The Old Capital – Yasunari Kawabata

December 6, 2009 § 4 Comments


Maybe all people are abandoned children. Perhaps birth is like being abandoned on earth by God.

If there is one word I could use to describe the overall atmosphere of this book, I’d use the word ‘silent’.

For indeed, it is not only quiet, it is still. The book reads like water in a pond, located in a secluded corner of a hidden garden. One or two fallen leaves may disturb the surface of the water when they first make contact, causing a ripple or two to expand from that point. But nevertheless, the leaves soon settle, leaving no more than floating images of half-soaked leaves, drifting on the skin of the water.

Reading this book is like trying to read a painting. At first glance, one probably only notices the pink and white flowers set upon green leaves. A second reading would show the textures of the tree barks, the network of branches, joining and separating from one another. Then perhaps, a little later, one would start to appreciate the weather, the light white clouds floating along gently on a greyish day. The temple in the background starts to make its appearance, pushing its way through the layers of washed out paint, finally rendering itself vaguely visible to those who persevere.

With this image in mind, if one closes one’s eyes, perhaps one can hear the wind whistle softly as it blows between the branches of the trees. One could also perhaps get a sense of leaves falling gently all around, sometimes even touching softly on the skin of one’s arm. Beyond that, the sound of temple bells can hardly be heard, but yet the echoes reach one’s ears somehow.

It is like nothing has happened, and no time has passed.

That, to me, is the essence of the book.


I personally do not think much of the story. The story of Chieko seems rather secondary to me, compared to the sights and landscapes of Kyoto, so vividly painted by Kawabata. His descriptions of some of the scenes were so alive, it prompted me to produce the sketch below.


He may have been very minimalistic in his choice of words in telling the story, though, and hence, as they all say, what is omitted is as important as what is being written, if not more. Which I feel is also something very Japanese indeed. Perhaps one of the most protected cultures that still remain after many years is that of the Japanese, where quiet, silence, darkness, shadows and all that is hidden still carries a very profound meaning to the culture and society.


Though I like subtle, quiet stories, this book did not particularly appeal to me as much as I had hoped it would. Perhaps it is because there was so much emphasis on areas within Kyoto that I simply have no knowledge of, I found myself lost at various points during the story.

I wish I could connect a lot better withi the characters within the story. I found Naeko to be an interesting character, but somehow I feel that she was not explored enough. Same goes for Shin’ichi.


I appreciated this book more for its beautiful rendering of a quiet traditional city, transforming and adapting itself to a more fast-paced modern tourist attraction. If nothing else, this book has firmly convinced me that Kyoto is a must-visit-before-I-die place.


Rating: 3

Maybe just a little too subdued for me at this point. I just might re-explore this again, perhaps when life itself has stopped moving at such break-neck speeds.

Challenges: Lost in Translation 2009, Japanese Literature Challenge 3. Also Japanese Literature Book Group


§ 4 Responses to The Old Capital – Yasunari Kawabata

  • Mel u says:

    Beautifully done review-as a point of interest I counted the floral and garden related images in the first chapter of the book-16 pages or so-there are 92 of them at least. Overall in the book there are at least 800 images of flowers, trees, leaves, bamboo and gardens. I agree I do not find the story line of great interest and I am not sure it is supposed to be. In your comparison, one does not see the imagined story of human figures in a painting of as garden as of great import. I think the story of the book is told over and over in in the floral images and garden images. Your post goes along way to unraveling the layers of art in this work.

  • su says:

    @ Mel: There was definitely a great deal of imagery being used throughout the book, and a lot of emphasis was placed on gardens and nature. I somehow found it natural, in a way, to have such a heavy focus on such things, because to me, the quietness of the traditional Japanese culture dictates the reflection of such quiet aspects of nature.

    And it is as you’ve pointed out. Human figures pale in comparison.

  • mee says:

    I read Kawabata’s Snow Country earlier this year and found it very subdued as well. I’m thinking I may not be patient or sophisticated enough for his works — as beautiful as it may sound.

    Love your sketch! I love how you wrote quote from the book just next to it in handwriting. 😉 What a great way to fill in a physical book journal, if one has it.

  • su says:

    @ mee: I don’t think I have the kind of sophistication needed to truly indulge in his work either.

    Thanks for liking the sketch! It does feel like a really great way of keeping thoughts on books, no? Imagery to complement words. =)

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