When you write a book in praise of Kyoto, it's hard to go wrong by me. This fine and refined metropolis--formerly Japan's political capital and (sorry Tokyo) always and ever its cultural capital--is in all honesty one of my favorite places on earth, and back when I lived in Japan nary a month would go by that I wouldn't visit it at least once. Back here in the States that's not really possible, unfortunately, and so it's quite a delight to at least be able to revisit Kyoto through the pages of this brief but heartfelt cultural history.
The author has lived and worked in Kyoto for a long time as a professor of British Studies at Ryukoku University, and so has a deft first-hand familiarity with the city along with an obvious deep affection and enthusiasm for the place, all of which he unselfishly shares with the reader. On the other hand, since this is not his primary scholarly field, he has taken a vast store of variously scattered expert studies and translated primary sources and weaved these together with his own anecdotal accounts, memories, and impressions; some might dismiss this as "unoriginal" but to read so widely and then handpick the relevant portions and craft them into a coherent narrative that's personal, personable, entertaining, and informative all in one is no mean feat and is nothing to sneeze at. That said, the parts where he digressed to discuss his own experiences of Kyoto were often the parts that really shone for me as a reader, as these were often perceptive and thought-provoking as well as sometimes funny--and speaking of funny, the author has a wonderful penchant for lame puns and silly jokes that add a certain fatherly charm to the prose.
As a whole the book is well-organized, moving along chronologically from the city's founding in 794 to modern times, discussing the characteristic cultural contributions of Kyoto distinctive to each era of Japanese history often with one as the primary focus ("The Tale of Genji", the schools of Buddhism, court verse, Zen, Noh drama, decorative art, the way of Tea, haiku, geisha, cinema, and the modern novel (those by Tanizaki, Mishima, and Kawabata)). The sociopolitical history of the city is also addressed properly, mostly as it is relevant to changes and shifts in cultural history, of course. He has a surefire respect for tradition but can also take the city's modern developments in stride--this is a living, breathing city after all and not a large sprawling museum. The only drawback is that there are a few inaccuracies in the chapter on Buddhism, some glaring (Dainichi is most certainly NOT the Buddha "who created all things"--there is no creator Buddha in Buddhism, nor any creation per se) and some merely nitpicky or just semantically misleading. Nothing a little further reading won't straighten up, though, and the ins and outs of Buddhism are not the main topic at hand, so these inaccuracies are not a mortal sin really, just a minor annoyance if you happen to know better.
The book is written in a very accessible, straightforwardly casual prose style that is ideal for someone unfamiliar with Japan and its cultural capital and still enjoyable for a frequent visitor or resident--also perfect for reading during one's long commute by train or bus. A word of warning though to prospective buyers: the book's cover somehow makes it look like a guidebook, and this is misleading. It makes no attempt to outline key places, hours of operation, and transportation. It's not even organized by site as other similar titles are (such as Mosher's great contemplative guide: Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide) though reading it might give you a few hints of places you might want to check out. On the other hand, if you plan on visiting Kyoto as a tourist this book would be a great and user-friendly way to place all of the detailed data from your guidebook(s) into an overall context and framework and you'd doubtlessly get a whole lot more out of your trip thereby. And if you're stuck somewhere else wishing you were in Kyoto like me, this book is a reliable way to take a little trip there in spirit.