Review: Kyoto Gardens


Here is an instance in which one can certainly judge a book by its cover. The cover of Kyoto Gardens: Masterworks of the Japanese Gardener’s Art contains eight vignetted color photographs that sumptuously display the rich combination of organic and man-made features that populate the serenely elegant gardens of Kyoto, Japan. One is immediately drawn to the breathtaking scenes displayed within, accompanied by text that is both descriptive and evocative, yet unobtrusive.

Author Judith Clancy, a long-time resident of Kyoto, turns a sure and steady gaze upon the ageless beauty and visceral appeal of these wondrous naturescapes. Masterfully framing the art, artifacts, plants, people and structures of these garden enclaves is her collaborator, peripatetic photographer Ben Simmons.

The book is structured into four chapters, one for each primary sector of this ancient Imperial city. An introduction, Reshaping the Land, sets the tone, by providing a spare history of the region along with the environmental, cultural and social conditions that have helped to foster its many distinctive green spaces. Each individual sector chapter is first introduced by a detailed and colorful wayfinding map. Populated by land features, road grids, transit lines, landmarks, parks, and districts of commerce and residence, each map facilitates use of the book as a hand-held visitor’s guide. A prefatory description offers some sense of the distinguishing character of each sector’s gardens, which then reveal themselves through a half dozen or more successive photo essays.

Each single garden is presented immersively, as a sequence of captured moments, spiked with color, form, texture, material, and a unique sense of place and space. What is lacking, however, is any understanding of how those captured moments might unfold in real life’s progression, for no garden plans or orienting panoramas are provided. The reader is thereby left occasionally longing for just one more view, around a corner, or through a portal, or over a bridge, or past a distant line of trees, to more fully understand the complete form of the all-embracing landscape.

Mr. Simmons photographs range across all the elements that comprise the gardens — rocks, trees, bridges, walks, water, raked gravel, sculptures, fences, framing windows — as well as all the building features and spaces that bound and open onto them. The book therefore affords the architect and landscape designer an encyclopedic collection of elements that may be employed to create other sensual spaces in tension with the natural world. And stitching together the many lovely photographs is Ms. Clancy’s often poetic narrative that crisply sets the correct contemplative, sensually observant tone.

Kyoto Gardens: Masterworks of the Japanese Gardener’s Art is a hardcover book in square format, 8.5” x 8.5”, consisting of 144 pages containing hundreds of lush color photographs and a number of richly detailed orientation maps. Included are brief biographical profiles of both the author, Judith Clancy, and photographer, Ben Simmons. The book also contains a short endpaper description of ‘The Tuttle Story — Books to Span the East and West’.

The book is published by Tuttle Publishing, an imprint of Periplus Editions (HK) Ltd., of Clarendon, VT and Singapore, and is available in North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia Pacific and Japan from Tuttle Publishing and its affiliates.

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