in the future, as to date the evidence remains split.

The second section of the book concerns Japan's relationship with Korea during the 4th and 5th centuries, a subject that has consequences and repercussions that continue today: it was Japan's claim that parts of Korea were colonized by Japan at this time that was partly behind their "re" colonization of Korea in the 20th century. In the 1950's, Egami put forward his controversial "Horse rider" theory - that Japan had been colonized by a northern people through the Korean peninsular. Since then the controversy has been was Japan a colony of Korea, or vice versa? On this topic Farris does offer a conclusion. During the period in question, the Korean Peninsular consisted of 4 separate kingdoms, with changing borders and alliances. Japan was dependent on Korea for technologies and natural resources, most notable metals, and in return for these Japan supplied military force to various sides of the inter-kingdom disputes. The conclusion reached by Farris is that all the Korean kingdoms and Japan were roughly equal to each other with no one being dominant enough to colonize another, though the Korean kingdoms were generally more advanced technologically.

The third section looks at the building of Japan's first permanent capitals, Nara, Kyoto, and the less well known Fujiwara, and Naniwa (Osaka). These capitals are commonly referred to as Chinese-style capitals, but there was plenty of Korean influence as well as indigenous Japanese influence on their designs rather than the wholesale adoption of Chinese styles. Farris's own specialty of the impact of disease and famine on populations comes in here as he examines the economic and population pressures that cause some of the capital building to remain incomplete, and the recycling of materials from some of the capitals to build the newer ones

The final section deals with a new form of archeological resource first discovered in 1961, wooden tablets with writing on them dating from the 8th century. To date almost 200,000 of these tablets have been discovered and they have greatly added to our knowledge of such things as the daily life of the aristocracy, the operations of the bureaucracy, the tax system, and how the Taika Reforms were implemented.

For anyone interested in early Japanese history this book is a treasure trove of material much of which has not been available in English before. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

An Invitation to Kagura

An Invitation to Kagura

Hidden gem of the Traditional Japanese Performing Arts.

David Petersen

ISBN 978-1-84753-006-6


When I first became fascinated by Iwami Kagura there was precious little information about it in English. In the past 2 years 2 books have been published which redress this problem. Recently I reviewed God's Music, and now I can review An Invitation to Kagura.

As the subtitle of the book suggests, kagura is the least well known of the performing arts in Japan, and yet to those who have seen it its is one of the most exciting.

The book introduces just about every aspect of the art that one could possibly want to know, from it's history up to where and when you can see kagura nowadays. The author was introduced to kagura while living in Hiroshima, and it is the "secular" kagura seen at festivals in the Hiroshima area that are the focus, with shrine based kagura of the remoter areas occupying the periphery. My own experience is the opposite, with the festival-based kagura an interesting "fringe" to the core of shrine based performances.

The author makes no claim to producing an academic work, rather a labor of love, but the book is nevertheless well researched. The authors background is in theatre, so the relationship of kagura to kabuki and noh is covered, and his listing of the main stories would make the book useful as a guide to visitors to kagura performances.

His versions of Japanese history are a bit too Yamato-centric for my taste, with not enough delineation between myth and history, but that is a minor quibble for what is an excellent book. In conducting his research the author travelled to surrounding areas of west Japan, and his chapters on the regional variations of kagura I found most useful. The photos are good, though only black and white.

The book is self-published, so as well as being available through bookstores or etc, it is also available as a less expensive e-book from

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Shinto in History

Shinto in History: Ways of the Kami

Ed. John Breen & Mark Teeuwen

Univ. of Hawaii Press

ISBN 0-8248-2363-x


The word shinto is very problematical. I use it a lot in my blog, but am uncomfortable with it. Problem is there is no easy alternative word.

Shinto is often used to refer to an organized religion completely separate from Buddhism, and as such Shinto is a new religion created in the late 19th century which became the State Shinto of emperor worship. It's when shinto is referred to as "the indigenous religion of Japan" that the problems arise.

The first record of the word shinto in Japanese is referring to state rituals of the 8th Century which were of predominantly Taoist origin. Many researchers question if there is anything at all left if one strips away the influence of Buddhism, Taoism, Yin Yang theory and Confucionism from early Japanese religious practises..

