Book Review: The Old Capital by Kawabata Yasunari

theoldcapitalKawabata‘s novel can be seen as a declaration of love to Kyôto.

Kyôto was the capital of Japan and the imperial residence for more than thousand years until 1868. Many of the historic monuments of ancient Kyôto were declared as UNESCO world heritage. The city is a symbol of high art and cultural heritage and the heart of traditional Japan. An overwhelming huge amount of ancient Buddhist temples, Shintô shrines, imperial palaces and traditional gardens are to be found here. Kyôto is known for it‘s cultural refinement in every way you can think of Japanese art. The most important works of art and traditional Japanese culture are located in Kyôto. Even it‘s cuisine is praised as outstanding.

The story is about a young woman named Chieko, the adopted daughter of a traditional kimono designer in Kyôto around the first half of the 20th century.

The reader is introduced to Chieko and gets to know about her life and her relationships with a handful of persons. The story begins describing her relationship with her boyfriend Shin‘ichi and her parents. The story itself is very simple. There is not much thrill. When she reveals her own family history, it brings a new perspective to the story and some tension to the narration.

The story takes place at very popular places, for example at the Heian shrine and Kiyomizu-dera. Therefore those who have been in Kyôto can picture the story very well. You can even see the way before your eyes Chieko and Shin‘ichi are walking. I think this novel is a very good read, when you are planning to visit Kyôto and I suppose, it has been read by generations of visitors.

Kawabata takes his time with his narration. He is describing the nature minutely detailed. This is one of his basic style elements. I have the impression, Kawabata emphasizes nature, because it is stronger than man himself. Of course it underlines the ever-lasting beauty of the Japanese setting in Kyôto.

The story begins in spring. Chieko is standing in the garden of her parents. She is adoring two violets growing on a maple tree. She is absorbed in thought, in a status of contemplation and so is the reader.

The narration takes a period of a whole year and Kawabata is describing the changes of nature along with the seasons. This is a very important Japanese topic in art and culture as a whole, as the four seasons are very distinctive in Japan.

Kawabata‘s descriptions and his narration is beautiful and he has the wonderful talent to expose the beauty of every single character and place in Kyôto. He needs no big story. Therefore this novel was mentioned as one of his three works, when he was awarded with the Nobel Prize in 1968. The other two are Thousand Cranes and Snow Country.

川端 康成, 古都, 1962. The Old Capital, 1962. Revised translation by J. Martin Holman, 1987.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Old Capital by Kawabata Yasunari

  1. Cool, I live in Kyoto! Never read the book though.
    I study early 20th century Japanese art, so definitely next on my reading list..
    Thanks 🙂

  2. This is my all-time favorite novel. I remember picking it up years ago at the book store and reading the first chapter. I couldn’t believe someone could create such an impression so immediately. I bought it and took it home and read it in a couple of days. (I am a slow reader.) I thought than if I could writer like that I would be a happy man. It;s been a couple of years since I read it. I am going to have to go back and read it again. Thank you for review.

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