Stepping off the train in Kyoto for the first time can be a disappointing experience for many travelers. People who have fallen in love with the fairy tale of Japan's old capitol, who have absorbed "Memoirs of a Geisha," and swooned at photographs of golden temples, paper lanterns, and beautiful, elusive Geisha fleeing quickly through close, wooded back-allies, are shocked to discover a modern, dirty city, overrun with power lines, buses and hotels. Furthermore, it is stacked to the gills with tourists, each seeking their own Kyoto-of-my-dreams. Where are the secret spaces, the ancient houses and quiet tea houses steeped in history? Diane Durston can tell you.
If you are anything like me, "Old Kyoto: A Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants and Inns" is the guide to the Kyoto you are looking for. A fascinating and delightful guide to the relics of old Kyoto, the stuff that you see on the post cards but can't seem to find in the city itself, Diane Durston has dredged the sludge of a modern city to find things like Nishiharu, a small tatami-room shop selling authentic Ukiyo-e prints with a proprietor who greets each guest with a cup a tea and a smile, or Ippo-Do, a 140-year old tea shop who's name ("One Promise") and business is based on a promise to an old customer that they would never sell anything but tea, and Tawara-ya, an inn so beautiful that when the King of Sweden stayed there, he was late for his official tour do to lingering too long in the morning light of the garden.
As a guide, "Old Kyoto" is divided into regions, Central Kyoto, Eastern Kyoto, Western Kyoto, Northern Kyoto and Southern Kyoto, and then showcasing a few treasures of each region, splitting evenly amongst craftwear, antiques, Japanese-style hotels, restaurants and food-sellers. Many of these shops are tiny, without even a sign out in front to advertise their business. Some carry ancient placards announcing them as official providers to the Emperor of their unique offering. All of them are tempting enough to include more than a few when visiting Kyoto.
Each entry is a loving, well-written essay, and Diane Durston paints an affectionate picture of the store and its proprietors. You can tell that she carries each of these shops in her heart, and one shop, a traditional bucket-maker, is included in fond remembrance, even though the craftsman himself has passed away with no one to pass his craft to.
In addition to the shop introductions, there are a few extras, such as a guide to walks through old Kyoto, and recommended day-trips to places such as Fushimi and Uji which are easily accessible from Kyoto city. While these are a nice addition, there are other, more-inclusive guide books for this kind of thing.
"Old Kyoto" is an essential guide to anyone seeking that city that they have read so much about. It is still there, you just have to know where too look for it. Fortunately for us, Diana Durston knows where to look, and has kindly shown us the way.