All the chapters in this book look at different strands of Japanese religious history, and the book is organized chronologically. The contributors are a who's who of researchers and historians specializing in Japanese religion, and all the contributions are of a high quality.

A book for those who wish to get beyond the simplistic ideas that dominate so much and cause the rich diversity and complexity of Japanese history to be overlooked.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

God's Music

Gods' Music - The Japanese Folk Theatre of Iwami Kagura

Terence Lancashire

Florian Noetzel

351 pp.

ISBN 3-7959-0890-6

As is obvious by reading this blog, I am a big fan of Iwami Kagura, and there is precious little information about it in English.

However 2 weeks ago I came across this book published in 2006 and had to have it even though it's expensive, like all academic publications.

I devoured the book in one day, and will re-read more slowly several more time for sure.
It is almost like an encyclopedia, with a full list of the dances, words and texts to the songs, as well as musical notation for all the pieces. As reference material this alone is worth the high price of the book.

The book is really outstanding when it comes to history. The Iwami kagura tradition is transmitted orally, so the further one goes back in time the less sure we can be of anything, but as well as thoroughly surveying all the literature on Iwami kagura in the Japanese language, lancashire also applies his own research to other older materials. He looks at all the other kagura tradition in Japan and where they might have come from, as well as setting kagura within other musical and theatrical and religious practises.

For his research he was based in the Masuda City area, and so concerns himself most deeply with kagura as it is practised there, but writes frequently about the other traditions in Iwami, including the area I live in with its' older Omoto Kagura tradition as well as the kagura traditions in neighboring Izumo, Hiroshima, and Yamaguchi.

The only minor quibble I have with the book is that the pohtos used don't really do justice to the dance.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Daily Life in Japan

Daily Life in Japan at the time of the Samurai, 1185 - 1603 Louis Frederic Translated by Eileen M. Lowe Tuttle Books ISBN 0-804813496-1 256pp A problem I have with a lot of history books, especially Japanese history books, is that they are about the history of the rulers, concerned with war, power, and the "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous"!, and often have little to do with the actual lives of most people. For instance, I tire of reading something like ..."the Japanese ate little meat because of the Buddhist proscription against meat-eating".....the buddhist proscription was adhered to only by a small percentage of the Japanese people, and even then they found ways to circumvent it. Most Japanese ate any meat they could get their hands on! So, if you interested in the Lives of the Poor and Unknown, Frederic's book can't be beat. A full range of topics are included, life-stages from birth to death, city and country, occupations and crafts, the family system, the position of women in society, religion, and the way of the warrior. In each section he contrasts the lives of the upper classes with those of the lower, and what emerges is a very clear picture that their lives were very different. For instance, in the case of women's position, the women of the upper classes were little more than "borrowed wombs", but as one moves down through the classes women had more and more power and rights. The source for a lot of the information about common people of the period comes from illuminated scrolls which were used by monks to teach, and therefore often illustrated daily life of the common people. The book is also an excellent overview of a turbulent period of Japanese history. An excellent book for peeking behind the modern veneer of homogenity in Japan.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Japan, A View from the Bath

Japan, A view from the Bath

Scott Clarke


University of Hawaii Press

ISBN 0834816579

Anthropologists must sometimes endure hardships conducting their field research, often far from home, sometimes in primitive conditions, struggling with foreign languages; it can be a lonely time. So spare a thought for poor Scott Clark, who, while collecting information for this book had to endure thousands of hours steeped in hot water in baths and hot springs the length and breadth of Japan. The result was this fascinating little book that documents the bathing habits of the Japanese people.

Any book on a subject as broad as Japan must choose a viewpoint, and bathing customs and culture is a good one as the Japanese differ from many cultures who see bathing as simply a way to stay clean. For the Japanese, it is much, much more.

Combining solid historical research with the aforementioned fieldwork he traces the history of bathing in Japan from ancient times up to the present, and the surprising fact emerges that bathing has always been a communal, social activity in Japan. From the Sento (Public Baths) in towns to the rural farmers who would take it in turns visiting neighbors to take a bath, only the very rich would bathe privately, and until the recent introduction of western-style bathrooms in homes, most Japanese did not have their own private bathrooms.

