I visited Kyoto back in 2008 and remember that while still a big city, it was a lot more quiet than Tokyo and I immediately loved it.
While I did visit many temples, shrines and even zen gardens, back then I didn’t know so much about the Japanese culture as I do now and I would love to go back here and dive deeper in the true heart of the Kyoto experience… one where you learn more about Kyoto’s ancient Zen Buddhist culture.
Another experience I still haven’t had in Japan is to spend some time at an onsen, a Japanese natural hot spring (and the bathing facilities and inns often situated around them). Japan is, as you might know, a volcanic country, so there are thousands of onsen across the islands.
The following two books that I got gifted from Tuttle Publishing (an expert in Asia-themed books) cover two topics you will definitely come across when you’re planning your own Japan Trip. Here’s our review:
What we'll cover in this article
- ZEN GARDENS AND TEMPLES OF KYOTO BOOK REVIEW
- JAPANESE INNS AND HOT SPRINGS BOOK REVIEW
- GET THESE BOOKS YOURSELF!
ZEN GARDENS AND TEMPLES OF KYOTO BOOK REVIEW
Planning a Trip to Japan? Here are some great resources:
- Skyscanner – Find the best flights to Japan
- Booking.com – Find the best hotels in Japan
- World Nomads – Find the best travel insurance
- Get Your Guide – The most popular tours & activities around Japan
- ViaHero – Get help planning a trip to Japan from a local
- Magical Trip – Discover Tokyo, Osaka & Kyoto at night with a local tour guide
- G Adventures – Group travel to Japan
- Intrepid Travel – Group travel to Japan
About the Writer
John Dougill is a professor at Ryukoku, Kyoto’s largest Buddhist university. He has written many books about Japan. In addition to running the Green Shinto blog, he is the associate editor of Japanese Religions and founder of the “Writers in Kyoto” group. He lives in Kyoto, plays chess and loves to wander the banks of the Kamogawa River.
About the Photographer
John Einarsen is a photographer, designer, curator and founding editor of Kyoto Journal, an international magazine on Japanese and Asian culture. His photographs have been published in Kyoto: The Forest Within the Gate and Small Buildings of Kyoto. From 2013-2015 he served as an advisor to the Japan Times and received the Commissioner’s Award of the Japanese Cultural Affairs Agency. He lives near Kyoto’s Nanzenji temple.
About the Foreword Writer
The foreword is written bij Rev. Takafumi Kawakami, the deputy head priest of Shunkoin Temple in Kyoto, where he teaches Zen meditation classes in English to 5000 foreign visitors annually. He co-hosts study abroad programs in Kyoto for students and teaches Japanese hospitality and corporate wellness seminars. He has developed a mindfulness smartphone app called Myalo and supervises Jins Meme Zen (a mindfulness program using a wearable computing device). His is the first Buddhist temple in Japan to publicly offer same-sex wedding ceremonies. His 2015 TED Talk “How mindfulness can help you to live in the present” has been viewed by over 100,000 people.
The Content of the Book
In this comprehensive hardcover guide (with a jacket around the cover), you can read all about Kyoto’s most important Zen garden and temple sites. I wish I had this book when I visited some of the sites, of which many of them are declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It would have given me so much more background than I now had.
The book has 144 pages and is written in two parts. Part One focuses on Zen and the Japanese culture and shares the complete story of Zen Buddhism, the daily routine of a Zen monk, how Zen monasteries are designed, the various types of temple structures, the role of Zen gardens, the history of the Japanese tea ceremony and much more.
Part Two is all about the temples themselves. You can read not only about the history of the site and key features and general opening times, but also about special opportunities for visitors to the temples, such as early morning meditation sessions, temple food offerings and special green tea sets that are provided to enhance your experience. This is the real insider info that you need!
Interesting to read is also the foreword of the book, which is written by Takafumi Kawakami, the deputy head priest of the respected Shunkoin Temple in Kyoto, which gives you a good basic understand of what Zen actually is.
Photos & Illustrations
In this book, each major site is covered: over 50 Japanese temples and gardens are reviewed in detail and accompanied with coloured photographs by acclaimed Kyoto-based photographer John Einarsen.
There are some stunning full-color photos throughout the book, which really make you feel like your’re already there on the site itself. And if you’ve been, chances are you’ll spot details that you didn’t even see yourself!
While the book is quite large and you probably wouldn’t bring it with you on your trip, it provides very practical information about the different zen gardens all over town and background information that you’ll definitely want to read.
There is also general information on the different structures that you’ll find on Japanese temple grounds, as well as information on all the different elements that have something to do with Zen Buddhism. It will enrich your trip, for sure.
This book will inspire you as well to take a different approach to sightseeing: “There are a few rules you should lay down for yourself. The first is to put your camera away. Secondly, do not plan to do more than one major thing in one day. Thirdly, take your time and go leisurely…”. This quote by Ruth Fuller Sasaki, an important figure in the development of Buddhism in the United States, reminds of you of the importance of being in the moment, something that you definitely want to do while visiting an incredible country such as Japan.
