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Zusetsu Book Review: The Old Capital

The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata

The novel is set in Kyoto, a city of high art and the cultural soul of Japan since it

became the capital almost eleven hundred years ago.

Each obi weaver, kimono designer, tea master, and calligrapher in the ancient city is the recipient of traditions that have been passed down through the ages.

Their work embodies not only the peculiar aesthetic sensitivity of the artist himself,

but also the spiritual blood of his predecessors as it flows from the past.

[J. Martin Holman]

The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata book cover

Zusetsu is founded on a passion for the beautiful city of Kyoto, and an awe and respect for the traditions of highly skilled artisans that evolved generations ago from service to the Imperial Court of Kyoto when it was first the Capital in the year 794.

Ever since my earliest visits to the city I’ve wanted to discover how the city became so tantalisingly beautiful. This of course led me right back to the Heian literature of the court ladies’ diaries, The Tale of Genji, and the poetry of various anthologies including The Tales of Ise.

In this golden era of Japanese literature, the close relationship of the Kyoto court nobles with the beauty of the changing seasons is captured in the poetry that describes the fleeting nature of the plum and cherry blossoms of Spring, the vermilion leaves of autumn, and the melting snows of winter.

The restricted lives of the court women were relieved by countless festivals and pilgrimages throughout the calendar year. The calendar and the changing seasons provided the Kyoto aristocracy with a framework against which their lives played out.

The calendar of festivals, many of which have been revived or have continued, and the long-anticipated flowers and seasons quite naturally form the background to this book of beauty by the Nobel prize winning Japanese author, Yasunari Kawabata.

An Introduction to the Story

Koto movie poster

The story follows Chieko, the beautiful daughter of a wholesale kimono merchant and his wife in Kyoto, as she comes to terms with her abandonment as a baby.

The love that the couple have for Chieko is exemplified by the story that they tell her of how they stole her as a baby from under the cherry blossoms in Gion. While shocking, this story is plainly untrue: the details of the story alter, and the neighbours tell Chieko that she was found as a baby one morning on the doorstep of the shop. The depth of the parents’ love is profound: their lie is conceived to protect Chieko from ever feeling that she wasn’t loved enough.

An Ancient Story

Princess Kaguya by Ghibli Studios image

Isao Takahata's animated version of the Taketori Monogatari is the exquisitely drawn

Princess Kaguya (Ghibli Studios)

Kawabata’s love letter to Kyoto is at its deepest when the story partly traces one of the oldest stories of all: Taketori Monogatari. The beautiful, elegant Chieko is found and cherished by a childless, loving couple, just as Kaguya hime is found in the base of the bamboo tree by a simple bamboo cutter and cherished by him and his wife.

The city girl Chieko has three potential suitors, just as Kaguya hime travels to the great court of Kyoto to become a fine lady and to be introduced discreetly behind screens to her potential marriage partners.

It’s a lovely delicate touch that softly roots the novel in the earliest Kyoto literature.

In the Genji Monogatari, written around 1000 AD, a character exclaims that Taketori Monogatari is an old tale.

The cedar woods of Kitayama have a strong part to play in the story too (no spoilers!), and these woods resonate with the bamboo woods and the class division of the old tale.

pages from the Kokinshu poetry anthology

Earliest extant edition of the Kokinshu (Wikipedia)

On Chieko's father’s desk, where he creates designs for kimono lie hand-copies of the Heian imperial poetry collection, the Kokinshuu, an illustration of the past and its continuing connection with the older traditional artisan. The poems serve as an example of the ephemeral mono no aware that underpins the writing: all things will pass, these moments are all fleeting.

A Guide to Kyoto

Heian Shrine bridge

Taiheikaku at Heian Shrine

The groves of red weeping cherry trees that dressed the garden were one of the splendid sights of Kyoto. “Surely there is nothing that represents spring in the old capital better than these flowers.”

The Old Capital features many beloved areas of Kyoto, from Arashiyama in the west, to Fushimi Inari in the south, and it is a delight to read. As Chieko walks about the city it’s easy to feel like you are walking through the city with her.

From the bank where some pine trees stood Chieko and Shin’ichi crossed to the Bridge Hall.

Correctly, it was called Taiheikaku, but it was actually a bridge that looked like a hall.

Both sides of the bridge were fitted with low benches with back rests.

Visitors sat there to relax and admire the layout of the garden beyond the pond.

But, no, this was a garden whose focus was the pond.

Heian Shrine, Kyoto

The story opens at the Heian Shrine. Significantly the striking vermilion shrine was built in 1895, in honour of the Emperor Kammu who originally brought the capital city from Nara and Nagaoka to the wide flat plains, rivers, and ringed mountains of the city we know as Kyoto.

The Heian Shrine is the first thread that weaves a detailed image of Kyoto in this nostalgic novel. The city is woven in our imagination by the criss-crossing of the city and the calendar. Against this backdrop we are introduced to the obi-sash weavers of Nishijin.

Nishijin weaver

Why were they called “high looms”? The hand looms themselves were tall, so the earth was hollowed out slightly beneath them and they rested low in the ground. Some held to the theory that this was because the dampness of the earth was good for the thread. Originally, a second person sometimes also sat on top of the loom, but now they put heavy stones in baskets and suspended them from the sides.

Some weaving houses used both hand looms and machine looms.

At Hideo’s shop they had three hand looms at which the three brothers wove. Since their father Sosuke also worked at the loom occasionally. Their shop fared moderately well among the few small hand-weaving businesses in Nishijin.

Kyoto: A Cultural and Literary History

Kyoto guide by John Dougill

At 182 pages, I was able to linger in The Old Capital even though I read it quickly. I love reading two books at a time so that the ideas of one resonate with the ideas of another, and the highly praised Kyoto: A Cultural and Literary History by John Dougill (Signal Books, Oxford) makes a fantastic companion read.

We hope you have enjoyed reading our thoughts about this beautiful novel by Yasunari Kawabata. We hope we have inspired you to read it too. We would love to hear your thoughts!

Thank you for reading,

Cathy and Yukki


If you have enjoyed this blog you may well like Princess Kaguya too!


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

Princess Kaguya image by Ghibli Studios

Poster from the 1980 film adaptation of The Old Capital called Koto: Asian Wiki


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