Onsen (Hot Springs) are also extensively covered. Owing to its volcanic geology, Japan is endowed with thousands of hot springs, and they are among the most popular of destinations for short breaks. Even trips made for other purposes will probably include a visit to an Onsen in the itinerary.

Clark admits that he spends an inordinate amount of time discussing mixed bathing, as that was in fact the norm until the Meiji Period when the government segregated bathing so as to appear “civilized” to the West and its Victorian morals, and the sad fact is that nowadays the Japanese are as prudish and embarrassed by nudity as many other cultures. However, many Onsens remained mixed until the 1980's as the clientele until then was mostly old people. In the 80's the onsen boom began and young people began to visit and so segregation was gradually introduced.

In the latter part of the book he explores many of the factors that give meaning to Japanese bathing habits, foremost of which are the notions of “pollution” and “purity”. Washing doesn’t just clean the body, but also the spirit, and the mind. Ritual washing and bathing are very important, and most major events in life are accompanied by bathing, from the newborn babies’ first bath to the cleansing of the corpse.

The book would be very useful for anyone planning a trip to Japan and wishing to be forewarned about customs they will probably need to partake in.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Splendid Monarchy

Splendid Monarchy
Power & Pageantry in Modern Japan

T. Fujitani

University of California Press

ISBN 0-520-21371-8

305 pp

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 is inaccurately named. There was no restoration of a previously existing imperial system, but a complete reinvention and manufacture of a new imperial system. At that time the vast majority of Japanese had no idea who, or what, the emperor was.

Faced with creating a modern Nation-State out of a diverse collection of horizonatally seperated domains and provinces, and rigidly separated vertical classes, the new leaders of Japan chose to build an imperial system to serve as the unifying paradigm.

As with so much of the new Japan, they looked to the West for models, and in the case of the imperial system, to European monarchies, especially Britain's.

Fujitani focuses mainly on the external public forms, the new state ceremonies and great public buildings, but there is a lot of fascinating background on the creation of the new religion of State Shinto,- the destruction of local nature-based shrines, the suppression of "superstitions", the creation of national shinto ceremonies, Yasakuni, the enshrinement of emperors, and so on, as well as the rewriting of history to make the imperial system central to Japanese history.

All Nation-States have used "invented traditions" in their creation, but what comes across in Japan's case is not only the extent and number of these invented traditions, but the fact that they are so widely believed, by Japanese and foreigner alike, to extend back into Japan's past.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is the "traditional" Shinto wedding. I personally have asked more than one hundred Japanese of all ages when this "ancient" ceremony began, and so far I have not been given a single correct answer. The very first Shinto wedding was held in 1905, scarcely 100 years ago, and it was modelled largely on the Christian Royal Weddings of the British monarchy.

A fascinating book for those who wish to learn more about just exactly how modern Japan is, and the massive disjunction between modern Japan and its past.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Japanese self-images

A Genealogy of 'Japanese' self-images.

Eiji Oguma

Trans Pacific Press

ISBN 1-876843-04-7


Of all the myths propagated about Japan, the one I find most disturbing can be illustrated by a quote by Taro Aso, the man in line to be the next Japanese Prime Minister. He said "“Japan is one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture, one race, none of which can be found in any other country”. It is disturbing that even a cursory glance at Japanese history reveals the assertation to be false and yet it is believed by so many, Japanese and other, but it's also disturbing because the idea is the bedrock of the whole "field" of Nihonjinron, and also used to justify Japan's deeply embedded racism. What is more surprising however, is that this idea is very, very, modern, being created in the postwar period but not becoming dominant until the 1960's.

Eiji Oguma's excellent, authoritative study of how the Japanese define themselves follows the debates and lines of thought from the Meiji period up until today, drawing from archeology, history, linguistics, anthropolgy, ethnology, eugenics, folklore and philosophy, and the complete break that occured with Japan's defeat in the war. Prior to that the Japanese defined themselves very much as a "mixed-race" with ancestry traced to north, east, and south asia, as well as ascribing their roots to Greece and Italy!!! Of course this definition allowed them to justify their invasion and colonisation of Korea, Taiwan, and China.

