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JanuaryInJapan 2023: The Old Capital Bookclub Review!

Heian Shrine kyoto

We had a fantastic time at our online JanuaryInJapan Bookclub this year - thank you so much to everyone who joined us!

Our subject for discussion was the many-layered short novel by Kawabata Yasunari called The Old Capital.

We agreed that the novel benefits from a lot of close and repeated reading, because as the novel unfolds it is clear that everything in the novel is there for a purpose: to create layer upon layer of references to the Kyoto city of the past.

We recognised that considerable tension is created by Kawabata between the modern city that we know today, and the continuity of customs and festivals that are rooted back in the Heian calendar of 1200 years ago.

This ancient calendar served as a backbone to the novel too, as key moments in the life of the central characters Chieko and Naeko are played out against the backdrop of two of the major Kyoto festivals: Gion Matsuri and the Jidai Matsuri.

The obi sash in this novel is also a key element that lends support to it: the Nishijin weavers are central to the novel, and the obi sash that Hideo weaves for Naeko pulls several of the characters together.

Weaving can be an unravelling too, and it is true that after the pivotal scenes at the heart of the book at Gion Matsuri, Chieko's life will never be the same again.

It is a delight to move with the characters to historic points across the city. A feature of the old capital is the grid-like system of streets just south of the Imperial Palace. This old road system, borrowed from the contemporary capital of China Chang'an (Modern-day Xian) traces the warp and weft of weaving too.

Our friend Akira san, JSPS (Japan Society for the Promotion of Science) Research Fellow at Hokkaido University specializing in Greek philosophy, gave us a fascinating presentation which raised our awareness to the lack of resolution between many of the relationships in the novel.

Akira san made me wonder what happened to love-lorn Shin'ichi when his brother began to love Chieko. The writers in the Heian era mention the concept of mono no aware - that just like the cherry blossoms, beauty is fleeting and it cannot be captured; perhaps there is a sense of this transience within the relationships in the novel.

I am going to share the slides from Akira san's presentation, so that you can consider again his interesting thoughts:

Yasunari kawabata slide

Yasunari kawabata slide

Yasunari kawabata slide

Yasunari kawabata slide

Yasunari kawabata slide

Yasunari kawabata slide

Yasunari kawabata slide


We discussed the ideas that Akira san had raised in such a thought-provoking way: that Kawabata seems to create The Old Capital as some kind of antithesis to the traditional Western type of stories that are influenced more or less by Greek tragedy. We were interested in how Kawabata incorporates the elegance of the 'not said' into his writing, leaving the reader to interpret his meaning to the best of their imagination.

And then we opened up the chat about the novel. My slides simply have notes on them that were points to raise in the discussion - things that struck me as I was reading and was keen to talk about!

The Character of Chieko

Many of us had looked up maps and references made throughout the novel, and it was fascinating to learn that in Flowers of Edo: A Guide to Classical Japanese Flowers by Kazuhiko Tajima, violets are said to represent sincerity and pureness, and symbolise sincere love, chastity, and trust: epithets that can certainly be applied to our central character, Chieko.

We recognised that the temples that are initially associated with Chieko are ones with huge historical significance, and while we acknowledged that the protagonist of the novel is, as Akira san rightly pointed out, the city of the eponymous title, Chieko is associated with the places of the long past.

The Old Capital Yasunari Kawabata

The Violets and the Bell Jar

The violets at the base of the tree in the small garden at the back of the machiya shop were a metaphor for the distance between Chieko and her sister.

We discussed whether the metaphor of the jar with the weakening crickets represented a comment on an enclosed, stifled society perhaps, that needed new ideas to bring life to ancient ways of doing things: Takichiro certainly feels the weight of all the kimono patterns that have gone before, and lacks the confidence to follow his heart when he is inspired by the beautiful art of European artist Paul Klee.

The Old Capital Yasunari Kawabata

The Structure of the Novel

The novel follows the seasonal calendar, beginning in cherry blossom Spring, and ending in the snows of winter.

It also follows the annual festival calendar - many of the festivals that punctuate the modern Kyoto calendar are festivals that have continued for hundreds of years, since the city's origin.

