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  • Writer's pictureStone Bridge Press

What is Illusory Dwellings by Allen S. Weiss about?

When it comes to exploring the rich tapestry of Japanese culture, Kyoto stands as a beacon of tradition, art, and philosophy. In his latest book, Illusory Dwellings: Aesthetic Meditations in Kyoto, Allen S. Weiss takes readers on a captivating journey through the essence of Kyoto's artistic landscape.

Far from a mere travel guide, this book is a profound philosophical exploration of how to observe, appreciate, and understand the intricate layers of beauty woven into Kyoto's cultural fabric.

Through over forty books across various disciplines, including Zen Landscapes: Perspectives on Japanese Gardens and Ceramics and The Grain of the Clay: Reflections on Ceramics and the Art of Collecting, Weiss has established himself as a leading authority on Japanese culture.

So whether you're a seasoned Japanophile or a curious traveler, prepare to be captivated, enlightened, and inspired as Allen S. Weiss unveils the illusory dwellings that define Kyoto's timeless allure.

Illusory Dwellings: Aesthetic Meditations in Kyoto by Allen S. Weiss will be available in both print and digital November 12th, 2024. Order your copy here.

Read a sample of Illusory Dwellings: Aesthetic Meditations in Kyoto by Allen S. Weiss below.


To discover a land is first of all to assemble all the memories that announced it.
René de Ceccatty, “Lettres de Tokyo”

The celebrated dealer of Japanese art and antiquities James Freeman, who spent four decades in Kyoto, begins an autobiographical essay with the following citation from Rainer Maria Rilke: “We are born, so to speak, provisionally, it doesn’t matter where; it is only gradually that we compose, within ourselves, our true place of origin, so that we may be born there retrospectively and each day more definitely.” The great Japan scholar Donald Richie cites the same passage in The Japan Journals. We travel to confirm or transform—or even create—our identity. A voyage is as much about ourselves as our destinations. We map a city according to our fantasies and desires, and in turn the city frames our lives and inflects our destinies.
A true voyage begins well before departure, and it does not end with homecoming, for a trip is never-ending, both anticipated and perpetually renewed in literature and myth, cuisine and art, reveries and dreams. This is beautifully and profoundly expressed by Ernest Hemingway in the epigraph to A Moveable Feast, taken from a letter to a friend: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” (I was, in fact, one such young man, but that tale will be the subject of another book.) Much travel is really about reading and writing. Charles Darwin, writing of his “habit of energetic industry and concentrated attention,” notes in Voyage of the Beagle, one of the most influential travelogues ever written: “Everything about which I thought or read was made to bear directly on what I had seen or was likely to see; and this habit of mind was continued during the five years of voyage.” Some travel is even about pure fantasy, as epitomized by Raymond Roussel’s travels in his roulotte, from which he rarely ventured to see the actual landscape. We prepare by perusing guides and devouring travelogues; during our trips we take notes and photos; afterward this is all distilled into anecdotes and tales, occasionally essays and books, and of course reorganized on shelves of souvenirs and collections, veritable private museums.
Every traveler has particular proclivities. In Japan, some seek the Buddhist Western Paradise, others the world of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away; for some the ideal is the meditative calm of a tea pavilion or a Zen temple in the foothills of Kyoto, for others the noisy gregariousness of a jazz club or a sake bar in Tokyo’s prodigious Shibuya quarter. We oscillate between varying paradigms: regional, national, international; traditional, modernist, postmodern; the ancient capital Kyoto and the modern capital Tokyo. The itinerant curator and chronicler of the history of curating, Hans Ulrich Obrist, claims that “It is simply impossible to portray a city.” It is just as impossible to portray a culture. What does one seek in Japan? Kabuki or Butoh? Bashō or Tanizaki? Hiroshige or Kurosawa? What amalgam, however improbable, guides one’s steps? For if the traditional, the modern, and the postmodern are states of mind and not merely stylistic categories, they exist simultaneously and determine radically different facets of one and the same object or event, radically different aspects of ourselves. The distinctions, oppositions, dualisms, bifurcations, aporia, ambiguities, and paradoxes discussed in what follows are often apparent within a single work, image, thought.
What role can a book play in such wanderings? In The Dharma Bums (1958)—a sequel to that bible of the Beat generation, On the Road (1957)—Jack Kerouac offers a fictive account of the early years of poet and ecologist Gary Snyder, culminating in the summer the latter spent as a fire lookout in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. This moment was contemporaneous with Snyder’s discovery of Zen Buddhism—as for so many of his generation, in great part through the work of philosopher and historian of religion D. T. Suzuki—just before Snyder’s first trip to Japan in 1955. The words that Kerouac penned for the quasi-fictive Snyder were prescient: “I’ll do a new long poem called ‘Rivers and Mountains Without End’ and just write it on and on on a scroll and unfold on and on with new surprises and always what went before forgotten, see, like a river, or like one of them real long Chinese silk paintings that show two little men hiking in an endless landscape of gnarled old trees and mountains so high they merge with the fog in the upper silk void. I’ll spend three thousand years writing it, it’ll be packed full of information on soil conservation, the Tennessee Valley Authority, astronomy, geology, Hsuan Tsung’s travels, Chinese painting theory, reforestation, Oceanic ecology and food chains.” In fact, Snyder had already begun to write Rivers and Mountains Without End in 1956 and didn’t complete it until 1996: a Borgesian task, tantamount to reflecting upon the total environment of an entire life. It is also a great lesson concerning the complexity of living across two or more cultures.
It has been said that there are two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. Reductive as this may be, I find this exercise useful as a starting point, especially in relation to travel, for I would suggest that the two fundamental categories are those who travel to find themselves and those who travel to lose themselves. Some even manage to find themselves by losing themselves, which is the way of Zen. During his many years spent in Japan during the 1950s and 1960s, Gary Snyder—who might well be considered the American Bashō—learned Japanese, studied Zen Buddhism in Kyoto, and became a practicing Buddhist. His trajectory reminds us that some travelers just pass through, while others leave traces; some are unchanged, while others are transformed. Or maybe we need to divide travelers up differently and say that there are those who seek the familiar while others search for the foreign, strange, mysterious, exotic.
The 19th-century author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau revealed in his masterpiece, Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854), that the greatest wonders of nature may be found in a clearing in the woods or at the edge of the road, literally in one’s own back yard. Thoreau, one of the great proponents of New England Transcendentalism—which was profoundly influenced by Japanese, Chinese, and Indian philosophy—taught us how to see the most familiar as profoundly wondrous. A single blade of grass is no less amazing and imposing than a millennial oak. One might add that he also taught us to hear the wonders of nature: his diaries reveal that he had perhaps the best ear of the 19th century for the nuances of sound in the natural world, as well as for their translation into language. We need to transform our seeing and listening, experience the proximate as exotic, recast the familiar as foreign: detailed observation and vivid imagination are forms of travel.
One dear friend, the late Lawrence R. Schehr—with whom I shared many literary and gastronomic adventures in Paris, London, New York—was a specialist in both 19th-­century French literature and queer culture. He had more than once done the Grand Tour of Europe—the cultural itinerary that was a rite of passage for young men (and occasionally women), often aspiring writers or painters, from the mid-17th through the late 19th century—each time traveling with a set of vintage Baedeker guides, in an attempt to align his vision with that of a 19th-century traveler. His journeys through Europe were thus a form of time travel, articulated by the travel writings of Stendhal, Goethe, Heine, Dickens, Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson. The advent of the automobile and the airplane have radically changed the nature of the Grand Tour, democratizing it to the point that during the summer months many of the city centers of the great cultural capitals of Europe, not to mention Kyoto, can hardly be approached due to the masses of tourists. Yet this transformation of travel holds certain advantages. Hans Ulrich Obrist explains how as a teenager in the 1980s he took advantage of the Interrail pass to ride night train after night train in order to crisscross Europe and interview the artists he most admired. “Those were apprenticeship and journeyman years, a European Grand Tour.” The project of contemplating ancient masterpieces by long dead masters, which had previously demanded many months, much wealth, and certain danger, was updated by Obrist as an express trip on limited funds to see the most recent works by preeminent living artists.
Illusory Dwellings concerns what few guide books attempt: there is little need for yet another book to suggest what to see in Kyoto, but it might be of interest to pre­sent some thoughts on how to see in this ancient and still ebullient cultural capital. Following upon my books Zen Landscapes and The Grain of the Clay, I have not spent three thousand years, nor even the forty that it took Snyder to compose Rivers and Mountains Without End, in writing Illusory Dwellings, but I plan to include information on architecture and gardens, ceramics and cuisine, the wind in the pines, the ever-present yet hidden void, several full moons, and a generous amount of sake.
It is quite difficult to eschew habits, rituals, obsessions. Yet one should not prepare too well for a journey, for at the core of travel must be serendipity. Too-rigorous preparation is like putting on a pair of blinders. Better to sensitize one’s vision and quicken one’s imagination than to make overabundant lists and reservations. Successful travel necessitates that at times the veneer of erudition must dissolve, to reveal depths of ignorance that are synonymous with openness. Such is the principle of a voyager’s docta ignorantia.