The book fleshes out many of the Japanese politicians and thinkers of the 20th Century as well as proving detailed study of how their colonial citizens were treated, and of course provides the explanation for much of Nihonjinron.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Japanese Historians

Japanese Historians and the National Myths, 1600-1945.
The age of the Gods and Emperor Jinmu.

John S. Brownlee

UBC Press
ISBN 9 780774806459

In front of Heian Shrine in Kyoto is a small sign in English giving a short history of the shrine, and one phrase jumped out at me.... "2660 years of Imperial rule".
This is of course a totally absurd number, with the current Imperial line MAYBE going back about 1600 years. It's the equivalent of stating that Columbus discovered America in the 4th Century and not the 15th Century.
The date of 660BC comes from the Kojiki, a book written in the early 8th Century to justify the Yamato Clan's rise to power, and to "correct" false versions of history. The early part of the Kojiki concerns itself with the founding myths of Japan, but even nowadays the Kojiki is treated as history by some, in a way some people view the Bible as history.
Brownlee's excellent book looks at how Japanese historians have dealt with the founding myths since 1600, when a new generation of neo-Confucian scholars discovered that the dates used in the Kojiki were completely inaccurate. In the later Edo-period, a new school of thought arose called Kokugaku, National Learning, and they sought to return to a "pure" Japanese thought before the introduction of Chinese thought and culture. They believed the myths were historical truth. When the Meiji Restoration occured, and the new government attempted to create a new Japan based firmly on the Imperial institution, they adopted the Kokugaku view. From then until the 1930's, historians were intimidated, pressured, and coerced, until every single Japanese historian claimed publicly that the founding myths were historical truth.
The chapter on notable Japanese historians of the 1930's examines in details the lives of these men and how they succumbed to the nationalism that drove Japan.
There is an epilogue that looks at the situation in post-war japan, and this could be a book of its own, as even though scholarship is no longer so tightly controlled by the State, education is, and the national myths still occupy a position that overlaps into history. February 11th, the date the Kojiki gives for tyhe ascension of Jimmu, is still the National Foundation Day, a brief look at Japanese tourist websites will reveal that Jimmu is written about as the "first Japanese Emperor", not the mythical first Emperor, and a recent Junior High School history text book has a map of Jimmu's advance from Kyushu to the Kinai, without making it clear that this is myth, and not history.
Excellent book providing background material to the current problems with Japanese school history books.

Saturday, July 5, 2008


Japrocksampler: How the post-war Japanese blew their minds on rock n' roll

Julian Cope

Bloomsbury Press

ISBN 978-0-7475-8945-7

Books about music are especially problematical when the music in question is not known. Such is the case with this book. How many people know the music of Speed, glue, & shinki, or Flower Travellin' Band? Cope's book on the genesis of Japanese Rock music is fascinating nonetheless and offers insights into post-war japan.

Like his earlier book, Krautrocksampler, the former front man for The Teardrop Explodes explores how Japanese rock music was no mere copying of American & English rock, but was subject to a whole variety of cultural, commercial, and political influences.

Particularly fascinating to me was the influence of avant garde musicians such as John Cage and Karl Heinz Stockhausen, and in this regard, Yoko Ono's first husband makes many appearances. The pervasive influence of Jazz on other forms of post-war japanese music is also surprising. Politically, Japan's reaction to the Beatles, Japan's drug policies, the closing of the musical Hair, and the band connected to the terrorist group Red Army, all provide insights that help build a more coherent picture of the "scene" in Japan.

Cope's writing style I found sometimes too "hip" and frenetic, and the earlier part of the book is more interesting than the latter as there is a lot of repetition, but this an exteremely well-researched book, and gives a lot of information that previously wasn't available in English.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Japanese Plants: know them and use them,

Japanese Plants: know them and use them

Betty W. Richards Anne Kaneko

Shufunotomo Co. Ltd



This book is small enough to fit into a pocket or purse, yet absolutely packed with useful information on the flora of Japan. It covers trees, flowers, bushes, grasses, vegetables, and fruits, almost everything you are likely to see anywhere in Japan. Each plant is given in its English, Japanese, and Latin names, and has a color photo.