One of the joys of the novel is that it feels like Kawabata takes you by the hand and leads you across the city, from one place of historical significance to another, adding lingering vistas of the forests and mountains that circle the city, and views from Higashiyama all the way across to Nishiyama.

The Old Capital Yasunari Kawabata

On the map above you can see some of the original Heian grid system of streets running south from the central Imperial Palace garden.

The Old Capital Yasunari Kawabata

The Old Capital and the New City

We recognised the tensions in the novel between the continuing ways of traditional Kyoto and how the city also looks to the future.

Kawabata seems to present a city of two parts that co-exist simultaneously: the shadowy city of ancient customs and beauty, and the modern city of bus stops and tourism.

My favourite example of this city of twin-identities is the scene where the narrator describes how the neon lighting all across the city is turned off when the daimonji are lit on the surrounding mountains, so that the departed ancestors can find their way back to their spirit world. (p.113)

Kawabata's descriptions of light and flowers suggests someone who was very tuned into observing nature. He describes the cherry blossoms of the Heian Shrine:

The faintest touch of lavender seemed to reflect on the scarlet of the flowers. (p.9)

The red weeping cherry tree was a splendid sight, famous for its branches, which drooped like a willow yet spread out wide. As Chieko stood beneath the tree, petals fell about her feet and shoulders in the delicate breeze.

The flowers lay scattered on the ground. A few petals floated on the pond as well, but no more than seven or eight. (p.13)

In Chapter 3, The Kimono Town, our characters walk through the newly opened Botanical Gardens - the gardens have been occupied by the Americans after the war. The garden is planted with sweeps of bright tulips, but to Takichiro's sensitive eyes they appear brash: empty of rich meaning, unlike the deep spirituality of the camphor trees that our characters are naturally drawn to.

The Old Capital Yasunari Kawabata

Incorporating Classic Japanese Literature

A novel that is called The Old Capital is necessarily going to look to its literary antecedents.

Kyoto was founded in 794, and by the early 1000's Murasaki Shikibu had written and compiled, with help from the Empress and her ladies-in-waiting, the beautiful novel fictionalising Kyoto court life: Genji Monogatari.

Murasaki's novel, as well as the earlier Ise Monogatari love poetry, continue to influence Japanese story-making to this day.

In a novel that has the old capital of Kyoto at its heart it is a delight to find that Kawabata has incorporated references to the central pillars of Japanese literature throughout his novel.

The Old Capital Yasunari Kawabata

There are many allusions to one of the oldest Japanese tales: Taketori Monogatari, which Isao Takahata so beautifully brought to life in Ghibli Studios animation The Tale of Princess Kaguya.

The central character, Chieko is a foundling: she was found on the doorstep of a wholesale shop and looked after by two kindly childless people, in a way that is similar to the princess of the old tale.


Gion Matsuri is at the heart of the Kyoto calendar, and it is also at the heart of the novel.

The deified spirit from the Yasaka Shrine in Gion is temporarily moved to the nearby long shopping street, and it is here that Chieko falls into rhythm performing the 'seven-turn worship' alongside the girl who turns out to be her sister. Naeko has been praying to meet her sister, and the local deity appears to have brought them together. Similarly, later in the story in Kitayama, it seems that the thundergod from nearby Kamogamo Shrine has forced the girls together, as Naeko shelters Chieko from a thunderstorm with her body as if they are twins in the womb again.

Gion Matsuri is where Hideo first meets Naeko, and it's where Ryusuke is introduced into the novel, with the implication that he and Chieko might develop a serious relationship.

It creates a turning point in the novel - and the narrator emphasises this by describing Chieko lying in her room listening to the creak of the floats' great wooden wheels turning at a crossroad. (p.98)

The Old Capital Yasunari Kawabata

We had some wonderful childhood recollections of Gion Matsuri from one of our Bookclub friends, whose birthday fell on one of the days of the matsuri. Our friend grew up in the city not long after Kawabata's novel was written, and this provided us with wonderful insights into a child's-eye view of the city as it would have been experienced by the two characters that were best of friends, Chieko and Shin'ichi. What struck me was when she described the floats as enormous, and talked about the sweets!