“Over the centuries, the Zen world in Kyoto has developed a unique culture in terms of focusing attention.”
“Zen and Kyoto go together like love and Paris.”
“I assume those who come to Japan for only a few weeks and hope to find out something about Zen in that time will come to Kyoto, for only in the old capital can at least the outer expressions of Zen still be found in abundance.” – Ruth Fuller Sasaki
JAPANESE INNS AND HOT SPRINGS BOOK REVIEW
About the Writer
Rob Goss is an award-winning British writer and long-term Tokyo resident focusing on Japan, travel writing, and creative writing that ranges from short fiction to short-form poetry. Besides writing many books for Tuttle, Rob has also contributed to books for Fodors, Insight Guides, Dorling Kindersley and Rough Guides, as well as for magazines including Time, National Geographic Travelerand 100 other publications around the globe.
About the Photographer
Author Akihiko Seki is a native of Japan and has traveled with his wife and his cameras throughout the country and the rest of Asia in pursuit of the ultimate healing and relaxation experiences.
The Content of the Book
To understand this book, you need to have a bit of background on what a Japanese Inn and hot spring is, and this book gives you a good introduction to them both.
Onsen, as I mentioned in my introduction, are Japanese natural hot springs with bathing facilities and inns often situated around them. These onsen come in all forms, both indoor as outdoor and can be publicly run or privately run, often as part of a hotel, bed and breakfast, or (perhaps the most exciting) a ryokan. This is a type of traditional Japanese Inn that existed since the 8th century! They typically feature rooms with tatami mats, communal baths and other public areas.
Many of the ryokan are located outside the major cities, so they are perfect to relax and enjoy good food and nature.
This paperback book has 240 pages and covers 40 of the best Japanese spas and hot springs, all of them suited for English-speaking guests. 13 of them are in the Tokyo area and 11 in and around Kyoto and Nara.
In each chapter, you can read about the special features of the ryokan and you can see what’s included in your stay. With insider tips, you can easily decide if this place is right for you and you can also read advice on how to book your stay and how to behave properly, which is always a tricky thing in a country as Japan.
Photos & Illustrations
There are over 300 full-color photographs throughout this book, which of course really enrich the book. Even if you don’t have a trip to Japan planned, you can spend ages looking at the incredible gardens and interiors of the onsen.
I loved this quote in the book which gives across the whole atmosphere of this book: “The Ryokan offers pampering, but also an opportunity for Japanese living increasingly hectic, modern lives to slow down; to embrace and celebrate their traditions; to feel Japanese.” – You feel relaxed just by flipping the pages, trust me!
This book is great for research purposes, as it covers the best English-speaking onsen throughout the country, but you probably wouldn’t take it with you when travelling. Usually trips to Japan are quite planned beforehand, so chances are slim you’d need to casually look up an ryokan to stay for the night.
As a resource and inspirational guide, this book is of course great in your bookshelf or on your coffee table. There is also plenty of information about the rules in and around the onsen, so if you’re interested in learning more about Japanese culture, then this book is also perfect for you!
“As you roll away from the dinner table, just remember that in less than twelve hours’ time you will be back at the table working your way through a multi-course breakfast.”
“Given that it’s common to only stay a single night at a ryokan, to go without the food would be to miss out on a crucial element of the experience – it’s more than worth the splurge.”
“As anyone who has stayed at a ryokan will tell you, the experience is more than a window to classic Japan, it affords an opportunity to immerse yourself in tradition; to experience old Japan as the Japanese have done for generations – in a way that is unadulterated, unhurried, and undoubtedly unforgettable.”
“There is no bad time to experience Japan, but some seasons are more beautiful and easier to deal with than others.”
If you’re looking for bucket-list worthy activities in Japan, visiting a zen garden en an onsen is definitely a good place to start! Both of these books are a great starting point for deciding where to stay when visiting Japan and what to see and do. If you’re interested in learning more about the country and the sometimes incomprehensible culture of its people, then these books also make a great read. While you can probably do a lot of your research about onsen and zen gardens online, I doubt that you can find such in-depth information by people that know so much about the topic. Definitely recommend the books because of that!
GET THESE BOOKS YOURSELF!
Title: Zen Gardens and Temples of Kyoto
Author: John Dougill and John Einarsen
Publisher: Tuttle Publishing
Title: Japanese Inns and Hot Springs
Author: Rob Goss and Akihiko Seki
Publisher: Tuttle Publishing
Make sure to also read our other Japan book reviews:
PIN IT FOR LATER!
Disclaimer: I received both these books for review purposes from Tuttle Publishing all opinions are 100% my own, as always. This review includes affiliate links. If you purchase anything through these links, we receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for keeping the information on The Travel Tester free!