Information on where you can see the plant, where it came from, it's life-cycle, interesting tidbits on its cultural values and history, and, most usefully, how it is used. Wild food collection is still widely practised in the rural areas of Japan, and if you are a "stalker of the wild asparagus" this little guide is indispensable.

There is enough information for it to work as a field identification guide, or simply for learning the Japanese names of plants.

Excellent little book, I can't recommend it enough!!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Modern Japanese Thought

Modern Japanese Thought
ed. Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi
Cambridge University Press
ISBN 0-521-58810-3

I read books about Japan so that I can deepen my understanding of the place I live. After reading hundreds of books it gets harder to find ones that add much to what I already know, so it was a thrill to pick up and start to read this one.
The two main areas of interest for me are, pre-Yamato Japan, and the Meiji era. This book is about the latter. The bulk of the book is made up of chapters from the Cambridge History of Japan, with an introduction and a chapter on post-war Japan added. The introduction itself is excellent, and well worth the price of the book. The first chapter on Japan's turn to the West does a good job of introducing all the different strains of thought that began to influence Japan in the late Tokugawa period, and dismisses the overly simplistic notion that Japan was a "closed" country before Perry.
The second chapter on Meiji Conservatism documents the reaction of those who held power in Japan doing everything they can to resist any new ways of thinking that threatened their hold on power. The third chapter covers the chequered history of socialism, liberalism, and Marxism, in Japan, and the fourth "Japan's revolt against the West" covers the politics and philosophies that fed into the drive to colonial expansion and war. The final chapter covers the period after the end of WWII.
One thing that recurs again and again in Japan, in the late Tokugawa, early Meiji, early Showa, and Late Showa eras, in reaction to what is perceived as negative processes, is the looking back to the village, and "Folk" as the source of Japan. While reading about Yanagida Kunio, the father of Japanese follore studies, I gained a new repect for him. His views on the damage that State Shinto did to what he considered the heart of Japan is fully in accord with my own views.
If you are wanting to know why so many "western" notions, like democracy, or Human Rights, don't quite make a transition into contemporary Japan, this book will help.
Highly recommended.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Enduring Identities. A review.

Enduring Identities: The guise of Shinto in contemporary Japan.

John K. Nelson

University of Hawaii Press

ISBN: 0-8248-2259-5

324 pp

The Japanese religion known today as Shinto remains little understood by many visitors to Japan, and even by many Japanese. The most often used description of it as "the ancient religion of Japan" is simply inaccurate and misleading.

For anyone seeking to understand Shinto, Enduring Identities is a great place to start.

John Nelson spent a year at Kyoto's Kamigamo Jinja, one of the major shrines in the Kyoto area, and the fieldwork and interviews he did there explore the forms that Shinto takes today.

Kamigamo Jinja pre-dates Kyoto, and the book contains a lot of interesting history of the area that one normally doesn't find in the standard tourist literature, and particularly interesting is the information on the area being primarily settled by immigrants from what is now the Korean peninsular.

By interviewing many of the visitors to the shrine, as well as the parishioners, and the staff and priests, Nelson builds up a description of what Shinto is and means that is far more diverse than, and sometimes contradictory to, the commonly heard cliches. He also does an excellent job of presenting the relationship between contemporary Shinto and State Shinto, the nationalistic, militaristic cult that held sway in Japan for the first half of the twentieth century. Anyone interested in the Yasukuni Shrine issue will find it informative.

There is an interesting chapter on the "sacred space" of the shrine that is useful and relevant to an understanding of how such concepts manifest themselves in many areas of Japanese life, not just shrines and temples.

The longest chapter concerns itself with the annual cycle of rituals and ceremonies that take place at the shrine. Being both very old (7th century), and important, Kamigamo is home to some major ceremonies, most notably what is commonly called the Aoi Festival, and also the lesser-known Crow Sumo, but the information is also relevant to an understanding of Shinto rituals in general.

A book that would be rewarding to anyone interested in Kyoto or contemporary Japanese cultural anthropology as well as Shinto and Japanese religion.

this review originally published on JapanVisitor