We reflected on the fabrics and objects from other countries that are incorporated into the Gion Matsuri floats, which resonated with that early image of the bell cricket jar - and the tension of new things coming in to Kyoto.

Twin Identities

There appears to have been a taboo surrounding the birth of twins, but Kawabata never lets us know the reason for the abandonment of baby Chieko - nor does he give any reason for why it was Chieko who was abandoned and not her sister. He leaves it to the reader to reason who ultimately was more fortunate: Chieko does after all have loving parents who are still alive to care for her, and she has been raised in a socially elevated position (evidenced by Naeko referring to her as 'miss').

At the same time, as already discussed, the city of Kyoto is presented as a twin identity: a real, modern city of tourists and modernity, which coexists with the centuries' old historic Kyoto that beats to the pattern of its ancient ways.

The Old Capital Yasunari Kawabata

We discussed whether the twins could be the two alter ego of one person - I find this an interesting idea especially as Naeko and Chieko appear to inhabit the two sides of the character Princess Kaguya (one living happily in the forest with nature, and one is brought up to have more social status and duty).

The Author: Yasunari Kawabata

The Old Capital Yasunari Kawabata

We had a very interesting discussion about Kawabata's life, and how being an orphan perhaps inevitably has a bearing on the sensitivity in which this story of a foundling came to be.

One of the uncertain moments in the novel concerns the story around Chieko as a baby.

We wondered who had left her on the doorstep, considering that when we refer to a map it's clear that the family lived some way from the shop up in the forests of Kitayama. Why did Chieko arrive on that particular doorstep?

We learned that Kawabata was an orphan by the age of four, only for the grandparents that were looking after him to die before he reached adulthood. Perhaps it is inevitable that love and loss would become themes of his literature. It influences how you begin to think about Chieko.

Perhaps this novel's story gave Kawabata the pretext to explore these themes of love and loss: using the story as a vessel to explore his deepest feelings.

Chieko's mother tells her that she was found under the cherry blossoms of Gion. This is a specific choice: springtime is like a symbol, it's the most beautiful season, and it represents a beginning, the birth of nature. It is the most beautiful setting in which a baby could be first loved, and it is a powerful way for the narrator to convey this image.

We discussed how the author practiced Buddhism, and like Takichiro in the temple at Saga, he believed that from isolation comes beauty. We ended by reflecting on the obi design that he created at Saga but threw away, and how it was beautiful.

And then Akira san wrapped up our fascinating hour and a half chat with a look at the death of Kawabata:

Yasunari Kawabata slide

Yasunari Kawabata slide

Yasunari Kawabata slide

Yasunari Kawabata slide

Yasunari Kawabata slide

Yasunari Kawabata slide

Yasunari Kawabata slide

Yasunari Kawabata slide


Kyoto photo

Yukki and I want to thank Akira san very much for his wonderfully thought-provoking presentations, we feel very fortunate to have him join us for our bookclub!

And we want to thank all of you who joined us on the day: we loved hearing your thoughtful ideas and really enjoyed our discussions about this intriguing novel. It's so nice to get together!

What shall we talk about in our JanuaryInJapan Bookclub next year? If you have a recommendation for a great Japanese novel or poem or anime or movie that you would like us to chat about, we'd love you to let us know!

See you next time,

Cathy and Yukki xx

Kyoto view


Kawabata Yasunari, The Old Capital, translated by J. Martin Holman, (Counterpoint Press)

Kazuhiko Tajima, Flowers of Edo: A Guide to Classical Japanese Flowers, (PIE International Inc., 2019)

Nonomiya Shrine: Live Japan

Images from Koto (The Old Capital) 1980 movie: My Drama List

Image from Hyakunin Isshu: Wikimedia Commons

Tokuriki Tomikichiro: Blossoms at Omuro

Masao Ebina: Suzumushi

Kyoto Map for Tourists

Photo of Jidai Matsuri:

Photo of Kyoto Botanical Gardens:

Paul Klee, Flora on the Sand

Isao Takahata, Ghibli Studios, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Ariwara no Narihira

Yasaka Shrine image:

Gion Matsuri Image:

Festival Boy image:

Daimonji image:

Kitayama image:

Yasunari Kawabata: Snow Country drama NHK.


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