Review: Kyoto – Seven Paths to the Heart of the City

If there is one thing I love to do in a city, it’s take a walking tour. You get a completely different feel for a city when you are literally pounding its cobblestones (or pavement) and having a guide to point out the things you wouldn’t even think to notice can make a visit seem that much richer.

When I can’t be walking the streets of Kyoto, the next best thing is to curl up on my couch with a copy of Diane Durston’s Kyoto: Seven Paths to the Heart of the City. Durston lived in Kyoto for nearly twenty years and knows the ancient capital intimately. In her photo essay cum travel guide, she takes readers through several historic neighborhoods of Kyoto, ranging from the popular (Gion District and Sannenzaka/Ninenzaka) to the less-visited (Fushimi area and Uji District). Hand-drawn maps are included with each walk as well as directions on how to get to the starting points.

kyoto durstonDurston also included a few sections at both the beginning and end of the book that offer a brief primer on Japanese culture and architectural styles. The introduction focuses on the machiya, the traditional townhouse of Kyoto – its construction, its role in the community and its preservation. The appendix focuses more on a general overview of Japanese culture, with topics like tea ceremony, cuisine and festivals.

The book is written in a very readable style. Durston doesn’t talk down to her audience but approaches Kyoto’s history, culture and architecture in a way that even those new to the subject don’t feel lost. Her walks on Gion and the Ninenzaka/Sanenzaka are fairly good and she covers other neighborhoods that receive much less attention in the standard guidebook. For example, Arashiyama is frequently written up in mainstream guides, but the Sagano area just north of that is typically overlooked. The photos that accompany the walks, done by Katshuhiko Mizuno, play the important role of showcasing the best of each district and the shots are colorful and engaging.

If I have a criticism, it is that some of the walks feel more like general overviews of an area rather than step-by-step guides. While the Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka walk gives you multiple sights to see along a prescribed route, the Nishijin walk is more of a general history and orientation to Kyoto’s textile neighborhood and the nearby geisha community. The book is also the size of  a wall calendar, making it rather unwieldy to carry along on a sightseeing trip.

Still, if you’re looking for that little bit more on Kyoto’s neighborhoods, this is a solid choice. Even if you don’t take it along with you to Kyoto, reading it over – either pre or post trip – will transport you once more to the streets of the former capital.

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