. . .

A garden or a city is a state of mind as much as a physical locale. In Flights, the Nobel Prize–winning author and veteran traveler Olga Tokarczuk warns us, on the topic of guidebooks, that “Description is akin to overuse—it destroys; the colors wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear. This applies most of all to places. [. . .] The truth is terrible: describing is destroying.” I will try to avoid this danger as much as possible, hoping that the photographs herein will compensate for a minimum of description.

While most of the photographs included in this volume were taken in Kyoto, a certain number were, while inspired by that city, shot elsewhere. This should not be construed as deception, but rather as a divergent, derivative, differential form of expression. Photography is not only a technique of representation, but also an art of vision. We may indeed speak of the “way of photography” as one speaks of “the way of tea” (chadō) or “the way of flowers” (kadō). These disciplines not only situate us within a particular culture and teach us how to view the world, but also, however indirectly, they reveal our place in the environment. They are illustrative, in the profound sense of the term. To put this in a Western philosophical perspective, I would cite the famed critic of the spectacle, Guy Debord: “An authentic illustration sheds light on true discourse, like a subordinate clause which is neither incompatible nor pleonastic.” A successful photograph constitutes, even when abstract, such an illustration: a non-verbal form of communication indirectly transmitting belief, knowledge, wisdom.

Concerning these images, I would hazard a Zen reference—for Kyoto is par excellence the city of Zen—and suggest that a single kōan (a paradoxical riddle used in Zen instruction to circumvent the limitations of rationality) might suffice to attain enlightenment, while an entire library might fail. Likewise, the photographs in this book—images of Kyoto as well as images made possible by Kyoto—are not just representations of what one might expect to see in Kyoto, nor documents to illustrate the text, but rather visual epigraphs, oblique allusions, subtle provocations to seek a new vision. They are presented primarily for the pleasure they may offer, in the hope that some may spark a flash of intuition, a secular manifestation of that enlightenment which in Zen is called satori.


Illusory Dwellings: Aesthetic Meditations in Kyoto by Allen S. Weiss will be available in both print and digital November 12th, 2024. Order your copy here.



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