A Year in Japan
by Kate T. Williamson


Princeton Architectural Press, 2006. ISBN 1568985401.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 09/21/2006

Nonfiction: Travel/Adventure; Nonfiction: Creative Life

Even before looking inside A Year in Japan, the fold-out back and front covers are wonders to behold. They contain smaller versions of the colourful interior illustrations and list topics that could be prompts for poems: Plum Blossoms, Signature Songs, Elegant Taxis, Electric Rugs, Indigo Fireflies, Lunch with a Geisha.

Kate T. Williamson designed and illustrated her book as well as wrote a journal of her year in Kyoto, Japan. She was enamoured with Japanese customs and objects (like apples in foam cozies and mangos impaled on chopsticks to make less-sticky eating) and created a book to celebrate them.

Williamson, who lives in New York City, studied filmmaking at Harvard University. Her love of travel and interest in sock design, along with a postgraduate fellowship, took her to Kyoto. For a year, she filled journals with her thoughts and sketches.

While reading of Williamson's discoveries during her year of noticing, I was reminded of Natalie Goldberg who has also written of her travels to Japan to explore the land of her Zen teacher. But mostly I'm reminded of Goldberg because of the attention paid to the celebration and naming of everyday things. As Goldberg says, naming something "wakes you up to it". Both writers illustrate their work and I find pure delight in Goldberg's naive drawings, accompanying her poetry, just as I enjoyed Williamson's drawings and watercolours.

As for the names, Williamson gives the names of the ordinary things in Japanese as well as English. Green tea is matcha, used in tea ceremonies. To sweeten the matcha one eats a piece of wagashi, of molded sugar or bean paste. The illustration is a cup of green on a stark white page as if the artist has just drawn it and presented it to the reader.

Among Williamson's drawings are four pages of socks. She believes the popularity of sock stores and the proliferation of sock designs is partially due to the custom of removing one's shoes upon entering a home. She also studied shiborizome, a traditional textile art using sewing and indigo-dyeing. One of the first things Williamson noticed when she left the train station in Kyoto, was a display of washcloths in plaids and polka dots, "orange and turquoise, red and magenta, lime and navy". Women carry them in their purses for drying their hands in public washrooms. Of course Williamson drew them too.

Rather than a chronological travelogue about her encounters and places visited, Williamson has written light-hearted and whimsical descriptions to remember Japanese customs, old and new. One of the old customs is "moon-viewing." Many old "residences have special platforms or rooms where nobles would gather to write moon-related verse as they gazed at the sky or into the moon's reflection in a nearby pond". There are sweets made especially for moon-viewing called tsukimi dango.

Among Williamson's watercolour illustrations are those of Kyoto's flowers and plant life. Some of the coloured drawings take up a two-page spread such as the hydrangea (ajisai) and cherry blossoms (sakura). Cherry blossoms last for only a week and their fleeting beauty and impermanence is a reminder to be aware and present. I am reminded of Basho's haiku about the cherry blossom as a threshold between our inner and outer worlds.

As in a journal, there are no page numbers. The type is even in script so that it is like a traveller's journal full of memories—but so very much neater! Williamson took such pleasure in how much thought goes into appearances and actions in Japan so that "details of beauty and nuances of word and deed are both expected and appreciated".

Whether you can visit Japan or not, the book is a reminder and tribute to all things Japanese. It's also a reminder to appreciate what is unique and precious about what's in front of us. You could call it an appreciation practice.

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